Family Business Health and Well-being

Interview with Ellie Frey Zagel, Founder and President of Successful Generations, USA

Ellie Frey Zagel, image courtesy of Successful Generations.

Authentic leadership going forward depends on whether or not next-generation family business members can prioritise their well-being. Altruistic work is not sustainable work; growing the business is impossible if we neglect ourselves.

Transition can be unexpectedly isolating, and developing as a leader requires candour between generations. Formal communication does not carry the implicit trust of a conversation, and building confidence in next-generation leaders is a product of a family’s trust in them.

Working in her family’s foundation from the age of 15, Ellie Frey Zagel felt eclipsed by the organisation and its leaderships’ personas. Eventually, her responsibilities grew to such an extent that she reached a breaking point and had to take time off. Before she could fulfil her work obligations, however, she had to figure out what she owed herself.

Zagel’s experience coming to terms with isolation, obligation and overwork informs her passion for next-generation mentorship. Her brand, Successful Generations, is a resource for leaders to promote healthy decisions and personal boundaries.

We spoke with Ellie Frey Zagel to learn more about the journey to family business health and well-being.

Family Business Health and Well-being
Ellie Frey Zagel, image courtesy of Successful Generations.

Was there a particular event that inspired you to move into coaching for family businesses?

There was. Years into my career, I was burnt out and had to leave for six months. Reflecting on how it all began, I realised I had a passion for helping next-generation leaders.

I began working for my family’s foundation at 15, and at such a young age, I was unable to grasp the nuances of philanthropy. I was overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, I knew early on that I was destined for a place on the board – it was clear that I’d even run the foundation one day.

Growing up, I was surrounded by a community of other multigenerational family businesses, and it seemed that other next-gen leaders like me were struggling with similar issues. I had problems with anxiety, which eventually led to therapy and coaching.

Still, even these professionals weren’t evaluating the core of the issues I was dealing with. My peers felt the same disconnect, too; they were treating us with band-aids instead of helping to eradicate the cause of our suffering.

I struggled against perceived obligation to my family and their business, only to realise that the weight I felt was actually an unhealthy routine I had created for myself by pushing harder. In doing so, I was neglecting my body, my heart and my personal goals.

Is there more pressure in family business compared to non-family business?

Absolutely – for those close to us, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. Sometimes, we put too much pressure on ourselves. For families that are well-known in the community, having a recognisable name can mean extra pressure to perform. My family was very active serving on boards and volunteering, and when it came time for me to take on a leadership role, I felt inadequate.

I was raised in the public eye and walked in the shadows of respected, philanthropic people. My identity was eclipsed by the personas of my family’s leadership, and as such, I felt a lack of independence.

The same disconnect can exist within the operations and management of the business itself, which makes building trust difficult. Older family members may tend to view their peers as child-like regardless of their age or work ethic, which can make it difficult to feel heard.

When family members are in the habit of questioning your methods or decisions, you cannot be a successful leader. Sometimes, the previous generation has trouble letting go of the reigns and allowing the next generation to grow into their role.

I know how isolating this can be, which is why I founded Successful Generations and the podcast. During the transition into a leadership role, next-gens often lack objective mentors to guide them through the process. They lack resources.

How can we cultivate a less stressful family business environment?

I used to think the primary issue here was a lack of communication. However, after some reconsideration, I realised that we’re missing out on something more specific – conversation. For example, when I began working for my family, I was left to investigate the nuances of philanthropy on my own. I was told, ‘Do not talk about philanthropy. Do not tell anybody that you’re involved in this foundation.’ As a result, I didn’t discuss our projects with anyone. We communicated at board meetings, but we did not talk candidly.

The pressure of having to navigate independently of my siblings and cousins was too great. Inevitably, I had to break that pattern of keeping the foundation’s work ‘private’.

To me, communication is one person dictating to another. Conversation – dialogue – is the space where all generations involved speak and are heard. A lack of conversation can lead to confusion, resentment and passive-aggressive behaviour between generations.

What is the “badge of busyness” and how can we distance ourselves from it?

It’s a term that describes an interesting dilemma because we’re often taught that busy equals worthy. In such a way, the badge of busyness becomes an identity – it’s when someone is too busy for coffee, too busy for people. Without this sense of busyness preventing us from socialising or living independently of our workload, we feel unworthy, which is false. We are worthy regardless of class, status and imperfection.

Ridding ourselves of pathological busyness requires that we find worth and validation within. That way, we don’t have to search for it in other people. Once we believe in our worth regardless of outside influences, we have the power to say no to things that aren’t healthy for us. Our vision is our priority, not the vision of someone else.

How can family business members avoid the burnout you described?

In the Midwest, we have a saying: ‘Just rub some dirt on it.’ The pressure to be tough, to outlast whatever problems come your way by working harder is immense. Not only is there a badge of busyness, but there is also a badge of honour that as a work-obsessed society we have come to aspire to. It’s ‘honourable’ to put ourselves second to our work – to sacrifice ourselves unduly. It’s a function of modern capitalism that is concerning for both labourers and leadership alike.

Over my tenure, several of my peers had anxiety attacks severe enough to hospitalise them. Others suffered from autoimmune diseases and depression in part because they did not prioritise their well-being. Yet, regardless of the magnitude of these health concerns, they felt significant pressure to keep working. There’s a stigma associated with taking personal time to heal: it’s considered weakness.

I experienced a burnout when I was saying yes to everything and not observing any boundaries on my time. I was invited to act as the vice-chair of the foundation, my dream job since I was 15 years old. As such, I was determined to make it work despite my situation, having recently married and with a baby.

Suddenly, my body refused to comply with this ‘keep at it’ attitude. I took three months’ sabbatical from work and had to be rotated from several boards and committees. It took six months at least for my mental health to recuperate to the point where I could re-enter my previous positions.

Avoiding this breakdown requires boundaries, which are difficult to establish. We have to say no confidently. In saying no, we are putting our health and happiness above the societal value of ‘working hard’. It takes diligence to form these new habits, but they are a necessity.

We have to learn to trust ourselves, decluttering our lives and minds to make room for positive change. My uncle has a wonderful saying: ‘If you’re asked, you’ll probably be asked again. You don’t need to say yes now.’

What do you hope to see family members doing more of to stay productive, successful and healthy?

When balancing the dynamics of a family, it’s difficult to actualise our identities – to live authentically. Seeing the growth that comes out of establishing personal values and goals, however, is rewarding. When we work hard to achieve happiness, health and success as leaders – when we pay attention to all three simultaneously – we realise positive outcomes.

What I found in my journey was that my family was watching all along. They saw me say yes when I shouldn’t have and learn from it. Later, when I was offered the position of chair, they watched me decline the offer because it clashed with the priorities that I had set for myself, and they were proud of me.

I assumed that my family was going to be disappointed if I placed my personal goals over those of the family business, which was not the case. They saw my confidence – my ability to make decisions based on health and happiness – and they respected it.

I hope that next-gens, when faced with opportunities that require them to compromise their well-being, respond with no this time.