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AZRIELA JAFFE

7.7.99  
When Your Spouse Ascends the Throne
You don't automatically get to share a mate's new power at the office

"Would you help me with a problem? My husband works in a business that consists of his uncle (owner), my husband (both manager and worker), and my husband's sister, who is not close to her brother, me, or our children. They recently sold the property where the business was operated and relocated it 30 miles away. My husband was told that once they moved, the business would become his. That was a year and a half ago. We have heard nothing from anyone in the family concerning this matter.

"My husband has worked for his uncle for over 20 years. He is the type of person who needs to have a fire lit under him before he'll get anything done. If they do turn over this business to my husband, do I have any power to make changes in the office, like hiring or firing? Would this be harmful to our marriage? We have been together for 15 years."

Let's take a worst-case scenario. Your uncle turns over the business to your husband, and you attempt to take control and shake things up. You feel entitled to do so, as the wife of the new owner, but you aren't welcome. His sister and the employees object to the changes and turn against you. Without your husband's full endorsement, you are set up to fail. The employees will make a beeline to him to complain about you, leaving him in the middle.

This gloom-and-doom picture isn't a foregone conclusion. Still, if you aren't careful, your dreams of taking command could go seriously awry. There are ways to become positively involved in this family business: You can help to push your in-laws to make a firm decision about passing the business on, ending the suspense. Tell your husband you're worried about your financial security and ask him to speak to his uncle about his plans. You are entitled to know what the succession plan is. You can ask your husband to insist on a written commitment. If the family is clearly not about to pass the business along as promised, you can help him gather the strength to confront his uncle -- or to look for alternatives.

Let's be optimistic, though. Say the business comes to your husband, as promised. Will you have any day-to-day role? That's your husband's decision. I'm not saying you couldn't do great things. But if he doesn't want you in his company, and you want to stay happily married, wait until he invites you in. Otherwise, he and the employees will see you as a meddler, not a partner.

Let's say that he makes you his partner. Then your role could be anything that the two of you decide. You must spell it out and explain it to the staff. Being the owner's wife doesn't give you the right to do just anything.

You'll probably need to change things more gradually than you would like. If you sweep into the office and upset 20 years of routines and systems, you'll face a major rebellion. Listen to the employees. Study the business first. Remember that whatever your husband may have told you about the state of affairs there may not be a complete or accurate picture. Make sure you and your husband agree on how you will handle that most awkward situation: When you disagree about a business decision -- and employees want you to take sides. Never disparage your spouse in front of the staff, even if you don't agree with something he did.

Could this venture hurt your marriage? It's possible, if you aren't careful. I'm an optimist, though. Your marriage and the company could thrive. One point: Before you count your chickens, find out why 18 months have passed since your husband was to take over the business, and you haven't heard a word about it!



Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at AZ@azriela.com. Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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