Family

Should you treat your family like a business?

March 14, 2013: 11:24 AM ET

Organizational strategies can improve life at home, too.

By Laura Vanderkam

130314111656-family-business-340xaFORTUNE -- If your workday schedule includes meeting after meeting, the last thing you want to schedule on your weekend is another get-together with an agenda, right?

If it's a meeting with your family, you might be surprised by the results, says Bruce Feiler, author of the new book The Secrets of Happy Families, which advocates using research-based best practices from the business world for running another complicated organization of diverse people (who just happen to share your last name).

"I think that the two big changes in the family in the last generation are, first, that women have gone into the workplace, and that has been discussed endlessly," says Feiler in a telephone interview from -- appropriately enough -- his childhood bedroom, where he was staying while speaking in his hometown of Savannah, Ga. "But the other change is just as significant and is almost never discussed: Men have been flooding into the home space. They're much more involved in parenting by every measure than their fathers were."

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Such modern parents, well-versed in business, "are fed up with the same tired advice from the family improvement industry," he says. Instead, "they are trying to negotiate their own roles as working parents, and they're much more interested in results." When it comes to managing people, they say, "Tell me what works."

That's a question organizations have been studying -- with much bigger budgets than family counselors have -- for decades. Ironically, some of the best ideas, Feiler suggests, are the ones that inspire the most eye-rolling at work.

1. Start a staff meeting

Can your children suggest new ideas for family life in a context where they'll be heard? Can they tell you what's working and what isn't? "Nothing is top-down anymore. Business is not top-down anymore, government is not top-down anymore," notes Feiler. "You have to let the best ideas win. You have to take ideas from parents, from children, and then discuss it." The goal? "To be able to change in real time."

A short, regular meeting is a perfect occasion for such debates. Yes, many corporate warriors suffer from meeting fatigue, but "in the workplace, you might have 10 meetings in a day, whereas in a family you have absolutely no meetings. One 20-minute meeting can make a massive difference."

Louisa Rogers, owner of Louisa Rogers Communications, instituted a weekly meeting on Wednesday mornings from 7-8 a.m. with her husband so they'd have a designated time for discussing those marital issues that often lead to complaints and nagging: finances, house stuff, calendar, vacations, to-do items, etc. "If any issue got emotionally sticky, we'd put it aside" -- like the "parking lot" flip chart page during a business meeting -- "knowing we'd need to have a separate conversation first about the emotions before we could deal with the 'business' part. Then we would revisit the original issue at the following week's business meeting. Knowing we'd have this weekly business meeting took a lot of stress out of our lives, and we learned how to separate tactical issues from emotional ones."

2. Write a mission statement

When asked the question "Can your kids say what values are most important to their parents?" Feiler realized that "I'd like to think they could. But the truth is I've never told them." Meanwhile, the nonprofit where his wife worked was going through a mission statement writing process, and "she would come home almost in tears, it was very meaningful to her."

So Feiler, his wife, and twin girls "did the family equivalent of a corporate retreat. We held a pajama party and piled into mom and dad's bed and had this conversation: What is most important to us?"

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When he first heard of the idea of writing a family mission statement, "I thought it was cold, it was corny, it was humorless." But the resulting statement, incorporating such ideas as "We love to learn" and "We know it's okay to make mistakes," gave the Feiler family a good idea of what they stood for. "Here's the thing, and research backs this up -- you need to identify your best possible self if you want to achieve it," says Feiler. The mission statement revealed their best possible family.

3. Aim to get better

No, you don't need to do an official performance review for your children or -- more perilously -- your spouse, and you don't need to sit through an official review they give you. But approaching family life with goals in mind, like becoming closer year after year, can transfer some of the same focus people bring to business life to home life. "This is kind of my bumper sticker," says Feiler. "We have our jobs, we work on those. We have our hobbies we work on those. We have our bodies, we work on those. We have our families -- and we spend almost no time working on them. They just are." But if you put in a little bit of effort, "and apply smart ideas for thinking about a family like a group, like a team, you can make it better," he says. "A little bit goes a long way."

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