Nepotism at NASCAR: How Do You Manage Family in a Family Business?

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Nov 4, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Nepotism seems to be the obvious punch line to workplace jokes like this one:

One employee to another employee: ‘When the boss’ son starts working here tomorrow, he’ll have no special privileges or authority. Treat him just as you would anyone else who was due to take over the whole business in a year or two.’”

In family-run businesses, it’s only fair to expect nepotism to be alive and well. I’m sure readers have seen nepotism in action, including the benefits and downsides that come with “hiring the boss’s family.”

But nepotism doesn’t have to be negative, and when family members are expected to behave and perform the same as other employees, then outcomes can be quite positive.

Rising through the ranks of a family business

While I’m not a personal fan of NASCAR, I am fast becoming one of Lesa France Kennedy, the granddaughter of the late Bill France, Sr., the founder of NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). Ms. Kennedy is the chief executive of the International Speedway Corporation and vice chairwoman of NASCAR.

In a New York Times “Corner Office” column, Ms. Kennedy responded to a question about how she handled the unique challenges of rising through the ranks of a family business:

My father had some very specific expectations, and I admire him for it, even though it was a little bit painful at the time. He let us find our own way. A lot of the senior executives at the time were a little bit leery of new ideas from my brother and me, and we’d have to fight for those quite a bit.

It would have been easy for Dad to step in and say, ‘No, no, let the kids try this out.’ But instead he would really make us work for it and prove those ideas, and also to convince the other people. It was a great learning experience. He could have made it easier, but in the long run, I don’t think that would have been the way to go.”

While true enough for a family member rising through the ranks, there is also profound wisdom here for encouraging and developing all new or younger employees.

Lessons learned by not riding the coattails

Too often, immature or insecure managers will simply tell employees what they should do. Even well-meaning and skilled managers will sometimes try to clear the path for their rising young stars. But making the path easy for others can deny them the opportunity to learn important skills that will serve them well throughout their careers.

In Ms. Kennedy’s statement above, I see three lessons she learned by not being allowed to ride the coattails of nepotism:

  • Do the research and necessary preparation to prove the value of your ideas.
  • Learn how to communicate with others to gain needed buy-in.
  • Fight for what you believe in.

Think what could be accomplished in your organization if people had this kind of attitude toward bringing their best work forward. Think how empowered people would be if they knew their ideas would be given appropriate consideration if these measures are taken.

Think about your own early career. What might you have done differently if you’d had this approach to selling your ideas internally?

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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