Coming Home: A Transition from the Traditional Organization to the Family Business

Guy Sack, M.A., Management Fellow (2013-2015)

Boston University Questrom School of Business

Department of Organizational Behavior


I want to introduce this case by unpacking Tim Hall’s statement that career changes usually take a lot of self-confidence to make. When I thought harder about this and thought about the stories Ned Rimer (personal communication, September 30, 2014) told us, especially about his peers’ reactions to his decisions to leave a current job for a future one, I came to feel that the confidence was especially necessary in finalizing the decision to initiate a career change above and beyond the confidence necessary to carry it out successfully. Ibarra (2003) discusses the difficult transition period between one career identity and another, and I think it is the knowledge that this difficult, in-between period is on the horizon that is the reason it takes so much confidence to take the initial leap. In the present study, this in-between period was less wrought with uncertainty than most, but confidence was necessary just the same.

In this particular case, the career change being studied is the transition from a well-defined role within a large organization to a currently loosely-defined role in a family business. According to my informant, she and her husband had spent some time working together when their children, currently aged 18 and 21, were “really little.” Since the time she left for a more traditional organizational career with a regular paycheck, the family business had undergone some major changes, including the recent acquisition of a complementary business. This was a process that began about 30 months ago and was finalized about 18 months ago. For the past four or five years, she and her husband had been discussing the possibility of her leaving her job so they could work together in the family business once again. When the owner of the newly acquired business came to the family looking to sell, this was the impetus for that plan to come to fruition.


Challenges and Rewards of Leaving

When asked what the hardest part of the transition was, she told me it was tough for her to leave behind the power she had in her old job. She held an influential position working in a very well-known unit in a well-known company, such that it was easy to get other people to do things for her right away, even people outside her organization. She gave the example of some work they did on the Brooklyn Bridge in which she had the authority to get the NYPD to “do whatever you want.” However, she said she did not miss the stressful expectation at her old job that work should take the central role in a person’s life. She said she would not miss the annoying personalities or the yelling and screaming that sometimes occurred in her old career.


Autonomy, Control, and Role Carryover

I opened this paper with the discussion of when and why self-confidence is most necessary in career changes because this specific career change was special: she had access to a relatively vast amount of information about her new role as well as a large amount of autonomy and influence over the process of taking up the new role. Hollenbeck and Hall (2004) note that personal agency can allow individuals to exert a “reciprocal influence” on their organizations, and this is particularly true in the case of a woman joining a firm she already technically co-owns. This helped her plan out the transition in a more careful and influential way than most career changers.

She coordinated with her husband and the former owner of the acquired business, in order to work out a plan in which her husband and the former owner would co-manage the business during the five-month period after the acquisition was finalized. During this time, she remained in her old job and took classes that would get her up to speed on some of the information she would need when she joined the family firm. After she joined, there was another three months until the former owner left the acquired business for good, and she and her husband were on their own.

It was particularly helpful that she was able to influence the timing of her joining the family firm because of the way her children are integrated (her word!) into her life and work. Her kids are home from college during the summer, and she said more of the traditional female roles in caregiving fall to her. Because she timed her start date when the kids went back to college, this made the transition that much smoother.

However, as Rosenblatt, Mik, Anderson, and Johnson (1985) stress, organizing family life around traditional gender roles can lead to role carryover in family businesses, and this case seems to be no exception. Even though her primary responsibilities are in running the newly acquired business, she spoke about running emergency errands in support of the original business in a similar fashion to running emergency errands for her kids, like picking them up when they were sick at school. She even said the way they run the family business is “no different” from how they run the family, itself.

She stressed that it is not as easy to specifically define her tasks in her new role as it was in her old one because, “as co-owner,” she does whatever needs to get done that isn’t already being done by someone else. In addition to filling gaps in administrative duties (left by her husband, who is often out drumming up new business), she actually mentioned on two separate occasions that it had become her job to clean the bathrooms. As she gains a stronger foothold within the new business, this role carryover may lead to problems. These possible problems are foreshadowed by her claim that she already wants more control over the original business than her husband is willing to give.

Hall and Gordon (1973), as discussed in Harrington and Hall (2007), present an alternative perspective. They found that women (part-time employees, in the particular study) tended to have higher levels of satisfaction when they performed a larger number of role activities. This may be particularly true in situations like the present case, in which she has a relatively large amount of control and autonomy.

Despite its frustrations, she said one of the most rewarding aspects of her job was the opportunity to work with her husband. With this in mind, it seemed that one of her greatest sources of confidence was her relationship with him. More specifically, she said she felt better about the change because she understands his idiosyncratic style of communication. She believed that this would not only allow her to work better with him but would also put her in position to mediate any communication issues he had with his staff.


Initiating Change with Confidence

Several of her new responsibilities seemed to have been delegated to her out of necessity, meaning her husband had neither the time nor the desire to do them himself. Perhaps the primary exception to this was a new marketing and rebranding campaign, which would involve changing the name of the acquired business and re-vamping the website. I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was particularly excited about this opportunity, and she told me this was truly her idea and she would be leading the initiative.

When I asked her more about this, she told me she had ten years of experience doing marketing in a similar industry, and this gave her tremendous confidence that she would be able to make positive changes in their branding and marketing. Even though it may not have been fully formed, I could tell she had a vision for how she wanted the marketing to be incorporated into the business. However, she mentioned that those ten years of experience were all before the Internet existed and that the web-based aspects of the campaign would pose some challenges for her.


Lessons and Implications

Because this person is NOT doing work that I would like to do in the future, the lessons and implications I take away are not about my career per se, but are focused more on the future directions of my research. There are certainly some broader takeaways that I can use as I continue to learn how to manage my own career, such as the importance of autonomy and influence, but I am more interested in understanding how people can make more successful career changes in the specific context of the family business.

Much has been written about issues of intergenerational succession in family firms (Dyer, 1986), and there is also a solid foundation of literature examining the overlap of family systems with business systems in family firms (Rosenblatt, Mik, Anderson, and Johnson, 1985). Whether transitioning into, out of, or within the firm, individual family members are constantly negotiating changing roles and relationships, and the current literature on family firms does not adequately address the need to understand career changes in this context. Further theory-building in this overlapping area of the family firm literature and the career change literature is needed.




Dyer, W.G., Jr., (1986). Cultural change in family firms: Anticipating and managing business and family transitions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hall, D. T., & Gordon, F. E. (1973). Career choices of married women: Effects on conflict, role behavior, and satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 58(1), 42-48.

Harrington, B. & Hall, D. T. Career management & work-life integration: Using self-assessment to navigate contemporary careers.   Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2007.

Hollenbeck, G. H., & Hall, D. T. (2004). Self-confidence and leader performance. Organizational Dynamics, 33(3), 254-269.

Ibarra, H. Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

Rosenblatt, P. C., deMik, L., Anderson, R. M., & Johnson, P. A. (1985). The family in business: Understanding and dealing with the challenges entrepreneurial families face. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.