The Theory of Relativity: The Physics of Working with Family

It was 30 years ago that I met Uncle Larry during a visit to an agency for the purpose of evaluating ways of helping the agency grow and generate greater profits. I was introduced to each of the staff in a very busy small agency with 10 employees. But I only met nine of the employees when the owner invited me back to his office at the back of the agency. There were two offices at the back of the agency. One was an obvious working office with a computer, more files and paper than I would have liked and white boards and charts on the wall. The other office was very well appointed, a clean desk with matching old oak furniture, a nice seating arrangement and golf trophies and mounted deer heads. While my host was getting us some coffee, I headed into his office and made myself comfortable.

Imagine my surprise when he returned and asked me to join him in HIS office next door! When I asked about the office next door, I was told that it was his Uncle Larry’s office.

As we got comfortable and began talking about the history of the agency I found that the owner’s father began the agency and that my client assumed control and ownership some fifteen years ago when his dad retired. Uncle Larry, his mother’s younger brother, had been working in the agency for almost 30 years after two or three career changes. And, when all the preliminary conversation had ended, it seemed that the REAL reason I was there was to figure out what to do with Uncle Larry.

It seems that when the owner’s dad brought Larry into the agency it was under duress from his wife, the current owner’s mom, because Larry couldn’t seem to find his path in life. He was a nice guy but not very energetic, not the sharpest pencil in the box and wanted to do things ‘his’ way. The owner’s dad tolerated Larry and assigned him the task of Carrier Relationships because Larry spent a great deal of time away from the office and on the golf courses anyway. Larry was a ‘party animal’.

This went on for some fifteen years during which the agency grew, my client (the new owner) came into the business and helped build it until his dad decided to retire and sold the business to my client.

Now, some 14-15 years later, my client’s patience was running thin. Uncle Larry was getting paid a handsome sum as the VP of the agency with little insurance knowledge, few personal clients, and had been building animosity with the current employees, all young, on incentive compensation based on growth and profit and very busy. Meanwhile Uncle Larry came and went as he pleased, contributed when he felt like it and spent a great deal of time on personal errands.

My client tried to ‘manage’ Larry early in his career but Larry was in his late forties while my client was in his twenties and neither my client’s father nor my client found it easy to manage someone who had their mother’s/wife’s ear and used it when things weren’t going his way. So for the last decade or more, Larry was being paid and everyone basically worked around him.

Now we were reaching the breaking point. Larry, getting older, was not adhering to workflow or automation procedures causing severe problems when everything he did had to be checked and done over. The employees were rebelling because Larry was no longer just an expense – he was COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE.

I was really stymied by the situation as a young(er) consultant. I have since found that ‘Uncle Larry’ was a common fixture in many multi-generational agencies. Uncle Larry may be an actual relative or someone who worked in the agency for enough years to feel exempt from actions and changes taking place around him or her. Uncle Larry could have been an albatross from the beginning ,as the original Uncle Larry, or could have been an integral and important part of the agency at one point in time. But if they had a valued role at one point, the agency continued to develop while they stagnated. This is a situation in which the agency develops and grows while the employee does not.

Here’s what I did with Uncle Larry. It worked — but not in the way I wanted at that point. Then read on for some other ways to deal with YOUR ‘Uncle Larry’.

When Uncle Larry sauntered in at 11:00 AM (it had been a late night after a round of golf on Sunday) I already had a ‘lay of the land’ regarding the feelings of the employees and of the owner. I spent an hour being regaled by his experience and the continuing guidance he was giving his nephew and the staff after which I invited Larry to lunch. I told him how critical his experience was but that I feared the agency wasn’t using him to his full advantage. Of course, he agreed, claiming that no one listened to his direction. So we spent the next few hours laying the groundwork for Action Plans that would make the best use of his experience with tangible goals related to marketing the agency to their three target markets, negotiating for better contracts and contingency with their top carriers and finding another principal carrier. We set our monthly benchmarks and Larry said that he was excited by the role and would charge forward.

Three months later, when I did my follow up visit to the agency, I noticed Uncle Larry’s office was dark and empty. Thirty days after my visit, Larry decided that he needed to retire to devote his time to his other interests. I truly believe that Larry could have used his experience to further the agency, but, once faced with ROAM (Realistic, Objective, Achievable, and Measurable) goals, Larry obviously determined that his energy level was not sufficient to carry them out and, rather than face the staff with published goals that were not being met, he chose to leave. It was not my choice of a solution, but it satisfied the agency staff and the agency owner who quickly replaced Larry with two more productive employees and did NOT have to face his mother’s ire.

Too many agencies have Uncle Larry working for them in one form or another. We either don’t want to or can’t fire them but we can’t keep them in place subverting the forward movement of our business. Too many agency owners get frustrated and throw child-like temper tantrums because they can’t control their own business future. Too many agency owners simply give up and live with an intolerable situation because it is more painful to solve the problem than to suffer the problem. They lose valuable employees who lose faith in the agency because they allow Uncle Larry to ruin the morale and workflow of the business. Worst of all, we have seen agency’s actually sold because it was less painful for the owner to retire than to address their ‘Uncle Larry.’

The two things that we have found that works best is to raise the discussions about the reprobate employee from the ‘parent/child’ to the ‘adult/adult’ level. It is easy to throw tantrums or give each other the silent treatment or to work around the employee hoping that he will understand that you are avoiding him, but that’s how children act to each other. Scolding Uncle Larry – being the parent to his “child” — doesn’t work either. But you raise an ‘Uncle Larry’ to the adult level by asking for his help in solving the problem of unequal workload, repetitive work effort or the pain of non-standard procedures. We have seen more than a few ‘Uncle Larry’s convert to useful, even if not the most productive, members of the staff when they realize that their efforts could count toward the development of the agency.

We have often use the same method as with our original ‘Uncle Larry,’ creating ROAM (see above) goals that are public and require regular reporting. Many of these people have giant egos and will react positively to actual goals or leave as did the original Uncle Larry.

And, finally, if Uncle Larry is making the work environment unbearable but you simply cannot release him, you are far better off sending Uncle Larry a regular paycheck and NOT having him in the office regularly than you would be if you lost your employees (or business) because you could not take any action at all. Consider making Uncle Larry a remote employee instead.

If you need help addressing your ‘Uncle Larry’ call us and we’d be happy to help (856-779-2430).