Taking over the family business comes with its own unique challenges. Complicated family dynamics, skeptical clientele and the process of transitioning into a leadership role are just a few obstacles that you may encounter.
By Kate Began
As a woman, you might face additional challenges as you take over the family business. Unconscious gender bias and lack of support are two big problems that plague women today, especially in the tech industry.
How can you overcome the regular trials and challenges of running the family business, as well as the additional obstacles you’ll face as a woman business owner? Below is a list of successful female leaders and their advice for other women taking over the family business:
Prepare to Take on Responsibility as Best You Can
Some people are slowly groomed for their position at the company, while others are thrust into the position sooner than expected. That’s what happened to Jessica Johnson, president of Johnson Security Bureau, Inc.
Johnson’s father ran the family-owned business until he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given months to live. Suddenly, Johnson and her brother were scrambling to learn everything they could before taking the helm.
After their father’s passing, Johnson and her brother had a critical decision to make.
“We [had] 16 people who had families who were depending on getting a check,” Johnson said at an Inc. Women’s Summit. “So, do we cash our chips and keep it going or do we make a vested effort to try and make this work?”
Johnson said both she and her brother found the decision an easy one to make. “[My parents] had planted a seed in us…of entrepreneurial spirit, of business and of taking care of your community and a sense of ownership,” Johnson said. “Even though we had choices, it was much greater for us to have an impact on our community rather than be selfish in our time of pain.”
Never Let Go of Your Entrepreneurial Spirit
Before taking over her family’s coffee company, Alakef Coffee Roasters, Alyza Bohbot had dreams of becoming a high school guidance counselor. When her parents announced they were selling the business, Bohbot couldn’t stand the thought of her family’s business changing hands.
She jumped at the chance to take over the business and make it her own. After becoming fully immersed in the coffee industry, Bohbot launched a sister coffee company, City Girl Coffee Company.
To differentiate the brand from the one her parents built, Bohbot founded City Girl with a mission: to promote gender equity in the coffee industry, business world and beyond. To promote this cause, her company sources their coffee from exclusively women-owned and managed farms and cooperatives.
Like Alyza, I also had different plans for my future before taking over my family’s electronic enclosure manufacturing company, Polycase. However, being an entrepreneur is less about founding a company and more about using problem-solving skills to further a goal larger than yourself. Alyza did just that by identifying a problem in the coffee industry and using her business to solve it.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
If your business partners are also your family members, it’s important that everyone understands exactly what they excel at and what roles are best left to others.
For some family-run businesses, the division of roles is simple. After her father suddenly passed away, Eliza Brown became CEO of All Saints Estates, their family’s vineyard. Her brother Nick was an experienced winemaker and took on the role of managing the winemaking team, while her sister Angela oversees marketing and sales.
Everyone fell into their roles naturally in the Brown family, which isn’t always the case for family-run businesses. The key to their sibling success, she says, is loving and supporting each other always.
“No one will love you or forgive you like your family,” she says. “My brother, sister and I have an extraordinary working relationship. They forgive my sins, support our wins and are very good and admirable people inside and out. We also enjoy drinking fine wine, which keeps the union strong–family who play together, stay together.”
Keep Open Lines of Communication
Being open and honest, both in terms of what’s working and what isn’t, is crucial in a family-run business. From our body language to how we communicate via text and email, things can easily become misconstrued.
Barbara Moran-Goodrich, CEO and president of Moran Family of Brands, says that being honest has been a key part of her accomplishments to date. As she puts it, “There are days when I believe I have been a good leader and then there are days when I think, ‘Wow, I handled that poorly!’ On those days, I reflect on what I could have done better and make sure I communicate with others to correct any negative direction I may have projected. I learn from it and then move on.”
Credibility Takes Time to Build
One of the biggest challenges that women leaders face is being taken seriously. Julia Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Kefir, experienced this first-hand when she took over the reins of her father’s business after he suffered a sudden heart attack.
Lifeway Kefir, a publicly traded company, immediately saw an enormous drop in shares when investors saw that a 27-year-old woman was to take over the company. To her credit, Smolyansky took it in stride. The CEO proved herself by growing the company from $12 million to $150 million since taking it over in 2002.
In a Forbes interview, Smolyansky was asked how she handled learning on the job while delivering results. She shared simple, but sage advice: “Learn fast, fail fast, tweak fast.”
Smolyansky also urges other women to make their voices heard in their respective industries and communities. “Get involved with associations within your industry, volunteer to chair an event or join a committee. Your passion, energy, creative and innovative thinking is needed in every industry.”
Taking over the family business can present many challenges for women leaders. While anticipating these obstacles is crucial, it’s also important to remember that running your family business can provide new opportunities as well.
Family businesses that are run by women often have better maternity leave, equal pay and more support for women in their careers. By taking over your family’s business, you’re bringing awareness to the unique leadership skills that female managers have to offer and potentially inspiring other women to take on leadership roles of their own.
Kate Began serves as the Sales and Marketing Manager for Polycase. She oversees the customer service representatives, assists with product development and leads the marketing efforts from the Avon, Ohio headquarters. Kate is also an avid Cleveland Indians fan.