Serving on a family business board is a curated balance between the past, present, and future. It involves dedicated involvement from the board, the family and multiple stakeholders.
By Karen Loon, IDP-C and IDN Board Member
Family firms, which are the majority of global companies and account for 70% of the global GDP and 60% of global employment, are a crucial driver of international business and growth. Their sustained long-term value creation is essential for the global economy as a whole.
However, family firms’ long-term success is not given, and it is not an easy task to succeed across multiple generations. There are many complexities involved when ownership, management, and family roles overlap with less clear distinctions between them and multiple, conflicting agendas.
Family business boards can play an instrumental role in aligning family businesses successfully for the future. However, it can be a balancing act for non-family board members/ chairs, particularly navigating the complex landscape of legacy, interests, power, and the constant need for change and renewal.
INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) members recently had the opportunity to learn how to successfully develop and manage family business boards as vehicles for successful governance and leadership with impact across generations in a webinar held on 8 March 2021. The speakers included:
- Martin Roll – Distinguished Fellow (family business) and Entrepreneur in Residence, INSEAD
- Christian Sievert, Non-Executive Director (“NED”) and Advisor
- Marina Niforos IDP-C, IDN France Ambassador, NED and Advisor
How to create and lead a family business board
Martin Roll shared his perspectives on how to create and lead a family business board. He highlighted that the overlap between family, ownership, and business interests increases the complexity and emotions between different parties.
“As a board member of the family firm, you will find yourself navigating between family issues, owner issues and business issues, where maybe in non-family firms, it’s a little clearer” said Martin who highlighted that this complexity increases emotions.
Source: Martin Roll
Having a successful family business strategy is dependent on clear roles, responsibilities and “guardrails” between family, ownership, and business to drive sustained success. Key challenges which the strategy needs to address to align family businesses and inter-generational interests include family, ownership, business portfolio, family office, and impact.
Martin shared that the dilemmas in balancing business and family are paradoxical.
“What are family firms generally are interested in, first of all, they want to grow in the long-term perspective, but at the same time you also want that kind of family harmony and welfare” – Martin Roll.
Having an appropriate family business governance structure is essential. Traits of effective family business board members include:
- Balance past, present and future – understanding the legacy of the family.
- Proximity to family owners but keep integrity.
- Succession and ownership are constant concerns.
- Beware of cultural differences.
Experiences and perspectives on family business boards
Christian Sievert and Marina Niforos shared their personal experiences and perspectives on family business boards from an ownership, advisor, and NED perspective.
They noted that the benefits of family businesses include having long term perspectives and commitment; having strong family/company values as a core asset; and strong financial performance.
“Most families have some core values that you know have been the foundation for starting the company, and that are really a strength that can be used when recruiting, retaining and developing, especially good employees” said Christian.
Challenges for independent directors are:
- Managing complexity – Navigating higher levels of complexity, emotions, and boundaries, especially if there are contentious areas and different loyalties. Also, maintaining independence can be difficult for independent directors.
“It’s also difficult to manage your own emotional charge, because in the beginning when you come in as an outsider, you have a lot of interest to develop relationships so that you can actually have this sort of capital of trust with the family. But the closer you get, the more difficult it is to exercise your fundamental role on the board, which is a challenge as an independent. So, in a sense, yes, that is a paradox, and you have to manage that – it’s not an easy job” – Marina Niforos.
- The informality of family businesses – Having clarity of the board’s decision-making processes and independence. Examples of areas where family businesses can be better are having a clear business plan.
- Difficulties of dealing with “elephants in the room” where issues cross the boundaries between family, business, and ownership. More sensitive matters include succession, remuneration, legacy business models/having a sense of urgency, and innovation and renewal.
Serving on a family business board is a curated balance between the past, present, and future. It involves dedicated involvement from the board, the family and multiple stakeholders. Martin Roll concluded the webinar with the following observations:
- Family business NEDs can be critical for long-term success by balancing complex business, family and governance issues.
- Navigate carefully and with integrity between emotions, internal conflicts, power dynamics, inter-generational views, and cultural differences.
- Be a catalyst for change and bring outside inspiration from other ownership models (private equity, venture capital, institutional, foundation) and governance structures.
INSEAD Directors Network (“IDN”) – An INSEAD Global Club of International Board Directors
Our Mission is to foster excellent Corporate Governance through networking, communication and self-improvement. IDN has 1,500 members from 80 countries, all Alumni from different INSEAD graduations as MBA, EMBA, GEMBA, and IDP-C. We meet in live IDN webinars and meet-ups arranged by our IDN Ambassadors based in 25 countries. Our IDN website holds valuable corporate governance knowledge in our IDN blog, and we share insights also to our LinkedIn and Twitter followers. We highlight our member through quarterly sharing of their new board appointments, and once a year we give out IDN Awards to prominent board accomplishments. We provide a peer-to-peer mentoring and board vacancy service and we come together two times per year at the INSEAD Directors Forum arranged by ICGC. We also engage with ICGC on joint research.
INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre (“ICGC”)
Established in 2010, the INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre (ICGC) has been actively engaged in making a distinctive contribution to the knowledge and practice of corporate governance. The ICGC harnesses faculty expertise across multiple disciplines to teach and research on the challenges of boards of directors in an international context and to foster a global dialogue on governance issues with the ultimate goal to develop boards for high-performance governance. Visit ICGC website: https://www.insead.edu/centres/corporate-governance