Principles Of Success In Family Business – A Return To Fundamentals

Principles of Success in Family Business
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This column is part 2 in our series on ‘The New Normal‘. In the series of postings over the next few months, we’ll be sharing enduring practices and values that keep us directed in times of upheaval. If you haven’t already, you should read part 1 of the series called “The New Normal“. 

Watch the short introduction video on the return to fundamentals by Shelley Taylor.

Principles Of Success In Family Businesses: A Return To Fundamentals

We are currently living in a pandemic that is not going away any time soon; the reality of systemic racism has been brought to the fore and can no longer be ignored; our political climate is increasingly unsettled. This environment leads us to question many things, some of which we previously took for granted, considered fundamental or never thought much about. We have a great opportunity to return to some basics. During times of stress, upheaval and uncertainty it is beneficial to focus on our values and guiding principles. When we provide ourselves with a strong foundation in various aspects of our lives – in our family, in our community, in our work, in family business and business partnerships – we are better able to withstand and overcome obstacles and challenges.

The members of the Aspen Family Business Group have been working with and thinking about family businesses for more than 30 years. Through our experiences working with families across the globe we have observed what works well – and what doesn’t work so well – and we’ve gained many insights along the way. In the 2011 book The Keys to Family Business Success the Aspen Family Business Group authors lay out Seven Principles of Success for families in business. These seven principles are listed below as they appear in the book’s concluding chapter. I encourage you to read the book as it has a lot more about each of the seven principles.

As I thought about each of the principles below I uncovered relevance beyond family business. These are truly foundational for living a full and successful life. I do not mean to imply this is an exhaustive list of everything we need for a full life, just that these are valuable elements. We can better support ourselves and each other when we tap into these principles of success.

PRINCIPLES OF SUCCESS (in family business)

PRACTICE THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE.  We often get caught up in the hurdles and obstacles of life. Instead of struggling with these, step back to discover what works, think outside of the box, and consider what the ideal might look like.

Now is a good time to step back, take a breath, and look for the silver linings. Every day creates a new opportunity. We’ve been dealt a pretty challenging hand right now – what is the best way to get through this? Sometimes it can be as simple as changing your perspective or outlook.

I recently spoke with Ari Weinzweig (author and co-founder of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses) for a webinar at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence. Our topic was “inspiring hope in the workplace”. In preparing for the interview, and during my conversation with Ari, I learned a lot about hope: hope is a great motivator; our positive interactions with each other can feed hope; and, the absence of hope can crush dreams. To paraphrase Brené Brown: hopelessness leads to feelings of powerlessness.

A lot of this makes intuitive sense. But there’s also research on the role hope plays in individuals: hopeful people cope better with physical ailments and challenges, and exhibit higher levels of satisfaction and happiness. Hopeful people look toward a brighter future.

There are some simple things you can do to become a more hopeful person and create a more hopeful organization. Make realistic plans for your future and think about how you will get there (visioning). Spend time each week engaged in formal learning (reading and writing). Pay attention to your use of positive versus negative language — successful and thriving organizations, relationships and individuals exhibit upwards of three times the amount of complimentary and appreciative language relative to critical statements.

BE INCLUSIVE RATHER THAN EXCLUSIVE. When you engage the many stakeholders who are part of the family business system, you move more effectively toward solutions that will be implemented by that group rather than undermined by those who are left out.

Many people are continuing to work from home. This can be isolating and lonely at times, in part because we are wired for human interaction. We miss the collaboration that naturally occurs when we share a common environment. In shared work environments there are many opportunities throughout the day for planned meetings, casual conversations, and impromptu brainstorming.

You can still find ways to learn from others, even though in-person meetings are still rare. Reach out to a coworker, colleague or family member you haven’t talked to recently. You don’t need to have a specific agenda item – free flowing conversations can lead to new ideas, new perspectives and new plans. Invite one or two people to join you in a webinar that looks interesting. You can debrief afterwards and share your take-aways. When you reach out to people you show them that you value them. At the same time you can develop and expand your thoughts and perspectives.

BOUNDARIES MAKE GOOD RELATIONS. Healthy interpersonal boundaries and boundaries within the system (around roles) are essential to healthy family businesses. Make sure you don’t overreact to what others say (interpersonal boundaries). Work to assure that you separate your family role from your role in the business or as an owner (role boundaries).

Just as being together is good, we all need time to ourselves. For some it is time to reflect, for others it is time to recharge. Unfortunately many people are feeling heightened levels of stress and anxiety, and too much togetherness can heighten that discomfort. Being on edge can cause people to overreact, thus perpetuating negative cycles.

Families find themselves with each other around the clock while they simultaneously work from home, parent, monitor online school, and entertain and supervise their children. Just like the old adage – good fences make good neighbors – we sometimes need to set some boundaries in our personal lives. Individuals in your family likely have different needs for personal time and space. Just as some want and need more alone time, others have a greater need for companionship and interaction. Have a conversation about those needs when everyone is calm. That will give everyone a better understanding and ability to recognize and be respectful of the differences. Being mindful of everyone’s needs, including your own, for space but also attention helps everyone live more harmoniously.

