When Mark Sirkin was 18, his father died suddenly. First came heartbreak, then a terrifying reality: The family inherited Sirkin’s father’s finance company, a
business they had no experience running.
Not surprisingly, it was not a smooth transition. Employees
stole from them, his brother decided to leave the company, and
Sirkin and his mom eventually sold the business.
Sirkin now knows that they got it all wrong.
Today, as a 57-year-old psychologist and business consultant
in White Plains, New York, he helps other families get it right
by helping them practice open and honest communication and
develop strategic plans. “It’s not a stretch to say I’ve become the
family business consultant that I wish we had had,” says Sirkin,
author of the 2004 book, “The Secret Life of Corporations.”
Sirkin and other psychologists who work with family
businesses say that these operations come with unique
challenges, including the need to distinguish between
professional and familial roles and manage different
generations’ goals. Learning to manage such challenges and
build trust among family member business partners has the
potential to “unleash the inimitable competitive advantages for
family businesses,” according to a 2014 article in the European
Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology.
What’s more, employees of a family business tend to be
fiercely loyal to their business, understand each other’s strengths
and weaknesses, and are more fulfilled by their work, says
Sirkin, who earned his PhD at the University of Connecticut
and is a member of APA Div. 43 (Society for Family Psychology)
and Div. 13 (Society of Consulting Psychology), which prepared
him well for his work.
Psychologists are primed to help family businesses draw
out such benefits. “I found my training as a psychologist really
important because it lets you think systemically,” he says.
“In other words, you don’t try to find the one person or
the one symptom responsible for the problem because you
understand that everything is interconnected in a complex way.”
Among the typical problems in family businesses is role conflict,
the distinction between someone’s role in the family and his or
her role in the business.
One of Sirkin’s recent clients, for example, wanted his father
and grandfather to help pay for his kids’ camp and school, but
they had already accounted for such costs in the son’s salary,
actually overpaying him for the job he was doing. The son was
“imposing on the father and grandfather in a way he wouldn’t
impose on a boss,” Sirkin says.
A murky distinction between work and family can also
make room for bringing up family grudges during business
meetings or other low blows, says William Criddle, MBA, PhD,
a psychologist and family business consultant in Seattle. He’s
seen siblings complain that another has always been favored, for
Psychologists are consulting with family businesses to help
them manage their companies — and family members.
BY ANNA MILLER • Monitor staff