A new initiative will help improve the leadership skills of family business executives



A A new training initiative seeks to develop better leaders for family-owned businesses in West Michigan.

of Family business combination Created by Leading Us Forward: The Institute for Developing and Inspiring Family Business Leaders for Family-Owned Leaders who have passed on leadership roles and are identified as stewards of the next generation.

Family Business Alliance Director Robin Burns

The program is designed to help family business leaders “so they can navigate the dynamics of a family-run organization” and explore the unique aspects of a family-owned business, said Robin Burns, director of the Family Business Alliance. That can include the pressure of carrying on a family legacy and continuing the business for future generations, and balancing what’s best for business and family, Burns said.

“Being a family business leader is a challenging endeavor and they have recently faced market disruptions with the pandemic, labor and talent issues. And, in addition to facing those challenges, they have the challenges of running a family enterprise,” she said. “They became stewards of the organization. They are now responsible for more than the P&L. They are responsible for creating and running the entity, and the entity is a family affair to survive.”

The Family Business Alliance partnered on the initiative with the Virginia-based InnerWill Leadership Institute and the Chicago-based Family Business Advisory Group. The program is modeled after focus groups where local family business leaders talk about their challenges, what they need help with and how gathering with peers can help them understand leadership styles, Burns said.

The five-month program, set to begin in August, will include five half-day in-person workshops and one-hour individual coaching and counseling sessions. Working with groups and an individual coach, participants identify business, family and personal issues they want to address, “and then develop a plan and strategy to understand how to address those issues,” Burns said.

The Family Business Alliance, which has more than 160 family business members, is accepting applications for the program through March 15. The inaugural group will have 12 to 14 participants, Burns said.

According to Ted Epper, president and coordinator of the InterWill Leadership Institute, the program aims to create alignment between family goals and business goals. The idea is to ensure that the culture within the business and family is aligned and that the right processes and management are in place to achieve the long-term goals of both, Epper said.

“So is the family, so is the business. So is the business, so is the family,” Epper said. “Because of those family relationships and because you want the family to be healthy and you want compromise, sometimes you make bad business choices.”

In some cases, the goals of a family member with a stake in the business may conflict with the company’s goals, said Betty Forlowis, director of development partnerships and a consultant at the nonprofit InnerWill Leadership Institute.

“We want participants to truly take ownership of their role and align their family and business culture with whatever their business strategy is to enable them to thrive and succeed,” Fortluys said.

Program lessons focus on leadership styles, team development, effective boards, creativity and culture. A key component of the leadership program is ensuring that the family-owned business has a constant focus on developing the next generation of leaders and planning for succession from one generation to the next.

Success is typically on the minds of all family-owned business leaders, but fewer than one in 10 are “having the tough conversations to actually make it happen,” FortLouis said.

“They are very stuck. Everyone knows, but thinking about it and having the conversation in your head is very different from communicating it and discussing it with the stakeholders who will help execute it, Fortluys said.

The Inner Wheel Leadership Institute was started by Manakin-Sabot, Va.-based Luck Companies, a large fourth-generation family business that is “incredibly focused” on succession, Epperson said.

The company is continually working to develop leaders at every level and to identify future leaders and how to screen and evaluate them, Epper said.

“It’s a real challenge and an expense, but it’s an investment because that’s the only way an organization can be sustainable in the long term, to make sure that we’re constantly developing our own skills,” he said. “Otherwise, you have to go out on the street and try to buy, which may not fit your culture, and many family businesses have strong traditions and may reject an outsider like that.”


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