Ideally, choosing a leader for a family business should be a gender-neutral decision, but that is often not the case. However, changing demographics and an increased willingness to break the traditional male-dominated mould are providing increased leadership opportunities for women in family businesses. Currently, 18 percent of family business leaders globally are female, with the highest percentage belonging to family businesses in Europe and Central Asia. And this number is only set to increase.

Sara Stern; image courtesy of guest

On this episode of Women in Family Business, Sara Stern discusses whether leadership requirements in family businesses should be different for women than men, drawing on her experience to evaluate the ways in which gender tends to affect the overall approach to business leadership. She outlines some of the common challenges faced by female leaders across various industries and gives advice to those who are currently taking on and adapting to these roles.


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Key Takeaways:

  • Women should not see power as being problematic – sit in the boss’s chair both metaphorically and literally, take control, and encourage collaboration from there. Don’t lose your voice by sitting on the sideline and trying to appease others; rather, lead with confidence.
  • Being busy is not an indicator of importance or success. Women tend to feel as though they have to do everything – and this expectation is also often impressed upon them by their male colleagues. However, they can’t – and shouldn’t – have to ‘do it all’, so they must feel confident in their leadership position to delegate as appropriate.
  • Often, women are expected to be successful leaders in the exact same frameworks that were built around men being successful. It’s up to female leaders to break habits and open a discussion around organisational culture and what leadership should look like.
  • Understanding finance – traditionally a male-dominated area – is key for females in leadership roles. Having this skillset enables a complete understanding of the family business’ operations, thereby enabling effective decision-making and governance.



Ramia: Welcome everyone to another episode of the conversation on women and family business. I am joined here today by Sara Stern. Sara, welcome to the show, we are so happy to have you. And I think like, I always love asking people this question first. I think it’s a really interesting question. It’s like, what has made you passionate about the topic of family businesses? Please tell us more about how you got here.

Sara: I was raised in a family that ran a business. My dad and my uncle ran the business and my mom and my aunt took turns helping out in the business and raising the kids. Um, I was the oldest kid and, um, had I followed along in the, you know, typical family business direction I’d be a mechanic right now, running a gas station and I’d probably be really bad at it. Um, but, uh, at the time growing up, I grew up in a small town in central Wisconsin and the US. And, uh, I felt like if your parents weren’t doctors or teachers, they were either running a family business or working for one.

We didn’t have a lot of chain restaurants and stores and whatnot. So that was just the name of the game, uh, in our, in my hometown. And, um, the other thing is I was raised by parents who were very liberal, very, very progressive parents. And as I grew up and studied and started doing work, I realized. That the people who make the biggest difference in the world are family business owners.

Research says they give more generously to their local communities. They’re loyal employers. They stay focused on long-term goals and their business and their communities. And so, uh, that’s really where my passion comes. It’s, it’s the world I grew up in and the way I think I can make a big difference.

Ramia: It’s sort of you belong and where you naturally landed in terms of your values and your outlook. You know, Sara, we were very excited to get you on because we’re going to be talking about a topic that to me is very important. We’re going to talk today about a successful female leaders in family enterprises.

What does successful, what does impactful, what does happy female leadership look like actually in the family business? And I put that happy card in because I know you find that important too, because actually I think we don’t talk enough about this. Like what does it mean to be fulfilled in that role? We talk a lot about the sacrifices, about the competencies that we need, but we don’t talk enough about what it looks like when that’s actually a happy picture for women. If you were put on the spot right now, and if I were to ask you just simply, do you feel like in the majority of the cases of these family businesses, that leadership was a gender neutral decision?

Sara: Oh gosh. I guess I can’t believe it’s gender neutral, just because I don’t know that humans are capable of not noticing, you know, gender and having assumptions, whether they, um, are aware of it or not. That being said, in my role, running the family business center at the university of St. Thomas and then the networking directly with family businesses, I started thinking about it. And there are so many female leaders of family businesses that I work with that even though I think gender becomes part of people’s inevitable way of thinking about it, I just created a list of 20 family businesses where it was a dad and the generation before, and then there’s a female running it now.

Um, and that was just off the top of my head. So even though I think it’s a part of it, incredibly there’s more and more and more, really talented, uh, skilled women running family businesses. And, you know, I don’t know what you want to say, open-minded owning generations, letting them be in those seats.

