With every family business entrepreneurial journey comes a treasure trove of fascinating stories. Some may be funny, some may be heartbreaking while still others may be inspirational. What they all have in common is their ability to educate and illuminate the path for others who come after them.
Kim Harland has collected and shared stories of women’s experiences, both on the front lines and behind the scenes, in her e-book Women in Family Business. This e-book presents family business through the eyes of the women who lead and are involved in them – across diverse ages, cultures, roles and ownership models.
Based out of her native Australia, Harland is the Managing Director at Insights, a not for profit organization created specifically for the large community of families in business in the Australia Pacific Region. With her husband David, they draw from their more than 20 years’ experience advising family businesses on issues such as Business and Family Capital, Succession Planning, and Family Governance and Communication.
With Women in Family Business, Harland wanted to explore the unique experience and perspectives from women who have navigated these often-times choppy waters. Recently WIFB had the opportunity to sit down with Kim to discuss the e-book’s origins, her findings, and whether or not women’s perspectives on the family business experience are similar regardless of culture.
Tell us a little bit about why got you into the field of family business and how you developed a specific interest in women and family business.
In some ways, it was an accidental occurrence that I became interested in family businesses. My husband and I started an accounting practice almost 25 years ago and David does have passion and interest in the family business field from his own family business. So we started the accounting practice and it gently morphed into more and more a practice that was serving family businesses. We realized fairly early on that family businesses needed more of a strategic outlook so we chose to upscale in many ways on the family side. It became fairly obvious that the family businesses that do well are the ones that can identify very early on that they are a family business. Once they’ve done that, they can realize the challenges they face are quite unique to family businesses and so are the opportunities. If they can make the most of these unique opportunities, they progress really well in terms of longevity and sustainability. We set up this platform of online education for family businesses and I use that as a way of helping family businesses to identify their family-ness and what to do with it. To identify what the challenges are and deal with them and move forward with them.
What has been, in your experience, the question that still crops up the most from Australian family businesses?
The thing about having an online platform for information is that it deals with what the concerns that family businesses have while still maintaining privacy. So that’s probably the number one thing, they don’t want to be out in a workshop or public space talking about the all the things are challenged by. So first and foremost is how do we do this discreetly and that works quite well. And I find probably one of the most prominent things we get asked about his dealing with conflict. Once they get the fourth generations, there are a lot of different personalities, a lot of different family branches and if there’s not a shared vision, that could be a really difficult thing to deal with. So conflict resolution is very important and one of the first things family businesses raise with us on how to deal with that.
Recently, you’ve decided to issue a book focussing entirely on women in family business. What made you focus on women in family business in particular? What about this topic was important to you?
First and foremost, it’s probably because I’m a woman. So there might be a slight gender bias there. But women in the family business have the best stories. They have such varied stories, whether it’s the invisible behind the scenes woman in a family business or the women that are really leading in a number of areas. Family businesses are historically so patriarchal. Family businesses were headed down from father to sons and so forth. Suddenly we’re in an era now where family businesses are leading the way in women in business and I think that’s a story that needs to be told and really needs to get out there. The numerous women that I’ve interviewed are just incredible woman and I find them inspiring.
Can you tell us how many countries you actually touched with the interviews that you did? You’ve almost had a global approach to it if you women all over the world, right?
I’d like to think I did. So there’s definitely an Australian flavour there, I interviewed four Australian ladies. And I was quite eager to make sure I had a global field so I have a contributor from India, a lady from South America, and a lady from the West Indies.
From your Australian context, do you see a big difference culturally in how these women spoke about the rules and their opportunities within family businesses? Did you feel something emerged or do you feel the challenges and the opportunity seem to be the same across cultures?
I asked a question of all of them – who inspires you? And I was originally going to ask – what woman inspires you the most. But I was working with a male colleague who suggested changing it to just who inspires you. It turns out, that was the right thing to do because a lot of these women were inspired by their fathers, their brothers, or the men of the family business who were more supportive of them. So I think that’s the commonality, the opportunity was there and they grabbed it with both hands.
From before you started this book to now after you’ve published it, how has your perception changed?
I was eager to ask them about the role that education plays in the family business. They were all were categorically saying yes, education was important so that was an eye-opener. The other thing that surprised me incredibly was how generous these women were. And I think it’s really important for our community of women in family business that we keep telling the stories. They have great stories and they’re so inspirational.
What do you think the odds are of you gaining a male audience with this book and bringing the topic of women and family business to the attention of men as well so as not to have a gender-centric discussion?
It’s interesting you bring it up because there are more men downloading the book than women. And I think part of that interest is because men, certainly older generations or even existing generations, realize the benefit of engaging women in the next generation of the family business. They can see that having female family members involved in a family business only improves the business outcomes.
What has been the response in terms the women you interviewed being actively engaged in mentoring other women?
In the book, I’ve got a checklist of things that women in family businesses can do to make sure that they’re setting themselves up for a really successful future. And mentoring is really critical, a lot of the women spoke about the importance of mentoring. Many of them have had roles in their industry groups and in family businesses organizations. I would say out of the seven women, they’re all involved externally in really speaking to other women coming through.
Now that you finished this book, how are you intending to contribute to the women and family business field? What are the topics that you love the see addressed?
When I wrote this book, I was just impressed with the process. I thought it was a fantastic process. I enjoyed meeting with all these women and I would almost like to do a version two of this and expand it. My work here in Australia is continuing in terms of education in family businesses. One of the major banks has identified that they need to take on specific information for family business clients. I think that’s the start of corporate entities in Australia recognizing that so I’m hoping that we can continue to speak about the role of women and family groups in general. If we can keep the family cohesive and working well together, the business will continue to run well. So my next steps are really to continue to keep the word of family business and family business education out there. It doesn’t have to be gender specific, but I have a joy doing this family business e-book and I hope to continue to do this kind of work and more of it.