Boss Lady

Career advancement in your family business


Women are making their mark in organizations across the globe, creating a positive impact on companies, employees, and communities. Studies show a connection between women in leadership positions and better company performance, more favorable corporate reputations, and better recruitment and talent retention. Meanwhile, gender-balanced boards of directors are associated with better corporate social performance such as community, environmental, and supply chains.

While there is much more work to be done, family businesses are leading the way. Female leadership is 70% more prevalent in family businesses than in non-family businesses and family companies promote women further and faster (including non-family members) than their non-family competitors, according to a recent EY study.

I teach, research, and advise family-owned enterprises across 70 countries and earlier this month, I brought my expertise to the WOBI on Family Business events in Sydney and Melbourne, where I shared my insights on how to develop and sustain a successful family business.

Over the last 40 years, I have witnessed the rise in the number of female successors in many roles in family enterprises and I would love to share my tips for women looking to advance their careers within their family enterprise.

Explore your early interests professionally

One of the most important qualities to maintain as a member of a business family is professionalism. This means exhibiting high standards of performance and ethics, and following formal systems and processes.

When you begin to consider working for the family business, ask if an internship is possible so you can rotate through different divisions of the company to see what excites you. Declare your ambition to work at the company as soon as you know, and don’t expect a job will be made available to you just because you’re ready. Voice your interest through an official conversation with the business leader and family council, and express that you understand that you may need to wait for the right role to open. Be open to additional education or training to meet qualifications before entering the business.

Enter the business professionally

For a family member to perform, she needs to be in a job that is the right fit with her capabilities, and her role needs to be seen as effective for the company.

As a family employee, you deserve an accurate title and a clear description of your role. You should have a position with specific performance goals where your deliverables can be objectively measured and market-based compensation is available. There also needs to be a clear reporting relationship between yourself and your supervisor where they can provide mentoring and provide appropriate performance feedback without retribution. If these are not in place, don’t be afraid to ask for them or help to create them for your role.

Recognize how visible you are

By the nature of your last name, you are under a spotlight at your family company – no matter what position you hold. Be mindful that you are a representative of your family and the owners. Be as professional an employee as you would be in any other company.

Recognize that your voice carries more weight than other employees. You are viewed as a spokesperson for your family, so when you express an opinion, be explicit about whether it is your personal opinion. People may not know whether you are speaking for yourself as their colleague, or with a directive as an “owner.”

Break the paradigm that family employees are negative

Recognize that most of society has an ill-conceived notion about nepotism—that family employees are “given” jobs because of their DNA and not their merit. While this is not true, it is nonetheless widely held.

For the last 40 years, many of the most professional managers I have met in my career are family members working in their family’s company. Nevertheless, next generation members tell me that it is their duty to set the standard within their company. They work harder and longer hours than non-family employees to make up for the perceived assumption that they are not as professional or as deserving of their job as non-family employees.

Set the standard within your family

Your family will reference your employment experience as a benchmark for future family employees. If you demonstrate commitment and humility, espouse the family’s values, respect the management hierarchy, follow processes, achieve highly, and perform professionally, you will set the bar high for future family employees.

Don’t be an information source

As a family member, you have access to the leaders and owners of the company. You have more information about the company than a non-family employee in your position would. In this privileged position, remain discreet and keep conversations private.

Don’t allow employees to use your status as a family member. Don’t fall into the trap of being the source of information to and from peers and supervisors.

Don’t allow the family to use your position as an employee. Don’t share information about employees that is not yours to share. Insist that proper channels are followed for the flow of information so your relationships and integrity are not jeopardized.

Keep family conflict outside of the workplace

As a family employee, it may be tempting to try to address family conflicts in the workplace when working in close proximity to your relatives. Resist the urge to bring family disagreements into business settings. That’s not to say you can’t disagree with relatives at work, but disagree respectfully and civilly over business issues. Set ground rules with your family that you won’t air personal disagreements publicly at the company. Develop a governance process to redirect family conversations to family forums (like a family council).

Request performance feedback

I call performance feedback the breakfast of champions, because most people who want to grow in their competencies and contributions not only need feedback, but also seek it out.  For a variety of reasons, I do not see family members getting adequate feedback.

Family employees need feedback not only in the current job that they have but also for the one they aspire to. They are more likely to be groomed and moved to higher positions as they qualify, so they need to fully understand the requirements of moving up in the company. That way, in addition to performing well now, you can be learning skills that will help prepare you for your ultimate job.

Request and help design your career development plans

I consider a family employee to be a strategic asset. While all employees are important contributors to the success of the company, the family employee—because she has long-term potential to be developed into a leadership role—needs to be treated with great attention. Her career path needs appropriate structure, planning, timing, milestones, and fair treatment, being overlooked by the management of the company, the CEO and the board.

Prepare yourself for roles in ownership, governance, and family leadership

You may not be an owner at this point, but in the future, you are likely to grow into ownership and governance responsibilities. Family members deserve to understand the job of being an owner, and need to be able to do that job well. Ask the senior leaders in your family for a description of ownership responsibilities and board member qualifications so you can begin to prepare yourself to do those jobs well.

You need to learn how you can strengthen your family relationship skills because as you gain more authority in the company, your ability to relate well within the family will be increasingly important.

If you aspire to be CEO, follow a process

According to an article from FINH, Australian women have been increasingly taking control of family businesses since the mid-2000s. Declare your interest in becoming CEO privately with family leadership and then eventually with the board (if there is one). The development timeframe to prepare to be CEO is typically 5-10 years and requires many different elements of preparation such as taking on challenging assignments, having P&L responsibility, leading teams, being tested, meeting milestones, being evaluated, and taking on more responsibility gradually over time.

It is important that you have a clear perspective on the strategic challenges and opportunities of the company, and that you advocate for a specific strategic path forward. If you recommend a change in direction for the company, be persuasive and patient and recognize that family businesses change slowly.

You will need to work closely with the current CEO to ensure a smooth handoff. Receiving public endorsements of support from the outgoing CEO, senior management, and family leadership are important to show that you have the support of the company and the owners.

About Dr. John Davis

Professor John Davis is a globally recognized pioneer and authority on family enterprise, family wealth, and family offices. He leads the family enterprise programs at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management where he teaches strategies for family business and family office longevity. Trained in management, psychology, and economics, he advises multigenerational family enterprises in more than 70 countries. He is the founder and chairman of Cambridge Family Enterprise Group, a global advisory, education, and research organization for family enterprises.

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