How to Succeed in a Family Business (When You're Not Family)

Working for a family business when you aren't part of the family can be tough. How can you get ahead? Modern Manners Guy has 3 tips to climb the family corporate ladder.

Richie Frieman
5-minute read
Episode #338

Having seen firsthand family businesses thrive and fail miserably, I find that the biggest challenge of working for a family business is if you are not bound by the family name.

When you work for a family-owned company where only direct relations are at the helm, the key to success is understanding the family dynamic and realizing where and how you fit in.

That’s easier said than done.  

Luckily, I’m here to tell you how to land a corner office and a spot at the family table with my top 3 quick and dirty tips for success at a family-owned business:

Tip #1: Respect the Bloodline

Let’s start off with a dose of reality:  At the end of the day, the top dogs at a family-run company will likely come from the same bloodline. If you can’t accept this little factoid about working for a family business, then you need to find other employment.

Don't believe me? See what happens when there are budget cuts - I guarantee that everyone with the same last name keeps their jobs. On the one hand, this is aggravating. I mean, no matter how hard you try, or the years you put into the business, Jr. will likely land the top spot when the time comes. However, on the flip side, looking out for one another is a key factor in a family, so you can’t fault family businesses for wanting to promote and protect their own. So, despite your incredible skill set and tireless dedication, you have to face the fact that your name will most likely not have the words "President" or "CEO" alongside it.

If you’re going to succeed at a family business, you have to respect the family dynamic from the start…whether you agree with it or not. Thankfully, not being family isn't the kiss of death. Just because you may never be CEO doesn't mean you can’t be a major player. Even though the 20-year-old nephew whose only business experience is using the company credit card at Banana Republic will waltz in and land a job, doesn't mean the powers don't be aren't smart enough to value your work ethic.

Just like in Game of Thrones, you never know which family member will rise to power, so the last thing you want to do is openly align yourself with one faction over another.

If you’re good at what you do, a company (whether family-owned or not) will not want to lose you. And if you’re good enough that your role is the glue that holds the place together, that’s even better!

This can be achieved at any size company, no matter how many family members are employed. The people making the decisions can't deny intelligence and they won't ignore quality. Success and salary don’t always coincide with a fancy title, so don’t focus on that as your goal in a family business. Instead concentrate on what you can accomplish and then how you can springboard that into future growth.

Tip #2: Don’t Get Involved in Family Quarrels

Many family businesses end up resembling a kingdom from Game of Thrones, with lines drawn and angry factions battling it out for supremacy. You might have strong feelings about which side is right and whose clan you want to be in, but it's career suicide to openly pick sides. You need to be Switzerland.


Because just like in Game of Thrones, you never know which family member will rise to power, so the last thing you want to do as a non-family employee is openly align yourself with one faction over another. In the workplace you have one job and being the VP's best friend is not it. Personal issues can’t cloud your judgment or your character.

If you find yourself caught in the middle or wanting to commiserate with the CEO's daughter about her battle with her brother, don't give into temptation. Always bring the conversation back to the work at hand.  Say something like, “Gosh, I can only imagine how you must feel…Which reminds me, I may need some headache medicine if I don’t get back to these files. I will talk to you later.” Or, “I can tell your stressed, so how about after I’m done reviewing this, we go grab a coffee?”

Here you are being respectful without choosing sides. They can’t fault you for wanting to get back to work. It's the safe and smart approach.