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Anita Brightley-Hodges discusses communication in a family business with Lynn Hart

Lynn
Welcome to the Female Entrepreneur Show with me, Lynn Hart, here on KWIB Radio. I’m thrilled and delighted to be joined here again by Anita Brightley-Hodges, who is the leading specialist in  family business in the UK and Ireland. Welcome Anita!

Welcome to the Female Entrepreneur Show with me, Lynn Hart, here on KWIB Radio. I’m thrilled and delighted to be joined here again by Anita Brightley-Hodges, who is the leading specialist in  family business in the UK and Ireland. Welcome Anita!

Anita
It’s fantastic to be back on the show, Lynn. 

Lynn
Communication is what we’re going to be talking about today. This is obviously even more important within a family business when you need to ensure that everyone’s point of view is heard. What should be done, Anita, to set clear boundaries? What can be done?

Anita
The first thing is to decide the boundaries and it’s the hardest thing to do. Business should be kept in the business and family should be kept in the family. The number of family businesses that I’ve worked with who’ve said that “I just want my mum to be my mum”. “I wish I just had a sibling relationship” because there aren’t those boundaries. The difficulty – or the excitement – that occur in the business is often carried through to the family. 

In a non-family business, it’s easy: you have a bad day at work and you get home and moan to your wife, partner or friend and they’ll say ‘have a cup of tea’ or ‘l’ll make your favourite dinner’ or ‘why don’t you just leave and get another job?’. In a family business, you can’t do that because it will be a Sunday roast or a christening or it will be a family outing. Those are the toxic things that just get worse and worse. So I think establishing boundaries at the beginning – and I can say that now – don’t forget there are established family businesses who didn’t do that at the beginning because it was too exciting. In the long run, I think it is probably not the best thing to do, not to have boundaries – you need to establish boundaries. We do that in our family business; when I close the door on the business in the evening, I’m called Anita at work and mum or grandma at home.

Lynn
Do you talk about business in the evening or do you keep it to the day when you’re actually at work?

Anita
It’s really hard but when someone is talking shop, someone else will say “STOP!”. Also you need to be enjoying your family like every other normal family does. Sometimes you can’t and that happens but mostly, if you can set those boundaries, then particularly probably for couples, you have be able to be a husband and wife outside of work. That’s really hard when bills need to be paid and staff need to be hired and fired and clients need to be sorted. But, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, what do you want people to say about you? That you were a great mother, father, auntie, mentor? Or that they worked at the office 24/7 and weren’t they brilliant?

Lynn
There has to be life outside…

Anita
There absolutely has. Life is a gift. 

Lynn
It is; I totally agree with you. So what role do values play with communication?

Anita
Values are the things that are important to you. Values in a family business are in your DNA. Your values could be anything from hard work to giving back, because you know that’s the right thing to do. Your values might be ‘be kind to each other’ because you’ve had some sort of experience where you felt kindness was needed. Your values might be empathy. Your values might be competition. Your values might be entrepreneurship. So you can establish those because they are in your family business.

In a corporate life – I’ve worked in branding all over the world and my job was to help define those values from nothing. That’s the difference; in a corporate, you find them, define them, write the story and write them up and they become mission statements. They then transcend into the corporate.

In a family business, yes, it does happen by osmosis in the first and second generations. Very possibly because you work very closely together. So what we have to be careful with is that the hardest generation is from G2 to G3 because they are one generation further removed from the entrepreneur that founded it on those values of hard work etc. But the values of hard work will change with every generation because, for example, my daughter’s generation it is about working smarter not harder, because we can with technology. Hard work is still important because you need to lead. I always say that if you’re going to lead, then lead! I think in a family business, if you are going to lead, then lead. Surround yourself with great people who do other things but…you are the leader. If you don’t want to be the leader, then hire someone else who can. Be a shareholder and do other things you like doing but leadership is fundamental to success in a family business because you are leading the family. Or, you are leading the business or doing both.

Lynn
It’s interesting that you should talk about having a role. Is a job role and title important in a family business? What you are saying is that it is?

