minding our business

Working With Family Is Actually Possible

Illustration: Kagan McLeod. Photo reference: Christine Han.

Minding Our Business: A series on what it takes to work for yourself.

As anyone who has spent time at a dinner table well knows, getting along with, or even tolerating, family members can be … challenging. For those who’ve gone into business with family, on the other hand, the dynamics are something else entirely. While many find the idea of having your parents as co-workers unfathomable, it’s secondhand to sisters Sarah and Kaitlin Leung, who started their popular Chinese food blog, The Woks Of Life, with their parents, Bill and Judy, back in 2013. What started as a way for the family to stay connected while Bill and Judy temporarily moved to Beijing has expanded into a successful multigenerational business that’s been featured everywhere from the Food Network to Good Morning America. The Leungs’ cookbook, The Woks of Life: Recipes to Know and Love from a Chinese American Family, comes out November 1 from Penguin Random House, and the family enjoys a loyal social-media following with many mapo eggplant devotees.

“When my parents moved to China, my sister and I didn’t have access to the food we had growing up,” Sarah says. “We enjoyed cooking, but didn’t know how to make some of the traditional Chinese dishes our parents prepared for us. A food blog felt like the right thing to start, and it always felt like we would do it together.” But how does one actually work with family without sibling spats and blowout arguments getting in the way? How do you delegate responsibilities, set boundaries, and not hate each other at the end of the workweek? Below, everything the Leung sisters know about getting into the business of family business.

Find ways to mesh your working styles, and don’t try to change each other.

Before taking the plunge and going into business together, the Leung sisters suggest you honestly assess each other’s workstyles. “Know the ways you’re compatible and the ways that cause friction,” says Kaitlin. While the Leungs have always been “extremely close” and exchanging ideas about food has come naturally to them, spending the workday with family requires you to “run up against personal quirks” and clashing office habits. “It’s the most important thing,” says Kaitlin. “As we grow as people, we’ve become pretty keyed into actively managing our work styles, and it’s something we have candid conversations about.”

That said, remember that, just as you can’t change your non-blood coworkers, can’t change family either — nor should you try. “In our cookbook we say each personality carved in stone, and each more strong willed than the last,” says Kaitlin. “We’ve all collectively realized: This is just the way each other’s brain works, and you just try to work with that instead of against it.”

Create clear, defined roles — then respect those boundaries.

Use your understanding of each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and approaches to work to shape the unique roles each person will have in the business, Sarah says. Things can get messy when you try to stick your hand in too many pots. “Roles are important,” says Sarah. “To function harmoniously, we’ve realized everyone has to have their own area of expertise that they’re “the go-to person” on. Other tips include making sure the workload is equally distributed and being mindful about not stepping one another’s toes and micromanaging. “Everyone is on equal footing in our family,” Sarah says. “Everyone writes and develops their own recipes and everyone has an equal voice on the blog.” The Leungs are careful not to weigh in on each other’s recipes until each person has had the space to develop them. “You have the sense that everyone is contributing something different, and everyone has a valuable contribution to add,” Sarah says. At the same time, collaboration and valuing each other’s opinions is critical, even if it’s about the way you’re slicing beef. “We need consensus,” Kaitlin adds. “If even one person thinks a recipe isn’t good, we have to tweak it.”

Create boundaries between your personal and professional lives.

“When we’re on blog time, we’re equal,” Kaitlin says. “When we’re on family time, we rejigger back to our traditional family dynamics and remember we’re still the same people we were when we started this thing.” Giving structure to the business aspects of your relationship keeps work from bleeding into your personal lives. “Early on, I realized we needed to create boundaries,” recalls Sarah.

“We can’t always talk about blog work at the dinner table. So we’d say, ‘Okay, it’s dinnertime, no more work.’ It can be really challenging, but you have to put that boundary in place and enforce it.” Other good ways to add structure to your work days include using shared calendars and to-do lists to minimize unnecessary confusion and encourage more productive conversations, and limiting work conversations to apps like Slack instead of over text.

Don’t push each other’s buttons just because you know how.

Delivering and receiving criticism and feedback can be difficult in a nonfamilial work environment, and things can get even more contentious in family units, when everyone knows (too well, perhaps) how to push one another’s buttons. Although you might be inclined to be more frank giving feedback to a sibling than you would a nonrelative, Kaitlin says it’s still important to be mindful of one another’s sensitivities. “We all have a keen sense of what’s going to trigger someone, so if we give certain feedback, we try to keep cool heads and share criticism with that in mind,” she says.

Take time to celebrate your collective wins.

Coming from an Asian American family and an immigrant background, with parents who grew up in difficult circumstances and value hard work, Kaitlin and Sarah are big on taking the time to pause and celebrate collective wins at work. “There’s a tendency in our family to celebrate your wins, but do it quickly and move on to the next thing,” Kaitlin says. “We’re all trying not to default to that overachiever mode that’s enmeshed in Asian American identity. We take a beat on those moments where we’re like, Wow, we fucking killed it! and relish in that.” Remember that working under pressure can be easier to do with family around. “If we didn’t have each other throughout the years, it would have been that much easier to get discouraged,” Sarah says. “You get support and encouragement from working with your family.”

While she says there have been “very challenging times” throughout the years and moments where she questioned whether the business was “worth all the stress on our interpersonal relationships,” she now feels that the business has changed the family for the better. “We’re a lot closer now,” Sarah says. They’re all even taking a vacation soon — “The Woks of Life corporate retreats,” Kaitlin says with a laugh.

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