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Equal Stewards: The Women in Family Business Programme

Equal Stewards: The Women in Family Business Programme

“Women must take equal responsibility and get equal opportunity to make the family business a long-lasting institution.” The Women in Family Business Programme held at the Indian School of Business in August 2018 provided a roadmap for women leadership roles in family enterprise.

How can women contribute to building family businesses as long-lasting enterprises? What does the future for women look like in terms of leadership of the firms? How can women add greater value to board level discussions? On August 6 and 7, 2018, the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise at ISB conducted a tailor-made programme for women belonging to business families. The programme focused on the role of women and their most significant challenges in direct and indirect interactions with family businesses.

What is the context behind developing this women-centric focus in family enterprise? More than 90% of the listed companies in India are family-owned. If managing a business is a complex job, then managing a business with family members becomes even more complicated as business decisions get interspersed with emotional and personal commitments. Traditionally, businessmen have quipped that including women family members in business complicates things further, both at home and at work. This mindset is now changing. Not only are more women joining their family businesses, but many are even leading them.

Increasingly, it is being acknowledged that having women in leadership roles results in better overall performance of companies. Greater involvement of women in management brings a diversity of views to the decision-making process, which makes the firms more successful. The Women in Family Business Programme at ISB discussed this critical need to prepare women to contribute effectively at the operational and leadership levels, including board of directors. The programme was also meant for women more indirectly involved in their family businesses, such as women counsellors and consultants of family businesses.

50 participants, spread over two batches, attended the programme and learned five key strategies that would enable women to find their rightful place in a family business:

1) Align Family and Business

Family and business follow two different philosophies, namely socialism and capitalism. It is challenging to traverse the complex world of both, together. The success of one is dependent on the success of the other. Hence, it is important for both the family and the business to work in harmony and adapt to changing environment. Involving family members from a young age makes them passionate and responsible about the family business.

2) Establish a Family Code of Conduct

Many of the challenges faced by family businesses in general and women involved in them in particular can be addressed through a formal process of communication and written guidelines for family governance. Establishing a code of conduct and rule of family governance, leading up to the formation of a family constitution with participation of all family members, will specifically address delegation of responsibilities, professionalisation, succession and retirement issues. Family governance needs to be addressed as early as possible so that it can be put in place when the family and business complexity are lower.

3) Create Clearly Defined Roles for Women

Women must have active, clearly defined roles within family businesses. The firms should leverage women’s strengths, be it strategy, finance, human resources or corporate social responsibility. If they are passive members, they can still contribute to the discussions at the board level or at home, apart from being the emotional anchor for the other family members.

4) Balance the Personal and Professional

At a personal level, women face unique challenges as they get married and may have to move away to another city, making it difficult for them to be involved in their paternal family businesses. Similarly, they may find the culture and values in their husband’s family business different from their paternal family business. Such circumstances may be difficult to manage. At times, work-life balance and protecting relationships may become challenging. But constant communication, learning to say no and educating the rest of the family will help.

At a professional level, women can assert themselves in the family business by being equipped with business relevant knowledge through formal and informal education, being decisive, expressing their views in appropriate platforms and demonstrating a strong work ethic. This will ensure that they are treated as professionals. Some steps to be accepted as a professional include taking one’s role in the family business seriously, being disciplined and showing commitment as well as capability.

5) Create an Ecosystem

It is important to create cohesion between a shared vision for the business, implied and explicit values that the family and business follow, clearly defined roles and responsibilities as well as transparent and frequent communication. Above all, it is important to strictly follow rules and policies. For example, if the family values clearly state that they give equal opportunity to both men and women, it would be reflected when succession planning is undertaken by the family business leader, giving equal opportunity to women to lead the family business if they are qualified, experienced and capable.

The biggest takeaway from this programme was that women are equal stewards in the family enterprise. They must take equal responsibility and get equal opportunity to make the family business a long-lasting institution.

About the Writers:

Nupur Pavan Bang is Associate Director and Kavil Ramachandran is Professor and Executive Director of the Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business.

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