Defining the role of each family member within a family business is rarely a straightforward process. Identity evolves with time, and roles can be reverse-engineered and adapted based on the person’s skills, interests and, sometimes, the needs of the business. Understanding one’s own motives is a crucial first step towards defining every member’s role and identity. In this episode of our WiFB Conversations, Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the challenges and possible solutions to finding one’s identity 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 Isaac Davis on Unsplash
R: Amy, today we’re going to talk about finding, building and changing identity within and around the family business context. You’ve been working with a lot of women who are either active in their family businesses, own their family businesses or would like to find a role in their family businesses. Finding who you are within the family business is amongst one of the greatest challenges that most family members tell you about. Can you tell us a little more about how this challenge tends to manifest itself in people’s daily lives in the family business?
A: Part of it begins with the idea that women taking on significant roles in the business is a relatively new concept that’s still evolving. Their family and friends often did not expect them to make such a choice. It’s disrupting the expectations others have had of them while also embracing the new expectations that they have of themselves.
Typically, when people are pursuing or still figuring out their careers, whether they’re in their twenties, thirties or sometimes even later, identity is always a challenge. There are certain key choices we make in our lives that we either settle with and feel great about, or we don’t and feel like it’s time for a change. I think it’s a healthy thing to be pursuing activities, relationships and connections to our work that will shape us and help us develop as a person.
Of course, when you are involved in a family business, this becomes a little bit more complicated. That’s why, for many young women, it’s so important to clearly define what they do, what their value is and what they contribute to the business. It’s important for all of us to say, “This is what gives my life meaning while also giving me a way to contribute.”
I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine, who has a real estate business, has a daughter who has had two careers in public relations. She said to him, “I’m going to travel around Europe for a month, and then I’m coming back.” While she was away, she wrote a proposal for how she wanted to work within his business. She did not include salary, but she did include her role and a couple of things she wanted to introduce into the business, such as social media and wellness breaks for employees.
She’s coming into it in a very authoritative way, hoping that she’ll be able to find a way for her to express her values while helping the business become a little more up-to-date. This young woman had the opportunity and talent to form her career before, and that has given her the confidence to be very clear about what she’s looking for. She’s actively looking for a way to deploy her talents but also to be a woman of influence.
R: This is a wonderful example of framing both the purpose and your impact. It describes the ideal case, but it doesn’t usually unfold this way. Things happen unexpectedly, and many of us get called into the family businesses in cases of emergency. It’s almost always inconvenient, and it’s almost never the result of long reflection.
Most people think of a family business as being either a mom-and-pop store or as big as Lego, but most family businesses are in between. They’re small- to medium-sized businesses with huge responsibilities that don’t give us a lot of time to think about how we would ideally give people space within the organisation. It’s still mostly survival-and growth-oriented thinking.
As a woman joining the family business, the value that you’re going to be adding is not always clearly defined. We usually join the family business for emotional or family-driven reasons. The hardest scenario is when you join a family business from a need of the family rather than from a need of the business. That makes the identity-finding process most difficult.
Give yourself what I call “floating time”. Do not define yourself inside the family business right away. Don’t try to be someone important or try to change everything from the beginning. Go in and float. It is really a matter of understanding that seeing the business from the outside versus the inside are two totally different things. I don’t care how many summers you’ve spent working with your parents. It is fundamentally different when you start working with the family business 100 per cent and see your family members in those situations all the time.
The floating period is very important. Nowadays, there’s a huge obsession in saying that everything has to have meaning. But work life isn’t really like that. There are a lot of things we have to do on a daily basis that have absolutely no meaning. Our impatience and need to attribute meaning to everything can stand in the way of a normal, natural evolution whereby we find our identity over a certain period of time.
Many small family businesses let their new employees go through all the departments of the business to see all the different facets. Try this approach if you can. You have to get a sense of how you react to each context. You might be able to discover what you can contribute only when you know all of these things.
A: Let me go back to something. Part two of the story is that, when this young woman gave her proposal, it was received with a fair amount of ambivalence and surprise. Identity is not something that we do by ourselves. We do it in the context of relationships, of a setting or of an industry. There are a lot of things that shape who we are and how we approach the world.
