Every family has a shorthand: a single word or phrase can become code for stories that go back years, even generations.

That’s just as common in a family business. Only this time, it might be the entire company strategy that becomes unspoken knowledge, only known to a few people at the top. If you’re part of the family, that’s great; communication is quick, and almost instinctive.

The Daughter from our first podcast says, “The business has been very present in my life, all my life, so there’s a shorthand. When my father talks about the business, I understand what it means. And there’s shorthand because we’re related! We know each other very, very well. I know what my father is thinking most of the time, in a way that I wouldn’t with a regular colleague.”

The problem: when only the family know what’s going on

The danger is that if you’re on the outside looking in, it can be baffling, or worse, excluding. There are fantastic things about the culture of a family business – the values, the loyalty, long-term view – that never actually get communicated because the family assumes everyone ‘gets it’ in the way that they do.

Heinz Leopold, formerly of family-run German coffee giant Tchibo, says “The DNA of the company is not explicit. It’s felt. If you’re part of the family, you know it because you’re in it. But if someone comes in from the outside, that’s where the trouble starts. They don’t know how it works. There’s no big statement you can read up on. It’s like an iceberg: 10% of the brand DNA is visible; 90% is underwater and it’s very cold around there!”

The answer: make everyone feel part of the journey

“If you’re running a family business, you need to fall over yourself to make sure every member of the team knows what the business stands for, and what’s going on”, says our Principal, Gilmar Wendt. “Err on the side of over-communication. Be wary of what psychologists call ‘the curse of knowledge’, where, because you’re in the know yourself, you over-estimate how much other people understand.”

Of course, communication is where external brand advice can be especially useful. Gilmar says: “Any communication is better than no communication, but you can do a lot better than a few dense PowerPoint slides. It’s often our job to bring abstract things like strategy to life. We do that visually, or with video, and we can make sure you’re using language that everyone will understand.”

It’s important to be especially clear about the things the rest of the team are likely to be sceptical about. Gilmar says: “People are – not surprisingly – sensitive to nepotism in family businesses. So if you’re appointing a family member to a senior position, you need to explain why. What qualifies them? Or, if you’ve changed your mind on some element of some business strategy – which family businesses do more than most – be upfront about it, and explain the situation. If you don’t, people will make up their own version.”

But if you can get people up to speed with and bought into what’s happening, it pays dividends. The Father from our first podcast says, “If you get this right, the whole team starts to feel like family.”

Full series: Five ways family businesses can flourish

Over the years, we’ve been lucky enough to work with a number of family-owned and family-run businesses. At their best, they have strengths other businesses struggle to match. But you can also have too much of a good thing; those very strengths can be the cause of problems that stop some family businesses being as successful as they deserve to be. So we’re looking at five of those conundrums, and sharing what we’ve learnt about how to tackle them.​

And we’re recording a series of podcasts to accompany them. Listen here.

Part one: Why you need freedom and focus
Part two: Why growing also means growing up
Part three: Why old dogs need new tricks
Part five: Why values are so valuable (coming soon)

We’d love to help you build your family business. If you think we can help, get in touch here

Fiona Unsworth is Strategy & Development Director at GW+Co