Ramia: But see, there, there comes the first question that I have for you, Sara, what does open-mindedness even have to do with it when that woman is just the most competent person in the room, right? The right person in charge is the right person in charge.

But let’s, let’s be honest about the stigma though. Like, you know, there is definitely still nowadays, even faced with a millennial workforce, a reticence when it comes to having two candidates, male and female, and choosing the female family business member as a leader or for a leadership position over a man, for instance, what do you think are the sort of like deeply rooted worries that come with, you know, from the incumbent generation, that come with appointing women to leadership positions, what do you think, do these, like what kind of insecurities does this trigger?

Sara: Yeah. I just have to say I’m, I’m reflecting already on a language that I used in my response to the last question I said the owning generation let them be leaders. My goodness. I mean, even I just said that, right. I said, they let them, goodness.

Ramia: I catch myself doing it too.

Like, you know, you’re forgiven. Like we all do it and that’s the problem, but good call out.

Sara: Yeah. So, I mean, I think there’s a couple things, I think a lot of us, we walk around with this idea of the oldest son taking over the business. Right? So that’s just one, there’s just this idea. I was saying, I spent the last two days with a mom and her daughter who are running a business in construction.

And I think there’s certainly industries, and it’s certainly not only construction, but lots and lots of industries where they just assume a man has to run it. You know, uh, we were talking yesterday about hiring new salespeople in this business and people just kept saying salesman. Right. I mean, it was just the language that was used and of course I get it and in construction that’s typically the case.

So I think there’s just these preconceived notions. I’ve also run into several times in my work one-on-one um, well, I shouldn’t say one-on-one working with the leadership teams of family businesses… Is their EOS implementer multiple times I’ve heard a dad say to a daughter ‘I’m worried about when you have kids or I’m worried about because you have kids.’

Ramia: There it is right. There it is.

Sara: And it’s dad taking care of daughter, not boss taking care of employee. And I have to say, my heart goes out to anybody, any dad who’s saying that. He is worried. He knows how much time he put in. He knows his wife was putting in work at home raising the kids.

Ramia: But then listen, like, this is exactly it though. Right? Like Sara, here we come with the double standard. Right. Like, I mean, let’s, let’s face this for a second. Like, so we hear all the time, like, you know, it’s not the same, men and women are different. Yeah, of course we never debated that. But then like, you know, what’s really weird to me is that we expect women to be successful leaders in the exact same frameworks that were built around men being successful.

And that’s the kind of like, that’s the hypocrisy that always hits me really hard. And by the way, that’s not against men or something like that. It’s just the whole corporate systems. All enterprising systems have been built around the assumption that it’s a primarily male, uh, dominated, like, you know, workforce. And it just feels like it’s the structures that are creating this and this is also my next question to you, right?

Like when we, when we talked about the questions for this, for this, around this topic, should leadership requirements for women be different or should leadership look different for women than for men? Or like, should we generally, for both genders basically have a discussion about, you know, what leadership should look like, you know, and how should it be different, do you think?

Sara: I definitely don’t think the expectations for men and women should be different. What I definitely do see though, is often the founder, the startup person, my goodness, you know, so many people around startups, they do have to give 12, 14 hours a day over and over. Once a business has matured, it’s 20, 30, 40 years. It doesn’t need that anymore. It needs a different, it probably needs the same level of intensity, but it needs to look different. It must look different, right? And so I think a lot of men and women run into this idea that even when it’s a mature business, you have to, you know, wash the windows and cook the hamburgers and do finance and do everything.

And if you’re doing that, that’s a huge error. So in a lot of ways, I think when women come into those roles and whether or not they have kids at home, they have a different way often of thinking about leadership. And that I think is actually more valuable for a business that’s further along in its business cycle and business maturity, instead of another, you know, a different idea of command and control, which is not always, but often the way a man might run a business.

And that can be more valuable sometimes in the startup phase, but as it matures it needs a different kind of leader.

Ramia: I love what you said, women are good at that, but then again, like it’s also not every woman is good at that, right? Like there’s always this whole discussion of like, again, we’re talking the most competent person in the room, like, is exactly the sense of like, you know, what does actually competency look like once you’ve achieved that leadership position as a woman in the family enterprise?

