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Making the most of women executives

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If your daughter becomes CEO, it will make a difference.

By Ellen Frankenberg

Marta Valls, president of the Valls Corp. in Barcelona, Spain, recently visited Cincinnati. Since she’s one of the few women chief executives in Spain, Marta wanted to learn whether Spanish fathers are more reluctant than American fathers to appoint their daughters to head their family businesses. What part does culture play when a family prefers either male or female successors?

To answer that question, I invited about 15 women CEOs of family businesses to meet with Marta and share their experiences. A majority of the women agreed that:

• Women CEOs tend to lead in empathic, inclusive ways, rather than aggressive, competitive ways.

• Women and men CEOs in family businesses treat employees differently.

• Family businesses try harder than other businesses to develop “family friendly” policies, such as on-site day care and family medical leave.

• The early messages that families give to daughters have a great deal to do with whether they develop the confidence to lead a company.

• Women are no longer automatically relegated to “women’s work” in family firms (like being secretaries). But family businesses lack clear criteria for selecting and promoting family members, whether they are male or female. This lack of clear criteria (as well as a broad preference for male leadership) is a greater deterrent to women becoming CEOs than any woman executive’s decision to raise a family.

The struggle to balance family commitments with business responsibilities remains the central issue for women CEOs of family firms. Unlike women executives in other corporations, women at family firms can’t always seek support at home when tough decisions have to be made, because family members may be part of the problem. The women agreed that the toughest decision is to fire a family member.

Many women executives have so much to do that they’re not aware of other women in similar situations. Few of the women in my informal group seemed to know each other, even though they lived in the same region. (They made some productive business connections after the meeting.)

Nor are women restricted to “feminine” industries like cosmetics. Several of my group’s women CEOs wear hard hats. They manage companies that galvanize waste receptacles, produce solvents for the plumbing industry and install security fences on major highways.

None of the women described a “career plan” that prepared them to lead the family business. Marta Valls observed that they seemed to assume leadership by “accident”—for example, after another career didn’t work out, or through marriage into a business-owning family. Ann Baughman Bain, now the fourth-generation CEO of Armrel-Byrnes Co., a highway construction and site development company, left medical school to assume leadership after her father’s untimely death.

Because of their feminine preference for empathy and collaboration, women CEOs may experience the emotional pain of family conflict differently from the way men do. Yes, women will make the tough business decision when necessary, but it may extract a different kind of energy from them. Because they have been socialized for generations to take responsibility for relationships both at home and at work, they may benefit from a support group beyond the family.

Sally Helgesen, in The Feminine Advantage: Women’s Ways of Leadership, describes the advantages of a distinct “feminine” approach to work. Most women, according to Helgesen, prefer to work steadily until a project is done, value relationships with superiors and subordinates alike, and see themselves reaching out from the center of an organization, rather than climbing to the top. Before making major decisions, they tend to think first of the impact on the other.

After studying 1,800 men and women from the U.S. and Canada, Dr. Robert Kabacoff found that bosses rated men and women as equally effective leaders, while peers and direct reports viewed women as slightly more effective. Women scored higher on concern for production and attaining results; men scored higher on strategic planning and organizational vision.

Women operated with more energy, intensity and emotional expression, including the ability to keep others enthusiastic and involved, while men were more likely to maintain a low-key, understated and quiet interpersonal style by controlling their emotional expression.

These findings suggest that the best family business teams are those that include both men and women. They also suggest that women will benefit from additional training in strategic analysis and planning, while men may benefit from additional training in interpersonal and relational skills.

Is a woman the best candidate to lead your family business? That’s a complex decision, ideally based on the needs of the company and its marketplace. Would you like to work with a collaborative, results-oriented, information-sharing successor who can transfer energy to others? Do you want an empathic leader working with your family members, perhaps developing “family friendly” practices while keeping a practical eye on results?

If you as a parent can overcome the biases of ancient cultures so that both male and female candidates are considered seriously, your family’s Golden Goose—the business—may prosper more than you might imagine. Your company will enjoy a different kind of leadership—one that capitalizes on the feminine advantage that your own family nurtured.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D. is a family business psychologist in Cincinnati with 20 years of experience as a CEO. Her book, Your Family, Inc., was recently published in Spanish.

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