What to Look for in a Non-Family CEO
We recently interviewed an executive who has served as non-family CEO for three different families over his 30-year business career. Twice, he was a successful bridge CEO between generations of family leadership. The third case assignment didn't work out as well. When a septuagenarian owner, jealous over the non-family CEO's success at doubling profits and sales in just three years, tried to reassert his control over the business, the CEO resigned.
Advisor: What traits do you think are essential to success as a non-family CEO in a family business?
Response: The three that I think are most important are facilitation skills, maturity, and the eagerness to build something the desire to be an entrepreneur without the resources.
Advisor: What do you mean by maturity?
Response: By maturity I mean the ability to accept occasionally irrational behavior without taking it personally, without being frustrated. It can be hard to do all you can for other people and sometimes not feel reinforced or to be frustrated by family issues. Maturity means, to me, accepting what is the good and the bad and making the most out of it without expending emotional energy on family obstacles.
Advisor: Why did you say facilitation?
Response: Because that is an important part of the job, almost like being a teacher which I've always loved to do. It's important to help the family address issues and to build consensus. Always do so as an impartial, honest person. One thing I've learned is to never take sides in a family conflict. As the expression goes, blood is thicker....No matter what family members may say about each other they have a great tendency to stick together. I like to say, when the bullets fly, duck; you'll be the target of many of them. You need a thick skin.
Advisor: Then what motivates you?
Response: The desire to build something I couldn't or wouldn't do otherwise. I'm really grateful for the opportunity to lead. I believe that in family firms you can make a difference and you can develop a philosophy of management and can help preserve and pass on an important institution.
Advisor: Any other insights?
Response: Yes. The non-family CEO has to really enjoy people and the opportunity of helping people grow. The key issues, the tough issues, are not business issues. They are family issues: Preparing the senior generation to let go; resolving disputes among siblings; or helping them address compensation issues and needs for more dividends, for example.
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