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WATSON Views

Terminating the CEO

December 3, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

Hiring, evaluating, compensating and managing CEO transition is arguably the board’s most important area of responsibility. Ironically, experienced board members consistently tell us that their boards do not allocate enough time and attention to these areas and that they rarely make a CEO transition too soon.

Deciding to terminate the CEO is a challenging decision for any board. Without a framework to guide the board in making timely and considered decisions, the board exposes the organization to significant risk associated with weak organizational leadership and poorly planned CEO transition.

There are two critical stages in the termination process. First, the board must be able to openly discuss the potential need for CEO transition and make sure any decision to terminate is reasonable in the context of the information and environmental factors before it. Second, the board must design and execute a CEO transition process that considers and manages the various risks involved in terminating the incumbent CEO.

 

1. Making the Decision

Making the decision to terminate a CEO is difficult. Legal realities, cultural implications, stakeholder relations, shareholder interests, reputational impact and personal relationships are all significant factors that influence the decision. Most directors have little experience with terminating a CEO; it is uncharted territory prone to mistakes. Because of the complex factors involved, it will always be challenging and at times unpredictable. However, if the board is clear about its responsibility, ensures it has good information for making the best possible decision, and surrounds itself with the right advisors to develop a good road map for implementation, it can significantly reduce the organizational impact and risk and, in fact, may boost the organization’s performance and reputation. A board should consider the following when deciding whether or not to terminate the CEO.

 

1.1.    The duty of the board to act in the best interests of the organization.

There are many reasons that directors may be reluctant to make a change in the CEO. They may have been involved in hiring the CEO and find it difficult to admit that the person is no longer the right person to lead the organization. They may wish to avoid the personal confrontation. The process of transition, and its many implications, may seem too daunting.

However, when considering the board’s duty to act in the best interests of the organization, there are times when it may be necessary to fire the CEO. For example, if there is a significant gap between the CEO’s skills and the needs of the organization that cannot be remedied or if the CEO disrespects the organization’s core values, the board may need to act.

Prior to taking steps to fire the CEO, the board must ensure that there are viable options to manage the transition and ensure continuity of leadership.

  • Is it in the best interest of the organization, based on analysis of the information before us, to terminate the employment of the CEO?
  • Do we have a viable plan to ensure leadership continuity?

1.2.    Quality of the information

The quality of any decision is only as good as the information upon which the decision was made. Before making any decision, the board has a duty to ensure it has the information it needs to understand the current reality, assess various options and choose a reasonable course of action.

The board needs to ensure that the information it is using is as objective as possible and not based on unsubstantiated perceptions, assumptions and/or anecdotes. In emergent situations, it is possible, even likely, that all of the information does not reach the standard the board would prefer and often it is impossible to gain access to the information the board needs at the point of decision making due to the confidentiality of the decision. However, the board needs to be conscious of the quality of the information it is using to make the decision and ensure that it is weighted accordingly.

  • Is the information we are using to make this decision objective and unbiased?
  • Is there any other information that we require in order to make this decision? If so, is it possible for us to attain this information without breaching the confidentiality of the process (i.e. do we need to involve General Counsel or the VP HR in order to attain the information)?

1.3.    Severity of the decision

The decision to terminate employment is typically the last resort, when it is felt that no other alterative is available. The severity of this option needs to always be top of mind for the board.

  • Is the situation salvageable?
  • Are we making this decision based on a pattern of behaviour that we have clearly made the CEO aware of in the past?
  • Do we believe that in the presence of clear, honest feedback and with access to developmental support, the CEO could shift behaviour?
  • Has the process been fair and does it align with the values of the organization?

1.4.    Risk associated with the decision

A board needs to be aware of the consequences of its decisions. The decision to terminate a CEO is inherently a comparison of risk: the risk we incur by terminating against the risk we incur by not terminating. These risks

not only have to be considered, they also have to be managed by the board, which involves planning, time and resources.

  • What is the impact of the termination on the leadership of the organization? What can we do to mitigate this?
  • Do we have an interim successor? Do we know what we need with respect to succession?

How much time will this take?

