Every family business has a foundation of love and values passed on from generation to generation. However, love alone cannot resolve the issues that will inevitably arise from time to time. Family businesses also need to establish governance frameworks and a shared vision. Women can use their empathy and deep understanding of emotions to keep balance in the family during difficult transitions.

In this episode of our WiFB Conversations, Susanne Bransgrove and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss how bringing up the subject of love in a family business context can help resolve conflict and dysfunction.

This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Susanne Bransgrove, director of LiquidGold Consultants.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

What makes you so passionate about family businesses?

I come from a 375 years old family business and am a member of the third generation. My grandfather bought the business after the Second World War from the last remaining owner of the original family, so I grew up in a family business setting. Even though I probably didn’t understand too much about what the concept of family business meant back then, I have fond memories of being in the office with my parents and helping my father. One Easter, I had to wear a beautiful dress with an Easter bunny on the front and help my dad to hand out marzipan Easter eggs to the clients. I vividly remember being very embarrassed about handing them over while I wanted to keep them for myself. That is where my passion for family business comes from.

Why did you decide not to work in the family business?

It wasn’t a deliberate decision. I met an Australian in my early twenties. I come from Germany originally, and he said the weather was much better in Australia; I ended up a long way away from the family business and without a chance to have a good think and make a decision based on whether I wanted to be in the family business. That decision I made was clearly for love. 

How did you start creating conversations around the topic of love within the family business and in a professional environment?

Families are always looking for solutions to help hand over the business to the next generation, making sure that siblings and cousins can work together effectively. However, there are often a lot of interpersonal issues in every family. When these families come to me for help, I start by talking them through what it means to be a family in business. This initial conversation helps them get a different appreciation for the problems they are trying to tackle.

Once I gain a better understanding of who I’m working with, I help the family members to understand more about each other and themselves. When we start delving into the family’s values and discover their stories, history and legacy and what’s been passed on from the grandparents and the parents, the family members start to realise how valuable emotions are. They acknowledge that family bonds and emotions are a foundation that they can use to create a more structured approach to rules and workflow.

Is there a correlation between the ease of bringing up this subject in a family business context and the number of women participating in the conversation? 

Women have an amazing influence on family dynamics and how much value the business places on emotions. I like to say that every family business needs to have a woman in each generation to be the champion for change and to allow the conversations around love to flow. Everybody brings different strengths and attributes to a family business, and I think this emphasis on emotions is simply part of what makes us women and how we add the most value.

Based on my experience, if there are women who are happy to take a leading role in the family transition framework, the whole process will be smoother. The whole journey for the family members will be a little bit easier because women will guide those who are struggling with that kind of topic and will keep everything flowing.

Have you also observed a negative impact of love and relationships in the family business?

Without any other frameworks that can hold the contentious issues, love alone will find it very difficult to overcome the various problems that can arise from time to time. A family’s journey into family and business governance is lifelong. Love needs to be a foundation piece, but it can’t survive on its own.

As much as every business has values, a vision and a mission, the families also need to have shared values, a vision and a purpose. Each individual within the family also needs to be allowed room for self-awareness and self-expression within those family values. Hence, the family business needs to have rules and governance frameworks in place in order to allow each member to understand where they can make decisions and what it means to make decisions for themselves. 

Once the rules and governance are in place, the family needs to analyse the love framework again and have a mechanism in place to capture those members who might be falling out of the system. If a family member is hurting within the business, they probably shouldn’t be part of it. When you’ve created all the necessary frameworks to make sure that no one  putting the family or the business at risk, love can finally sit on the family side and be unconditional.

Have you ever faced a situation where the only way for the family to rediscover its love for each other was to stop being in the business together? 

Absolutely. I have worked with many family businesses where it was obvious that there was dysfunction and conflict, and the family members just couldn’t get along with each other. People don’t misbehave just because they want to; they generally do it because they are deeply hurt. In those cases, there’s a lot of pain going on, and pain tends to show itself in anger because anger is a much easier way to deal with what you’re going through.

When a family member joins the business because they feel obligated or they want to make their parents happy, they are doing it for all the wrong reasons. They’ve never asked themselves why they’ve chosen to join the company. They end up being resentful and full of hurt, and conflict arises. In these cases, the family has a choice to make: they can either keep going down the same track, where people keep relating to each other in the same way and we already know which direction the business is heading towards, or they can look at drawing a line in the sand and creating some positive change. Positive change requires understanding the family dynamics and giving people the opportunity to talk about all the things that hurt, so that they can work through what’s best for them. If the family can respect the person’s feelings and believes that each family member will always be part of the family, you don’t have to be part of the business to be part of the family.

Family is family; business is business. 

When I encounter this kind of scenario, I take the family through a shift in the conversation and encourage them to give each member room to grow as individuals. At that point, the family members start to see each other for the human beings and individuals they’ve grown into rather than just as the people they had a feud with or the person who hurt them over the years.

Should women in leadership positions compromise themselves by being the one bringing this up or should they delegate it to someone else? 

I have had a corporate career before focusing solely on family businesses about 10 years ago and, funnily enough, I never fitted it in. I was successful and certainly displaying all the “male” characteristics that you would expect a strong woman in that kind of framework to play, such as being assertive, being strong and working hard to get to your position. However, what I’ve learned over the last few years is that I’m at my very best when I’m authentic and vulnerable – and I don’t mean vulnerable as weak. 

I engage my heart first now. I listen to what it feels like and then use my intellect to create a conversation around that. I think people get a better understanding of where my opinion and perspective come from now. Over time, I discovered that this is a power I’ve never had before when I was just working with my head. It is one of the most powerful and defining features or strength that women have, and it is something that we should never hide.

These days, women need to be incredibly brave and braver than they’ve ever been before to be authentic and show their real self. It might not be easy for a woman to show who she really is in business, but it is going to add the most value she has ever added because that is the power women bring. Anything else doesn’t add diversity and actually hides your best assets.

About Susanne Bransgrove and LiquidGold Consultants: 

Susanne Brainsgrove

Susanne Bransgrove, one of the directors of LiquidGold Consultants, is known for her passion for supporting Families in Business manage the complexities of balancing multiple generations and for encouraging female founders and future leaders to be the best they can be. Growing up in Germany as part of a third-generation family business has provided her with a sound foundation for understanding the range of issues that arise when family members work together. Susanne puts her heart into the businesses and individuals she spends time with and believes in a strong foundation of love and compassion.