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Preparing Daughters to Lead The Way

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A few simple practices will help girls develop the skills to one day give your company a competitive edge.

By Ellen Frankenberg

Entrepreneurial genes are scattered across genders. Your sons will continue to inherit more large muscle power than your daughters, and your daughters will develop more delicate, fine muscle movements than your sons. But the personal characteristics required to build a business appear with equal frequency in both the sons and daughters of entrepreneurial families. Business brains are bathed in both estrogen and testosterone.

Family businesses are still male-dominated, but 37 percent of U.S. businesses are now headed by women, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners. Recent standouts include Meg Whitman, CEO of eBay; Abby Joseph Cohen, the stock market wizard; and Martha Stewart, who created her own entertaining industry. A new cadre of women business leaders now commands frequent airtime on the Nightly Business Report. I wonder how many family business leaders are listening.

How many owners seriously consider a daughter as a succession candidate—especially in construction management or financial analysis? How many family firms pay their daughters, sisters, and wives fairly—better than the 76.3 cents that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says women in corporate America still earn for every dollar earned by men?

Your daughter may someday provide the competitive edge your company needs. Successful women leaders report that the messages they received while growing up, especially from parents, had a significant impact on the goals they set and the talents they chose to improve. Here are some tips for developing all the entrepreneurial DNA in your daughter.

1. Expect her to do the math. Next time you fill up the SUV, let your daughter calculate how many miles you are getting to the gallon, or how many gallons you’ll need to get home. On your next trip to the grocery store, have her add up your purchases as you go—estimating without a calculator. She’ll learn that you believe she can figure things out, and that doing the math first can make a difference in the checkout lane.

2. Give her equal air time. Educational reports indicate that boys still command more teacher attention than girls. The same thing can happen at your dinner table. What questions can you ask that draw out her thinking skills as well as her feelings about what is happening within the family, the neighborhood, the city, the nation? And what can you do together that is reasonably enjoyable for both of you, even after she turns 13?

3. Teach her how to sail. Long before she gets her driver’s license she can learn how to captain a ship. Sailing is one family-oriented sport that combines the illusion of speed and a safe, sunny kind of risk. Children who sail learn to solve mechanical problems, as well as rudimentary physics—how much wind force against how much sail it takes to capsize. If your family boats, and you don’t scream too much when things go wrong, your daughter can learn to be a part of a crew and to take her own turn at the helm. If you live far from water, then find other ways to encourage your daughter to solve problems, take risks, and have fun at the same time.

4. Encourage her artistic expression. Learning the cello in the school orchestra builds persistent discipline, the capacity to work with a group, and brain cells. Sometimes she will even get to hear your applause.

When she is angry or frustrated, or has a bad dream, listen to her first and give her a hug. Then offer her paper and crayons, to draw “the dragon” that troubles her. By getting her feelings outside her head, she can take control of her own disturbing emotions by tearing up the dragon, hanging it on a bulletin board where she can throw darts at it, laughing at it in the light of day, or sharing her feelings more clearly with you.

5. Let her goof off. Keep a log for a week of how much time your family spends on organized sports, slogging through traffic with a carload of cranky kids. If you told your children that each could participate in only one sport per season, would your family have time for more than one meal a week together? How much time does your daughter have for unscheduled dreaming, for creating her unique perspective on the world, for imagining possibilities that don’t yet exist? She will live by a Palm Pilot soon enough.

6. Ask her to do favors for you. Child-centered families can produce narcissistic adults. Parents who jump to provide whatever their children want are telling offspring that their wishes are more important than anyone else’s. Especially in business families that generate substantial wealth, children mature by learning that giving to others is a gift too. When was the last time you asked your daughter to make you a glass of iced tea, or bring in the mail (with the junk presorted), or plant the geraniums? Waiting until her trust fund matures is too late to realize that you have taught her to be fundamentally selfish.

7. Read together. Even if she is too big to fall asleep in your arms as you read a children’s book, you can still go to the library or bookstore together and discuss why you each picked the books you did. The next time she rides with you on a sales trip, ask her to choose an audiobook she thinks you would both enjoy, or better, ask her to read to you as the miles go by. Lovely though she is, you are communicating to her that her beauty is not her most important asset, that her ability to think, learn, share ideas, and grow intellectually will last longer than her size 4 figure.

One book you, as a parent, could read is The Female Advantage, by Sally Helgesen. Helgesen tracked the daily work of women executives by analyzing their daily diaries, noting significant differences in their management styles compared with their male counterparts. The book will offer you some ideas about how your daughter can someday lead the family business in her own unique, effective way.

The average lifespan of women rose dramatically during the 20th century. It leaves plenty of time to raise a family and still choose to lead a family firm. Once mature, your daughter will function differently from her male counterparts, and perhaps her focus on the other—the customer, the employee—will become the “female advantage” for your company. If this future CEO can build strong business relationships, adapt intuitively to the changing marketplace, create collaborative teams, recognize opportunities that don’t yet exist—and do the math too—your family firm will beat the odds. It will benefit from the leadership style that has already been built into your daughters naturally. Using all the talent in your family’s gene pool will be an advantage for everyone.


Ellen Frankenberg heads Frankenberg Consulting in Cincinnati, which advises business families, and is author of Your Family, Inc. (Haworth Press, 1999) .
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