Family Business Heads Leading By Example
18th September 2015 Dr. Susan Laverick
A look at family businesses with great leaders at the helm with an insight into how coaching can help.
My clients are rather exotically scattered across Australia, the UK, Switzerland and Africa: they are corporate lawyers, financiers, humanitarian workers and C-suite executives. Yet, they share a common a desire to balance personal development with professional achievement. The critical factor frequently cited in this equation is ethical, strong leadership that must be committed to career development while remaining sensitive to well-being.
The impact (both positive and negative) of leadership in shaping executive careers and steering company success is of topical concern to the family businesses which today constitute 80% of companies worldwide and are “the largest source of long-term employment in most countries” (Fernandez et al, Harvard Business Review: July 2015). Good governance, the ability (and willingness) to develop “family talent and non-family talent” while injecting “discipline to top-level succession” have become hallmarks of the thriving global family business (Fernandez).
Celebrating UK family businesses, 1515-2015
2015 is a momentous year for thriving UK family businesses as many celebrate centuries of distinguished lineage and business traditions. Even I (a committed vegetarian!), am filled with admiration for RJ Balson & Son (Bridport) who have been producing beautifully cured sausages and bacon since the reign of Henry VIII. Earlier this year, Paul Andrews, editor of FBU, congratulated these companies for “their achievements over the years and having successfully transitioned from generation to generation” (Family Business United: February 2015). The keywords in this phrase speak of vision and sustainable leadership – all core factors in family business success.
Solid family achievements, including contributions from both family and non-family professionals, passion for the family industry and devotion to staff are integral to the success stories of British family firms. When Donald Balson reflected on the success of RJ Balson & Son, he observed that ,“the love of the job, which has been passed down from generation to generation, is one of the main reasons we have been successful” (Western Morning News: November 2011). So, passion for company, product and dedication to staff has secured seamless inheritance transitions and precious business continuity.
Leading with vision – facing the transition challenge
While family offices are dedicated to ensure good governance and effective succession practices, a curious coach instinctively asks one question: how do family businesses lead by example?
Enter the executive coach with a toolkit of coaching programmes and workshops that support strategic management and talent development. Coaching offers many possibilities. These include:
- Forensically examining problems impacting growth and harmony. It might, for example, involve supporting a programme that develops internal family talent.
- Cultivating the “soft-skills” of business, including emotional sustainability, credible and effective communication skills, effective management practices, and techniques for conflict resolution.
- Building a collaborative management culture, providing solid support for diffusing generational conflict while creating intelligent career development plans for key family members (and non-family members, too).
- Embedding recognition that family comes first in family businesses via work-life balance workshops
Coaching is generally delivered by:
- A series of powerful conversations that are situation-based, focussed on analysing specific management styles and developmental needs.
- An intensive six month cycle (6-8 sessions), where transformational change is nurtured and tracked with goals and actions that assure a positive and enduring outcome.
- Workshops and team coaching.
A case study from a Geneva coaching practice
An example of transformation coaching is provided by my work with a board member of a major independent Australian Executive Health Authority, the board itself having been created by a family business initiative. The executive in question was well-qualified, highly-experienced and universally-respected by her peers. She managed several hundred staff and had an excellent rapport with executives and more junior officers. So far, so good.
The obstacle, however, was posed by a fraught relationship with the CEO. This was bluntly described by my client as “toxic” because it was insidiously leaching her confidence and impacting her ability to perform at board meetings and national symposia. By the time my client approached me for coaching, she was stressed and unhappy, already liaising with external head-hunters. My first duty as a coach is to encourage shifts in perception, behaviour and to transform beliefs, so her impulse to flee rather than fight was one I deeply regretted. Not only would she depart with a toxic and negative legacy, but the organisation risked losing a talented and visionary director.
Over a period of six months, we analysed and deconstructed the problem: we identified triggers that created the communication impasse and created a functioning plan that involved responding rather than reacting. My client thus learnt new strategies that made her more resilient and, above all, revived her damaged confidence. She is now working very effectively with her CEO and leans away from the conflict zone rather than taking criticism personally. The organisation has retained a gifted and high-performing executive, while my client has a new repertoire of personal management skills that will take her to the next level.
Family first: balancing family with family business
Executive coaching also brings a healthier perspective to the work-life balance question. This is particularly relevant to family-run businesses where the boundaries between the two are so amorphous. An organisation that cares about the challenges posed by diversity - whether women returning to work, or individuals unhappy in their current roles – might introduce workshops for work-life balance as signs of proactive, caring leadership. A coaching session might well start with a forensic review of strategies for a situational challenge in a management context, but it will often reveal work-life imbalances that exacerbate a professional problem.
My workshops target the problem of work-life imbalance. Delegates work through the morning and leave by the end of the afternoon with a sustainable action plan, supported by follow-up coaching that ensures changes are implemented and new behaviours sustained. After all, as John Timson observed in The Telegraph, “family is more important than family business”. Privileging the individual needs of family members and recognising external stresses and sources of conflict, might ultimately yield a more united family environment in which business prospers and everyone is happier within their designated roles.
In April 2015, Peter Englisch of Ernest & Young’s Global Family Business Center of Excellence in Switzerland noted that the most pressing challenge of a family business is “to combine the most rational world of business with the most emotional world of family” (Peterson-Withorn, Chase). I admire those who have managed this balancing act between business and emotion, for they are living testimony to the wisdom of Tony Robbins’ maxim, “identify your problem, but give your power and energy to solutions”.
And of course, a good coach can add temperance and rigour to the process!
About the Author - Dr. Susan Laverick is an ICF-accredited executive coach based in Geneva. She works with clients in the humanitarian, corporate and private sectors to optimise their professional profiles and to hone communication and impact skills. Her work-life balance workshops align satisfying careers with healthier personal-time quotients.
Andrews, Paul. “British Family Businesses are Celebrating” in Family Business United: February 2015.
Fernandez-Araoz, Claudio, Iqbal, Sonny, Ritter, Jorg, “Leadership lessons from Great Family Businesses” in Harvard Business Review: April 2015.
Peterson-Withorn, Chase. “New Report Reveals the 500 Largest Family-Owned Companies in the World” in Forbes: April 2015.
“The Family Butcher that is Britain’s Oldest Firm” in Western Morning News: November 5, 2011.
Timpson, John. “Family is more important than the family business” in The Telegraph: 9 August 2011.