Four Guidance Points to Building Successful Family Business Governance

A 2014 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 71 percent of family-owned businesses didn’t have procedures in place to resolve conflict issues.

Statistics such as these make it all the more imperative that family members in business together set up a clear and agreed-upon structural plan, a constitution for business governance as it were.

Items in this structural plan can include mission and vision statements, an employment policy, strategies to develop the next generation of leadership for the business, a liquidity policy, a succession plan, and information regarding any shareholder meetings.

Understandably, the details of what is relevant when it comes to successful family governance can change from business to business.  With that said, the below guidance points can prove useful for a wide range of family-run organizations. 

Independent Board of Advisors

Many family businesses have boards of directors comprised mostly or entirely of family members. Although boards of directors with this kind of composition can be successful, independent, non-family-related directors do bring value. 

Some family businesses ensure more balanced boards of directors through policies that limit the number of family directors.  Some also compliment their family board members with non-equity holding directors. If the governance structure doesn’t allow for outsiders on the board, setting up an advisory committee to the CEO that is composed of individuals recruited from outside the family may bring fresh perspective and expertise.

Avoiding Conflict During Management Changes

Policies that encourage meritocracy are certainly beneficial to any family-run company, especially when it comes to setting boundaries and avoiding conflict during times of management change.

The reality is that leadership change happens in most businesses.  Intelligently-run organizations understand this reality and plan ahead to make leadership transitions as smooth as possible.

To build on the previous point, outside directors and advisers can help make management changes smooth, after all non-family related advisors or directors can provide both the perception and the reality of objectivity during leadership selection decisions.

Regardless if a business is hiring new management from within the family or outside of it, new management should be in line with the organization’s culture and should be evaluated based on core leadership qualities like respect, integrity, quality, humility, passion, modesty, and ambition.

Transparency

To prosper, businesses need to raise financing from time to time and if a company is still private, that usually means depending on a bank to provide a loan. Family-run firms that insist on maintaining a veil of secrecy over their affairs will find it difficult to raise the financing needed to grow.

The so-called “family premium” — the idea that family-owned and -led businesses are stricter when it comes to standards, capital distribution and governance — is typically only applicable to entities with high levels of transparency. Conversely, opaque firms trade at a discount because investors simply don’t know enough about that business, especially those firms with governance practices that may be questionable in other respects.

A Well-Organized CEO Succession

When examining large family-run corporations that have failed in the past, CEO successions, or rather failed CEO successions, have played an unfortunate pivotal role.  When considering the integrity of their own CEO succession process, businesses should ask three questions: one, how vigorous is their candidate selection process and does it allow for the inclusion of multiple candidates?  Two, will all family members who are significantly part of the business be involved in the selection of the new CEO?  Three, what is involved when it comes to integrating and developing the successor in his or her new role as CEO? 

The latter point should be particularly emphasized if a new CEO is being introduced into the business who is not part of the family.  After all, this will be a leader who will not only have to efficiently and successfully integrate into the company, it will also be someone who will need to integrate into the family business dynamic and navigate the occasionally choppy waters of inter-family relationships.