Everyone has an opinion about working with their relatives, and many people like to heartily declare "I could NEVER work with my family!" but Michelle Poniewozik begs to differ. Customer Experience Coordinator, marketing, admin, sales—you name it; Michelle wears many hats at her family owned and operated HVAC business, Iceberg's One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning in Monroe, MI.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Michelle about breaking into the family business, how she deals with the changing dynamics, and any tips she can give us about forging a path in a family-run operation.
It Starts With Family
In 1998, Michelle's father John Poniewozik was looking at putting three children through college, and he didn't want them to have to shoulder student loans. Having worked in HVAC his entire adult life, he founded Iceberg's Heating and Cooling Service which later became the one-hour brand known today.
After attending culinary school and working in the restaurant business, Michelle was persuaded by her father to join the company as a part-time dispatcher so she could have her nights free.
She immediately began to see room for improvements and her father gave her the freedom to instill cultural change. As Michelle eloquently puts it:
While John was dealing with sales, technicians, and installations, Michelle was working to create an infrastructure and company culture that would ensure the sustainability of the business. Click on the link below to hear my full interview with Michelle on family dynamics in business and partnering with her father:
A Daughter's Perspective on Best Practices
Michelle had some interesting takes on what it means to co-exist as a family inside of a business unit, and how to manage teams outside of a familial relationship. The following are a few key tips she gave me on how she survives working in a family owned and operated environment.
Throughout our conversation, Michelle stressed the importance of laughing at least once a day with the family members you are working with. Creating positive memories will help pull you through any tough conflicts, and alleviate stress induced by working with closely related people.
People are already going to know you are related, so there is no need to hide. Michelle openly calls her father "Dad" in front of employees and feels that calling him by his name only creates internal confusion. Of course, this may not work for all businesses, but the point stressed is that employees should be aware that family members are working there.
Strong Core Family
Before any family business can be successful, the core family unit has to be strong. If there are problems within a relationship, to begin with, there will most certainly be issues in the workplace.
Working with people that are unrelated can be challenging in a family business, but Michelle sees them as extended family. As long as every employee's goal is the betterment of the organization, unrelated staff should be confident and secure in their abilities.
Clarity on Vision
You cannot use family relations for leverage. There needs to be clarity on the ultimate goal, and contributions to the business supersede the performance of individual family members.
Given her overall experience in service industries, Michelle also had some advice to give on handling conflict within a family owned business and what people should know before they jump in.
A Gradual Evolution
When a parent is hiring a child, you cannot have any fear or expectations. John allowed Michelle to grow and develop within the company, and she felt like she was allowed to be herself. As she relayed her mother's wise words:
At the time, she claims she wasn't quite sure what her mother meant. Now that she has grown into and embraced her position within her father's company, she truly understands the sentiment. Michelle attributes this to the thick skin her father has passed down to her and feels this is a necessary characteristic when it comes to working with family.
She additionally advises that you need to have a way to address conflict that maintains core family values. Make the family strong first before conducting business, or else a stressful work environment will only escalate issues.
Over the last decade, Michelle has worked to build a strong and sustainable infrastructure for her father's business—as he continues to grow it. She has learned to respect where he is coming from, but also stand firmly and confidently in what she is doing. Together they make a great team and are a true example of how working with family can be done right. Michelle sums it up best: