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Women and the Family Business

01Sep 2008

It seems to be appropriate week to write about women and the family business, given the high profile of women in politics this past week (Hillary Rodham Clinton’s eloquent speech at the Democratic National Convention, and the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential candidate).

Six female authors have recently published A Women’s Place . . . The Crucial Roles of Women in Family Business. Five of the authors are directly involved in family-owned businesses and all of them are consultants with The Family Business Consulting Group, Inc. In the introduction, they indicate the book is not only for women in business, but for family businesses in general (many of whom may need to rethink their positions on women in the business), and for family business advisors.

In one of the first chapters of the book, they list a variety of roles women typically embrace in business-related families. The list, in and of itself, is insightful and causes pause for reflection on the variety of roles women hold (like men, many are held simultaneously):

Business Founder. Financier. Owner / Shareholder. Co-president. Emergency leader. Back room support. Innovator. Advisor and confidante. Nurturer of the next generation of leaders. Family business board member. Board Chair. A groomed CEO or senior executive. Family leader. Family foundation leader. Individual philanthropist. Ambassador. Employee. Mentor. Family historian. Steward.

As consultants, the authors share some themes they are seeing among family-owned businesses:

  • More and more women are working in their families’ businesses.
  • Women seem to have more work experience before they have children.
  • Given increasing longevity, there are more work-related years available after children are raised.
  • There are more daughters partnering with their fathers and mothers in business.
  • The movement toward more service economy businesses appears to make business more amenable to women.

The authors suggest a number of steps to family businesses for helping young women prepare for significant roles in their family’s business. I found a number of them to be wise words to heed:

a) Start early. Regardless of gender, family members need to be exposed to the real workings of the family business early in life, and in multiple ways across the years.

b) Don’t leave the girls out. Think about it. If a family business disqualifies women from leadership, they may be reducing 50% (or more, depending on the family makeup) of potential future family leaders.

c) Avoid creating an environment where are the role models are male. Great point — if all the mentors are male, it makes visualizing oneself in and identifying with the role model more difficult.

I have been fortunate to work with a number of women in family businesses, and like the list above, they serve in a variety of roles:

*owner and CEO of a manufacturing business
*co-founder and principal researcher in a high tech firm
*VP of marketing and business partner with their spouse
*business owner of a professional services firm
*co-chair and leader of the family foundation
*individual philanthropist and change agent
*Board officer and confidante
*mentor to other women in philanthropy
*family leader.

One theme I have observed in this collective group of female leaders is the inner strength that each of them has. Having been raised in a more traditional Midwestern family, in which the business side of the family was patriarchal, it has been an interesting experience for me to see how women often lead very differently from the traditional male entrepreneurial stereotype and how effective their leadership is.

I am looking forward to learning more as I complete A Woman’s Place . . . , (there is an chapter on Work/Life Balance that looks interesting) but even more so, I am eager to learn how to lead (if it is possible for a guy) like many of the woman I see — effectively, decisively, but with more attention and focus on the human side of business.

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