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Bye-bye damsel

Its not easy to join the board of the family business as a woman, especially if you have never worked in the guts of the business, but don't let timidity undermine your role as a decision maker.
Family business expert Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj

Women are increasingly being recruited onto family business boards. This is a good thing. An ever-increasing body of evidence shows that diversity is good for a business. But joining the board of a family business can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand you are at the epicentre of decision-making. On the other, as a woman you may find that you are struggling to assert yourself.

It’s not easy for anyone to transition into being a fully-functioning board member. It can be particularly daunting for women, and even more so if you are from the younger generation. Women can suffer from the “damsel in distress” syndrome: they often expect to be rewarded for acquiescing. Fathers (and mothers) can expect daughters to play the role of a “good girl”. But acquiescence is no good in a board member. So if you are a woman on your family business’s board, or you are contemplating joining it, how can you ensure you don’t become a damsel?

Firstly, know yourself and make sure others do too. It can be overwhelming stepping out from the identity of being a daughter, wife or mother in any combination of these. It is equally difficult to re-cast yourself in the eyes of other board members who have known you since you were a child. Having grown up in a family business environment gives you understanding of the business’s culture. But you still need to demonstrate an understanding of, for example, finances.

A skills audit will determine what abilities you need to develop to present yourself as a credible board member. Build your credibility by presenting strong evidence of your competence and experience. Demonstrate your impact, and build allies across the board to support your work.

Secondly, embrace your uniqueness. You may have been recruited into the role because of blood ties (or indeed marriage ties) but you are there to add value to the decision-making process. Boards provide transparency and accountability about business decisions, and perform best when there is a breadth of thinking and experience. Recognise your areas of expertise within the business and the external insights you bring, and don’t be afraid to shout about them. You will add greater value when you challenge existing assumptions, so speak up and have confidence in your skills.

Thirdly, harness the gender differences in leadership. Men and women have different leadership competences and behavioural approaches, and by embracing these you can bring a fresh perspective to business decisions and add rigour to the decision-making process.

For example, women often work in a more collaborative manner and look to build support. Their different experiences mean women bring different strengths and insights to decision-making that in turn create new opportunities for business development.

Fourthly, bring in new ideas, but befriend the old guard. Family businesses can outperform their non-family counterparts under stressful economic conditions, because of their experience and long-term perspectives. However, there is also a risk that new opportunities may be missed.

The value of new thinking at board level is to offer innovative ideas for market development or operations. Do that. But keep lines of communication open and ensure your fresh vision does not alienate the more traditional stalwarts of the board. They have done a good job in the past and should be respected.

Impactful leadership involves making difficult and unpopular decisions, not compliance. One of the challenges of being a board member can be changing how family members perceive you – but you don’t need a knight in shining armour to help you achieve this.  

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