The wonderful thing about family businesses is that they are family businesses. There is no one loved more than your children. You love them, you nurture them, and you educate them all hoping that they will grow up to be self-sufficient, confident, and happy adults.

Those of us who lead our own companies can’t help but dream about the possibility of bringing our kids into our businesses. Showing them the ropes, watching them grow, and then one day watching them take the business to the next level. 

If you’re preparing your teenager or young adult-child to come to work in your family business for the first time, you only have one chance to make a good first impression—both for your offspring and for the rest of your team.

I will never forget when I first went to work for my family’s business, Olan Mills. I was 13 and it was the first job I had ever had, outside of raking neighbors’ leaves for whatever money they would give me and my friends. 

I had to take a bus downtown, switch to another bus, and walk a block or so to the plant on Industrial Boulevard. 

While I had been to the plant many times before with my mother to see my grandfather, this time was different. My grandfather had passed away and I was the only family member who was working at our Dallas location—so all eyes were on me. 

And what prestigious job did I have, given my eminent stature? I was in charge of collecting all the empty film canisters, fitting lids on them, boxing them up, and shipping them to studios around the US. 

I reported to a woman named Darleen who may have graduated high school. She was wonderful. While she realized that I was “The grandson of Mr. Mills” she could not have cared less. She was kind, but she managed me as if she would have any new employee. I was lucky to have her as my first manager.

1. Start them at the bottom and let them grow

What first role should you give your child when they first come to work? My recommendation would be to start them at the bottom and have them report to a lower level employee. 

This may strike you as odd. How can this approach possibly cultivate my child’s leadership skills? And why not place them in a role more befitting their intelligence and possible future position within the business? 

Let me tell you why:  Being a good leader means people want to follow you. At 13,  22, or 30, as a rookie to the business, and a relative of the founder, no one is going to WANT to follow you at first.

People follow others for 3 reasons:

1. They trust them

2. They lead by example

3. They respect them

Certainly there are other characteristics, but eliminate any of these and the desire to follow quickly falls off.

There is a general exception to this: when your son is Nick D’Aloisio, the 13-year-old inventor of the Summly App which condenses down large amounts of text, which was sold to Yahoo! for $30 million. 

When someone has a universally acknowledged extreme expertise in some area like” killer apps” creating “unicorns” people will follow.  

2. Have your child report to someone other than you

So set the expectation that they should work hard in that position, just like any other entry-level member of the team. Have them report to a manager that isn’t you. 

This approach will send a strong message to all the other employees at the company: your child isn’t looking for, and shouldn’t get any special treatment. They want to be judged on their merits, not their connections, and that they are willing to do whatever is necessary for the success of the business. 

Moreover, as your child takes on more responsibility, others will be more likely to respect them knowing, that they weren’t above getting their hands dirty.

3. Position them to really learn each area of the business

Maybe their first position is moving inventory, labeling products, customer service, or accounting. As an experienced business person can attest, it can take about a year just to become an expert in the simplest of areas.

At the same time, you’re better suited to make complex decisions when you truly understand the underlying mechanics and basics of the business. And often, this depth of understanding can only come from doing the work.

Remember, one week of getting your hands dirty is not sufficient, and be sure to let your child get into some of the dirty work, stressful moments, and overtime situations. 

Along these same lines, consider your child the “rover” of the company. If someone is short-handed and needs some help, and junior is having a slow period at the moment, have them fill in. 

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4. Have them shadow leaders in different departments

If working for your company is your teen’s summer job, you have another opportunity as the new school year begins to approach, a good twist on the end of the summer can be to expose them to more areas of the business.  It might be appropriate to give your child an overview of the more complex and strategic aspects of the business. 

The amount of time and focus to dedicate here depends on your child’s level of interest and capability. Some simple examples could include having them come to work in office clothes for a day and to meet with a number of folks in key functions in the company. Buying, Merchandising, Marketing, Accounting, HR, IT, etc. 

Ask these folks to go through a basic explanation of what they do and why it matters to the company. For a teenager, this won’t mean much. But the process will. And encourage them to ask questions. This will create an understanding that while the basic work your child is doing is important, that there are other complex components of the business that contribute to effective operations. 

Looking back on my experience with Olan Mills, I will never forget the summer I spent in the office receiving, sorting, and processing orders. It was all paper-based and there were tons of them. 

I was quickly yearning to be back in the factory processing film canisters. Nonetheless, I was exposed to the administrative side of the business and learned the importance of accurately processing orders.

5. Provide opportunities to debrief and connect the dots

Your best role as owner is to debrief periodically on how it’s going, and then point out and share some of the complex issues, challenges, and opportunities within that area. 

Approaching the teen years in this manner will help your child to learn the basics, develop relationships with and learn to work with different people while gaining their respect. It should offer a bird’s eye view of the entire business. In this way, down the road they will be well-positioned to potentially lead the business into the next generation.

AvatarHenry Hutcheson

Henry Hutcheson has 25 years of experience in business management and global family business consulting across a range of industries, and is a veteran of a family business himself. He is a frequent corporate and university speaker, as well as a columnist and writer for the News & Observer, Charlotte Observer, Nursery Retailer, The State, and Family Business Magazine. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Crain’s, and other business and trade magazines. His new book is Dirty Little Secrets of Family Business (3rd edition): Ensuring Success from One Generation to the Next. Learn more at