When working in a family business, it’s not unusual to become absorbed in one’s role and push personal ambitions aside. Sometimes, this is simply due to the sense of belonging and the natural focus on the greater picture. However, if not addressed, it can lead to resentment and a feeling of being “stuck”. In this episode of our WiFB Conversations, Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the importance of defining one’s own brand and goals to avoid or overcome the feeling of being stuck in a role within the family business.
This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.
Photo by Nina Lindgren on Unsplash
R: Today, we’re going to talk about what you can do when you feel stuck in your career inside your family business. This topic comes up very frequently in our conversations with those in family businesses, particularly with women. We tend to get absorbed and carried away by the greater picture. We focus on driving the business forward and caring about other family members. Then, all of a sudden, we wonder what happened to our personal ambitions and goals for our careers.
Amy, what has been the most frequent manifestation that you’ve seen of people feeling stuck inside their family business career?
A: Often, they’re asking for more responsibility or to be taken seriously. When you’re working in a family business, people assume that they know who you are simply because they’ve known you for a long time. In some cases, they’ve even known you since you were a child.
The “stuckness” is a question of having the capacity as an adult to describe to others the value that you bring. It’s about helping them to create a new story about yourself, and part of that is developing your own new story for yourself as well.
I think it takes a lot of thought to develop the image you want to create for yourself within the family, the business and the community. It’s a matter of introducing new conversations so that, when people think about you, they no longer have the old image. We want them to be open to the new brand you’re trying to cultivate.
Branding is an important factor here because this is how people form impressions. The best way to get unstuck is to clearly and intentionally help them see you in a new way, without being dramatic in your approach.
R: As a family business member, you are part of a bigger picture, and you should think as a collective for the business to succeed. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that you need to work on your personal brand. You need to tell and live your own story within the greater narrative of the family business.
Why do you think our own stories get drowned out so often? The worst part about it is that once you become aware of it, you suddenly feel a certain amount of resentment towards the family business. This, of course, is not fair because you’ve essentially let this happen by yourself. Have you experienced similar things in your coaching work?
A: Growing up around the business and going straight to work there is one kind of a scenario, but there are others. There are many women who never thought they’d enter the family business, so they went somewhere else for a while. They had their own story, they had a brand, and they haven’t been defined by their family. In some ways, having your own brand is about the capacity to stand on the balcony, take a look at yourself and observe your behaviour.
What family traits and values do you claim now? Where do you see opportunities to make a distinctive contribution? Maybe you see opportunities that they don’t see. Sometimes, finding an unmet need or identifying a point of change can help you bring something that is uniquely yours. It’s not part of the family; it’s your own contribution.
In that sense, even though it may be a different journey to do that within a family business, it’s the same for everyone. We all have to be able to say what defines us. Each of us has a unique story, whether we’re part of a large family, a large corporation or a small not-for-profit.
R: Family businesses are not the best at being clear about job titles. We take it for granted that everyone has a feeling of belonging and identification, and we think that should suffice in terms of defining their scope of work. This can be true, but we all know the big pitfalls that come with not having a clear role attached to what we do.
One of the main reasons why you can start feeling stuck in your career in the family business is if your role has never been clearly defined or doesn’t seem to ever evolve past a certain point. What can we say to people who feel like that?
A: I’ve been reading a book recently called Mindsetby Carol Dweck. Part of what she talks about is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is where people don’t think things will ever change, whereas a growth mindset is an attitude of learning, growing and looking for opportunities from your experiences.
While families can keep us stuck, I think part of it is our capacity to envision ourselves doing something different. You have to take responsibility for the evolution of your role, but if you’re not clear about what that might be, you just know you’re going to be unsatisfied.
You can engage people in the community through activities, and you can engage people you trust within the business, be it family or non-family. You can say, “We’ve known each other a while, and I’m starting to feel ready for something else. Where do you see opportunities for me, based on knowing me and observing me?”
People love to do that. They love to mentor and help others grow. I think it’s that capacity to admit that you’re stuck and to see that this is a message that something’s not right. You have the responsibility to look at yourself through a different lens, through conversations and through your own testing out of possibilities.
