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Are Next-Generation Family Members Qualified to Lead

By Jennifer M. Pendergast, Ph.D.

“Do I deserve this job?” This is a question many next-generation employees in family businesses ask themselves. Some are filled with self-doubt, thinking the only reason they have their jobs is because they were born with the right last name. Others may feel fully qualified but may struggle with the skepticism they perceive from other family members or nonfamily employees who doubt their qualifications.

While many next-generation employees have a leg up over employees who are not part of the family, the boost they receive is not just from being in the family. Family members are often exposed to the business from a young age, providing an opportunity for them to begin learning the business much earlier than non-members can. This exposure can even occur outside of the formal confines of the office. In many cases, children witness their parents working through business problems, which provides the model for how they might perform in the future. And don’t forget that next-generation members may inherit “leadership genes” from the business leaders.

For these reasons, it can be inaccurate to assume that a next-generation family member unjustifiably received his or her position rather than earning it. A great example of next-generation members earning their way is present in the entertainment industry. Because entertainment professionals don’t work within a business hierarchy, they can’t inherit a job in the same way that the next-generation CEO of a manufacturing business might. Certainly, a well-known last name may help in getting initial auditions or introductions to important people. An example is Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard, who appeared as an extra in her father’s films Parenthood and Apollo 13. But Bryce didn’t lean on her family name. She applied to drama school as Bryce Dallas, dropping her last name to eschew special treatment. During her studies at the Institute of Performing Arts within NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she appeared on Broadway. Well-known director M. Night Shyamalan discovered her there and cast her in several of his movies. While her name may have gotten her a leg up early in her career, her skills and experience earn her the job in every new production.

Because of the public personas of actors, many people are familiar with the multigenerational acting families. Next-generation members in the spotlight today include Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland. Less familiar are multigenerational legacies on the business side of entertainment. Take the case of Jenny Gersten, who is an associate producer at the Public Theater in New York – a job that her father, Bernard Gersten, held 40 years prior. Jenny’s story and other similar family legacies were featured in a recent article in the New York Times. Jenny says, “I think theater gets to be a family business just like any other.” However, as has Bryce Howard, she has proven herself on her own. Her first job out of college was with the 52nd Street Project, a theater mentor organization. The project’s executive director says that Jenny “met and worked with tons of people here she didn’t know through her parents.” It is interesting to note that the job she holds is one that her father was once fired from. While his daughter admits that theater is a family business, Bernard counters, “This isn’t dynastic. It isn’t Bernard Gersten & Daughter, like Russ & Daughters, the food shop on the Lower East Side.”

These examples serve as a good reminder that many next-generation family business leaders do earn their stripes through the skills and experiences (and even genes) they inherit. In many cases, there may be privileged access to opportunities that only family members will have. But in the end, it’s the ability to do the job well, in the spotlight and behind the scenes, that earns success.

 

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