Fostering Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership in Family Firms: Ten Lessons

August 2009

Oxford Management Publishing
By: Mary Barrett, Ken Moores

Women's potential to lead a firm - whether one started by a family member or a new venture of their own - is still not often enough acknowledged. With family firms acknowledged as the seeding grounds for the next generation of entrepreneurs, and with increasing attention in research and public policy to women's entrepreneurship, it is important to understand the factors in family firms which help and hinder their women members' leadership and entrepreneurship potential. This article, based on the authors' book Women in Family Business Leadership Roles: Daughters on the Stage (Edward Elgar, 2009), presents ten lessons for family firms which arise from the experience of women in family firms.

Gigi Cohen, EVP of Magid Glove and Safety, a third generation family business in Northbrook, Illinois, USA, has this to say about the article:

"I find this article less than helpful from my own perspective. It's hard to figure out if I'm an "invisible" or an "anchor" in some way. I believe I have had a unique experience in my family's business, and in part that is certainly because I am a woman. But it is also because I have a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses that are unlike other family members. Is my strong academic preparation and outside business experience an unusual data point among women in family businesses? I think my approach and management style are not like a typical man's approach, instead, I have more of a team governance style. But, I believe these approaches complement each other. After all, an ideal team is not all one personality type or style. The biggest "truth" in the article is that you need to establish legitimacy, but this is no different from a young male family member joining the business. All in all, I'm not really sure I understand how this article "fosters women's entrepreneurial leadership."

Amy Schuman ('05), partner at Family Business Consulting Group, has this to say: "Let's Find a New Leadership Lens to Understand Both Male and Female Leadership."

"Recently, I met with four executive women at the Allen Center to plan an educational session for Kellogg. We all had years of experience and accomplishment in our chosen fields, and - once we got around to our task, we finished it quickly. But - rather than digging right into our task, we spent a good chunk of the first part of the meeting trading stories and laughter about our families and mundane details of our daily lives. Something quintessentially 'female' permeated this meeting. A sincere curiosity about each other and an impulse to connect on a personal level - rare in meetings dominated by men - brought lively energy to the table. Although our task was not approached in a linear manner, or completed with optimal efficiency, it was one of the most productive meetings I experienced all month. The business world is overwhelming headed by men, and tends to be defined by a male sensibility. It is largely oriented to identifying and solving problems, finding and understanding cause and effect, and pursuing linear and directed approaches that promote efficient progress. At the risk of stereotyping, a more female-defined world would likely be oriented to identifying and building relationships, gathering and synthesizing diverse perspectives and ideas, and pursuing less linear and more holographic approaches. Certainly both men and women have the potential to exhibit all of these abilities. In business, however, an intuitive style often takes a back seat to the more rational styles that predominate.

The leadership research reviewed and evaluated by Barrett and Moores is rooted in traditionally male models of leadership development. What if Barrett and Moores used a fresh model of leadership rather than the historical ones that take the male experience as a starting point? Perhaps then, choices that are very natural for women, i.e. to slow down a career during child rearing years, or to enter business from another field such as teaching or service, would not be seen as aberrations, but as a natural progression. As long as a male framework for career progression and leadership development is accepted as a starting point, women will always appear to be non-traditional and invisible. If we could use a lens that encompasses both men and women's sensibilities and life experiences, I suspect we would discover new insights that would help both men and women become more authentic, capable leaders. Perhaps that's the most valuable insight from this research."

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