Article: Thriving in a family business as an outsider

Leadership

Thriving in a family business as an outsider

The journey is exciting and requires courage, competence and tenacity, so look deep within and reflect if its meant for you.
Thriving in a family business as an outsider

Promoter led organisations are sought after by executives especially after years in large corporate. The driver behind this are

  1. despite working in massive organisations, that are well oiled, structured, hierarchical, process driven and are also well recognised iconic brands that they themselves have helped to create sometimes simply begets the need for more purpose in what one is doing
  2. being able to make an impact powerfully without the huge effort that goes into ‘managing’ multiple relationships and navigating the politics in the organisation; 
  3. being in a place that’s alive and has a soul rather than cold formality (and then the need to create separate spaces for the so called ‘engagement’ with fun and entertainment that’s again artificially created); 
  4. long term thinking where people are not valued only for performance and therefore under constant pressure, but also for their intent, sincerity, knowledge they bring and loyalty during tough times and when the organisation was still young and struggling; 
  5. getting exposed to a different platform that is entrepreneurial without the risks associated with an entrepreneurial venture(and learning the ropes before turning entrepreneurial) ; being  among a few.


A family business while being different from a MNC is still complex – whether it’s the nuances of decision making, values, and what drives the people that hold it together. Despite all good intentions and the multiple iterations before taking on professionals / or the professional’s knowledge of the organisation and promoter, there are a lot of unknowns. Given below are some thoughts for a professional taking the leap.      

Mindset of Learning

Thriving in a family business is not tough provided one goes into it with an open mind to discover, learn and also get enriched. The ‘know it all’ attitude because one comes from an MNC with best practices, will only alienate the professional. While s/he is taken to ‘set things right’, to do so, one can to first learn and win the confidence and trust of people. Despite what one comes with, those inside know more about the business and the dynamics. To bridge this disadvantage, be humble, listen and learn. Family members and promoters also need to be valued for what they bring – their ability to take risk, create something from nothing sometimes, and without financial backing. Also being able to rally people to join and support their venture when it is yet to make a name. Having been in the trenches, through highs and lows, they also bring wisdom and insights that are valuable, apart from knowing and caring about their business and people deeply.  Learn from them and also give them credit. Genuinely valuing them and what they have created, will help in winning trust.  While changing things, even when the family wants change, do it sensitively - involving trusted advisors and team members. This will also help in deflecting some of the negativity, if any. 

Understanding it’s more than  P&L

For some families, the business is also about serving the interests of all members of the extended family, and it being a social and economic ecosystem. Family members are given businesses to manage and growth is sacrificed for the sake of family interest. It’s this legacy of living together in harmony that can be more important than only pursuing growth and profit. The ambition could just be to make sure the business survives and is left better for the next generation to follow.

Learn what values drive decisions, their unwritten rules, the family dynamics, and who holds the ‘glue’ will help especially during conflict situations. The role of 1st and 2nd generation, dynamics and power play and the maturity to know how much of a role a professional can play in this, will help in avoiding frustration when he/she can’t influence and change everything one wants to.   

Patience in Driving Change

For a professional, logically a lot that can be ‘fixed’ is apparent and can be done quickly and clinically. However there is a layer of family considerations that also go into the decision making. While the professional may not be aware, delays and non-acceptance of recommendations could also be because of these fears. Understanding this, and working through a solution with this in mind will not just lead to a great business decision but also help in managing these relationships. Hence patience and  maturity in understanding that the rejection is not a rejection of the recommendation but a plea for understanding what cannot be explained, will ensure that the professional will not take it as a rejection of his professional competence, and will also continue to work on these agenda’s  keeping these sensitivities in mind. While the change will take time, it’ll be well accepted and long lasting.      

Knowing how far one can go

If the executive’s ambition is to be the all powerful person, this may not be fulfilled. Not because of the professional’s ability but simple because of the biological disadvantage. We’ve seen clearly that the closest that a ‘non family’ member can become in some organisations is a ‘trusted advisor’. The CEO or however glorious the title could be will report to an MD promoter. The professional who has earned the trust of the family and is well respected for his/ her competence and discretion may still not be privy to all matters. Blood is after all thicker than water and it helps to have the humility to accept that.      

Professionals are respected and thrive so long as they win the trust and are respected for their discretion apart from competence. To be able to play the game well and thrive it starts with appreciating that it’s a different world and wanting to explore and understand it, learning the norms of engagement in that culture, calibrating expectations, and of course giving it ones best to ensure one leaves behind an even more valued organisation. The journey is exciting and requires courage, competence and tenacity, so look deep within and reflect if it’s meant for you.

Topics: Leadership, Entrepreneurship

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