New initiative helps family business executives hone leadership skills

A sort of A new training program hopes to develop better leaders for family businesses in West Michigan.

This Family Business Alliance The Leading Forward: Institute for Developing and Motivating Family Business Leaders was established to provide support and guidance to family business leaders who have gone through leadership succession and are identified as the next generation of stewards.

Robin Burns, Director, Family Business Alliance

The program is designed to help family business leaders “enable them to manage the dynamics of the family business” and navigate the unique aspects of running a family business, said Robin Burns, director of the Family Business Alliance. That can include the pressures of inheriting a family legacy and maintaining the business for future generations, as well as balancing what’s best for the business and the family, Burns said.

“We recognize that being the leader of a family business is a challenging job and that they have recently faced market disruptions such as the pandemic, workforce and talent issues. And, in addition to these challenges, they also face The challenges of leading a family business,” she said. “They became the stewards of the entity. They’re now responsible for more than the P&L. They’re responsible for creating and leading the entity, which is a family business, so that it can survive.”

The Family Business Alliance launched the initiative in partnership with the Virginia-based InnerWill Leadership Institute and the Chicago-based Family Business Consulting Group. Burns said the program was developed after focus groups with local family business leaders discussing current challenges, things they would like to be helped with, and how spending time with their peers can help them understand leadership styles.

Set to begin in August, the five-month program will include five half-day face-to-face workshops and one-hour individual coaching and mentoring sessions. Working with groups and individual coaches, participants will identify business, family and personal issues they want to address, Burns said, “and then develop that plan and strategy for how to address those issues.”

The Family Business Alliance, which has more than 160 family business members, is accepting applications for the program until March 15. The first batch of participants will be 12 to 14 people, Burns said.

Ted Epperson, president and moderator of the InnerWill Leadership Institute, said the program is designed to align family goals with business goals. The idea, Epperson said, is to ensure that the cultures within the business and family are in sync and that the right processes and governance are in place to achieve the long-term goals of both parties.

“It’s true for family, it’s true for business. It’s true for business, it’s true for family,” Epson said. “Because of those family relationships, you want the family to be healthy, you want harmony, and sometimes you make bad business choices.”

In some cases, the goals of an individual family member who owns a business stake can conflict with the company’s goals, said Betsey Fortlouis, director of development partnerships and consultant at the nonprofit InnerWill Leadership Institute.

“We want participants to explore their roles and really lead and support the culture of their family and family business, aligning it with their business strategy so they can continue to thrive and be successful,” Fortlouis said.

Program courses will focus on leadership styles, team development, effective boards, innovation and culture. A key element of leadership planning is ensuring that the family business remains focused on developing the next generation of leaders and planning for succession from generation to generation.

Succession is typically on the mind of all family business leaders, but fewer than one in 10 “actually have the difficult conversations to actually execute on it,” Fortlouis said.

“They’re stuck. Everyone knows that, but thinking about it and keeping the conversation in the back of your head is very different than talking and discussing it with the stakeholders who are going to have to help execute,” Fortlouis said.

The InnerWill Leadership Institute was started by Manakin-Sabot, Va.-based Luck Companies, a large fourth-generation family business that is “very focused” on succession, Epperson said.

Epperson said the company is constantly working on developing leaders at all levels and identifying future leaders and how they will be vetted and assessed.

“It’s a real challenge and expense, but it’s an investment because it’s the only way an organization can be sustainable long-term, to make sure we keep developing our talent,” he said. “Otherwise, you have to go out on the street and try to buy, which may or may not suit your culture, and a lot of family businesses have really strong cultures that can reject outsiders like that.”

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