What ‘The Godfather’ Teaches Us About Running a Family Business


1972′s The Godfather, directed by the famed Francis Ford Coppola and featuring an all-star cast of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall, could be, by all accounts,
one of the greatest movies of all time (just ask Stanley Kubrick ). Its reception has certainly been both critically and commercially positive; it has a 100% “Freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has had considerable influence on pop culture, even into the 2000′s. Like many gangster films before it, The Godfather dealt with hard-boiled themes of corruption, murder, vengeance, and money. But the watershed film portrayed mafia gangs as “families” who, believe it or not, practiced their own internal code of ethics.
Now imagine your business, like the mafia “family,” as a smooth, self-running, intrinsically moral organization. Sit down in your giant chair, smoke a pipe, and learn some lessons about business management from some of the best in the (gangster) business.

Family First

Do you spend time with your family? Good. Because a man that doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man. – Don Vito Corleone
This is cardinal rule number ONE in the film. Don Vito Corleone, the patriarch of the most powerful crime family in New York City, amassed his entire fortune in the interest of serving and protecting his family. There are numerous expressions of this sentiment throughout the film: For example, Michael Corleone — Vito’s son and a former hero of World War II — only gets involved in “the family business” after a serious assassination attempt on his father (this after being estranged from the mafia for years, on principle.) Once the Don is incapacitated and forced to semi-retire, Michael, the new head of the family, chides his brother Fredo after he tries to side with his friend Moe Greene after Moe refuses Michael’s offer to “buy him out” (Fredo, you’re my older brother, and I love you. But don’t ever take sides with anyone against the Family again. Ever.) (example 3)
Like the Corleones, your job as business manager is to cultivate a powerful sense of family — both on the job and in interactions with your customers. Families do favors for one another; families take over when others are too sick to do so; families bend the rules.  There are a number of ways that you can build much-needed solidarity and trust among co-workers and family (team building exercises, weekend retreats) which will then translate into better customer service skills later. Invest in the well-being of your employees, and they’ll bring that energy out into the world, full-force. Trust me. A Corleone would never send a fellow brother out into the cold; don’t neglect training and nourishing yours, either.

Be Respectful

What have I ever done to make you to treat me so disrespectfully? If you had come to me in friendship then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies then they would become my enemies. And then, they would fear you. – Don Vito Corleone
Vito says this to Bonasera, who comes to make a request for the Don on his daughter’s wedding day (it’s Sicilian tradition: he can’t refuse a request on this sacred day.) Bonasera requests vengeance on his daughter’s behalf — she was beaten by two men who tried to take advantage of her. The Don emphasizes that Bonasera’s request is disrespectful because he didn’t venture to develop a friendship with him and his family beforehand, presumably afraid to “be in his debt.” An excerpt, below:
Don Corleone: I understand. You found paradise in America, you had a good trade, you made a good living. The police protected you and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend like me. But, uh, now you come to me, and you say: “Don Corleone, give me justice.” But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you ask me to do murder for money.
Bonasera did wrong by barging into the Godfather’s space, without so much as having inviting him to his house ”for a cup of coffee.” And that is the ultimate disrespect; asking for favors from what are, essentially, strangers.
Don’t be like Bonasera and disrespect your customers in this way. Be friendly; “invite them over for coffee,” in a sense. Ask their opinions on things. Allow your building to be used for community meetings; be accessible via e-mail; have “open request” days, like the Don. Friend them back when they friend you on Facebook. Send private, personalized “thank you” messages, when appropriate. And whatever you do, DON’T ask for favors unless you’ve established personal relationships; customers are too smart to be footmen for distant, cold strangers. They’ll gladly help market your product once you’ve proven to them that they are valuable friends worth having; your enemies will become theirs.

Don’t Take It Personally

It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business. – Michael
Personal business versus business business is a strong, persistent theme in the film — Michael’s above quote is like a slogan for the mafiosi crime syndicate. The characters strive throughout the story to make the distinction, which oftentimes gets lost in the heat of emotion and gang warfare. Michael Corleone, next in line to be the Don, nearly loses it when his father is shot, almost forgetting the difference between business and personal matters, ordering brutish attacks on nearly every rival leader in sight, but assumes his rightful place as patriarch — pure business — at the end of the movie.
The mafiosi do their best to distinguish between the personal and the business side of things; you should be, too. If a customer (or business ally) you thought you had a good relationship with suddenly turns and publicly badmouths you for some kind of mishandling, don’t get mad or lash out without thinking first — this will only make you look like a Michael Corleone. Remember that customers are simply expressing their displeasure over business practices — and if anything, this should give you incentive to change them. Additionally, try your best not to talk business at pure family gatherings — like dinner — this will only mar both business and family relations. Not worth it.

Show, Don’t Tell

I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse. – Don Vito Corleone
Sometimes, you just gotta get gangster. And that entails showing off your skills, not blabbing about them to anyone who’ll listen. When Vito Corleone agrees to help his godson, Johnny Fontane, get a part in a movie role  to help save his struggling acting career, he first sends an envoy to test the waters (his adopted son, Tom Hagen.) Tom meets with film studio head Jack Woltz to try to convince him to give Fontane the part. Woltz refuses, and Tom responds calmly before leaving. Then? BAM! The severed head of Woltz’s racehorse shows up in his bed the next morning. Woltz has to agree. Johnny gets his part.
Notice that Corleone’s actions spoke much louder than words. Moreover, the Corleone family (particularly Michael) business doesn’t operate based on verbal threats and theatrics; they’re calm, cool, collected, calculating. They know what they’re capable of; why broadcast every action to the heavens when silent guerilla tactics work even better?
Likewise, your product should be able to speak for itself. Advertise via demonstration at a willing customer’s house — or at your own. Don’t be afraid to show what your product can do! If it’s a service, ask your satisfied customers to give testimonials (they’ll usually be more than willing). Quality wins every time; so does quality delivery of your message, however. You think Woltz would have been as frightened if he found a random horsehead in his bed, rather than that of his prized own? No; Corleone’s team took the time to seek out the right one in order to send the right message — no fanfare, threatening messages, or violent verbal exchanges needed. The action, detailed and perfect as it was, spoke for itself. Follow this example.
Honestly, the mafia might not always be the best example to look to regarding most matters in life. But if you want to learn tough business skills, the Corleones are certainly hard-to-beat teachers. You listen to them, and — bada-bing! — you’ll wipe out competitors in no time.

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