If you float long enough, eventually, you will drown. It’s important to learn about various aspects of the business, but sometimes, younger women feel the need to master every skill from technology to whatever else is important to that particular business. If you don’t grab onto something, it can diffuse the identity you are creating in the organisation itself. People will see you as a Jill of all trades and a master of none.
We all want to be definitive in what the people around us are doing. We want to understand, and we want to make sense of things. Someone whose role is diffused or nebulous can run the risk of being seen as either not able to commit to something or a spy.
R: The problem is that being a family business member is nebulous and diffused by definition. No matter how much we formalise our roles, even if we aren’t written down as shareholders, we’re always going to carry the name. It’s a very ambiguous role to play. All of these things need to be done in moderation and within certain time limits. But having an identity within the family business context goes well beyond whether or not you’re actually working in the family business.
The identity discussion that I have much more often is with the in-laws, who provide free expertise and contribute significantly to the mental and emotional well-being of family members. Their life is seriously impacted by how the family business is run, but they don’t have any say or direct impact in changing anything. I encourage those passive family business members to try to find an identity in relation to the family business.
They could be an ambassador for the well-being of the business or an outside troubleshooter, giving feedback on things they’ve seen from an outside perspective. It’s important that family businesses include passive family members in family business retreats. People who are not in the active business can convey the impressions and tacit information that they’re getting while the business is being run.
Have you seen something similar?
A: I think structure helps. The extent to which anyone involved in the family understands and has the opportunity to negotiate what their role might be helps to create boundaries. These boundaries are vital in reigning in a shareholder who is constantly dominating a meeting. Some businesses have family councils, some have retreats, and some have vacation together. This becomes an opportunity to connect people and to share their ideas.
Another approach is setting up different kinds of conversations, depending on the size and scope of the business. They can set up conversations about career development for younger members or conversations for the children that they have and how they’re going to manage that. Early in one’s career, their identity is through work, but the meaning they’re looking for in work may shift over time. As people get older, the role they have had for many years may shift. Maybe they want time to create their identity outside of work. I don’t think our roles are fixed. I think it’s ever evolving. Understanding where you are, the meaning work has for you, and what you’re seeking is important.
You said the contributions that non-family members make can go unrecognised. Keep in mind that family members have all kinds of influence on what goes on at work. They can offer guidance and counsel, and that could be from many family members at different points. It’s not only nebulous when you’re creating your identity within the business, but it can also be a source of a lot of confusion.
Life stages can be marked out even if they happen at different times for different people. It’s important to know what you’re seeking because it’s not always constant.
R: It comes down to being honest with yourself about the motives behind the identity that you’re seeking to assert yourself within. Whether those motives are about gaining influence, power or the advancement of knowledge, being honest about your personal motives is extremely important in finding the identity that’s right for you at that stage.
I’ve been in the family business for a long time, and my role has changed radically based on what my contribution has been at the time. It can be a reverse-engineered process. Rather than trying to decide who you want to be, you may have become much better at something, or you’ve discovered a new skill. While there are a lot of things that are predictable about business and data, the human factor remains. There’s no telling at what stage of life light bulbs become lit in your mind. Suddenly, you’ll find an interest that takes you in a totally different direction.
If you have the kind of family business that allows you to explore a potentially new identity or a new way to contribute to its success, you’re golden. No matter how much conflict you have or how difficult the process feels, the fact that you’re allowed to have that thought process means that you have a very solid basis to evolve and grow continuously. You grow as a person, and the level of impact that you can make on the business will become bigger. That’s what we’re all seeking to achieve through the identity that we strive for.
A: Not to end on a challenging note, but life does intervene. Parents get older, they require care, and they become part-time. The fluidity that family businesses can allow is a gift. It’s something to appreciate and cherish because not everyone has that opportunity.
R: Be grateful for your family businesses. Find out who you are and why you’re doing this every single day. Thank you so much, Amy, for another great episode. We’ll be back next week with a new topic.
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.