What I’ve Learned from Working in a Family Business

Convention Extra - First Person

Your leadership is a series of daily habits and behaviors, writes Sprague Pest Solutions’ Ross Treleven.

October 5, 2018

Sprague Pest Solutions GM Ross Treleven is a fourth-generation PMP.

You are not Steve Jobs. Or Sheryl Sandberg or Warren Buffett. Your leadership is not something you can copy from headlines, legendary stories or a biography. Your leadership is a series of daily habits and behaviors.

In my role as general manager of Sprague Pest Solutions I am charged with being a leader of a diverse and growing workforce. We are a family-owned commercial pest control company and my leadership style does not copy that of others or even the great predecessor stewards at Sprague.

Today, leadership needs are different. My

experience is that of generational pride and at times, strife. My insights are hard won, as I have gleaned them from the education one can only find through family ownership: business know-how and family know-how. That different kind of leadership the world needs only gets more vibrant and complex as a family-owned business. Right now, I have three topics on my mind regarding what makes an effective leader thrive in my situation: (1) authenticity; (2) the unique role of family business; and (3) being a multiplier.

AUTHENTICITY. Somewhere in my career, being me at work became risky. I used to subscribe to the idea that leaders are invincible, sure of themselves and fearless. All of these... are wrong. Instead we make the best decisions we can based on having only some of the data. We have to build great teams whom we must trust to give us solid advice and information.

Leaders are not always sure they are making the right decision, but decisiveness is vital for achieving progress and sustaining growth. Leadership is not being blindly sure, but instead being open to input from key advisors and making the best decisions you can with the information you have in front of you.

The forums Vistage and Young Presidents Organization (YPO) for CEOs, COOs, GMs and key executives provide an environment where they can evaluate decisions with which they are struggling to craft better solutions that help their organization and employees’ interests, all inside a non-biased group of strategic thinkers. I have found the work done with these groups to be vital.

Leaders are not fearless. Real leadership values vulnerability. It is the ability to admit mistakes, be up front about what the future looks like and be pragmatic with our teams.

FAMILY BUSINESS. Family businesses have been the backbone of the pest management industry for years and the formula for a successful multi-generational family business may look easy from the outside.

Step 1: Start company.

Step 2: Have kids.

Step 3: Hold my calls, send my checks.

If you want to have it all and leave it for your kids, you better be ready to take your medicine along the way. When I screw up at work (which I’ve done on multiple occasions) it can embarrass and stress the complex family dynamic. Work cannot simply be left at work.

Family members fall into a category of easy-to-hire and hard-to-fire. We know our family intimately. So much so, it’s not just hard, but odd to work for the guy who helped you light summer fireworks as a kid. We’ve grown with them and we see the best in them. Family members can be seen as assets or opportunities that benefit the business, something that is simultaneously flattering and troubling. Through that lens we must measure their impact on the company, the inevitable power structure change and how the personal relationship will evolve from working together every day.

Sprague Pest Solutions, Tacoma, Wash., is a fourth-generation, family-owned firm.

Adding family to the company is taxing. Across the board. Immediate assumptions abound concerning their eventual promotion to the top role. This negatively affects your ambitious, talented and deserving teammates. By adding family members, you alter the power structure and, conversely, alter the supporting and peer roles. You may find yourself asking questions like: Do I need to run this by both brothers? Should I get the cousins’ buy-in first? Is this going to affect the larger family?

The time this type of consideration takes is astounding. And it seems like an unnecessary burden, but one everyone takes on. You’ve added a complex element to every person’s job description simply by including family.

Last of these is working together every day. Siblings squabble, spouses fight and cousins have conflict. These things are inevitable. How are you going to manage this at work without it affecting your personal relationships? Skipped a family event because of a work fight? How long does that work? Do not be afraid of adding family, be deliberate. The most rewarding addition — bringing on a family member — also carries the most risk.

If you are family, you must earn your way every day. Taking your namesake for granted is professional recklessness. Those who coast on their names alone fail to engender the loyalty and leadership skills required to be successful. This principle applies to relationships beyond work. Take your spouse for granted? Good luck with that. Your friends? What friends?

Being part of the ownership family means your information will be highly filtered. It is your job to create real relationships where people aren’t afraid to speak truth to family. In my experience, even those above me do not want to tell me bad news. When team members filter data the real picture isn’t being presented and bad decisions are likely to ensue.

Being part of the ownership family means executive lag. The CEO of an organization already wears too many hats; the company, the board, the shareholders. When you add in leadership of the family, time is skinny. Neglect any one of those stakeholders and you’ll pay for it later. It is an exhausting balancing act that requires more reflection and planning than any other position. You can only lead as far as you can see. It is nearly impossible to see the future from the day-to-day grind. Increasingly, I see leaders at all levels struggling to clear head space to think through the future and reveal the path their company and teams need. More than ever, leaders need to find time to reflect and recharge to create a clear future for their organizations.

BE A MULTIPLIER. Your words matter. Your cadence and tone are critically important to how you lead. Not feeling like being sharp today? Take the day off. If you show up to work and become an accidental diminisher, you have unknowingly created negative value.

Here are some examples I’ve heard of “negative value” that should be deleted from everyone’s vocabulary.

“I'm actually impressed with those results.”

Really? You’re actually impressed? So, you expected me to fail? Ditch the expression, give gratitude. “I am impressed,” carries a lot more weight and will give your colleague an enormous feeling of pride.

“I have to deal with George.”

This is one of the most toxic sentences around. It must be such a burden to be in charge. Maybe you shouldn’t be. Maybe they can’t stand the idea of dealing with you. Even with the right intent, the language is diminishing. Nobody can see or hear your intent; they can only see your actions and hear your words. Rephrase this with “I need to take care of an employee.” Caring for anything assumes a kind heart. You’ll approach the situation with an altered mindset and create casual, authentic value.

My own definition of leadership continues to evolve. Immediate access to the world’s knowledge has transformed the leaders of my generation. Gone are the days when knowledge was the primary source of power.

Vulnerability, authenticity and awareness expose the kinds of people skills required to lead. These human attributes are akin to success, for success can itself be human; emotional, insatiable and constantly changing.

My leadership is a series of behaviors that have become habits. Betterment has to be a habit in leadership. Especially now. I still make the mistakes you would expect of someone my age (36) but I know now the mistakes I make are foremost the confirmation that I am learning. About myself, my family and my talented colleagues, all of whom are often one and the same.

Ross Treleven is general manager of Sprague Pest Solutions in Tacoma, Wash., and a fourth-generation pest management professional.