January 16, 2022

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Should I go straight into the family business or get a job?

This week’s problem

I am a business management graduate from a Russell Group university. But in terms of my next move, I can’t decide whether I should stay back in South Asia and work in the family business or work in the UK for two years, and then return with more experience. How should I approach this decision? Anonymous, 20s

Jonathan’s answer

As a new graduate, you have implicitly recognised that your new qualification gives you a foundation for your career. On your university course, you will have learnt some underlying theories, specific skills and — through many case studies — have seen practical examples of what can happen in organisations. These historic examples, while maybe not repeating exactly, will help you address future challenges you will face in business.

Your current plan implies that it is just a matter of time as to when you will join the family business, either immediately or in a few years; you may feel this secure destination is reassuring but it might also feel constraining. If you were to start elsewhere, for example in the UK, you might find new opportunities that lead you to other businesses, which in turn may raise concerns with your family.

It seems too early, and probably not necessary, to make a decision on where you will be in five years’ time. The question you raise therefore becomes less about geography and more about how to equip yourself so you have more choices of location, business and role when the time comes.

An informed approach to make the decision about location could focus on the skills and experiences in which you are interested and would like to gain. As a new graduate, you would not be unusual in finding many different roles and industries fascinating. If so, then a small or medium-sized business could offer you less-structured training in a wide range of roles where you could gain experience in (for example) marketing, sales, finance, and production. If, however, you are focused on one or two roles and industries, then a more structured training programme at a recognised brand would give a deeper experience, even if in a more limited set of functions.

Over the next few years you will be building your personal brand: a combination of your transferable useful skill set, and experiences where you demonstrate your ability to take responsibility and achieve activities.

To help the decision-making, start by listing the skills you seek and identifying the type of organisation in which you are most likely to thrive, and release any other apparently fixed constraints (location and industry type, for example). The roles and businesses that fit your criteria may surprise and challenge you. And while the family business might be a perfect fit, it may not even make the long list.

Readers’ advice

Go and work for [the family business’s] customers. The lessons learnt about what they really want and how they operate will be valuable, and the contacts may also help. Happy hybrid

I worked in a large corporate for a number of years before launching my own businesses. I still often draw from my early learnings. While not the same as your situation, you should find experience of other work cultures and systems valuable. ClearSky

Ensure your family has clear agreement that you will have the opportunity and the support to build a career and lead a strategy to take the business in new directions. Simply joining a family business to run a model that previous generations have built and perfected is often a bad choice. John Campbell

Jonathan Black is director of the Careers Service at the University of Oxford. Every fortnight he answers your questions on personal and career development and working life. Do you have a question for him? Email: dear.jonathan@ft.com

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