CONSENSUS IS BETTER THAN FORCE. When you identify differences in perspective and help people understand all points of view, you can come to an agreement for which there is support. When you force a decision, you may discourage compliance and cooperation. While this may take more time in the short run, in the long run, collaboration and alignment of energies makes for greater productivity.

We all like to be part of the solution. And when each of us has a hand in crafting it, we are more likely to endorse and go along with the resulting decisions.. Along with buy-in in the process, you are creating buy-in of the outcomes. When you take the time to build consensus you will have a strong foundation.

Many families have had the opportunity these past several months to think about what guides them and what is really important. People are reaching out by phone and video to family and friends who are farther away. Adult children have returned to their parents’ homes. Families are spending time together in ways that had been disappearing recently — cooking and sharing meals, playing games, sitting around talking. We’re creating new traditions.

Use these recent experiences to gather and discuss what is meaningful and how you each view the family, its importance, and its role in your lives. From there you can bring all voices together to create a shared vision about what you value and what it means to be a part of the family. When everyone moves in the same direction, there is less confusion and greater synergy. A vision provides a common focus and can help guide decisions and behavior. If your family already has a shared vision, now is a good time to pull it out. It will be a great reminder of what everyone collaborated on.

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD ALSO HELPS FOSTER LONG-TERM COOPERATION AND MUTUAL SUPPORT.  Try to minimize rank and hierarchy. Instead, encourage participation by validating all points of view in the dialogue.

Is it time to re-engage in a new way with your family or with work colleagues? Are there some relationships that feel unbalanced? People tend to settle into the roles that they are familiar with; it takes work to create a new dynamic and framework. I recently heard William Knecht, the Chairman of Wendell August Forge, share his philosophy about the team at his family-owned company: People may have different titles and different responsibilities but every individual is equally important. This attitude supports the notion that we not only need to provide a forum for all voices, we need to listen to those voices.

Respect and trust can grow when everyone has the opportunity to speak, and share their feelings and ideas. Reach out to someone in your family or organization and ask for her input. Let others know their voices are important By creating a level playing field, we remove the imbalances that are too often embedded in long established roles.

By now we’ve all become familiar with Zoom and other online platforms. Bring your family or team together to work in a collaborative environment where you can harness each person’s unique strengths and perspectives. There are many ways to be creative with these tools, and have some fun while you’re at it.

FOCUS ON THE FUTURE RATHER THAN DWELLING ON THE PAST.  One of the challenges in families is the tendency to remember differences and injustices from decades (or generations) in the past. If we can release our attachment to those hurts and find what can work going forward, we will have better chances of success.

It is hard to plan when the future is uncertain. How can we best prepare ourselves to take advantage of what comes next? You may have heard anecdotes about how some people who lived through WWII or other times of adversity look toward the future more optimistically. They were able to adapt to and recover from difficult or challenging life circumstances — this is an example of resilience.

A resilient person has tools to face and overcome challenges and obstacles, and possibly even come out stronger on the other side. Some of these tools are: realistic hope, spiritual grounding, positive relationships with family and friends, an understanding that we all face challenges in life, being adaptable in your thinking and behavior.

We all have the capacity to tap into positive emotions to reframe a situation. It may take some effort, but these behaviors can be learned and developed over time. And then one can look to the future with a positive mindset, rather than facing it with dread, or living in the past.

IT IS BETTER TO OVER COMMUNICATE THAN UNDER COMMUNICATE. Work to assure that everyone knows what is going on and understands the information.

Leaders are responsible for guiding and reassuring their teams, and doing so with clear and straightforward language. We are living in a world we could never have imagined five months ago; employees are looking to their employers for information and guidance. As a leader, it is ok if you don’t have all the answers, and it is not a sign of weakness to say so. Seek out the information you need, and let others know that you are working to gather it. Gather a team to help support you.

We sometimes wrongly assume that everyone has the same information. Even though it takes more time and effort, it’s better to err on the side of over communicating rather than under communicating. When everyone is operating with the same information there is less confusion, less room for error and more opportunity for collaboration.


We are on the frontier of a new era. We’re learning new ways to work with each other and collaborate. We’re harnessing the conveniences and tools of the digital age. We’re increasingly relying on new ways of learning and sharing information. Through it all we’re returning to ways of connecting with friends, family and colleagues that have been around for centuries.

We have the opportunity to create what comes next. There is a lot that is out of our control, and it is hard to know what is around the corner. But there are some things we can do. We can look to the future with hope and a positive outlook. We can face our challenges with strength. We can keep our connections with others strong. We can rely on the fundamental principles that have served families and their businesses well over many, many years. We will look back on these times and remember how we behaved and how we managed.

shelley taylor
About the Author

Shelley Taylor is a Family Business Advisor who works with business-owning families on matters pertaining to governance, structure, role clarity, next generation development, generational transitions, and family councils.      ( view bio )

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