The best family businesses – and the people in them – are often brimming with energy and ideas. Jette Eglund, Chairman of Danish homeware company Vipp says ‘You get an idea, and then you go and make it happen – that’s the family way.’
But a can-do attitude, though valuable, isn’t always enough; sometimes they just need to get their act together – or to ‘professionalise’, in the business jargon.
The problem: the family boss who always knows best
It’s often said that entrepreneurs are good at setting businesses up, but terrible at running them. Family businesses usually have an entrepreneurial spirit, so they too can struggle to stay consistent and professional.
If, as a young family member, you start working in your family’s business when you’re still inexperienced, but with a surprising amount of power or influence, it’s easy to come across as an enthusiastic amateur. Or worse, to turn into a know-all who can’t or won’t delegate to others with real skills and a track record.
In our latest podcast, Galahad Clark of shoe brand Vivo Barefoot (and one of the sixth generation of Clarks shoes) told us about Vivo’s early days: “We were over-confident, and amateur, and probably slightly despotic. It wasn’t until we put serious professional management in place alongside us that the business really started to work.”
It’s one of the reasons why only 12% of these businesses make it to a third generation. And it’s also why the smarter scions of family businesses are hyper-aware of their own personal ‘brand’. In our first podcast, we spoke to a third generation daughter who said, “I go into a room and think everyone says, ‘Oh, [the boss] has brought his kid along. Better humour him and be nice to her.’” That cautiousness is justified in Western cultures where nepotism is often looked at very suspiciously.
So if most family businesses need to professionalise, how do you do it? Here are three ways.
Train up the family (and tell the team)
All of our podcast interviewees went off and proved themselves – either in far-off outposts of the family business, or outside it entirely – before coming back into the fold with real expertise to offer. Or you can do that in a more formal way with MBAs and the like.
It pays to communicate that kind of experience internally too, so the rest of the business buys into that person as an expert in their own right, and not just as someone who got a genetic lucky break.
Hire in the skills you need
Lots of family businesses think – eventually – of giving jobs to people with the skills they don’t have themselves – people like MDs and CFOs. Galahad Clark says “You need a group of smart, responsible people with clear job descriptions. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how few businesses do that really well.” But for those hires to succeed, the family have to be willing to listen to them, and empower them to make changes.
And of course, you have to attract those new recruits in the first place. That’s where ‘employer branding’ comes in, because a clearly expressed strategy, and a sense of purpose, will attract the right people and allay any fears they have about joining a ‘closed shop’.
Work with outside experts
You can use outside consultants to share best practice from elsewhere – and to challenge the family’s conventional wisdom. “The problem with a family business is that there’s a bit of an echo chamber: we all have shared values; we have a shared way of thinking”, says our podcast ‘Daughter’.
That’s why our Principal, Gilmar Wendt says, “When it comes to brand and communication, we have skills and experience many of them don’t. And that means it’s sometimes our job to burst the family bubble. You do that carefully. But it’s got to be done.”
And what’s the end result of these three strategies? “A lot of what we do is about giving people confidence,” says Gilmar. Galahad Clark agrees. “The big challenge we have as a brand is to make bigger, more confident moves. Finding that confidence is a key thing.”
Full series: Five ways family businesses can flourish
Fiona Unsworth is Strategy & Development Director at GW+Co