So, what is like the typical, you feel like sort of typical challenges that women face once they are giving this opportunity and like, so what are sort of the typical pitfalls that you see them fall into? Even once they’ve achieved that position? Like, you know, that they wanted as leaders in the family enterprise.

Sara: You know, some, one of the things I see and it’s kind of small, but it’s not, is women, they try to be everything to everybody to kind of prove themselves. So they sit in a meeting, they try to run the meeting. They take all the notes from the meeting. They take all the to-dos from the meeting. They don’t join an association so that they can network. They’re the only woman in the room.

They take all the notes, they run all the things, they organize the next meeting, they try to do all the things, and they step into gender stereotypical roles of taking acts and getting the coffee. And then they either burn themselves out or they don’t have energy to sit down and pay attention in the room, make those incredible statements that are needed to move an organization along.

I think that’s the number one thing. And of course we do it. I’ll do it too. I’ll notice like I’m the only woman in the room. Somebody needs to take notes. Everybody looks at me and it’s really hard to not say I’ll take the notes. I’ll do it.

Ramia: What do you think is the underlying psychology of this? Is it us overcompensating and almost feeling still apologetic for being in the room?

Is it because we still don’t really believe that we deserve to be there? Or what do you bring that down to? Ultimately what explains that reflex?

Sara: My goodness. If I have the answer to that, it’s a tough one, but you know what? I, I feel like. I mean, I watch this happen with so many family businesses and I think it, sure, maybe it isn’t not feeling worthy.

I just think it’s habits, habits, habits, habits, all the men look to the woman. They don’t realize, these are kind nice, progressive people who love and support this woman. They have no idea they just looked at her when it came time to take notes. They don’t realize it.

Ramia: But I mean, Sara though, like how are we not holding people accountable? Shouldn’t we be holding people to higher standards? And by the way, not just men, other women to other women for me is always like one of the biggest challenges. But look, ultimately, it’s the accountability of your organizational culture, don’t you think? Like, I mean, what should family businesses do so that, that look doesn’t happen in the boardroom? What should they invest in, in terms of like cultural, what tools do they have at their disposal to enable diverse leadership?

Sara: I am a big believer in, well, it’s easier to change your actions than it is to change your mind. I’m a huge believer in that the thing people hire me to help them with and their family business, and this is not meant to be an advertisement, it’s just I believe so so much in this, I think they need to create a system that separates them in their decision-making from, from gender, from assumptions, et cetera. I happen to help people implement the entrepreneurial operating system and, and the assumptions in that are you have to figure out what the seats are that you need in your business.

And then you have to figure out who the right person is, and it might be a family member and it might not. And it might be a man and it might be a woman and it might be a hyper educated person and it might not. Right? So taking it out of this kind of personal habitual stuff we do as humans and put it into what is logical, what is right if we’re fighting for the good of the business, and then get really clear about who’s accountable for what, and good grief, you know, I mean, I literally have in meetings, who’s accountable to take notes, and I say it can’t be the top leader and it can’t be the second. Those brains need to be able to sit in this room and take in what’s going on.

And I don’t care if those two top people are women or men, I don’t care. They shouldn’t be taking notes. You need those voices and those brains paying attention in the room.

Ramia: Let’s also talk about the traps we set ourselves as women. I feel like, you know, when we come into these positions and also in how we support or do not support other women in those positions. Like what are the typical sort of like psychological hurdles that you see them face and, and why, and why do they come up at that particular point in time do you think?

Sara: I think one of the trickiest things for women in family businesses is in a lot of situations as a child, they might’ve played in the now CFO’s office when they were five.

Right? So not only does our culture kind of sometimes infantilize or see women as younger or your childlike, but these people literally knew them when they were children. Right. So that I think can get in the way of I’m an adult, I get to stand here as an adult. I think a lot of women bump up against two things that if they could stop bumping up against them, or if they could turn it around, it would make a difference.

And one of them is they want to be a little more collaborative. So let’s go back to the boardroom. They might be the boss, but they don’t want to sit at the power seat at the table. They want to sit and be collaborative and not be the boss. And I think that can get in the way of them actually getting to create a collaborative experience.

But I am riffing off of what you said earlier. The corporate culture, to me, it always starts from the top. It just, there’s no way it doesn’t, it’s always starts from the top. The leaders create it, they can change it. And when a woman gets into that position, she can change it. But she must, in my opinion, sit in that power seat at the table. From there, if she wants it to be more collaborative, she can ask for the voices in the room. She can ask people to speak up, but if she refuses to sit there, she loses her opportunity to change the power in the room or change the dynamic.

