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Family Business Leadership Through A Crisis

There have been crises before, some of them larger than others, but it is probably true to say that family business leaders have never previously faced challenges the like of which have been experienced in the past six months or so. The global pandemic has taken its toll in a number of ways and for leaders of family firms there has never been a more important time to lead.

Family businesses are the backbone of the UK economy and the mainstay of communities the length and breadth of Britain. Times have changed and leaders have had to learn new skills, adapt and evolve – and more importantly for many, do so on a daily basis, Undoubtedly some have faired better than others, and some sectors been affected more than others too.

Firms that have faired well have adapted swiftly, made quick strategic decisions and faced up to difficult conversations and for many, clear lines of communication, sound governance and good leadership have helped, together with clearly defined values, clarity of purpose and commitment from the broader workforce too.

Leaders have had to adapt to a changing workforce, staff on furlough and many working from home and the situation has been changing almost daily. Leaders have shone through, communicating with staff in all manner of ways such as weekly video calls, personal emails, smaller team meetings virtually and in more innovative ways too. It may not have been easy at first but people have adapted well, embraced new technology and come together to keep businesses going. In many cases the pandemic has brought teams closer, improved communication and paved the way for better, quicker decisions being made and implemented.

We are now seeing more people being encouraged to return to work but are undoubtedly a long way from having everyone back in the office, for reasons such as safe social distancing, unwillingness to travel and a new way of working that enables people to be productive working from home. Current ways of working will also create new challenges which will have to be addressed and leaders will need to manage the balance of people working from home with some in the office, some remaining on furlough for the time being and in some cases redundancies too. These are uncertain times and it is now more than ever that the culture and underlying values of the family business make a difference. Difficult decisions need to be made but there are various ways of making the same decision. Balancing teams is going to be a continuing challenge for some time to come but communication and strong leadership is essential,

Leaders also need to recognise the impact of the new ways of working on their staff, some of whom may have been fully employed and working long hours throughout whilst their peers may have been on furlough. Some staff may also be working longer hours than normal to try and go the extra mile to protect their roles but these hours are unlikely to be sustainable in the long run. Being aware of the contribution of individuals and finding appropriate and fair ways of rewarding staff is also likely to be on the agenda.

There are lots of challenges for family business leaders at the moment, many associated with simply keeping the business going and managing the day to day operations and it certainly is not easy. Then there is the need to focus on the future and the needs of the business going forward, new requirements as the business evolves and needs new skills and to think about the future challenges and opportunities that may arise,

Above all, there is still a need for leaders to find some time for themselves, to take a moment to take stock and find some time out. Not easy but essential for their own long term health and well-being and to enable them to continue to lead the business during the next phase of the pandemic.

Over the past six months I have spoken to numerous family business leaders and have never ceased to be impressed by their stealth, grit and determination to succeed, focusing on the long term even in the darkest of moments and making sure that they lead from the front. Family businesses are full of entrepreneurship, passion and drive to succeed, not just for the family but the broader community of stakeholders too. Family business leaders have had to step up and lead from the front, and have clearly done just that.

Family businesses have been around for generations and will be here for generations to come. For some the challenges have brought forward the implementation of strategies that were on the agenda for the future, for others investment continues in new machinery, marketing and campaigns to reinforce their brands whilst others are sourcing new markets for their products and services. There is a lot going on and family business leaders undoubtedly have a lot on their plates at the moment but as has been the way for many generations, the ‘keep calm and carry on’ mentality is seeing businesses continue. Leaders are sourcing new skills, communicating and managing change, for some on an unprecedented scale but it is great to see that firms that have an underlying set of values, purpose and clear vision of where they are now, and where they are going, taking all the steps to achieve their ambitions.

It is always easy to focus on the negatives, but as champions of the family business sector, we recognise the efforts, blood, sweat and tears that are being poured into the nation’s family firms each and every day and wanted to take a moment to reflect on the journey that many leaders have been on in the past six months. Clearly, businesses are going to have some tough times ahead and leaders more decisions that have to be made, some of them difficult, but family business leaders have risen to the challenge, are taking decisions for the long term to protect their businesses and continue to be the engine room of local and regional economies and the heartbeat of the nation.

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