Greg McCann knows the family business advantage of shared history, purpose and vision. At the same time, however, he has seen the tight-knit bonds therein create confusion and exacerbate the situation for those who feel like their careers are not their own and that their contributions are not legitimate.
McCann grew up in the family business, and began working for his father, a serial entrepreneur when he was 12. He continued in this capacity through college before going on to pursue a career in accounting. Only when he had left the family business did he realise how much it meant to him. Soon enough, he quit his new job to return to his father’s sizeable health care company and loved it.
Not all of his family business experiences were so positive, however. Later, McCann and his brother tried to start a business together with their dad’s backing, which failed. Despite its struggles, their venture did teach Greg McCann the importance of operational best practices conferred through family business education, a revelation that inspired his academic career.
His passion for sharing experiential and theoretical knowledge with others on the same path led him to found the Family Enterprise Center at Stetson University, developing the second minor and first undergraduate major in Family Enterprise in the United States.
Now, post-academia, McCann is an author, coach, speaker and principal at the national family business consulting firm McCann & Associates, where he leverages his considerable expertise coaching leaders. We spoke with Greg McCann to ask him how family businesses can create awareness, cultivate a safe space for difficult conversations and prepare next-gens for family business leadership.
“Working in a family business is potentially more rewarding, but leadership roles are never simpler.”
What is your favourite topic within the family business field?
I’m fascinated by leadership itself, which is reflected in my current career as a full-time coach and consultant having retired from academia after 27 years. The pivotal moment came about seven years ago when I was asked to turn around Stetson’s Executive MBA. I gathered a board of advisers who were all world-class leadership experts and realised that the topic of leadership should be a priority for family businesses. Today, I work exclusively with families on what’s called ‘vertical leadership development’.
What differentiates family business leadership from non-family business leadership?
It’s a continuum. Family business, fundamentally, is the combination of two systems: the family and the business – different cultures and roles are required by each. Typically, family members have unconditional love for one another. They don’t assess each other as family members quarterly. For example, ‘Your performance as my daughter in our family…’, isn’t a phrase you are likely to ever hear. Conversely, business leaders don’t tell their sales managers they love them and keep them in the organisation forever despite their inability to sell. Instead, business necessitates a conditional relationship based on performance. Family business leadership requires the combination of these two cultures, and it gets more complex when more family is involved with the business. Working in a family business is potentially more rewarding, but leadership roles are never simpler.
How does this added layer of complexity affect next-gen leaders in the family business?
It’s subtle, but the implications are potentially severe. Hypothetically, take my relationship with my daughter, for example. She may get 12-14 years of training on how to perform in a business setting, but she doesn’t get much help when it comes to performing as the boss’s daughter. She has to figure out how to appear credible and feel legitimate on her own. Herein lies the dilemma: if someone works for a non-family business, they don’t question promotions, praise or critique like they do if it comes from a relative.
To mitigate this phenomenon, we developed a program to help family members find their confidence and credibility. There are two sides of credibility, inward- and outward-facing: how to appear legitimate to others, and how individuals can experience legitimacy themselves. Empowerment of the person and empathy for others are key components, as is cultivating persuasiveness as a leader. Clarity of vision binds these elements together, while agility goes a long way in maintaining this confidence. To use the metaphor of a car, agility is knowing the appropriate gear for every part of the road.
“Objectivity is almost impossible to develop without the help of others. A person may think they are engaged in something positive, but they can’t know if it will be received that way by others unless they pause, reflect and ask for feedback.”
How can a family business build awareness around its internal relationships?
One way to cultivate awareness is by creating a culture of feedback. Most experts say you should give up to seven pieces of positive feedback for every one that’s critical. Positive feedback is an incredibly powerful tool. Coaching is another helpful area that can bring awareness to leaders both in the family and in the business around their actions. All members of a family business must learn to be aware of their egos and find a way to step outside of the system (be that their ego, the family, the business or even the industry) – this is the essence of vertical leadership. Objectivity is almost impossible to develop without the help of others. A person may think they are engaged in something positive, but they can’t know if it will be received that way by others unless they pause, reflect and ask for feedback. Everything starts with awareness. With greater awareness in leadership, far more effective decisions are possible.
How can family businesses prepare the next generation for leadership?
Family members can think about three things when it comes to preparing future leaders for success in the family business. The first is based on the Center for Creative Leadership’s research: the higher an individual gets in an organisation, the greater the risk becomes of their career being derailed by the lack of objective feedback. Unfortunately, I believe this is doubly true for family businesses. Regardless of career, not getting feedback is a risky situation.
The second is that the number one reason people leave a job is because of a bad boss. If a family business doesn’t want to lose their best talent, they must produce better bosses and leaders. The third comes back to the vertical development I mentioned earlier. Business is changing rapidly; family businesses must adopt internal habits that lead to sustainability. Structures and policies are a critical extension of this mindset, but establishing a universal attitude and ongoing practice that supports development within the organisation needs to happen first.
“Successful family businesses cultivate an environment where difficult conversations can happen, and from there, everything else will fall into place.”
How can family business leaders maintain their objectivity, even in difficult situations?
They can join a family business programme or network to connect with other family businesses. Attending conferences is an excellent way to heighten awareness and get educated. If family members want to commit to the family’s well-being, they have to look at their own well-being first. This might mean meditation, mindfulness or hiring a coach that can redirect concerns and anxiety to a place where they are constructive. Regardless, family businesses need a space to be open and candid.
Intimacy isn’t achieved through texting – something is always lost in digital translation. Family members need to sit with each other and talk one-on-one. Successful family businesses cultivate an environment where difficult conversations can happen, and from there, everything else will fall into place.