By Jami Daniels, CEO of Asheville’s The Daniels Group
The evolving model of a family business means remaining aware that you are part of something bigger than yourself.
As the third generation in a family-owned business, I’ve experienced firsthand how much a company can shift with each generation. Since I was a child, I’ve been immersed in the world of printing. Our industry has changed significantly since my grandfather started the business from a park bench in downtown Asheville 70 years ago. I’ve seen our culture and leadership styles evolve with the changing times.
There are many lessons I’ve learned along the way that can be helpful for leaders in a family-owned business.
Learn From Those Who Came Before You.
If you plan to work in your family’s business, seek insight from current and previous leaders. They have valuable lessons they can teach you.
There is a lot to be said for working with someone you trust completely. I spent 15 years working with my dad, who was the CEO since 1964, before I took over in 2016. He grew up in the company, too. He was an incredible salesperson, and I’ve learned so much from him. He used to say to me, “Think of a way to do it better.” That goes through my head all the time.
Be Adaptable to Change.
To stay relevant, make the business your own. If you inherit a company and never change as times change, it will stagnate quickly. The challenges I face now are numerous. Printing is called a dinosaur industry; to remain competitive, we must be anything but prehistoric in our approach to technology and innovation.
The nature of the business has changed, too. There are fewer opportunities for huge print jobs. The days of printing 50,000 glamorous catalogs are fewer. It’s less about the printed piece and more about how the pieces are disseminated and how effective they are in marketing a company’s goods or services. It’s about ROI, but more importantly, it’s about communication and how our clients communicate with their audiences. We’re looking for more ways to add value for our customers.
Because communication is so critical, we look for ways our call center service can fit in with our customer’s marketing mix. We have seen huge growth in this area. These days, more people want to talk with someone on the phone and can become aggravated by automated systems. It’s all about being open-minded about your company’s services or products.
Have Structure When Transitioning Leadership.
Family businesses are notorious for not having a good structure for getting the next generation involved and “groomed” for a leadership role. Because of that family dynamic, it makes it harder to train future leaders. In a perfect world, having a non-family member mentor the younger generation would be an ideal way to create separation and cultivate individual leadership styles between family members.
I would also encourage any family business to be intentional with succession planning. Have the same set of guidelines and expectations for family members that you would have for any other employee. The family member being groomed for the leadership role should be able to meet those expectations.
Work in as Many Roles as Possible.
I recommend future leaders to gain experience in as many facets of the business as possible to understand how the company works.
I’ve worked in many roles in our business, from marketing to accounting to customer service. Outside of running the printing press, I’ve worked in every department here. Because of this, I have a good idea of how to problem-solve. I can get granular because I’m familiar with how each department functions.
Gain a New Perspective of Your Industry.
I would encourage people who want to work in their family’s business to work at another company in the same industry for a while. See how someone else does it. A change in perspective can give you valuable insight in improving your own organization.
Seek Insight From Your Peers.
Get involved with as many other organizations as you can. Get peer input and see what other people are doing that works. I’m part of a CEO advisory group, and each of us is in a different industry, but overall, our challenges can be similar. It’s been valuable to get their insight.
Form Your Own Culture And Leadership Style.
I’ve had to develop my own leadership style apart from my father’s or grandfather’s before him. I’ve been given an incredible opportunity and am now able to put my own stamp on it and make it uniquely suited to my skills and leadership style. It’s intimidating because my dad was a strong leader, an innovative person, very courageous, and willing to take risks to grow the company. In those ways, I have big shoes to fill. In other respects, he was more old-fashioned. Figuring out and honoring those differences is challenging, but can be a rewarding path for a family member taking the helm.
Right now, we are making some substantial changes in our company culture. We have a company handbook for the first time in The Daniels Group history. We are creating more transparency and clarity for all employees. It makes sense for all of us to be on the same page about policies, benefits, and processes. Employees who are here now are excited to be part of the future vision of the company.
Embrace Your Legacy.
One of the best parts of working in a family business is being part of a family legacy that is bigger than yourself. In many ways, the family business can feel like another member of the family. That legacy can drive your passion for the company, which is essential to leading well.
Jim Daniels, former CEO of The Daniels Group, was profiled in the March 2014 issue of Capital at Play in the feature “Cranking the Mimeograph into a New Millennium.”
Jami Daniels is CEO of Asheville-based printing/marketing company and call center service The Daniels Group.
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