Know thyself Selfawareness is key for a healthy family business


    We were sitting in a room full of family business owners at the launch of a new NextGen Peer Group Program for Holland and the lakeshore. As part of the introduction, individuals were asked to share descriptions of their jobs. One leader’s comment was: “My title is ‘vice president,’ but the reality is I do a little bit of everything.” 

    This comment captures the essence of leading a family-owned business or starting a new one. Given that reality, knowing yourself and understanding the situations where you’re at your best is critical to keeping a strong team around you, successfully transitioning leadership responsibility, and building a resiliency in your own life that will ensure success and stability outside of your work.

    Gaining self-knowledge

    What is self-awareness? In a leadership context, it can be summed up in four areas of self-knowledge I call “trUYou”: 1) What gifts do I bring naturally? What are my talents? 2) What gets me excited? What am I passionate about? 3) What do I need from my job? What rewards mean the most to me? 4) What realities in my life must be managed around?

    Building self-awareness doesn’t come without challenge. We’re complex creatures who cannot be defined by a single assessment or a half-day seminar. It takes a commitment over time, help from others and life experiences. Also, we are ever-changing. While our talents rarely change, our passions, needs, rewards and realities morph and evolve over time. Developing this level of self-awareness will provide a strong basis for many personal and business decisions.

    Applying self-knowledge

    Once we get a picture of ourselves, the next step is to apply that self-knowledge to our jobs and our leadership of others. Three areas are of particular importance in maintaining a healthy family business.

    1. Do work that gives you energy.

    Doing “a little bit of everything” might be a current reality, but ask yourself a couple of questions about your work: What tasks drain your energy, leaving you exhausted at the end of the day? Is it closing the books? Dealing with problem customers? Troubleshooting operational issues?

    What tasks increase your energy? Our natural talents are in use when work feels easy and energizing.

    Knowing ourselves gives us choices. Do you hire someone to take an energy-draining activity off your plate? If a task is something you have to do, can it be balanced with a different activity, or maybe concentrated into one or two days that you can mentally prepare for? Self-awareness allows us to understand these realities and manage them.

    2. Define a business culture and understand how you, as leader, will naturally build or destroy it.

    Enduring businesses are more than just a service or a product. Organizations having a larger impact do so because of culture. What defines your culture? Is it solving problems for customers? Being innovative? Keeping honesty first? Serving the community?

    As leaders actively work to build a culture, there will be aspects of how we work that become barriers to the development of that culture. To combat these tendencies, answer the following: Under stress, how do I act? We all have stress behaviors, things we do when orders are late, our day is overbooked, a deadline is looming or a child’s ballgame started 10 minutes ago. Maybe the stress comes from a fear of not successfully building a business that was founded by a parent or grandparent and being able to pass it on to future generations.

    Many leaders have a drive for achieving results, making decisions and getting work done. Under stress, they’ll be quicker to make decisions and slower to ask for input. 

    As a leader, self-awareness provides a basis from which you can self-observe and change those behaviors that get in the way of creating cultures that attract and retain great team members and devoted customers.

    3. Select people who complement you.

    Here’s a common situation: A CEO builds a company through hard work and long hours. Whether at work or at home, he rarely slows down. Hard work is a filter for him, and he values people who are visibly busy, moving and working hard. Then he hires a CFO, and wonders why that person leaves after a year. For some, hard work is thinking and not necessarily moving or changing moment-to-moment. Successful transitions won’t happen without the CEO making a personal shift to accommodate a different style.

    Teams need a diversity of thought and talents. Idea-generating people need to be paired with people who execute. Those driven to do every task perfectly need to have people around them who will push to ship now. Numbers-focused leaders need someone more empathetic to review the total impact of changes that look good on paper. It’s easy to hire people like us, but we need to learn how to hire and retain those who balance us.

    A lack of self-awareness is one reason only a third of family businesses successfully pass to the second generation and just 12 percent make it to the third generation. Recently, I was talking with a retired owner who had successfully handed a business off to his sons. The strategy involved lawyers, bankers and a transitional time for his next generation.

    It also involved him moving across the Atlantic to West Michigan, so that he wouldn’t bother his sons. He knew that the same things that allowed him to be successful — hard work, a hands-on style, long days — would be barriers to the success of his successors.

    Everyone in your business will benefit from your newfound self-knowledge and your use of that knowledge in making better decisions for all.

    “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” — e.e. cummings

    Scott Patchin is the founder of The trU Group, a leadership-development and coaching practice. He can be contacted at or at

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