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Where are all the family business heroines?

Many guys either don’t understand what it takes to hold a family together across generations, or lack the skills, courage or motivation to do anything about it. Often it’s the women (old and young) who step up to become the family’s champions. Perhaps that’s one of the many reasons the Rinehart family saga seems so incongruous and so tragic?

Almost 2.5 million years ago our earliest ancestors, homo habilis (“handy man”), evolved ahead of other primates when they developed larger brains, began spending more time on the ground than in trees, started using tools, and developed relatively advanced communication and reasoning skills.

For the next 2.0 million years evolution worked on our species, putting most of its effort into increasing our brain size. Around 200,000 years ago, homo sapiens (the big brained “wise” or “knowing man”) emerged in Africa as the blueprint for today’s human race.

Homo sapiens was restless. Small family groups migrated around the world, operating as subsistence hunter gatherers. When the Neolithic (agricultural) era commenced around 10,000 years ago, some of these groups stopped moving and formed small farming communities. For the next 10,000 years, to modern times, farms grew into villages, villages into towns and towns into cities. Civilisation, as we know it, had arrived.

10,000 years is just 0.5% of 2.5 million years. If that’s how long we’ve been living in civilized communities, the remaining 99.5% of our evolutionary and social development has been uncivilized and animalistic. For some people we know, this could explain a lot!

Despite some historical anomalies, it was not until the social revolutions of the last century that, in most cultures, women finally won (if sometimes only notionally), most of the rights and recognitions previously claimed by men.

As an inevitable consequence of this shared environmental, evolutionary, genetic and historical conditioning, many societies developed deeply embedded, stereotyped views of gender functions: (a) females are expected to produce and protect offspring to propagate the species; (b) males are expected to hunt, gather and defend clan and territory.
In modern urbanised society everyday survival is more about money and status than a daily battle to eat, and avoid being eaten. Within this framework we’ve ritualised many of our “animal” behaviours, from large social groupings to small family units. This has special significance for families in business, where over 93% are run by males who expect their mates to nurture, protect, educate and develop the next generation of gene carriers – even when they have full time careers of their own.

Families in Business
Family businesses generate over 50% of GDP and employ over half the workforce in most developed countries. They are the original, longest-lived, and most common form of business structure. Many entrepreneurs and families aspire to be multi-generational, or at least try to develop and protect a legacy to benefit future generations.
Sadly, only a tiny proportion of family businesses, or family units, survive into and beyond their third generations. Why? Observations and anecdotal evidence suggest that a major cause could be the reluctance of many women to be heroines in their own homes. They won’t, or can’t summon the courage, skills and determination required to drive their families to do whatever it takes to keep functioning as loyal, integrated, mutually supportive and successful units, over multiple generations.
Parenting issues
Male leaders, especially rampant entrepreneurs, tend to be highly competitive warriors with a mono-focus on their business affairs, and other conquests. Although they’re often generous parents, many are not effective parents, because they fail to adequately educate and prepare their progeny for independent adult life and future success …. Sadly, many of the more advanced (wild) animals do a better job.

Sometimes this is caused by old bull / young bull competition (particularly between fathers and sons); sometimes it’s a result of delegating too much parenting to social institutions such as schools, rather than passing on life skills within the family unit; and sometimes it’s a pure lack of interest, or ability. After all, you don’t have to qualify to become a parent…… Ironically, studies show that most successful entrepreneurs grew up in family business environments where they absorbed lessons about commerce and life from their own parents, while sitting at the dinner table. Unfortunately, once they grow up they become so busy with their own stuff they fail to pass these lessons on to their own children.

In major family dynasties, multi-generational success is usually the result of distant forebears having institutionalised the family’s rules of engagement. With “ordinary” families, we usually find females driving the dynamics: championing individual causes; insisting on appropriate education and skills development; and helping everybody to get real and serious when it’s time to hand over the reins of power. When things are left to the males we often see a paralysis born of the fear that the can of (emotional) worms they perceive may become a bucket of (emotional) snakes – ones they can’t manage or control.

Succession – passing on a business and building a family legacy
They first baby boomers turned 65 in 2011 and, global financial crisis notwithstanding, there’s an enormous wave of retirements taking place around the world. The transitioning of family leadership, management and ownership is the largest we’ve ever seen. A minority of male leaders will pass “the last test of greatness” by recognising when they need to stop being “doers” and start being teachers and mentors for their next generations. Unfortunately, the fear of losing control and personal status will affect many more, and they’ll hang on until it’s too late to make a good transition.

In most of these cases, feeling powerless to intervene, the womenfolk will stand by and watch as their families slide into disappointment, dysfunction and conflict. So, the question we should be asking is: why don’t more of them step up to the challenge of saving their families, repairing family relationships, and building a long-term family legacy?

It doesn’t have to be hard. It can be as simple as creating a safe environment and opportunity to start a constructive conversation about what the family can do, as a family, to build its material success into a long lasting legacy that everyone can be proud of. Expert facilitators, and other advisers, can help to guide these conversations.

A family’s legacy is not just about money; it includes other forms of capital: human, social and intellectual. Money alone does not hold families together for long. To survive over the long term families need to declare and share their pride and passion for the family’s reputation, visions and values, knowledge, wisdom, skills, capabilities, deeds, contacts and resources. The families that get this right are often major contributors to their communities – which brings us neatly back to the nurturing role that women are so much better at performing. It takes courage, determination and tangible action to make great families – the fundamental building blocks of great communities and greater societies.

So, where are our heroines?

Author’s note: if you know of a family business that’s in strife because it can’t get its act together, and think this article may help to nudge them along, please pass it on. I’m always willing to talk to distressed families who need to get their brains into gear to avoid frying them.

Jon Kenfield (mobile: 0414 816 789)


Written by Family Business Institute

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