  • What legal implications do we need to consider? Is this going to be a “messy” legal process? How can we mitigate this?
  • What impact will this decision have on the execution of our strategy? What can we do to mitigate this?
  • What are the financial implications of this decision? What severance is the CEO entitled to (contractual or common law)? What else (often more significant) is the CEO entitled to (bonus, vested shares, etc.)? What is the cost of the transition (legal, search, training)? Will there be a greater indirect financial impact on the organization due to this decision? What can we do to mitigate these factors?
  • What are the operational implications of this decision? Where will there be backlogs? How will management and the organization respond to the news of this decision? Will the business of the organization be compromised? Will the customer be impacted by this decision? What can we do to mitigate this?
  • What type of cultural impact will this decision have within the organization? How can we mitigate this?
  • How will our stakeholders respond to this news? What impact will this decision have on our reputation? What can we do to mitigate this?
  • How important is the board’s relationship with the CEO? What are the implications of the termination with respect to the relationship with the CEO and the CEO influence in the environment where the organization operates? What can we do to mitigate this?

2. The Process of Terminating the CEO

The process of termination is as critical as the decision to terminate. It is a process that must be intentionally designed to meet the board’s goals. Often these goals include:

  • Minimizing conflict
  • Protecting the organization from legal jeopardy
  • Maintaining the integrity of the board and the organization
  • Honouring the values of the organization
  • Minimizing the effect on the organization and stakeholders
  • Respecting the CEO as a human being

 

2.1     Align with the values of the organization

How a board deals with a significant situation such as a CEO transition will be felt throughout the organization. The board needs to ensure it understands the organizational values and aligns the process with these values.

  • What are  the  organization’s  core  values?    How might these values come into play throughout this process?
  • How do we want executives, staff, stakeholders and the outgoing CEO to describe how the board dealt with this situation?

2.2.    Engage trusted advisors early

Before the decision is made, the board should seriously consider engaging trusted legal and HR counsel. CEOs are parties to a variety of contractual arrangements including employment and severance agreements, supplemental pension arrangement, deferred compensation plans, multiple equity compensation awards, assignment and noncompetition agreements and indemnification agreements. CEOs may also be directors and/or shareholders; therefore bylaws and shareholder agreements may also be relevant with respect to the procedure regarding removal. A significant amount of the information with respect to the consequences of the decision and the design of the termination process are embedded in these documents and the advice of legal counsel specializing in employment law is critical to ensure the board is considering all the relevant information. Such information may include financial liability, procedure requirements, timing factors (reporting requirements, notice, vesting of shares, bonuses), negotiable points and non-negotiable points.

A third party human resources advisor may also be valuable in ensuring that the board is assessing the situation objectively and considering all of its options in making the decision to terminate. Once the decision is made, the advisor may help the board design a respectful, responsible termination and transition process.

As discussed in more detail below, the board should also consider engaging an external communications consultant, to support the board in designing and executing both an internal and external communications strategy.

  • What support do we need to ensure our decision is in the best interest of the organization?
  • What support do we need to design a process that will accomplish the board’s goals?

2.3.    Explore the possibility of an amicable resolution

Although it is not always possible, the board should consider the possibility of working with the CEO behind the scenes to convey the board’s intention to “move on” and give the CEO an opportunity to provide input on the conditions under which he/she will leave. If this is an option, the ideal messenger is a mature, seasoned board chair or director who has a relationship with the CEO. The CEO may be interested in helping to craft the transition to ensure he/she can control timing, transition plan, internal and external communication and ongoing role within the organization, to name a few.

  • Are there any signs that the CEO might actually welcome the news of the board’s desire to change leadership?
  • Is it possible to work with the CEO to craft a transition that achieves the board’s objectives, allows the CEO to save face, and strengthens the organization?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of a staged transition versus an abrupt termination?

2.4.    Assign roles

While the board as a whole will decide whether or not to terminate the CEO, the board may delegate certain responsibilities to a board committee or other executives. The board must be clear and explicit with respect to the various roles in the termination process. Considerations such as time availability, personal relationships and confidentiality are all critical in allocating roles.

