Women in the family enterprise

Family businesses are often more socially conscious than their non-family business counterparts. They are more likely to hire people and less likely to lay them off, more likely to support their communities, and far more likely to be concerned with the long-term health of their communities. And they are not as concerned with quarterly cash flow and profits, likely because they operate with far less debt. This is truly a family-motivated attitude — what kind of leaders put their families at risk?

And that attitude, encompassing social and human awareness, may be one of the reasons why new research has shown that the world’s largest family business are far ahead of their non-family business peers in valuing gender diversity at all levels of the enterprise — from ownership, the boardroom and C-suite to every tier of the business.

So what do family businesses do differently? Their owners set the tone and lead from the top. Families include both men and women, and the oldest, most successful family businesses often have gender-balanced owners who likely feel that the board should reflect that balance. I believe that this greatly influences the number of women who are prepared for and make it to the C-suite. When you start at the top, it shows the whole company what is important.

Having women at the top also encourages women family members to take a greater interest in and support the business. This is critical — far too I have seen women owners without a formal business role become disgruntled shareholders who believe their families lack cohesion. They feel they have been treated unfairly, and they would rather sell the company than continue a legacy they consider severely compromised.

But when women are included, they in turn support inclusiveness in the business. They help to maintain a close and cohesive family that finds value in being together beyond financial wealth. This cohesion shows all stakeholders that they are cared about, building motivation at all levels and creating passion that translates into performance, both financial and non-financial. Eventually, this cycle of care–passion–success becomes self-reinforcing, as success allows for even greater caring. Consider this famous non-family example: Starbucks Corporation’s recent announcement that all employees are eligible for tuition reimbursement so they can complete a college degree program. I know many family businesses that have taken a similar path, providing health care coverage, education and other benefits long before doing so became a competitive imperative.

With these positive outcomes, it seems obvious that non-family businesses should emulate the gender-progressive example of family businesses, but I am not optimistic that they will. While the typical family business practices stewardship — leaving what you care for better off than when you started caring for it — non-family business leaders tend to pursue success in a zero-sum gain that is not as conducive to developing the trust, loyalty and cohesion that characterize many family-run enterprises.

Certainly, working together for a common purpose is more likely to lead to prosperity than people worrying about who has more and who deserves more. Certainly, the idea that we need to support and protect what we have, not so we can personally benefit or establish our position in some pecking order, but so that future generations will have a better chance to be fulfilled, productive and cohesive, will lead to a healthier family and, perhaps, a healthier society as well.

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