Anita
Definitely because that’s the way to lessen the tension between family members. I mean, I can’t help but earwig in my studio and everyone says ‘get on with your own stuff and mind your own business – that’s not your job!’ I know and I was just trying to help but, no, I’m meddling! So we are a micro-view of a family business but I think that everyone needs a job description so that they know what their skill sets are, what their responsibilities are and what their accountabilities are. The thing about family business is that family members don’t always understand that they have to be accountable like everyone else in the business that is accountable because they are not family. Unless they accountable, they won’t be respected by non-family members in their organisations.

Lynn
I agree. I’m sure it’s really important to be listening and hearing other people’s views and ideas and having a strategy and plan to move forward too. But, you need to agree that strategy and plan and that must be quite tough in a family?

Anita
Listening is probably the hardest of all the skills. If we are running a business, we’re really not listening to anyone; we’re fixing everything. I think listening is a great thing to be trained in; it’s something that’s really important that isn’t to be assumed. People need to understand what the value of listening is: what does listening look like and feel like. That should be a leadership module – listening – because if you are listening then you’re hearing great ideas, great feedback about the good, bad and the ugly. You can then fix that. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. It’s one of the ways you can see improvements – take advice. It is a very humbling experience as well. I think one of the true great traits of a leader is humbleness. Gone are the days of the ‘stick and carrot’ approach. Now it is about ‘I can’t do this on my own’. Being vulnerable is endearing because then you are encouraging people to say “I’ve got a good idea! I want to share it with you without fear of being shot down in flames”. 

Lynn
So listening is one very important form of communication. Are written communications as important?

Anita
Written communications are important, particularly when you are thinking about laying down the guiding principles, your blueprint, your constitution, your charter – the bible as to how the family business should govern itself. Of course they’re the rules and they will change with every generation, or with a lifechanging event that’s unforeseen. When I’m working with family businesses in my advisory work, in my capacity as an adviser, I scribe everything because then, when you have families saying “I thought you said…., didn’t you mean xxx? I never promised that. I’m sure you meant… etc” If you have got that written down then what I do is scribe it, summarise it and then leave it to the family members. Families are going to have board meetings and family board meetings – company board meetings are always minuted as that’s how businesses should be run. In fact I think it is a legal requirement. In a family board meeting, a third party can just scribe those things and put down a summary so that we have a good record of what was said.

That’s really important so that generations can look back on things. The wonderful thing about written documents is that you can look back. It’s like looking at a diary. 

Lynn
So meetings are really important when it comes to communicating, obviously, within a family business? Formal meetings too?

Anita
There is nothing like sitting around a table (formal meetings too) but I would suggest that formal meetings are chaired by a non-family member. A non-family member who has the voice of reason that can keep the emotions at bay and who can also help make sure that the meeting sticks to the agenda in a timely way. That there are action points as well. The only thing about written communication is emails… they are the death of communication. They can just be interpreted in such a different way and are to blame for most things… the way it is written – we call them keyboard warriors don’t we! We get our feelings out on the email and then you say “but he’s really nice when you meet him but turns into Atilla the Hun in an email!” It’s just the way we are – we’re all human after all!

Lynn
Of course we are! I totally agree! Obviously some businesses might have guidelines on written communications. Do they improve communications if you have guidelines? 

Anita
I think if you have a family business, you just have to make sure that the family is informed, the business is informed, the staff are informed and key members are informed. There are things that need to happen across both of the systems really and I think any communication is good communication as far as I’m concerned. The stumbling block is when we don’t say what we need to say; we don’t write it or if it is, it’s written in quite a defensive/offensive way without that calmness.

Lynn
How do you stop family members not wanting to upset other family members? Obviously sometimes feelings are going to get in the way of the facts, aren’t they?

Anita
In the work that I do, this is what I have to establish first of all. Because we only say what we think when there is a trusted environment and we feel safe and you know that whatever you say is not going to backfire on you. Families don’t really trust each other to trust that that’s going to happen. If you have an outside independent person then they can help to lay down the guidelines for communication.

Lynn
It’s about having agreements within the family isn’t it?

Anita
Yes, and if you have right forum for those particular discussions, so you won’t be discussing family shareholding issues at your operational trading board meeting.