  • What is the board’s role in decision-making throughout this process?
  • What is the Human Resources Committee’s (or Executive Committee’s) role throughout this process?
  • Who will communicate the decision to the CEO, and be the point person with respect to any negotiation?
  • Who will be responsible for the succession process?
  • Who will be the interim CEO?
  • Will the VP HR be a part of the termination process? If so, when will they be informed and how will this be managed?
  • Will the General Counsel be a part of the termination process, or hiring external legal expertise to support the board? If so, when will they be informed and how will this be managed?

2.5.    Consider internal executive support

A board needs to decide if and when to involve other executives in the termination and transition process. This is a delicate decision and one that deserves careful consideration. The General Counsel may be a valuable asset with respect to coordinating external legal counsel and assembling documents for review. The senior HR executive may also be valuable in designing the termination process, ensuring the process is aligned with corporate human resources policies and ensuring the board has access to all relevant employment documents setting out the terms of the employment agreement.

Depending on the particular circumstances, and as the board gets closer to informing the CEO of the decision, there may be a need to involve IT and security to ensure that the organization is properly protected.

  • Are our General Counsel and/or VP HR mature enough to be able to deal with the awkward situation of supporting the board to terminate his/her direct supervisor?
  • Would the value of the General Counsel and/or VP HR’s assistance override the awkwardness?
  • When should we involve the executives in the process?

2.6.    Develop a communications strategy

A communication strategy is a powerful way to mitigate a number of risk factors inherent in a CEO termination. It is essential for the board to control the message and be sensitive to environmental circumstances. There is a need for both an internal and external communications strategy. Typical items covered in external communications include details on when the succession will become effective, why the departing CEO is leaving and who will be named as permanent or interim CEO. If the transition plan is amicable, the outgoing CEO may also express support for the management team and the new leader.

It is critical that, regardless of their personal opinions, all board members understand the importance of a unified voice with respect to a significant decision such as this. It is recommended that a single board member (typically the board Chair) be the point person and spokesperson for the board and organization with respect to the CEO’s termination and CEO transition. The board should engage an external consultant to help design the communications strategy.

  • What is the agreed-upon rationale for the termination and the key messages?
  • Who is the spokesperson on the board for internal and external questions regarding the termination?
  • If a board member gets asked about the termination, what do they do?
  • Who will communicate the decision to other executives and employees and other stakeholders as applicable?
  • How will the board respond to unauthorized communications about the termination?
  • What stakeholder outreach is necessary and what is the best way to do it?

2.7.    Design the meeting

The meeting with the CEO should be carefully considered and engineered. Each situation will be unique and a defined approach will not work in every situation. The board will need to assess its particular circumstances and be intentional about setting the stage for the required conversation.

The board should carefully consider who should deliver the message. In some cases, it will be advantageous for someone close to the CEO to deliver a clear but compassionate message. There should be more than one board member present to deliver the message. The board should also consider the potential benefit of having an outside advisor present to ensure the meeting accomplishes its intended outcomes.

The messengers should be prepared, measured, authentic and humane, understanding that even when the employee anticipates the event it can be a shock and he/she may need support (i.e. help clearing out their office or a taxi home).

The message should be clear and succinct, stating clearly the board’s decision, confirming the intent to honour legal obligations and laying out the proposed transition. Documentation can be provided at the meeting or in due course. The messengers should be prepared for an adversarial reaction and have strategies to deal with such a reaction.

Consideration should be given to the location of the conversation – either inside or outside the office. Each option brings with it a set of other considerations, such as the CEO’s access to his/her office, computer, files etc.

  • Who are the appropriate messengers to deliver the message to the CEO, taking into consideration roles on the board and personal relationships with the CEO?
  • Where should the conversation take place?
  • What is the message that the board members will deliver?
  • Who will the CEO call to coordinate logistics of the transition?
  • Will you offer transition counseling to the CEO, and if so, how will he/she engage this service?
  • How will the any settlement negotiation take place? What is the next step the CEO needs to take in this regard?
  • What are the various scenarios that could play out during this conversation and are we prepared for all of them?

2.8.    Don’t jump the gun

It is risky to start the search for an external replacement before the incumbent CEO has been terminated. This type of activity may create liability for increased damages and, in addition, would likely eliminate the possibility of a smooth, amicable transition.

Likewise, it is important that board members and internal executive support respect confidentiality during the decision-making process. A leak from a board member or an executive can be devastating.

