Preparing to Lead the Family Business

Leaders of family businesses are facing the crisis of “they didn’t prepare me for that.”

It’s leaving them feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared. They recognize that in the family business structure, there is often no “they” to step in and prepare them.

It’s the sentiment I’ve heard, in varying forms, throughout the course of my work with family-owned businesses.

Here are some of the ways it’s been phrased to me…

As a family business owner, they don’t prepare you to:

  • Hand over the company you’ve spent the better part of your life building and leading.
  • Choose the right leaders to continue the family legacy.
  • Deal with the sudden death of a family member who is part of the business.
  • Fire a relative if that’s what needs to be done.
  • Work with incoming leaders who have new, fresh ideas that seem counter to everything you’ve done in the past.

As a new leader in a family business, they don’t prepare you for forging your own way, for leading authentically and differently while still honoring the leadership of the past. They don’t direct you on how to consistently grow the company and decide which new opportunities to pursue. They don’t teach you how to manage the complex family dynamics that undoubtedly complicate matters within the organization. They don’t show you how to handle an abrupt generational transition, or how to survive economic hardships, or even how to communicate with others on your leadership team effectively.

The owners & leaders of family businesses recognize that they have to be the “they.” It requires them to be intentional about preparing themselves.

How do leaders of family business better prepare themselves to avert such a crisis?

Purposeful thinking. Intentional planning. Active doing. Effective measuring.

The most effective leaders think actively about the future, planning for how they want to change, to do things differently, to shake up their world in a good way. Then, they do. They make things happen. Finally, they loop around by measuring their progress, assessing where they are and whether they’ve been successful. Often, they start the cycle once or many times more and think, plan, do and measure all over again. The foundational element to the process is thinking differently. Be willing to look at your organization objectively.

What separates the companies who thrive into the future isn’t luck, chance or working harder. Often, it’s a willingness to be open, to step back, to assess what’s really going on and how it can be done better. It’s learning the intricate balance of family dynamics, people and processes.

So no, “they” don’t prepare you for that. But you can prepare you for that.

Originally published at on April 10, 2016.