How to Establish Leadership Presence in a Family Business

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In any business, problems can ensue for those who ascend to leadership positions — but the challenges are much more profound for successor children in family businesses. In particular, establishing authority in the form of leadership presence can be a large mountain to climb.

According to Amy Cuddy, author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, people ask themselves two questions when they size up leaders:

  • Can I trust you?
  • Can I respect you?

It’s the latter issue — the ability to gain respect — that is often problematic for new family business leaders. Long-time employees may have difficulty appreciating the value an owner’s adult child brings to the company or even harbor resentment toward someone they’ve seen grow up who suddenly has authority over them, even if that person has appropriate credentials (and especially if he/she doesn’t). What transpires when feelings like those fester is never good for the business; veteran employees may be so respectful that they fail to assert themselves or be so disrespectful that they exhibit unprofessional behavior or fail to work to their capabilities.

Tips to Gain Respect

What can a new leader do to gain respect at a family business? Luckily, there are a number of tried and true ways to work toward that goal:

  • Be the first in and the last out; put your work ethic on overdrive.
  • Demonstrate your knowledge rather than being defensive.
  • Value what others have brought to the business; be humble.
  • Be genuine and personable.
  • Respect the company culture and figure out where you fit in.
  • Establish credibility and gravitas through your actions and the way you communicate.
  • Pay your dues; save enjoying privileges until you’ve proven your worth.

New family business leaders must also establish a physical presence that’s neither condescending nor tentative and fearful. Employees will develop their perceptions based in part on how new leaders carry themselves.

In addition to being aware of the potential pitfalls successors face and taking steps to avoid them, new family business leaders may find their journey to establishing a leadership presence — and thus authority — is aided if they report to someone other than a parent. It should come as no surprise that the dynamics of the parent-child relationship are going to be significantly different than those that occur between non-related leaders and subordinates.

Start Your Career at Another Company

Something else I always recommend is that future successors at family businesses start their careers at other companies. This gives them a chance to enhance their technical qualifications and learn important relationship skills that will serve them well when they eventually join the family business.

In my years of practice, I’ve seen it all when it comes to how successor children approach becoming leaders at their family’s business. Those who are successful abide by the suggestions noted above rather than seeing their leadership roles as a birthright and free pass to enjoy privileges without earning them first.

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