  • When will the board engage a recruitment firm?
  • What has the board done to ensure “those in the know” respect confidentiality?

2.9.    Appoint a permanent or interim successor

As part of a sound approach to governance, all boards should have a robust succession planning process to ensure they have potential internal candidates available to take over in such a circumstance.

  • Who will be the interim CEO?
  • Who is responsible for leading the CEO succession process?
  • How do we ensure that our desire to replace the CEO with a strong candidate does not interfere with ensuring we treat the outgoing CEO with respect and integrity? 

Terminating a CEO is possibly one of the most difficult decisions a board will ever have to make. It has far reaching consequences. In order to protect the organization, the board should ensure it has the information it needs, considers the full ramifications of the decision and creates a plan to manage transition and mitigate risk. Boards should engage the advisors they need to support them to ensure the organization is protected. While a CEO transition has the potential to reduce market value and stakeholder confidence in the short term, it is also an opportunity to strengthen the organization’s leadership and ensure the organization is poised for future success.

 

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Board-Executive Assessment of Teaming

November 12, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

  • The chair of a Crown corporation feels like the CEO controls and limits information going to the board and is resistant to the board’s guidance. The CEO feels like the board is continuously interfering in operational matters and is trying to guide them to a more strategic level by limiting the data that goes to the Board.
  • The board and executive team of a not-for-profit have a highly collaborative and trusting working relationship. There are few disagreements and the CEO’s plans get passed easily and unanimously. A new director worries there is not enough constructive questioning and rigour. The CEO worries she is not getting challenged enough – who will help her ensure she has thought through all the possibilities?
  • Board meetings are a snooze. Conversations go in circles, and lots of issues reappear and get rehashed without ever coming to a decision and moving forward. A new director tries to provoke some debate and strategic conversation on pressing issues, but the agenda is packed so the conversation is deferred to a future meeting where it is allocated a whopping 7 minutes of discussion.

Do any of these sounds familiar?

 

The board-management dynamic is a critical one. Boards, CEOs, and executive teams need to function constructively and effectively for organizations to thrive. Roles, engagement, information, and governance practices have to keep pace with a rapidly changing world – and so does the board-management relationship itself.

Organizations have been tested by COVID-19, and will be tested again. Whether experiencing challenge or opportunity, boards and executive teams are under significant pressure right now. In times of uncertainty, relationships, communications, and lines of accountability are tested and can fray. While trust and partnership can bring resolve and unity, cracks in the surface can reveal deeper issues.

As many organizations are now at a point where they can pause and reflect, it is an opportune time to strengthen the board-executive relationship to prepare to face what the future brings together. One way to build alignment and effective dynamics is to assess the current strengths and challenges of the relationship in order to determine areas of future focus.

To support you in your learning and reflection, we are making WATSON’s BEAT (Board Executive Assessment of Teaming) freely available for the next 60 days. This is a time when organizations need alignment and effective dynamics most. We want to set you on the right path to achieve this.

WATSON’s BEAT model is designed to explore the unique kind of alignment and dynamics that need to be in place when the board and the executive team work together. The model looks at 12 dimensions of effective board-executive teaming, within four categories:

We developed this model to better understand the unique nature of the board-management relationship. The relationship challenges many traditional conceptions of what makes a strong, effective team. While trust, shared purpose, and healthy dynamics form the foundation of a productive partnership, there is a degree of necessary distance required at the same time. Each group has a distinct identity and role that must be preserved. The board-management team benefits by not being overly aligned, and by retaining space, clear boundaries, and healthy tension between the two groups. Yet, at the same time, they must somehow achieve openness, mutual commitment, and the ability to get important work done together. And all of this happens in the context of information asymmetry, diverse experience and backgrounds, and sharply different time commitments.

While boards and executive teams engage at board meetings and offsites, this time is often spent on the work, and not on building the relationship. And while shared meals, team building, and committee-level relationships can help build connections, most boards dedicate minimal time to building and strengthening this important relationship, let alone talking about it.

There are many ways to build and foster a strong, effective partnership. They will look different depending on where you are starting from. The best approaches acknowledge the unique nature of the relationship and are intentionally designed to suit this context and the limitations within. They require conscious effort by all and strong leadership by the CEO and chair to set the tone for the partnership.

