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Family Business CEO as Leader and Coach
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By Daniel D. Elash

Leading a family business is a tough job in the best of circumstances. How one balances the complex roles of business executive, family leader and fallible human being can lead to vastly different outcomes. The roles often have conflicting demands and may leave the CEO feeling, at the end of the day, that there´s no way to win. While there are no easy answers, the CEO can change these circumstances with a deliberate, considered effort to lead in collaborative ways. Leading in a way that draws others into the process as partners, rather than dependants, optimizes your organization´s capabilities, and isn´t that what leadership is all about? You can productively play the role of a player-coach on the company´s executive team. While it takes practice, these skills can be mastered.

Getting Oriented:

Use a simple business review process to create collaborative leadership. Introduce collaboration with your executive team by initiating focused, on-going conversations about their roles in the enterprise. Emphasize dialogue and strategic listening as key conversational components. Strategic listening, as differentiated from listening in general, occurs when you listen to conversations with an ear on more than specific content. It involves listening to implications of what´s said in the context of your company´s purpose. What are the ramifications of people´s assumptions? Are you hearing hints of confusion or misaligned priorities? These and similar questions can be addressed if you listen to the conversation within the context of your strategic intent.

These suggested dialogues strengthen the working relationships between the CEO and the executive team and between and among the team members themselves. Create partnerships designed to enhance everyone´s thinking about the work. Identifying key working relationships as thought partnerships creates opportunities to examine shared and individual thinking, understand how work products are passed across organizational boundaries, and engage in authentic conversations about the work.

Contracting For Purpose:

Begin these disciplined conversations by contracting with teammates about the desired enterprise outcomes. You´ll want to proceed in a way that focuses on the work, that´s thought provoking for you and them, that focuses on learning rather than blaming, and that allows you to see their business realities through their eyes. Fundamentally, these conversations are a vehicle for you to partner with your direct reports to:

  • Facilitate individual and collective successes
  • Encourage and inspire
  • Plant seeds in the minds of your people
  • Gather the intelligence to run your business successfully
  • Develop cohesiveness around a common, compelling purpose
The Process:

Your role is to purposefully communicate with, as opposed to talk at, your people. By listening strategically to peoples´ feedback, you´ll listen to both the content and the contexts of their conversations. While team members will most often report their input from their functional perspectives, you must be listening from the perspective of the overall business leader. Too often, the CEO gets sucked into the mire of solving day-to-day operational problems. There is, obviously, both skill and artistry involved in coaching well.

Listening In and On the Process:

While listening strategically to the debriefings, you´ll hear the thinking behind the priorities and activities of your direct reports. The conversations enable you to look for alignment between their perspectives and the business idea. What´s reported and what´s overlooked are both rich sources of data.

By listening authentically, you also tend your personal relationship with each member of your team. This provides opportunities for demonstrating your commitment to their success by doing something other than telling them what to do. These conversations will allow you to ask for feedback about their frustrations, while listening for the following:

  • What did you not know, overlook, or interpret differently from what you´re hearing here?
  • Where do they need to be coached into new perspectives?
  • Where are they frustrated beyond their individual ability to remedy their situation?
These conversations provide opportunities to listen for areas of team stress and strain. Your unique perspective (hearing independently what each feels about the others) also enables you, the organization´s leader, to make note of the apparent leverage points that you can address, over time that will produce significant dividends to the enterprise overall.

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