Family Business

Don’t ignore the need for self improvement in a family business

August 4, 2012 

The dynamics of family businesses are complex and have broad reverberations. If you have managed to work your way though this minefield and have succeeded in passing the torch on to the next generation, you can consider yourself a gold-medal winner in the family business competition.

However, the race does not end there.

When I worked for IBM there was an understanding that all employees should make a concerted effort to improve themselves. There were courses available inside and outside the company, an extensive library, and compensation to purchase business books. Self-improvement was so expected that “personal development” was part of everyone’s annual performance review.

Yes, I understand that a multibillion dollar company can afford to allocate such resources to employee improvement. But this is missing the point: personal development is important. And for the family businesses it is easily forgotten, ignored, or put aside.

Family businesses tend to be insular. Most are privately held and thus are not held to the same reporting standards as a publicly traded company. More relevant is that most of the critical data and information is reserved for the inner circle of the owners, founders, and/or family. This attitude of not letting information out of the inner circle creates a similar myopia about letting outside information in. Indeed, this insularity, particularly if the company has been successful in the past, can create a belief and mindset that the business philosophy of the inner circle is superior to anything else out there, and external information and counsel are shunned.

Stay on your toes

Some of this is justifiable, if you truly are the market leader. However, there is a difference between ignoring outside education, advice, and information, and bringing it in, evaluating it, and determining which parts may be useful and which are not.

We met with a family business a few years back to discuss how we might provide help. After a couple of hours it became clear that both the family and the business were highly functioning and succession was proceeding very smoothly with everyone on board. We determined that they really did not need any help, and applauded them for having a discipline to always be on the lookout ways to improve.

Look at Jack Welch, ex-CEO of GE and considered one of the great leaders of a great business. Nevertheless, while at the helm at GE he retained a personal business consultant just to keep him on his toes. If one of the greatest leaders of an iconic company needs help, don’t you? (By the way, Welch is coming to the NC CEO Forum in Raleigh on Oct. 11.)

So you are the new leader of the family business, but the transition has occurred rather early. As such, there may be some experiences and perspectives you need to gain in order to fully equip yourself to be a successful leader in the future. For example:

Questions to ask

Are you truly willing to accept constructive criticism? Are you willing to admit when you are wrong or have made a mistake? Have you dealt with conflict?

Have you been in a situation requiring perseverance? Are you a good listener?

These are experiences and attitudes common to good business leadership. If you are already at this point and consider yourself a fairly well-seasoned leader, do you take seriously the concept of continual personal development? Do you read self-help business and industry books? Take course work specific to your industry? Belong to leadership groups like Vistage or YPO?

Do you spend some time with a business coach? Have a network of mentors? Attend Toastmasters to improve your public speaking? Participate in business groups like the Chamber or Rotary?

If you are a new family business leader, you may believe that you have sufficient experience and education, and the success of the business proves it. Or you may think that you are too small, too busy, or don’t have the resources to spend time improving yourself. You would be wrong on both counts.

Maybe it is just a matter of getting started. If so, here is a suggestion: the author of one of the greatest business self-help books of all time died just a few weeks ago, Steven Covey. Pick up his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” read it, then ask yourself, “If I gained something from this book, maybe there is a lot more out there I should be learning.”

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at

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