Now more than ever, we need effective partnerships at the top driving innovation, ensuring seamless execution, and flexing to emerging challenges and opportunities as organizations face a changing world.

WATSON’s Board-Executive Teaming Assessment

Because we’ve had a lot of questions lately about dynamics (perhaps because of the increased pressure of COVID) we’ve decided to move one of our WATSON diagnostics online to support directors who are thinking about these issues – it’s free for now as a way to support the conversation.

Complete the assessment to receive your BEAT report. Bring it back to your board-executive team to start a discussion on how to strengthen your unique partnership

Take your assessment today.

Start HERE

 

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ESG for Not-For-Profits

October 22, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

Discussions of purpose, stakeholder capitalism, social license, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) are front and centre on corporate boardroom agendas. But what about organizations that have always been purpose driven? While most discussions of ESG are geared towards the for-profit context, there are important lessons and frameworks that are widely applicable for all types of organizations, including not-for-profits (NFPs). We’ve identified five ways NFPs can build on their purpose-driven roots and leverage the important work being done in this emerging discipline.

 

1) Translate your purpose into action

NFPs have always been purpose driven. Without the guise of maximizing returns, they have always had to define their purpose beyond financial results. The challenge for NFPs often comes from consistently translating purpose into action, ensuring projects and services serve their purpose, and measuring impact. While some NFPs are clear on their purpose, others experience mission creep driven by good intentions to solve problems and fill immediate needs. All organizations, including NFPs, must ensure they have a clear and specific purpose that articulates why they exist. The board and management must be aligned on this purpose and how to achieve it.

Next comes execution. When executing, consider how a program, service, or direction will advance the organization’s mission and purpose. Ensure the board and management team are clear on this link. Think about any unintended consequences on stakeholder groups and the interdependencies of decision-making. Will a decision benefit one group at the cost of another? What might the fallout be? How will funders respond to a given direction and what impact will this have?

 

2) Broaden your view of the stakeholder landscape

NFPs typically have a clearly defined group or cause that the organization serves. Sometimes, because this group is so clearly defined, organizations and boards focus exclusively on this one group and don’t pay enough attention to other stakeholder groups. These boards are encouraged to consider all stakeholder groups in decision-making, including those who might not be directly impacted by the decision.

Other NFPs are further along the curve in thinking about this and recognize their complex stakeholder landscape, from employees, funders, and government, to beneficiary groups and communities impacted by the organization. These organizations have been thinking beyond their primary audience for some time.

All NFPs can take their approach to stakeholder engagement to the next level by mapping stakeholder groups and thinking about how to balance competing stakeholder interests. Within each stakeholder group, there are different sub-groups that might have different (or competing) concerns, needs, and priorities. It’s up the board and management team to understand how each group is impacted by the organization and what is important to the group in order to shape how the organization approaches its engagement approach. The board must assure itself that it is getting the right information to guide their oversight of this key area and make informed and balanced trade-offs based on high-quality intel.

 

3) Stay ahead of the curve and revisit key conversations as needed

The world is changing by the day. Societal expectations of all types of organizations are changing rapidly, as is the potential for fallout if behaviour is left unchecked (or if inaction continues). Don’t assume decisions made six months ago will be the right ones for today. At the same time, the board cannot constantly revisit past decisions. And it won’t always get everything right. The important thing is to stay vigilant, pay attention to what is happening at other organizations, and consider how societal shifts might impact your organization. When making decisions, take a longer-term view, not only thinking of the immediate and expectations of today, but also anticipating where society might be going and planning ahead with that in mind.

 

4) Leverage the G of ESG

The governance side of ESG looks at a range of factors – management structure, employee relations, compensation, workplace diversity and inclusion, board diversity, talent management, employee relations, health and safety, labour practices, board independence, board composition and renewal, and more. While the specifics of these will look different in a NFP context, these are important areas for all boards to pay attention to and there are helpful frameworks to serve as a starting off point for NFPs looking to provide greater oversight in these areas. While practices and metrics will look different, there are great opportunities for NFPs to leverage the work being done in the corporate space and adjust and adapt it to serve their context and needs.

