Putting Coaching to Work in the Family Business
By Kent Rhodes, Ed.D.
In A December 2001 articles entitled “Executive Coaching Helps Companies Achieve Goals,” the Wall Street Journal declared, “Perhaps the most important and direct benefit of good executive coaching is the new development of high-impact future leaders.”
Since then, the coaching industry has grown, and executive coaching has gained wider acceptance as a valuable tool in developing leaders, increasing quality management performance and linking that performance to specific success metrics. While finding effective coaches can be challenging, an experienced coach can help individuals bolster their strengths, address their weaknesses, set goals for themselves and create benchmarks to access their performance.
Executive coaching is generally viewed as a positive approach to long-term and sustained leadership development within companies and a valuable complement to classroom education, corporate mentoring, internship programs or in-house training session. Its impact is often particularly strong in family-owned business.
Two of the most helpful approaches used by high-level executive coaches are developmental coaching and performance coaching. Developmental coaches help clients to increase their leadership effectiveness by improving their interpersonal and persuasive skills, use of “big picture” thinking and overall communication proficiency. Performance coaches help clients apply skills to meet specific performance criteria in leader behaviors, strategic planning and implementation, and overall company success.
In family businesses, a successful approach for family members combines developmental and performance coaching and emphasizes the family values. This approach tackles the need to build leadership in future generations by helping individuals develop their own unique abilities and skills in the context of the family business. It also incorporates strategic planning around succession and the business, building in specific areas of accountability, expectations and metrics that will guide future leaders in ways that are specific to the family’s objectives, mission, vision and relationship to the broader community.
Perhaps most significantly, family business coaching can help address challenges that show up at the intersection of family and business and yet cannot otherwise be easily managed through traditional education, advisers’ input, direct family feedback or executive mandate. More specifically, family businesses use coaching to:
Identify opportunities for next-generation leaders to develop and use their leadership and management skills within the context of their unique family and business.
Help the current leaders manage a smooth transition to the next generation and truly let go of running the business.
Help family members in management positions keep up with rapid growth and development in the business as these changes occur.
Supplement individual professional development planning specific to identified needs, goals and future vision for both the business and the family.
Aid in thinking through career development and transition strategies.
Assist sibling and leadership teams in creating effective alignment and decision-making pathways.
Here are some cases studies that demonstrate ways that coaching can help family business members:
Improving communication and leader behaviors
Susan was the natural choice to take over her family’s successful medical supply company. She was very smart (she graduated from an Ivy League school) and deeply interested in continuing the family legacy. Her father touted her commitment to excellence in everything she did, with special strengths in attending to critical details in ways that increased productivity and steered clear of potentially costly mistakes before they could occur. But other family members and non-family employees found Susan’s approach clinical and uncaring. Eventually it became clear that Susan was unintentionally creating an atmosphere of distrust and dwindling communication in the organization. She retained a coach to help access her leadership and management skills. The coach worked with her to indentify and practice more overtly positive ways to interact with employees, communicate more clearly and strengthen trust throughout the organization.
Learning how to lead
Ray was the oldest grandchild of the founder of an oil and natural gas drilling company. He had grown up experiencing the boom-and-bust nature of the business and had incorporated all the “green” courses he could into his recently completed MBA. He was excited about strengthening the family the family firm’s reputation as a leader in protecting the environment. After he had completed three successful years working as a manager in an unrelated industry, the family asked him to come home to work with his dad for a year. As his father transitions into retirement, a coach is helping Ray navigate how to lead the family business and work alongside other family owners and employees while providing real-time feedback.
Working as a team
Three of the four Sturdivant siblings and two of their five cousins represent the best of the family’s business wisdom and experience acquired over more than three generations of running a successful arboretum and tree trimming company. Their parents’ well-thought-out succession plan had been implemented six years before, naming the three-sibling team as co-leaders of the business with equal say and influence. As children the cousins had always traveled and played well together. This entire sibling/cousin team is working with a coach to help them communicate more clearly with each other, move through questions of perceived inequalities and develop decision-making policies and practices that promote alignment even when there is disagreement.
Continuing professional and personal development
As a fourth-generation owner of his family’s international piping and manufacturing firm, Sean had gone to the right schools, traveled extensively all over the world and had already become well-known for his philanthropic efforts in the local community. Though not interested in moving into a senior management position with the company, Sean wanted help in developing professionally, particularly in the context of a family business. In addition to attending week-long family business education sessions at a variety of universities, he retained a coach to help him create and implement a long-term plan for his (and his extended family’s) deeper involvement and education in the family business in order to keep the family involved in the business and improve the quality and quantity of their interactions.
With little formal education beyond high school, Jason had worked hard alongside his dad in the family’s large beverage and food distribution company. The oldest of five children, he was the most obvious successor when his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Under Jason’s vision and guidance, the company grew and became even more profitable. The newly established human resources department was hiring new recruits every week to meet the growing demand of a thriving business. It wasn’t long before it became clear that day-to-day operations were getting more complex, requiring the creation of new formal processes and policies to help managers improve their effectiveness and associates successfully complete their work. A coach is helping Jason think through how to manage the changes his business is experiencing and how to maintain the family “feel” of the business in the process.
Filling a gap
Because of its focus on interpersonal skills and leadership practices and its emphasis on measurable results, coaching can be a valuable supplement to traditional family business advisory services. Coaching that focuses on the family’s values and takes a long-term perspective can have a powerful impact in family businesses.
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