Over the past three months, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on many communities, families and businesses. While the global lockdown has presented many challenges, it has also provided an opportunity for reflection on our societal and business structures.

One of the major flaws that the worldwide lockdown has revealed is our dependence on the global supply chain. With minimal access to international products, many businesses have had to rely on increased supply chain localisation, benefiting businesses and communities.

The pandemic has also shed light on inequality in women’s roles, both within the family business and in the nuclear family. With women realising the need for greater balance in their roles, there has been an acceleration towards a movement for change.

In this episode of WiFB Conversations, Susanne Bransgrove and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the current COVID-19 situation, its effects on family businesses and how families can cope with the surmounting changes.

This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Susanne Bransgrove, director of LiquidGold Consultants.

R: Everyone seems to feel like a lockdown might be a good time for reflection – a moment where things might quiet down and we might be able to reassess the situation. Susanne and I agree that it’s one of the busiest periods we’ve seen in a long time, so the opposite can also happen.

Today, we’re going to talk about how the situation is unfolding with COVID-19, what it has meant for family businesses and how 2020 has turned out to be a totally different year than we were expecting.

Being in Australia, you have a view on a totally different part of the world than we do. Tell us what you’ve observed in terms of how Australian family businesses have dealt with the pandemic.

S: Every country has experienced this a little bit differently. Australia is one of those unique countries that seem to have been able to get on top of the pandemic reasonably quickly. Being a giant island makes shutting the borders a little bit easier.

We also had those horrible fires during December, January and into February. While that has impacted the tourism sector, a positive side effect has been a lower number of tourists than we would usually expect, particularly from Asia.

These fires and the low tourist numbers have hit many tourism areas particularly hard, as is the case with most other countries. However, we are in a position now where we’re looking at what’s next and considering the concept of reopening businesses.

Thankfully, we’ve only had 102 deaths due to COVID. But we are just as fragile as other countries. The lack of exporting and importing into and out of other countries has heavily impacted our family businesses, as well.

There’s been an interesting shift to the concept of reopening Australian manufacturing. Businesses are starting up again or changing their lines, and many family businesses have been focusing on local manufacturers for their supply chain. This system has been fairing quite well.

It’s interesting to see this thought process around having more control of our supply chain and looking after our customers differently. It’s going to create a different business model.

R: It’s interesting to see how this current situation equates with events we’ve seen in history. A lot of people are comparing COVID to the swine flu in 2008, SARS and even as far back as the Spanish influenza or the plague.

This was probably only possible because of the way we have globalised so extensively. The 2008 pandemic was a bit of a precursor to show the global impact and symmetrical shock we can experience through integrated financial markets. This has really hit local supply chains in a way that was very telling and showed the possible fragility of having a huge dependency on the global supply chain.

For an island like Australia, this has a very different impact. When we talk about localisation in a country like Australia, it means something totally different than if we talk about localisation in Europe, where the countries are so closely surrounded by each other.

Do you think you’ll see a trend towards localisation? What would that look like in the Australian context?

S: I think there’s a general movement towards localisation. It will be interesting to see how this is going to tie together and how the future will look. There are a few things that are coming together at the same time.

COVID has had a significant impact on businesses and families, more so than anything else we’ve ever seen. Unlike anything else, even the global financial crisis, this pandemic has hit every member of every society.

When you look at a family business, every family member and staff member is going through some stage of grief. How people deal with this, how they support each other and the decisions they’ve made are coming to light.

We’re realising that we’ve been relying on others about whom we have very little knowledge and even those with whom we have very little alignment from a pure cost and revenue perspective. Suddenly, we start questioning whether we’ve made good decisions for the long term.

We’ve also been seeing a huge shift in consumer behaviour for about twenty years. Consumers are starting to make purchasing decisions based on aligned values, particularly the younger generation, which buys from organisations in which they believe.

This is where women come into play, as well. Women are going to take on more leadership roles and have increased wealth. As we look at new trends around transitioning wealth and businesses, it isn’t always discussed with the eldest son. Women are going to be increasingly wealthy and influential. Additionally, women generally make different purchasing decisions.

These trends are starting to highlight consumers’ preference for buying products that are locally or sustainably made and supporting local businesses. This is a trend that’s already been happening, which is only going to be magnified.

From an Australian perspective, we focus a little bit more on supporting each other and supporting this big island of ours. As much as export dollars are needed, I think we’re going to see this trend accelerate in the coming years.

R: One of the main reasons why we felt this was a good time to pick up our podcasting again is because of these massive shifts that concern everybody.

I don’t think we as a global population have ever had this much in common across the board. The only transformative force that we can look at this pandemic as, aside from being something that makes people sick, is the understanding of there being an inherent connection of humankind.

