Most of the talk is about creating jobs and making more economic impact by starting or growing a high potential business – one that is going to grow superfast and employ hundreds. That’s where most government initiatives are directed.
But most businesses are never going to be in that category. They might, with some help, improve their methods and processes so that they still grow well and employ more. As there are so many more of these, this appears to be a better use of resource – hundreds of businesses employing one more person may well employ more than one high potential business ever would. And make more money, and pay more tax – with less risk of failure. After all, they have already proved they can survive.
Family businesses fall into this category. They have significant advantages, but also some disadvantages too. Advantages include a shared identity that transcends the business, more determination as they could be letting family members down, and a high work rate.
Disadvantages sometimes flow from the generational issues – many are still in 20th century methods of management – top down command and control, and members tend to get into too much detail, thus reducing time to think about the business or train non family staff members. Doing the wrong thing very well is common. There is sometimes also a lack of appreciation of what each generation faces in terms of timescales and risk. People in their 50s and 60s have a much shorter time frame than those a generation younger, although often thought of as stuck in the slow lane. And as the business grows, so must its managers and owners, which can cause issues when timescales are short. And we have seen father knows best working against business objectives just because father knew best, but has not caught up with how the model of his business has moved.
When your backs are against the wall, family works very well. But looking forward, it can be quite limiting. That’s why most are characterised as low growth businesses. It’s not intended to be pejorative, simply descriptive of the issues that slows decision making and leads to reduced appetite for risk and a worry about growth. And it’s borne out by our research into decision making in smaller firms as well.
Family businesses exhibit many characteristics which larger mature businesses show as well. So perhaps the research on how large business is learning to adapt may help small family businesses too.
Our world is becoming ever more complex and fast moving. Family businesses recognise this but have poor mechanisms to deal with these aspects, other than piecemeal and reactive. Perhaps they could learn from elements of US military thinking, as large business seems to be.
The US military describes the world as VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Sounds familiar? They recognise that they need strategic partnerships; that they need to invest in technology to do some of the work for them; and find other novel ways of adopting a Light Footprint around the world. There has been a significant reduction in traditional command and control to recognise that the manager on the ground doesn’t have the time to report back all the details to a general staff that will not understand the nuances of his situation anyway. It needs a decentralised but far better trained command structure. There is more cooperation, less linear decision making, and it’s a lot faster. It’s turning the science of war into the art of war.
How can family businesses move towards this model? First, ensure roles and responsibilities are clear, and adhered to. Then the problem is the process or role, not the person and that doesn’t spill over outside work. Keep work, work and family – outside. Treat everyone, even if it is your son, like your employee if that’s what he is. Then if it does all go wrong at work, you still have an intact family.
Next, get in outside help, even if part time. Maybe advisory only and at board level. We find it helps our family business clients a great deal, and takes a lot of heat out of board meetings – fewer personalities and less finger pointing.
Third, have board meetings! Document and agree who is doing what by when. More gets done that way, there are fewer short meetings, or (worse) between some members but not all.
Form strategic partnerships – a concept we have been promoting for some years – so that you get the benefits of the extra resource but no cost of acquisition.
Embrace change – it is inevitable, and look for novel ways of achieving your goals. Family businesses score well here because they look out for one another. Letting the younger generation try something new, as long as it’s measured, will bring more life to the business and allow people to express themselves and know they are contributing.
Lastly – training, for everyone. Keep up to date with current thinking and adapt and adopt like the big boys are doing.
We research ways of improving your business, so you don’t have to.