Looking for a successor to Mom. The neglected feminine point of view on Family Business

Carlos Arbesu_Family Business

Generally when we talk about family business we adopt –unconsciously- a masculine approach to the issue. According to this “male” approach we think that succession is about finding the successor (to dad, the founder), therefore we focus mainly on the business and the importance of command.

We praise the virtues of the founder, often as a hero, without realizing that his life and achievements wouldn´t be possible without the supporting and inspiring woman behind. Why is it so difficult for us to understand that so often it is the woman who makes this hero possible? Why are we so used to neglecting the fortitude of these women?

I have seen many cases in which widows, treated before as naïve women, while the founder was still alive, showed themselves to be quite strong, courageous and decisive when dealing with the family and the business. Maybe women demonstrate another style and attitude, less dependant on power.

I like to think about three levels or functions of governance for family institutions and bodies. The levels are: (1) values (2) policies and (3) decisions. We can think about them in terms of genre correlation, as follows:

•    Values: more feminine, intangible, implicit.
•    Policies: masculine and feminine (negotiation)
•    Decisions: more masculine, tangible, explicit.

According to this correlation we can understand that business governance bodies such as boards of directors or shareholder´s meetings, put most of their focus on decisions, then on policies and last of all on values. It is a masculine approach to governance. On the other hand, family governance bodies such as family councils or family associations or assemblies, start from values, then develop policies and finally are involved in decision-making.

This is the reason why Craig Aronoff (From Siblings to Cousins) says: “in many ways, a family organization fulfills the role that “mom” probably filled in the first generation of the family business, making sure the family´s needs were met and that the business and the family supported each other”.

J. Ward has the same insight pointing at “finding a succesor to mom” as one of the most important issues to adequately manage the sibling partnership stage, undoubtedly the most critical family business stage to perpetuate the institution (Perpetuating the family business. 50 lessons learned from long-lasting succesful families in business).

The functions of the mom are those of the family leaders:

•    Keeping the channels of communication open
•    Nurturing people
•    Making sure everyone in the family is treated fairly
•    Seeing to it that traditions and ceremonies are attended to
•    Reinforcing values
•    Acculturating new in-laws to the family and the business
•    Making certain that younger family members are educated about the business
•    Providing moral cohesion
•    Serving as a mediator

Family members at the first stage are not conscious of the importance of this role of the mother. They hardly pay attention to it. But all the while, the mother has been providing great but subtle family leadership that may be virtually invisible to family members dazzled by the business leader. As Ward says, “family leadership is there, but is unseen or taken for granted”.

Successful families teach us to pay attention to this “mother leadership” and its succesion also. We have to understand that family leadership, as often developed by mothers, has to be continued through family governance bodies. And to achieve this goal, all family members have to pay attention to those motherly traits that made the family business possible.

As always, I would be really thankful if you let me know your opinions, critiques and suggestions about this post. Ideas must be shared, discussed and improved. Also, I would be thankful if you cooperate on the diffusion of this post in the networks (Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook…) to allow more people to get access to it and discuss it.

Thank you very much and have a happy day!

5 thoughts on “Looking for a successor to Mom. The neglected feminine point of view on Family Business

  1. I completely agree with your article, however lets ensure we aren’t boxing “mum” into her importance within the family office and governance but also the business generally. Women are often the force behind the business as well as the family. Matriarchs also very often have bought the equivalent to the table as the Patriarch but we get focused on patrilineal contributions and forget the strength that comes through the matrilineal cast from a business and wealth aspect.

  2. An intriguing perspective. I suspect that the issues of a woman’s role and contribution in a family business is reflective of the challenges within society in general. Within the family business context, the challenge is more focused due to the visibility within a small group and the limited time in which to address issues when the role becomes critical to success. Looking forward to following the comments on this topic.

    • Yes Kieran, so intriguing indeed ¡ I totally agree with you that it reflects the challenges within society in general. Family Businesses need to successfully mix this masculine-feminine aspect of group management that I think derives from marriage love and so extends to family and society.

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