Ramia: You have to take the seat and then you can reopen the conversation basically, that is that sort of like it’s, it’s the sequence of the, of the action.

Sara: That’s my belief, is sit in the power seat. And from there be collaborative, don’t sit off in the side and then try to think you’re going to create collaborations. What you do when you sit on the side is give away all your power.

Ramia: I just love that you just said that though. Like, let’s think about the concept of power here in relation to the female gender for a second. Okay. Historically, Sara, it is true. You do have to be the kind of person who has to want to deal with that because you’re going to have to deal with that. Right? Like, so if we look at what it takes okay to be that kind of person, so to take the power seat and then reopen the conversation, basically. What are we talking in terms of skills?

Like, you know, what kind of skills do I have to develop as a female leader today to put me in a position where I can lead from wherever I want to lead from, I can do what I’d like, what I think is best for the organization, but I can maybe mitigate some of that typical backlash, like, you know what I mean?

And really enjoy, you know, there comes that happiness component comes in like, you know, and be happy and not tiptoe around stuff all the time and just really be happy in my position. What do you think skillset wise? What’s your advice?

Sara: So one of them is really get in touch with the fact that you’re a leader now, and you’re not a doer. Quit trying to do. Leading is not doing. Understand finance, you’ve got to know the numbers. That is probably the number one skill I think makes a huge difference. Busy does not equal important, busy equals busy, important equals being in the right room. Metaphorically and literally. Sitting in the right seat metaphorically and literally. Wuit worrying about how busy you are.

That is not a sign of importance. I think great leadership often looks like sitting quietly, and get really in touch with what’s your vision for yourself, for your family, for your business. And when you get that clarity, and sure people are going to say bossy or the other B word, or they’ll say all the things they want to say about you, but when you’re confident and clear about that vision, it rolls off.

It doesn’t stick as hard anyway. I mean, e it doesn’t always roll off. Right? Let’s be real. But women leaders really need to get in touch with, they can’t do it all. Sorry, women, we can’t do it all and we shouldn’t do it all. And that’s at work and at home.

And if, if your, your partner’s not into it, hire someone, you don’t have to do it all. You just don’t. I spent a couple of years observing powerful men and there’s one thing I noticed about them. They never carry anything in their hands. Ever. And watch, you will see it. They don’t carry things in their hands. And then I see women walking around with three bags and three binders, and somebody else does coffee and 14 pens and six things in their pockets.

Put your stuff down, literally put it down and figuratively, put it down. It’s easier to change your actions than your mindset. Quit carrying stuff around. You must sit and stand in that leadership seat.

Ramia: Very powerful stuff. I mean, Sara, I think like my last question though, like refers to also a little bit exactly this sort of like world that we live in, though, that even, I would say makes this conversation possible. Why do you distinguish between men and women in the family business? Like, why are you making, why do you call it women in family business and stuff like that? I’m like, well, again, for everybody out there listening, we’re doing this until it’s not necessary anymore.

We would love nothing more than just to talk about humans and family business. And when we’re there, we promise we’re either going to rebrand or we’re going to stop. Okay? But until the playing field is more even we’re going to have to have this conversation and it goes against no one. And it goes in favor of everybody, we hope.

Last question for you, Sara. I read a lot about how the pandemic has actually been bad for women in the workplace, like has been a big disadvantage. They’ve been asked to do everything at work and at home because of the remote work situation. At the same time, we are living in a technological age that kind of like has levelled the playing field in so many ways.

In this 21st century, like, you know, what do you think are the mega trends in our favor that you’re like, okay, as a woman ride that wave, make yourself smart here, because this plays out in our favor when we want to achieve our goals?

Sara: I think the door is open for business to look very different. And I think it is harder for the people who have had the power up until now to see those opportunities and to see what could be different. And our opinions and our voices about how it should be different, how it should have been different forever have been ignored. And now the people with power are looking around going, what do we do? What do we do? And I think they’re going to be more open to the answers.

Ramia: Brilliant. Sara, thank you so much for joining us on the conversation in women in family business. We hope to have you back. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and your wisdom.

Sara: Thanks for that. Having me, it’s a really huge honor, and I hope it’s helpful for your listeners.