I think being stuck can be a good thing because it means you’ve outgrown something. It’s time to make a change. Once we can get over that sense of immobilisation, then new opportunities can emerge.
R: This whole notion of being part of a collective in a family business does tend to bring up the blame game. It is easy to blame others when you feel stuck and to try to give responsibility away to another staff member, be it a member of the family or not.
As with most things in life, the solution is ultimately on the inside. You don’t have to wait for anything; you just have to wake up to the possibility that you can change your role today if you decide to do so.
A: If you’re feeling stuck, other people in the business may be feeling stuck as well. There’s no formal career path or structure of roles in a family business. Sometimes, getting unstuck can mean creating more formal structures for career development. In some cases, that’s never been done before.
R: That ties into a very interesting third point, which is how people can get unstuck by setting a clear goal orientation for their career. Not everyone has the same level of ambition. Feeling stuck is not necessarily a lonely place; you might be surrounded by other family members who feel just as stuck as you.
One of the most common reasons why I’ve seen this happen in family businesses is that the current leadership is holding on too tightly for too long and making other generations of family members feel like it’s never their turn. They’re never very clear as to the level of authority they will eventually attain, which can be very frustrating.
If you’re working on your career without being involved in the family business, you can decide that your ultimate goal is to be the CEO of a company, and you will probably reach that goal if you work hard. However, in a family business, you might be part of the wrong family branch or in the wrong department to ever make it.
How big do you feel the emphasis should be on knowing where you want to go in the family business? Do you also feel there should be an allowance of natural development in these things?
A: Part of that depends on the number of generations in the family business. If you’re an only child in a second-generation family business, there’s going to be a lot of pressure on sustaining the family and the business over time. But you may not be the kind of person that wants that. You may be happier to work with a non-family executive in a role that’s important but not necessarily as big as what your parents took on.
Not everyone is a leader. Just because you grew up in a business, that doesn’t mean you want to be involved in it. Whether or not you’d be a good leader is almost secondary to what your interests are and where your talents lie. Just as a simple example, you might say, “I’d like to try project management.” You could take on and test out a small segment of what might eventually result in a more significant managerial role. People who know by the age of five exactly what they want to be don’t always get to do that, and they may change their mind, but some people just evolve that way.
Whether you’re exploring your career or pursuing it intently, you don’t have to do it all at once. You can take on small steps that show you a direction. These steps allow you to say, “Actually, this isn’t quite what I thought it would be,” or “I enjoyed this; I could run this company.” In that sense, just as businesses evolve, employees evolve within them.
It’s hard for people to help you grow if they don’t have a little information about what you’re seeking. Even if that changes, I think it’s always a good idea to say, “I’m seeing this for the next couple of years, and I’d like to be able to create a way to achieve it.” It’s not an absolute in either direction, but I do like the idea that family businesses often allow women to experiment a bit and build their skills. That’s one way to figure out what you do and don’t want and to create the design of a job that suits who you are at a particular point in time.
R: To summarise, there are three great takeaways for anyone who’s feeling stuck.
The first is invest in developing your personal brand and try to understand the importance of telling your own story within the bigger story of the family business.
Secondly, understand your role and understand that you have the power to change and define that role. Have other people recognise the definition of your role in the family business.
Finally, whether it be to become the CEO or staying exactly where you are, setting certain goals can be a great indicator of how you’re progressing. You’ll see that maybe you’re not so stuck after all. Maybe you’re just being impatient.
Amy, do you have any final advice for anyone who’s feeling stuck?
A: It’s not as simple as pulling a lever and getting unstuck. I think that keeping a journal and talking to others can be extremely helpful. It’s important, also, to take on roles in the community, so that you can exercise your skills in a very different way and learn from people in other settings. Just be open to data about yourself and the conditions of working that you particularly need and enjoy.
R: Thank you again, Amy, for another great episode with great advice for women in family business. We will be back next week to talk about other interesting subjects.
About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge:
Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses. She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.