It Can Be Lonely at the Top of a Family Business

“Leading a family business can sometimes feel lonely and isolating”

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently mentioned in an interview that leading Apple “is sort of a lonely job”. He mentioned the importance of seeking outside advice, and whom he turns to when he does. One example included calling Warren Buffett. I’m assuming you don’t have “Warren Buffett’s” number in your phone contacts, but think of whom you might have outside of your company.

It can be difficult to get objective advice from others in the firm.

CEO’s of family businesses often manage from a vacuum in a filtered corporate culture. They are surrounded by “yes men”, colleagues who always agree with them and don’t offer objective advice. Included are other family members who too easily agree on ideas because they’re afraid of hurting feelings or creating conflict. Others are non-family employees who don’t want to “rock the boat” in order to keep their job security.

In our family business, on a social level, engaging employees in a personal conversation often didn’t seem genuine. I was always second guessing whether they were truly interested in our conversation or were they just trying to appease me because I was a member of the family.

This created a temptation to withdraw and seek opinions and advice from a more closely selected inner circle of people. But doing this risked losing an opportunity to be more involved and in-touch with our employees. It wasn’t until our business grew to a larger size that we began developing an effective balance of advice between our employees and external advisors.

Ways to Encourage Inside Advice

  1. Create a corporate culture that encourages feedback and ideas
  2. Demonstrate it’s okay to disagree, without repercussions
  3. Conduct brainstorming meetings
  4. Select a non-family employee as chair for a committee

Ways to Seek Outside Advice

  1. Use a Phone-A-Friend “Lifeline”
  2. Create connections outside of the business
  3. Join an industry peer group
  4. Create a list of outside contacts along with their core competency
  5. Create a rapport with a friendly competitor
  6. Identify a business contact that is completely disengaged from your business

What about the personal discussions? Well, maybe you’re better off not going there. After all, be honest, did you really want to hear that Susan’s niece in accounting won a trophy in a 2nd grade dance recital?