July 2, 2020

Navigating Tensions in Your Family Business – Lessons from the Ponderosa

Like millions of others Americans stuck in this twilight zone called the corona virus, I’ve found myself watching more television than usual. The other day I happened to be watching an episode of an old television western series called “Bonanza.” The story was based on the exploits of the Cartwright family – patriarch Ben and his three sons; Adam, Joe, and Hoss. The Cartwrights owned the Ponderosa – a fictional thousand square mile ranch on the shores of Lake Tahoe, nestled high in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

It occurred to me that I was watching a family business in action. Despite their fictional nature, the Cartwright’s shared the same problems confronting real-life business operators. This included how to maintain a big ranching concern while accommodating the inclinations of four strong-willed owners. Many of the show’s scripts involved Ben trying to keep the ranch moving forward while keeping peace within the family. Sort of a generational tug-of-war. Sound familiar?

Exploring the Ebb and Flow

Anyone who has owned a family business knows that conflict is intrinsic. With so many vested voices, it is impossible not to be. This is especially true when those vested interests are not only business-related but family-related as well. It’s all part of what I call the natural ebb and flow of a business. Forbes magazine says the most common tensions arise when people forget their purpose within a business and mix company matters with those best described as personal or family issues. It’s a bad mix. And it’s delicately managing these tensions that make the difference.

More Flow, Less Ebb

There is no one size fits all solution to handling the inevitable conflicts between business and family or personal interests. But there are some things to be learned from successful family-owned businesses, including the Ponderosa ranch and the Cartwrights.

Ebb and flow in business are natural – there is no need to fix every “problem” as it arises. In order to “keep the peace,” you need compassion and a little good will. Open communication is crucial. Make sure that everyone in the company can recite more than just the purpose of your business. Having a clear purpose and vision breeds understanding. When an idea is “denied,” it is not personal, but keeping the business true to its values and vision.

This process also helps you establish healthy boundaries between business and family matters. Like communication, boundaries are going to help to keep your business afloat during tumultuous times.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t be judgmental.  Make sure everyone is treated with respect and compassion. They are thinking from their best mind and heart; never forget that. The business will only benefit, and the family works together as a stronger whole.

The Cartwright’s were able to thrive prosper for fourteen years on television. Follow their example and yours will last far longer.


CEO Coaching, Family Owned Business , , , , ,
RobinAnn Bienemann
About RobinAnn Bienemann
I come across as classy, sassy and pretty in pink even as the CEO and Founder of Crimson Rook, LLC. For 30 years I served in executive positions in manufacturing and technical fields and did it wearing 4” heals with a flowered briefcase! Here’s what I do: I specialize in helping businesses become scalable, sustainable and transferable. I know what distinguishes successful companies from those that struggle – it’s my gift of sorts. My accomplishments include being one of the first women to run manufacturing operations in Silicon Valley, serving as Senior Vice-President at Blue Arc, a $60M computer storage company in San Jose, CA. I serve as the Entrepreneur in Residence for the University of Connecticut’s Schools of Business and Engineering and as a board member of a regional non-profit supporting sustainable agriculture and economic development. As CEO of Crimson Rook, I have been a strategic advisor to more than forty companies over the years and have now taken that talent and expertise to the Mastermind & Peer Group world with the launch of the Family Business Cooperative - a year long program designed for Academia - helping them launch Family Business Programs. I am a creative and effective meddler I’ve done this in the affairs of business and academia and have created alliances in both public and private companies and government that span domestic and international borders. I am a bicoastal grandparent with the affectionate title of Grammie Bubbles. My skills beyond business include chemistry in the creative spirits department and singlehandedly providing the color pink its most deserved recognition. I have received my BA from Springfield College and Masters of Science from MIT’s Sloan School of Management as a Sloan Fellow. The title of my Master’s thesis was “Entreprenurial Redeployment in Large Organizations.”

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