The Path to a Harmonious Family Business

Interview with Chris Yonker, Consultant, Speaker and Author, USA

The Path to a Harmonious Business
Image courtesy of Chris Yonker.

According to Chris Yonker, the overall health of an organisation – family businesses notwithstanding – depends on self-assurance and productive interaction in the workplace. Embarking on the journey to uncover these behaviours in ourselves and those around us is a step towards achieving harmony.

Self-confidence is a product of self-honesty, or living by one’s personal truth. When it comes to succession, self-confidence is a tremendous asset – a correlation that affects how business families should engage the next generation. Yonker’s outlook pushes for the assignment of roles within the organisation or otherwise based on interest rather than obligation or expectation; to Chris, success is the alignment of purpose and place.

Combining his business leadership knowledge with his mindfulness practice to help others define vision, Yonker and his team unravel the behaviours and beliefs that restrict growth and inhibit communication. His proprietary four-stage process has been proven to help countless family businesses cultivate a new awareness and make the necessary changes to bring about sustainability while simultaneously driving the desired outcomes of the organisation.

We asked Chris Yonker about vision, communication and productivity for both organisations and individuals.

The Path to a Harmonious Business
Image courtesy of Chris Yonker.

Why are you so passionate about succession?

I’m passionate about helping others discover and achieve their vision – succession is only part of it. All businesses have interpersonal dynamics that affect organisational morale. In the family business, the stakes are higher because those relationships are deeper. Family relationships have more history, and they must be maintained outside of the office. To achieve harmony, everyone involved must communicate clearly and share a common vision.

Years ago, I read a study that was conducted by a hospice nurse interviewing her patients. She asked them about their regrets in life. One of the most common responses was having made decisions based on what they thought other people wanted from them instead of what they wanted for themselves.

My team works to define people’s passions and interests and help them to achieve their goals. Sometimes, those goals align with the goals of the family business, but not always.

If we can establish a dialogue around roles in the family business before they’re assigned – before succession – the process will go more smoothly for everyone. Those in line to take over must have the opportunity to speak up if their interests lie elsewhere and, in doing so, bring clarity to the question: who is most fit to lead?

“Building trust is critical. Without trust, people won’t say what they really want.”

How do you help family business members define their vision?

The first step is getting a feeling for group dynamics – everyone in a room together. Then, I meet with members individually to assess their independent values. This process determines whether their motives are intrinsic or extrinsic, what their goals are related to the business or otherwise, and what steps they’re currently taking to achieve them.

Building trust is critical. Without trust, people won’t say what they really want. We need to ask uncomfortable questions, like: if your father didn’t own this business, would you still want to be involved? The answers will help them resolve any uncertainty as well as develop the language they’ll need to engender the change they want to see in their lives.

What are some of the most common problems in a mismanaged succession?

Too frequently, we come across accountability issues. When someone is in the wrong role, they create problems that the rest of the team is forced to work around. Typically, when a daughter or son is appointed to a leadership placement where they’re ineffective, chances are, their parents will step in and solve their problems for them. This can cause bitterness and resentment in those who are forced to pick up the slack or aren’t given credit for their work.

This leniency, in turn, leads to problems with retention. If the business cannot address legitimate issues with a successor, the company is going to have a hard time keeping its top talent.

“Individualism is a powerful ideology; every person should navigate their lives in line with their truth.”

Is a greater emphasis on individualism causing next-gens to turn away from the family business?

It certainly has the potential to, yes. As we change, culture changes, and so does the way that we view our elders in general. The obligation to parents that existed in prior generations has shifted. Typically, here in the United States, when our elderly need care, we hire help or move them into facilities where they can receive care from trained professionals. No longer do we take them into our own homes and give them that care ourselves, a normative practice only two generations ago. There exists a new perspective on what the family unit consists of and how you build values around families.

Individualism is a powerful ideology; every person should navigate their lives in line with their truth.

People run into difficulty when they make decisions based on what other people think instead of prioritising their interests. If individualism breaks the obligatory tradition of falling in line with the family business, so be it. Both the individual and the business will be better off in the long run.

Let me give you an example: I was working with a business family that was having trouble defining a space for their daughter. In private conversation with their daughter, I learned that she had always wanted to go into nursing – she had no real interest in working in the family business and had never spoken up about how she felt. When I made the obvious suggestion that she pursue a career in nursing, her reaction was, ‘Oh, I couldn’t!’ She had built this paradigm of familial expectation around her life that was impinging on her journey.

After some coaching, she shared her aspirations with her family, and they were extremely supportive. She left the family business, went to school and became a nurse. Years later, I received an email with a picture of her in her scrubs doing volunteer work abroad, thanking me for my guidance. No longer is she on someone else’s path; she’s found her own way.

The Path to a Harmonious Business
Image courtesy of Chris Yonker.

How can family businesses avoid the pitfalls of succession?

Leadership members must be mindful of the whole organisation, adjusting their perspective to consider the needs of all stakeholders involved – team members, other leaders, customers and family members. They must ask themselves: who is being impacted by these choices and why? They should define what is unique about the business and what would be missed in the marketplace should the business suddenly disappear.

Then, leadership should consider the entire team on a personal level. Engage with them and see if they’re fulfilled. Take note of disharmony. If they aren’t fulfilled, find out what they need and determine how the organisation can help them achieve it.