Determining whether to join the family business


Let’s embark on an exploration of the exciting and complex question of whether you should join your family business as your full-time career.

Working in your family business can be a source of deep personal fulfillment and professional satisfaction. Some of the most professional, satisfied, and proud executives are business family members.

But not always.

Sometimes, working in your family business can lead to frustration in your career, problems in your relationships, and disappointment professionally and personally. Working in one’s family business is not for everyone.

How do you determine if it is right for you?

What is at stake?

As you think about making this career decision, you may feel strong mixed emotions. This is normal. Career decisions for business family members often feel like they carry high stakes.

For example:

  • Joining the family business can feel like something you were born to do – your destiny. And it can also feel like a duty or an obligation.
  • You may consider a long-term career with an organization to be reliable and stabilizing. Or, the notion of a lifelong career may feel irreversible and confining to you.
  • You might feel enthusiastic about making your unique mark on your family business, and also worried that it will be difficult to maintain your independence if your personal, family, and professional lives become more intertwined.
  • Saying “no” can feel to you, or to others, like you are betraying your family, even if not joining is the right decision for you.

While it’s true that this decision is a significant one, the stakes are rarely as high as they feel. You can have a career in your family business that is energizing and varied. You can find ways to retain flexibility and individuality if you join. There are ways to decline joining without damaging important relationships. But, because the stakes are felt to be high, and because the emotions behind this decision are inevitably strong, you are at risk of making an emotionally-driven, non-analytical decision about this career choice.

In fact, research shows that individuals who grow up in business-owning families are more likely to forgo a careful career exploration process. They more quickly commit to their career choice, and find it difficult to avoid entering the family business. Business family members also tend to have a less clear sense of their own capabilities, talents, and career interests than those who grow up in non-family-business homes.1

Don’t fall into a haphazard exploration or emotion-driven decision process. Instead, aim for a decision-making process that is thoughtful, thorough, unrushed, and sensible. Sensible for you. Sensible for your family. And sensible for your family business.

Understanding your options

It’s helpful to think of three Possible Pathways for your career choice

  • Pathway #1: Join the business. Commit now to joining the family business in a full-time career position (assuming, of course, that you are qualified and have been invited to join).
  • Pathway #2: Don’t join the business. Commit to pursuing your career elsewhere (and potentially find other meaningful ways to stay connected to your family’s activities).
  • Pathway #3: Keep the door open. Hold off on making a commitment for now and identify a future time to reassess your career options. It’s okay to be unsure at this point.

Your roadmap for an analytical process

Here are three steps you can take to help you think through this career decision in a methodical way:

1. First, reflect on your vision of a career in your family business, and reality test your expectations. Ask yourself questions such as:

  • What will my life be like if I choose to join?
  • How will things change for me if I take on this new identity, role, and responsibilities?
  • What am I giving up by joining?
  • What are the benefits and the challenges of being a family employee in my family business?

2. Second, assess the fit between you and a career in your family business, in three respects


© Cambridge Institute for Family Enterprise 2023

  • Professional Fit – Will a full-time career in the family business be a good match for my professional goals, priorities, interests, and capabilities?
  • Relationship Fit – Can I manage key relationships in the family and business in a way that will allow me to be effective at work and have satisfying family relationships?
  • Life Fit – Will joining the family business add to the overall quality of my life?

3. Finally, once you have made (or are close to making) your decision, craft a strategy and action plan to communicate your decision thoughtfully and professionally to others. Then take your first few steps forward in your new direction.



Deciding whether to join your family business is a significant life decision. Take your time. Stay objective. Be analytical.

Follow a rigorous and methodical decision-making process.

Arrive at your own decision, and trust that you can communicate that decision thoughtfully to others without damaging your relationships.