Family Business: Old Problems, New Thinking

How we as business leaders deal with our most pressing concerns about driving growth, developing leaders, managing change, and so many other issues, depends largely on whether we’re able to see old problems in new ways. That’s certainly true in a business family where some of the biggest challenges are also the most familiar:

How can we pass the business to our children when they can’t seem to get along?
How can we move the business forward when we have different ideas about where to take it?
How can we trust the business to another generation when they’ve never been at the helm?

When family businesses identify the problems that are holding them back, they often cite obstacles like lack of skill, lack of experience, differences of opinion or poor communication. And it’s true those things can prevent us from moving forward. But an even bigger impediment is an underlying belief that it’s never been done or can’t be done. Our past experiences and ingrained thinking undermine our ability to see new solutions for old problems.

Instead of changing our thinking (the origin of everything we do), we sometimes have things backward. We let the current state of things determine our actions, instead of the other way around. If you want to alter the picture, you’ve got to go back to the thinking that created it. Here are three ways to practice.

Let the Choir Preach to You

In a family business, there are many stakeholders, often with differing perspectives. Yet when it comes to important decisions, some leaders like to sing solo. Listening to all the stakeholder voices (whether they’re family or not, work in the business or not, hold shares or not) can help you understand your own assumptions about the future. And possibly shed new light on an old problem that’s been plaguing you.

Think in Decades, Not Years

In business, we’re often focused on day-to-day concerns and urgent issues that may be outside of our control. Customers need things, the bank wants a meeting, and employees have issues. But solving old, sticky problems can be helped by changing our time horizon. When we look beyond the immediate, far into the future, sometimes we see different possibilities. Ask yourself: Would you want your current action (or inaction) to become the standard for the family business two generations from now?

Find the Right in the Wrong

Sometimes, just framing an issue as a problem is a problem. We get stuck on what’s wrong and it stymies any thoughts about how to change it. So while it can seem like a foreign concept, think about what’s right with your challenge. What benefits are you deriving from this? How is this actually an opportunity? Or try reverse brainstorming. Instead of asking “How will we ever get along?” ask “What could we do to increase our conflict?” Turning the equation around can inspire more creative ideas for moving forward.

You already know the status quo is not really an option for the things you care about most. So what’s holding you back? What could you change? Start with thinking about your own thinking and you might just find a new perspective on some old challenges.



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