As I was listening to my ex-student, sipping coffee in my campus cabin, talking about his decision to quit his new start-up venture, I wondered ‘why was this happening?’
He was a pedigree professional; from a premier engineering college, with 2 years work-experience in a consulting firm, and an MBA from a prestigious institute. He was our poster boy for budding entrepreneurs on our MBA campus! He started his venture in the 1st year on campus and had the conviction to opt out of the placement process. Since the launch, he showed decent revenues within 4 months of operations, scaled from 1 to 2 centres within 8 months of starting. He had the fire, the ‘junoon’, stamina for crazy hours, conviction, knowledge, initial success, institute support, even support of parents and girl friend… he was not only poised for growth, there were not too many obstacles in his path. So what was going on here?
After 2 coffees and 1.5 hours of conversation on various business challenges and workable solutions, he blurted out, ‘I don’t want to work with my partner any more, I have had enough’. The option of a conversation with his business partner didn’t interest him at all… Evidently he had been trying to communicate for 5 months now. An offer to mediate a conversation didn’t interest him either. The decision had been made. ‘Woh mera bada bhai hai! (He is my elder brother!) How do I argue with him? Agar mera dost hota (if he had been my friend) I would have challenged him back with a what the #**# and argued it out over beer’, he finished off before looking down.
His business partner is his elder cousin brother! It struck me, while I was talking to him as a professional, his context is now that of a Family Managed Business (FMB).
The interesting part about communication in most FMBs is that ‘expectations, obligations and duties’ can be big barriers to effective communication. I also work with FMB students on campus and it is interesting to note how communication changes. ‘I know him since I was a kid’ or ‘I understand what he needs’ are serious baggage to work with. The assumption that ‘I know what the other person needs’ without looking at it objectively can create serious noise on how the sender creates the communication message. ‘But he should have known what I want’ or ‘I can’t argue with his decision, he is elder to me’ can add noise in how the receiver perceives the message. Serious breakdowns in communication happen when there is no real opportunity built for feedback to complete the communication process. One of the keys to success of many large, successful family managed business houses is that they have managed to curate a culture where real 2-way communication is encouraged. In fact, the younger generation is expected to come up with better perspectives and ideas.
What intrigued me here was that even when professionals who are bred in a culture of flat structures and open discussions are faced with a family work environment, they can find themselves ill-equipped to take on communication breakdowns.
Going back to my ‘watch-out’, bootstrapping or partnering with family members is a very attractive and real option, but perhaps one needs to keep eyes open to such challenges. New communication rules and processes can be set up. I would go even further in saying; new venture comes with a new canvas, so maybe it could also be time to create entirely new traditions!