The music of the holiday season fills our lives. The images of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and family gatherings around the hearth dance through our heads like sugarplum fairies—or at least that is the popular mythology we think about for the holidays.
But for family-owned businesses, the holidays can be a very different story.
When families who have a business gather for the holidays, they sometimes have another place set at the table for that business. This scene shares similarities with one of my favorite holiday films.
For me, preparing for the holidays means viewing some of my favorite films. On top of my list is The Bishop’s Wife, a 1947 film (recently remade with Denzel Washington) originally starring Loretta Young, Cary Grant and David Niven.
The film is a classic metaphor for an entrepreneur and family-owned businesses. The story is about a bishop (David Niven) and his wife (Loretta Young) who is involved in parish life. The bishop is driven to raise money for a new cathedral at the expense of everything else in his parish, including his family. In the midst of the holiday season and beleaguered by his responsibilities, he asks God for help to relieve the pressure. God sends him an angel (Cary Grant) who, through a series of tricks, helps the bishop realize that his real mission in life is not to build a cathedral but to serve the needs of his parishioners.
In family businesses, the entrepreneur often becomes focused on building a cathedral (the business) at the expense of family relationships. At holiday gatherings, it’s not unusual for business discussions to dominate the gathering. As a result, family members who are not active in the business may feel left out—as if the business was the family. In the film, the bishop is so focused on building the cathedral, he ignores his wife, and the angel becomes smitten with the bishop’s wife.
But just as the bishop realizes his real mission—to serve parishioners—it is also true that an entrepreneur’s mission is to serve not only the business, but also to be the guardian and steward, along with his or her spouse, of family traditions and rituals. It’s these family and holiday rituals that bind the family together and create the richness in families that makes holidays so lasting and special, and ultimately contribute to the well-being of their business.
Whatever your tradition, the holiday season is a wonderful opportunity to set aside the stress and strains of the business and celebrate all the special family moments. As we gather to celebrate the holidays, we build the emotional value of family. This not only strengthens our families, but also continues to inspire and strengthen each family’s values. The celebrations help imbue the company with those values, which are the foundational core of the family’s business culture.
However, talking too much about the business during family celebrations could inadvertently alienate family members not actively involved in the business. So, keep normal business discussions in the boardroom and out of the holiday gatherings.
During this holiday season, seek new and innovative ways to celebrate that are inclusive and family-oriented. Form a family holiday committee to evaluate if what you are doing to celebrate as a family is working. If it is, keep it; if not, create a new approach. Put the family in charge and keep it there.
Be clear with each other about your expectations for the holidays.
Spend time talking with each other before the holidays arrive to make sure you all understand what you want to get out of the holiday season.
Do your best to focus your time and energy on activities that celebrate family traditions and the blessings of the holiday season.
In those instances where you’ve outgrown family traditions or the family has become too large to reasonably continue the tradition, create new ones that allow you to experience the joy and love of your family.
Do your best to limit business discussions and save them for the boardroom or for a regularly scheduled family meeting.
Sitting around the table on Christmas Eve is not the appropriate forum for airing business activities, successes and problems.
Finally, and most of all, have fun.
It’s important to have fun with each other and connect or re-connect with those family members you often don’t see. In the event you see your family regularly at work, go out of your way to renew, rekindle and enjoy a side of your relatives you would otherwise not have.
The holiday season provides a great opportunity to emphasize family values that are the bedrock of your family. As you plan family activities, understand that less is more. Consider what you can do to create balance, harmony, and enjoy the family and the life you’ve created.
Tom Hubler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Hubler for Business Families, a family business consulting firm.