Key Leadership Traits for Family Business Successors

Key Leadership Traits for Family Business Successors

Hard work and education can help strengthen these qualities in your clients

A person born into a family business is a person born into a story—one that’s ongoing and generations old.  Like any good story, there are heroes: parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, whose legacy, mythologized over time, casts a long shadow.  This shadow weighs heavy on the next generation. Do I have what it takes?  Will I be a great a leader or will I fail? The expectation to succeed, to live up to the past and honor its heroes… even the most resilient successor can be crushed by the pressure.

There are other obstacles, too.  The myths of leadership.  Idioms and phrases that at first, sound wise but at heart are akin to nonsense.  For example, “leaders are born and not made.”  How shortsighted to think that there’s only one iconic style of leadership bestowed upon a lucky few.  That leadership is what?  Somehow given to a person at birth, like some fairy godmother’s spell?  Myths like these slowly chip away at successors and, like the weight of the family shadow, can undermine your client’s confidence, capability and talent. 

The topic of succession is one I hold near and dear.  For almost 20 years, I’ve watched graduates from our Next Generation Leadership Institute go on to become confident and successful leaders within their family business.  I’ve also had the fortune of interviewing 28 family business successors, all chronicled in my book, Myths and Mortals: Family Business Leadership and Succession Planning.  All of these experiences have brought me to this understanding: that while it’s true we’re all born with certain leadership traits, those we lack can be developed and strengthened through hard work and education.

When you’re advising a client who’s on the road to becoming a successor to his family business, here are some traits to look out for.

Self-Awareness

A successful successor is aware of their strengths and weaknesses and leverages their strengths for the good of the family and the business.

Belief in Oneself

The family shadow can lead your client to believe that credibility and worth come from his family name rather than his own individuality and identity.  Successful successors aren’t afraid to make mistakes.  Nor are they afraid to learn from these mistakes.  This process teaches your client to believe in himself, while at the same time, building a personal record of achievement.  Credibility must be built on his actions, not his family name. 

Credibility with Others

Belief in oneself isn’t enough to become a successful successor; others must believe in your client too. They’ll recognize your client’s credibility in the same way he recognizes it within yourself: through his actions, ability to lead and track record. Christie Hefner described it this way, “True power is given by the people that you lead, not by the people who gave you the job.”  

Clear Sense of Values

Successful successors reflect on their parents’ values and, in turn, establish their own set of values. Some may be shared with parents, while others may be unique to them.  Think of values as a map; they keep the business on a set course.  When we reach a fork in the road, values help us decide which path to follow.

Decision Making

Successful successors are skilled problem solvers.  They know how to make difficult decisions and act decisively for the betterment of the family and the business.  Laying off parts of the workforce, for example, can be an extremely difficult decision, especially when employees feel like part of the family.  But it’s a decision that sometimes must be made to keep the family business afloat. 

Commitment to the Family

Survival isn’t just about money.  Research shows that centuries-old family businesses have survived for so long, not because of financial success, but because of strong relationships. Families enjoy being together and have a sense of pride and commitment to each other and the business.  Successful successors come to know that “we” is more important than “me.”

Commitment to People

Your client shouldn’t let his family shadow diminish contributions by employees, trusted advisors and other family members.  Successful successors aren’t blinded by the shadow; instead, they shine a light on the contributions of others.  He should commit to the growth and development of his people. Give credit where it’s due, celebrate success, admit his mistakes and take responsibility when things go wrong.

Commitment to Continual Learning

Successful successors are life-long learners.  They enjoy discovery and new perspectives.  Your client should take some initiative to learn and be curious.

Ability to Deal with Ambiguity

Leading in a family business is often fraught with uncertainty and ambiguity.  There’s often no clear right or wrong. Successful successors are comfortable in this middle-zone; while others are paralyzed with indecision, they seek clarity.

Successors face many challenges; from the family shadow to the myths of leadership, overcoming these challenges is no easy feat.  Help your client to make a concerted effort to strengthen his leadership traits over time so he can build a legacy larger than himself.

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