When Your Boss Is… Your Dad: 6 Tips For Navigating Fine Line Between Personal & Professional Life In Family Business


by Phuong Uyen Tran, author of “Competing With Giants” and deputy CEO of THP Beverage Group

We all have had a boss relationship that has tested our mettle. Working for someone else and meeting his or her expectations, both spoken and unspoken, can be tremendously challenging.

Now imagine your boss – the person who dictates your duties, evaluates your performance and ultimately determines many aspects of your career path–is the same person who knows your weaknesses better than your strengths and tends to look at you as a child rather than as an adult. This has been the case for most of my professional life: my boss is my father.

My dad and mom built our family’s company, Tan Hiep Phat (THP), from a mom-and-pop yeast business my father ran in the 1970s out of a tiny room at home into Vietnam’s largest privately-owned beverage company that recently turned down a $2.5 billion dollar buyout offer from Coca-Cola. I was basically born and raised into the business, and have been working there since I was a teenager.

My father is the CEO, and my first position was as assistant to the marketing director. I hesitated long and hard before taking that position instead of seeking work at another company, knowing that as the owner’s daughter I might receive only grudging respect from my colleagues. And my father acknowledged that THP was not an easy company for any employee let alone a family member. He accepted that he could be a difficult boss.

Indeed, my father is extremely demanding. He is one who believes firmly in self-reliance. His refrain is, “No one serves you. You have to serve yourselves and serve others.”  He is a hard taskmaster, is apt to scold those he loves most dearly, and can be very stubborn and controlling.

Add to that the fact that my family lives together in an apartment above one of our factories, and the waters between the personal and the professional can get very murky. Still, I have managed to build a satisfying career, help grow our company and maintain a loving relationship with my dad. I discuss this in more detail in my new book, Competing With Giants.

Here I offer 6 tips for cultivating relationships with family in business, whether your boss is your dad, your mom, your sibling or any other relative:

Don’t take your boss’ trust for granted.

I was once extremely surprised to learn that my dad had ordered an audit of my department. “What?” I thought. “Of course my department is in order!” But then I realized: it is normal for me to be subject to all the same processes as anybody else. Even when your boss is your dad or another family member trust must be earned. This means you must absolutely do things right, know the facts, and be prepared to provide thoughtful, credible answers. Always.

Show up and show results every single day.

Just as trust is not a given, neither are opportunities. Like any other employee, you have to earn opportunities by proving yourself every day. That means showing up fully engaged, and delivering results on a frequent and consistent basis. You should also be able to name and / or quantify your results so you can present them to your boss and say, “Here is what I have accomplished. Give me a chance to take this to the next level.” Make it your mission to meet the expectations your parent-boss sets with as much diligence as any other employee would, and not as somebody who is an heir to the business.

Embrace challenges from your boss as opportunities, not affronts.

When a boss who is your parent presents you with a tough challenge, the child in you might see it as a message about whether or not he or she loves you. Recognize this and rise above it. Be prepared to embrace any and every challenge your boss presents you as an opportunity to prove your capabilities – not as a matter of affection.

Don’t call your boss “Dad” at work.

Even if your boss is your father, it’s best not to call him “dad” at work. The same can be said for your mother, for aunts, for uncles and other relatives. To maintain proper boundaries and send the right message to other colleagues, use professional salutations instead such as “Mr.”, “Ms.”, “Ma’am” or “Sir.” This also serves as a reminder that you need to respect each other’s professional opinions even if they sometimes differ. On the job, my father and I refer to each other as Dr. Thanh, and Miss Phương. It works.

Leverage your understanding of your boss to keep the peace.

My father does not get angry very often, but I have developed a toolset based on my deep understanding of who he is for the times when he does get angry. While these tools are very specific to my own father, you may find them useful too:

  • Simply touch his arm. This brings him back into the present and reminds him that he is faced with another human being.
  • Avoid getting defensive or fighting back—it is generally not a good way to deal with anyone in life.
  • Ask what you can do to help. With this response, people do not feel they have been backed into a corner, nor do they feel bad about their emotional outpouring and project that negativity back onto you.

All of these tactics can really help to defuse the situation and foster a constructive conversation.

Seek outside counsel when needed.

Outside resources can be invaluable to helping family members develop a positive, productive working relationship and communicate well together. Two that have been especially helpful to my family and me are the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), where I can have confidential peer-to-peer conversations with other executives and Landmark Forum, a US-based organization specializing in professional and leadership development. Landmark taught my family how to listen to someone fully and be generous, and how to give each other the space to express an opinion. We developed valuable new ways of communicating with each other.

I believe that with mutual respect, clear communications and the proper perspective, other families can succeed likewise in working together peacefully, successfully, and with respect.

 


Phuong Uyen Tran, author of “Competing With Giants: How One Family-Owned Company Took on the Multinationals and Won” is deputy CEO of the THP Beverage Group, a leading beverage company in Vietnam that was founded by her father. She is responsible for the company’s marketing, public relations, and CSR programs nationally and across Vietnam’s 63 provinces. She also leads THP’s international marketing programs across 16 countries where THP’s products are distributed including Canada and China.

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