BALANCING ACTS

When Family Takes a Back Seat to Your Employees

For the entrepreneur's spouse, it can be hard not to see employees as rivals.

Meg Cadoux Hirshberg

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In the farmhouse that my husband and I shared with his business, Stonyfield Farm, the line between those who lived and those who merely worked there was as gray as our New Hampshire granite. I was on familiar—and sometimes friendly—terms with many of the employees who shared our family's bathrooms and kitchen. I even baby-sat occasionally for workers on the night shift.

Half a dozen years later, the company relocated to a facility an hour's drive from the farm. After my day-to-day interaction with staff ended, I found my visits to the new office disquieting. There, Gary was chief of an entire little world, cheerfully at home among colleagues with whom he—not I—shared inside jokes, celebrations, and dramas both business and personal. They had built up a reservoir of stories and references about which I knew next to nothing.

I would hazard that most spouses are grateful to those patient, trusting souls who strap themselves in for the entrepreneur's wild ride. But at times, we are also jealous. The entrepreneur spends endless hours away from home working on his company—and generally, he is not alone. His partners and employees are with him, traveling to conferences, sweating over sales presentations into the wee hours. They take turns wheedling the pizza guy to make one more delivery even though the joint is officially closed and know which bars stay open until 2 a.m. so they can unwind together when the pressure's finally off. They can practically read one another's minds. That's not hard, because mostly they're thinking about the same stuff.

The entrepreneur, having dragged himself home at last, tries to recall which of his daughter's friends is sleeping over and muster appropriate concern that the dishwasher is broken. But it's obvious that he is itching to phone the marketing director he left an hour ago to discuss a brilliant idea he had while turning into the driveway. The spouse wonders: Who is this person's real family? Where do his head and heart truly live?

Of course, traditionally employed people also form strong connections with colleagues. We've all heard about office husbands and office wives. But I think the connection is deeper for entrepreneurs, who handpick their staffs and feel beholden to the folks—their people—who are making it all possible. The intensity of the company-building experience, with its wild swings of fortune and consequent emotional responses, deepens and enriches those bonds.

It wouldn't be so bad if entrepreneurs and co-workers bonded over work and nothing else. But sometimes, the founder who spends all day solving business problems can't stop himself from trying to solve employees' personal problems as well. The spouse feels she is competing for the entrepreneur's time and attention not only with the company but also with Steve and Joe and Sue.

George Naddaff, CEO of UFood Grill and founder of Boston Chicken, told me about his early career, when he owned 19 KFC franchises. "I was passionately involved in the lives of every one of my managers," he said. "They'd tell me that their wife was leaving, that their kid was sick, that they couldn't pay the rent. I'd sit there like a priest receiving confession. I tried to pass on any wisdom I could." George had a practical reason for playing father-confessor: "I knew that what was going on in their personal lives would affect their work lives—whether they showed up to work, how well they worked, whether they felt they needed to lie to me." Still, his wife complained that he spent too much time engrossed with employees and not enough with her.

Of course, a family atmosphere is a selling point for many companies, especially those that are, in fact, run by families. Leaders of such businesses can feel a sense of benign paternalism toward their employees. A man I'll call Michael is vice president of a construction company in Texas. He is on track to become CEO when his father retires. Like his father and grandfather before him, Michael routinely assists employees with their personal and financial issues, to the chagrin of his wife, whom I will call Lynn. "I applaud Michael's concern for his people, but I'm facing similar stresses at home," said Lynn. "I'm raising a flag over here. Because after dealing with the nitty-gritty of their issues, Michael is too tired to hear about mine. I want to feel the support of my husband as much as his employees feel it." Lynn acknowledges that Michael has incentive to go the extra mile with workers, who, after all, have the option of leaving. He knows she and their young daughter are going to stick around.

Such situations kindle resentment. Jealousy ignites when the spouse is convinced that the entrepreneur simply prefers his co-workers' company. (That he might enjoy a particular co-worker's company in a manner incompatible with marital fidelity is a problem in any workplace, so I won't belabor it here.) Those hellishly long hours at work become suspect, even for the spouse who understands that launching a business requires them. Two or three times a week, an entrepreneur I'll call Josh, who is CEO of a telecom equipment supplier in New York, meets after work for several hours with a handful of managers. "That's when the growth happens, as far as creativity, problem resolution, and new-idea development," Josh told me. His wife sees those gatherings as a convenient excuse for Josh to hang out with work buddies. "I think she resents that they are getting and giving something that she wants to be a part of but can't be," said Josh. Another spouse in the same position as Josh's wife told me, "Every night that he stays late to be with his employees, I feel like it's to spite me and our family, even though I know that's not the case."

Time spent with employees is just one bee in the spousal bonnet. In the home-family-versus-work-family competition, there are many ways to play favorites. Spouses glower when entrepreneurs urge employees to take a few hours off to watch their kids play soccer, then work extra hard to cover for them, missing their own children's events in the process. Money becomes a sore spot when founders reduce or forsake their salaries in order to pay workers enough to retain them. The sacrifice makes eminent sense to the entrepreneur, who depends on his people's loyalty to succeed.

But the spouse has a different view. Melissa Lerner's husband, Scott, is CEO of Solixir, an Evanston, Illinois-based manufacturer of natural drinks. When cash flow is tight, Scott reduces his salary, while his staff's paychecks remain untouched. "These shortages set up an adversarial dynamic, where it is me against the employees, competing for the same resources," Melissa said. Things got tense when Scott told Melissa that their family could afford to go without, but his employees could not. "He is so emotionally close to his business that he feels like it's one of his children," Melissa said. 

Some tension naturally resolves as companies grow and management layers are interposed between the entrepreneur and most of the work force. Beyond the start-up crucible, relationships begin to normalize, becoming familiar rather than familial. Opportunities for the spouse to socialize with employees and employees' families at company functions can also smooth hackles. Entrepreneurs should be mindful of their time, weighing whether each extracurricular hour is better spent with work friends or with family, and restricting after-hours calls to emergencies only.

The spouse, for her part, must accept that, particularly in a small company, some play-together-stay-together time is both inevitable and warranted. She will draw her own reasonable line in the sand. One woman choked back tears as she described her husband's mentoring of the young men who work for his moving company. "It's what I love about him," she said. "He is so generous and so committed. But," she added resolutely, "when we have a child, our needs are going to have to come first."

IMAGE: Esther Pearl Watson
Last updated: Jul 3, 2012

MEG CADOUX HIRSHBERG | Columnist

Contributing editor Meg Cadoux Hirshberg is the author of For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. You can reach her at mhirshberg@inc.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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