Lynn
Again, I imagine as Family Business you can come in as an independent mediator.

Anita
Absolutely. It’s about creating boundaries and creating safe environments. Don’t forget that the values you have in your family don’t all of a sudden disappear when you put a suit on or go into the office. Those values are really part of the values in your business. I think it is sometimes misguided to think you can have a set of values for the business and a different set of values for the family. It just isn’t so.

Lynn
Are there any businesses that are easier to run as family businesses?

Anita
There are a couple of things – one – it’s easier to run a small family business.

Lynn
By small, how many family members do you mean?

Anita
I don’t know. In a business we think of an optimum size of a competent, successful business would be about 20 people. 

Lynn
Gosh, that seems a lot!

Anita
Well that’s about the size of a classroom. When you get bigger, then it’s difficult. Then there are differences in gender. So, fathers and sons… you can imagine! Then there are brothers and mothers and sons… There are mothers and daughters and sisters. So with each gender, they bring with them very different things to the business. On the whole, women are known to be more consensual. They’re known to be more listeners and very often, in a family business, they are deemed as the chief emotional officers because we have children and we nurture them. We are aware – it doesn’t have to be things that are said; we can feel it and we know it. 

Men are very good at being focused… If I’m going to get to that golf day, with my mates, I’m going to make it. If a woman wants to go to a spa day and something happens, then she’ll put it aside as ‘this is more important’. We tend to be different which is why it is important to have on board a balance of men and women particularly on boards and on family boards – particularly in construction and engineering. All of those are deemed as male because employees want different things from their jobs now. They don’t just want the salary; they want to feel safe and to be valued. They want you to understand that there are things going on in their lives which are really awful, like an illness or a death or a miscarriage. A redundancy in the family which can affect their well-being. So that’s why there is such a lot to be done with well-being and what does that really mean. Women are very good at that. But men are very good at running successful business throughout history as they are the hunter/gatherers. Times are changing though. Watch out, guys, we’re coming! Girls on top… (I’m only joking!) But you get where I’m coming from though don’t you.

Lynn
Of course I do! What sort of businesses do you have approach you? All ranges and all sorts I suppose?

Anita
Yes. I’m quite lucky with the lovely relationships I’ve had. The door has been opened to me of the many different cultural business that there are. Some are UK based, others in Asia and in India, American… Each jurisdiction has its own culture and you have to be sensitive to that. It then transfers into the family business. What I always say to the family businesses I work with is “how ready are you for uncomfortable debate because none of this is comfortable?” I don’t take on any families that won’t come with me on the journey because I say to them that it’s going to be difficult. I might be the most hated person on the planet for a while but all you need to know is that I have your best interests at heart. I have a family business and I have a family and a business. I have children and cousins. You know, I’m in it now and trust takes a long time to develop but seconds to fritter away. 

Lynn
So when you’ve come through all this communication and you have trust. How do you ensure that the family business keeps all your agreements?

Anita
Because, at the end of the day, the journey is really important but we will scribe everything and it will be written down. The Magna Carta was written down. The rules of the Bible are written down. The rules of the Quran are written down. Every faith – the guiding principles are written down. It’s the same for a family and it’s important to never underestimate how important that is. If that’s written down, it will be referred to and adhered to… or changed but people will be involved in how it’s written, what’s in it, when it needs to be updated. It’s not something that’s set four generations ago and not relevant now.

Lynn
So it’s really important for family members to take responsibility for themselves and their actions within a family business?

Anita
Yes, and I think that they are more likely to do that if they are part of the solution.

Lynn
Yes, because they are going to benefit from it I guess?

Anita
Absolutely!

Lynn
Thank you Anita. That’s all we have time for today. Again, if we’ like to learn more about the Family Business, where do we go?

Anita
Well, come to me and that’s Anita@familybusinessplace.com. It’s been wonderful being on the show. Thank you so much Lynn.

Lynn
Thank you Anita. That’s all we’ve got time for today on the female entrepreneurs show with me, Lynn Hart on KWIB Radio. Please join me the next time. 

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