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Advice for next-gen women in family business

Some 70 percent of family businesses worldwide are considering a woman for their next CEO, according to Camden FB*. So it is not surprising that our students founded a new peer group: Women in Family Business.

Group of women standing together

These young women have the usual next-generation questions like:

  • How do you balance working with your family during the day and spending time with them on the weekends and the holidays?
  • How do you earn the professional respect of your colleagues when they knew you as a teenager?
  • How do you find a role that is a fit for your skills and the strategic needs of the business?

But these young women have different questions, too:

  • How do you define your role in a traditionally male dominated industry?
  • How do you navigate your roles as an executive and as a mother in a company that has not had a female executive before?
  • How do you manage communication with your father and brother when you often get put in the middle of their disagreements?

To answer these questions, students turned to experienced female family business leaders to shed insight into the challenges unique to women in family enterprises.

Over the course of a year, they learned powerful lessons of experience from Pamela Mars Wright of Mars, Incorporated; Shelayne Sutton, a parent of two UNC Kenan-Flagler graduates, of Daly Seven, Inc.; Kathryn Howlett (UNC ’11, MBA ’14) of Beacon Properties & Investments, and Kathleen Warren (MBA ’10) of Cardinal Capital Management.

“You can do it all, but you cannot do it all at the same time.”

Being a working mother requires juggling under any circumstances, but working in a family business can be all consuming, with few breaks from family or from the family business. Being clear about priorities for both career and family and setting realistic (not Wonder Woman) expectations for yourself are key.

Set clear boundaries.

After working with your parent in the business all day, it is OK (and necessary) to set specific end times for work conversations. Family dinners and holidays should be times for celebrating familial bonds and not rehashing office matters. One female executive shared that if her dad calls her at home at 10 p.m. she has made it clear to him that he should be calling her as her dad, not as her boss.

Professionalize your family business.

Benchmark the HR policies of companies that the senior generation respects and make sure that your company has written policies that reflect sound professional practices, such as maternity leave.

Communicate openly.

View your communication style as an asset. Avoid being put in the middle of disagreements between family members who work in the business. One student shared that she has strong relationships with both her father and her brother, while the two of them often disagree. By refusing to take sides and encouraging them to listen and try to understand the others’ perspective, she has helped them to work together more smoothly. At her suggestion, the three of them started weekly meetings to talk about critical issues in the business.

By Cooper Biersach (BA ’91, MBA/JD ’96), co-founder and director of the Family Enterprise Center

*Read more about why women are leading more family enterprises than ever before.

The Family Enterprise Center prepares next generation family business students for leadership and ownership in family firms.