Steve Arnold, president ofThe Strait & Lamp Group,offers tips on how to deal with a tricky situation where family meets business

Editor's Note: This column is part of an ongoing series by family business leaders and advisors with information and ideas about topics unique to family businesses, developed in conjunction with the Conway Center for Family Business.

By Steve Arnold


Much like not talking politics or religion at the dinner table, common advice says not to mix business with pleasure-and definitely not with family. And mixing business with the in-laws? Forget it!

However, mixing business and family can work, even for a spouse who has taken over the leadership position in a family business once run by a father-in-law. The transition will be smoother, though, with some ground rules by which to live and work. In the end, those ground rules will help ensure that the business thrives and everyone goes home at the end of the day with family relationships intact.

Respect the relationship

In a family business, many times a parent is the one handing over the company reins to the next generation. Sometimes, that next generation of leadership comes in the form of an in-law, someone who has married into the family. Balancing this tricky relationship becomes even more crucial.

The parent figure handing over responsibility needs to give the younger leader the freedom to make changes he or she feels are necessary to help the company grow and change. That responsibility includes letting the person learn from mistakes made along the way. The son- or daughter-in-law taking over leadership also needs to respect the in-law's authority and experience. Ask questions; allow them to be a mentor. Questions will pop up, and you won't have answers. Turn to your in-law, the person with the wisdom and experience, for advice and support.

Establish your reputation, not your inheritance

If employees think you got your position just because you married into the family, you will have a hard time establishing authority. People don't give respect; you have to earn respect. In a family business, it often works much better if the younger generation who will eventually take over leadership spends time learning the ropes, starting out at lower-level positions. By working your way up, you cement your reputation for being willing to work hard for the company; you earn the respect of your peers, the people you will one day lead.

A few rules that are easy to remember will help ease the leadership transition from parent to in-law and keep business and family intact.

Communicate! At the point when a company is going through a leadership change, sit down and establish expectations. It's also crucial to communicate the changes to every employee in the company. Rumors start when people don't know what's going on at the leadership level of their company and it makes employees uneasy. Don't take it personally! It pays sometimes to just relax, keep a level head and let some things roll off your back. In a family business, people sometimes feel a little more freedom to be frank and say things that might cause hurt feelings. Don't take it personally; understand that you all have one goal and that goal is to make the family business successful. Trust one another! Sometimes, as the spouse of someone whose parent once led the company, you might find yourself as the ball bouncing between the other two individuals. Again, by maintaining open lines of communication and establishing responsibilities, you lay a foundation of trust that you are taking care of the business and trying to keep everyone as informed as possible.

Steve Arnold is president of The Strait & Lamp Group, a leading supplier to the central Ohio building industry. He and his wife, Barb, started purchasing the company from Barb's father, Wilbur Strait, Jr., in 2013. Steve is the third generation to run the company, which was founded in 1950 by Wilbur Strait, Sr. and Arnold W. Lamp.