Next Generation Leadership

Competitive Advantage for Family Business: Effective Communication

February 2, 2012 By Kristina Magnuson

This is the first of a series of student-written posts about the Family Enterprise Center’s course offerings.

Brad Harrison is a UNC BSBA 2012

Dr. Mark Voeller is a Partner at Cambridge Advisors to Family Enterprise and has been an active in the family business field for over 25 years. 

The first family business guest speaker of the year didn’t center the conversation around traditional business topics like marketing plans or corporate strategies or profit maximization; Mark Voeller’s presentation rather focused on the psychology and interpersonal dynamics of the family enterprise, knowing that these factors ultimately play a role in driving everything else in that family’s business.

Voeller’s opening and most recurring model described family business as a system, a Figure-8 of complex interactions in which every action and decision by a member of the family comes full circle to  generate consequences for both the greater family and the original decision maker. In these complex webs, every member is a potential point of change, not just the family patriarch. Consequently, even though the concept can be daunting and unappealing at times, Voeller highlighted how important consensus building and widespread family participation are in the decision making process.

Since every family decision bears consequences, patterns of family activity have understandably yielded an unstated system of rules. However, excessive rules create boundaries and solidify the status quo; as such, an open family system is much healthier, reduces entropy, and leads to smarter and higher quality decisions on a widespread scale. Examine children, for example, as Voeller noted that more autonomy for kids leads to a higher potential for development, citing additional development for the next generation in a family business as critically important.

Voeller then challenged the class to determine, “What is conflict?” He provided a story in which two people were fighting over an orange. A third party bystander then hastily cut the orange in half, believing he had solved the problem. In reality, both people were now angry, since one wanted juice and the other wanted zest. The point of the story is to hammer home the importance of simply listening to each other. It also illustrates the importance of foreseeing conflict before it comes full circle. Voeller advocated that family members should not accept jobs within the business without a clearly defined job description since it’s inevitable that this situation will lead to non-family resentment, un-fulfillment, and artificially created work.

Lastly, Voeller concluded with a discussion on emotional intelligence and how effective family business leaders consistently work to further that skill. The Limbic system, which drives emotions, operates 10,000X faster than the prefrontal cortex. Since emotions maintain a physiological head start, the best family leaders conscientiously gather awareness of what drives their emotional responses and take appropriate steps to stay calm regardless. Recent research even dubs emotional intelligence as a greater key success factor in family business than intelligence or brain power.

Conversations with Dr. Voeller after class and with classmates in breakout sessions during class reinforced the aforementioned lessons and helped me to apply them to my own family business situation. Instruction on the family components of business rather than simply generic business appears to be critically important for family enterprises, and this class and guest lecturers who intentionally emphasize those factors have greatly augmented my business education.