When there’s this invisible force that comes in, it unifies us all. Some of the anti-racism rallies that we’ve seen have also shown that this situation was the kind of circumstance to make this conversation more possible and visible.

In a time where you would have expected people to be mainly concerned with not getting COVID, getting a new job or just putting food on the table, there seems to be this surge where people are willing to sacrifice everything and adhere to a cause. There’s a transformation in the air that has made these things possible.

We have been advocating this movement for a while in terms of talking about women and family business because no one has been talking about it enough. It’s not a glass ceiling discussion; it’s merely a matter of there not being enough content out there that addresses the issue. That’s why our conversations inevitably take that direction.

Without discriminating against men, I do think that this is a very interesting moment for this conversation because of these accelerating movements. We’ve seen that COVID has definitely accelerated digitalisation, and it’s also accelerated conversations that are difficult to have around topics like race and politics.

Do you expect an acceleration around the conversation of women’s rights and roles in leadership and business?

S: I think this acceleration and transformation comes from the pain that people have been carrying with them for such a long period of time. They have been enduring it because that’s how the system was set up.

The tipping point comes because people have lost so much. They may have lost their job or have been taking on all of this pressure in the family business. The question becomes, why have we been doing this? People don’t want to go back to how things were. They don’t want to conform and fit into the same hole.

When people talk about the new normal, they mean that it’s been hard on everybody. There is a call for togetherness that sometimes shows itself in very interesting ways. But people have reached the pain point.

We’re seeing inequality all across the world, whether it’s of financial means, race or gender. However, it no longer makes sense when you compare it to what we’re really up against. We can hide in fancy cars and mansions, and we can put ourselves in concrete jungles. But we’re still subject to the law of nature. We’re all just as susceptible as the next person.

This is a perfect time for this conversation, as people have reached their pain points. They’re happy to continue that journey and take the extra step to stand up for the things in which they believe.

R: It behoves us to always look at the family business. It has one of the most interesting business ownership models because of the combination of experience across generations.

Looking at family businesses highlights inherently human issues. It’s a very interesting construct in the sense that you’re constantly reminded of the limitations in our society, in the business world and even in the microcosms of a family company.

I passionately believe that women apologise way too much for going after what they want. Women often feel unnecessarily grateful and apologetic when they’ve reached a certain position.

This COVID situation has highlighted the benefits for certain countries and many businesses to have women in charge. Many businesses have shown that female leadership has been a clear advantage under these circumstances.

It’s not a science, but I think the point is being made that the more diverse your government and workforce are, the better. Having an open attitude towards leadership that is not based on the next in line being the eldest son is a leadership model that’s going to carry you more confidently into the future.

When you talk to women in family businesses, do they feel like this is an opportunity to make changes?

S: It’s too early to say, as many women are still in the middle of helping the business. However, what is interesting is that traditional leaders are a little bit overwhelmed.

There is quite a bit of language around fatigue in the patriarchy. This is something with which they’re not particularly familiar. They’re trying to manage a business where everybody is impacted, and everybody is going through the grief cycle at a different point.

Empathy and a different style of leadership are going to be critical to help businesses through this situation, and many patriarchal leaders are just a bit overwhelmed. As brilliant as these traditional leaders are in entrepreneurial thinking and business focus, they can’t be fantastic at all things.

They are sometimes lacking on the empathy front, and this is where women can step up into supporting the business and the family.

I can already see the recognition that businesses need to change a little bit. What is the family business going to look like after this? What are the long-term plans going to be?

It becomes very obvious that the person who’s been leading is not going to be the person who’s going to see the business through all of the changes. It will require the next generation to come together and bring the best of themselves.

Women will come to the forefront, and they’re doing it at the moment, ad hoc, and trying to remove some pieces.

It’ll be nice to see that recognition of the benefits they brought, as well as the diverse thought of how to make this move forward. But we’re not going to start seeing the consciousness of that until later this year.

R: Many of us are still in the reactive mode because the pandemic keeps throwing things at us that we didn’t or couldn’t have anticipated.

I think as long as the dynamics at the nuclear family level don’t change, women won’t have a chance to make that impact in the family business that we’d like to.

It’s been so interesting to see the effect of the lockdown. I’ve spoken to a lot of my male friends, who were suddenly confronted with full-time child care. I was quite surprised by how many cases in which that was a novelty.

The role distribution is still a very traditional one, and many women are in charge of raising the kids, even though they have full-time jobs. Women who are executives or who have very important jobs are often also expected to do all of the work at home.

There are a lot of positive examples in which that is not the case. Many nuclear families have been able to manage the lockdown because that shared division of work has always been there.

However, in most cases, the lockdown seriously threw off a lot of people in terms of dealing with their kids full time. Many people realised just how demanding it can be.

This has also put a strain on many relationships. There’s been the need for a role discussion within relationships, and this is a conversation that we should have more about how that influences our chances to thrive in the family business. While marriage is obviously a voluntary decision, it still influences the backbone into which we go into the family business.

I’ve been quite astonished by how many people are cognizant for the first time about the extent of the work that their partner does in life because they were forced into lockdown. It’s been a positive experience for some, but not for everyone, and many relationships have been tested by this pandemic.

What has been your observation in terms of the roles we play in the nuclear family and how that influences our perception of what we’re owed in the family business?

S: There’s no doubt that the lockdown has been challenging relationships, how we view each other and how we function.

One part of that is that we’ve seen an increase in domestic violence. Clearly, people aren’t coping, and they haven’t been able to hide from the problems they have at work or work any longer.

It’s a necessity to be open, honest and transparent when we’re talking about the business family. We need to have good communication when dealing with relationship issues.

I have seen a lot of these issues, particularly within the sibling relationship, where there are problems that are not being dealt with. Ensuring that each individual within the business and the family unit is functioning healthily, supporting what the business family is trying to do and aligning the shared values is critical.

Unfortunately, this is not something on which many business families have focused. The concept of aligning the family in the family business is incredibly complex. We talk so much about bringing spouses into the mix, but how far do you go to try to support couples and address the issues that they have to foster healthy and functioning relationships? This is the foundation for the next generation to have a better chance to grow up as adjusted human beings.

When you try to support the family business, it might look as if you’re trying to artificially create the perfect environment for the next generation. However, I think we’ve been focusing too much on success being external to our relationships. Why do we do that? How does an extra dollar make a difference when you have to break people who are close to you in the process?

I hope that there’s going to be some recognition that the role distribution has made it difficult for women to be part of the family business, contribute to the family council on an executive level and manage the family components at home.

R: I’ve always had issues in accepting that, but I hope that this is the end of the ‘Superwoman era.’

Women are convinced that we have to be Superwoman in order to be entitled to certain opportunities and ways of being treated. There’s a sense of overcompensation just to receive the same opportunities as men. This reveals how tiring it is for women, and it drains the joy out of and everything.

Our goal is generational continuity in harmony. If parents can’t agree on what a balanced relationship looks like, they’re going to raise their kids in an environment of stress and performance pressure. They’re creating an environment of inequality from the outset.

We were forced into lockdown, forced to look inwards and forced to ask ourselves the hard questions. In this dynamic within this house, what actually conditions our behaviour to the outside world?

There’s no quick fix for this. But on an optimistic note, I do think that there is an opportunity for women. Once we stop reacting, we can go back to being proactive and planning, and there’s an opportunity for us to permanently change certain aspects in this narrative. Hopefully, some of the narrative around racism, in particular, is going to permanently change.

If you had your magic wand or your wishbone, what would you hope for women to gain from this situation?

 S: It really comes back to that reflection time. We’ve seen something unprecedented that has put everything that we’ve been banking on and following blindly into question. We’ve realised that the worst has already happened.

When everything has been broken down, that is when you can start rebuilding. When talking about the new normal, it is inevitable that we’re going to have a chance to rebuild something new out of the ashes. In three months, we’ve questioned everything we’ve known and believed in.

I look at this from a survivor perspective. We’ve survived everything up until this point. We’ve survived inequality, questioning ourselves and apologising for who we are trying to be. We’ve been there, done that and survived, and it wasn’t great.

Now is the chance for women to decide who they are and stop pretending to be something for someone else.

We’ve already seen that things can disappear from one day to the next. All we can do now is be true to ourselves and do the best we can for those around us. We want to just be who we are because if things go up in flames again, you don’t have to try to recreate yourself. You are already there.

R: I think that’s the best advice for crisis proofing, as well. A lot of people are asking themselves how they can be prepared for the future. What you’ve just said applies to the personal and the business level.

Knowing who you are and why you do what you do are essential ingredients towards being prepared for these kinds of situations. Of course, there are always going to be unknown factors, but we should focus on being true to ourselves and being aligned with those ideals.

As we go forward, my hope is that, eventually, this podcast won’t be necessary anymore, and we won’t have to separate the women and family business conversation. Hopefully, we will be done playing catch up, and we’ll be able to even out the playing field.

About Susanne Bransgrove and LiquidGold Consultants: 

Susanne Brainsgrove

Susanne Bransgrove, one of the directors of LiquidGold Consultants, is known for her passion for supporting Families in Business manage the complexities of balancing multiple generations and for encouraging female founders and future leaders to be the best they can be. Growing up in Germany as part of a third-generation family business has provided her with a sound foundation for understanding the range of issues that arise when family members work together. Susanne puts her heart into the businesses and individuals she spends time with and believes in a strong foundation of love and compassion.

www.liquidgoldconsultants.com.au