 

5) Assess your board’s approach and prioritize key areas of focus

While some ESG frameworks are more technical and geared towards responsible investment, others are broadly focused on organizational purpose, the stakeholder landscape, and governance structures and practices. The latter can be highly applicable to the NFP context. WATSON has developed a short survey to help all types of boards (including NFPs) assess their approach to stakeholder capitalism. Draw on these tools to start the conversation and determine where to focus next. While NFPs may not have the same organizational capacity to take on sweeping ESG initiatives, start small and take it one step at a time.

NFPs have a real opportunity to build on the strength of their purpose-driven foundation, drawing on leading ESG practices in the for-profit space and adapting them to suit their context. We need strong, sustainable NFPs more than ever with skilled boards that are equipped to deliver on purpose, serve all stakeholders, and navigate a changing world with care and intention.

 

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Family Enterprise in the Time of COVID

October 8, 2020

Posted in: WATSON Views

First insights from the WATSON-FEX Family Business Pulse initiative

StevensE3 entered 2020 strong – with a thriving and growing business, an exciting strategic acquisition, a strong cash position and leaders from the third and fourth generation of the family contributing to the business. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. This family enterprise, focused on exhibits and experiential marketing campaigns, found itself faced with the prospect of cancelled trade shows and exhibitions, first for 2020 and then over a longer time horizon as uncertainty continues. The company made tough decisions, including closing part of the business and downsizing.

Yet the president, Cam Stevens, remains optimistic. On the WATSON-FEX Family Pulse Survey, he rated his optimism at an 8 out of 10. stevensE3 found some new revenue streams through creative repurposing of their capabilities. And now they are embarking on strategic planning, looking at how the company can pivot and refocus, while believing that in the long term, the kind of face-to-face marketing they have traditionally supported through their products and services remains important and will again represent significant global opportunity for stevensE3.

As a family enterprise, stevensE3 has been able to lean into the closeness of family, the resilience of a business that has weathered downturns before, and the deep connection they have with their long-term staff. For more on the story of stevensE3, click here

 


 

One thing is certain in this time of uncertainty, we will be telling stories and learning lessons from the global pandemic for years to come. The story of stevensE3 is one; there are many more and they are diverse.

At WATSON and Family Enterprise Xchange (FEX), we wanted to understand the stories and experiences of family enterprises through this time and to share insights back to this community that forms a key pillar of the Canadian economy in the hopes of inspiring and strengthening us all.

In the summer of 2020, we ran our first pulse survey and over 100 people from a wide range of family enterprises shared their views and experiences. Our second pulse survey is starting now, in the fall of 2020, and together these and future pulse surveys will form the basis of longer analysis and thought leadership. We heard a range of experiences, with some emerging themes.

Family businesses are future-focused

A strong majority (71%) of respondents rated their confidence and optimism above a 7 out of 10 when it comes to the future health and sustainability of the enterprise. Our view is that family businesses have key characteristics that support that optimism. On average, they tend to think more long-term than some other types of businesses, with success measured from years to generations instead of quarters; they have the flexibility that more tightly-held ownership can afford; they are fueled by a spirit of entrepreneurship that requires a positive belief in the future; and they have broader view of what success means, rather than a narrow quantitative-view. There is also a unique commitment fueled by the intertwining of business and family and the emotional ties to each other, to the family’s reputation, and to the legacy that a business represents.

That said, the optimism is not universal; 11% of respondents rated their optimism at 4/10 or lower. While this number is smaller, it is concerning – family enterprises account for 49% of Canada’s private sector gross domestic product – and nearly 7 million jobs across the country – and make significant contributions beyond that. Every one of those businesses that shutters or scales back dramatically is a loss.

Family businesses are enterprising

It must be recognized that the stage and severity of impacts for organizations is driven by a number of factors. Some family businesses operate in sectors for which the pandemic has created opportunity that outweighs any challenge; others are in a crisis that threatens the existence of entire business models. We observe that roughly 10% of respondents are still in the mode of crisis, stabilization, and short-term planning.

And yet – the entrepreneurial optimism that predominates in survey participants is not just conceptual – they are taking steps to secure a brighter future for their organizations. 82% are past the stage of short-term adaptation and are focused forward, charting a course for the long term.

“We are strong and resilient family that takes the Family Enterprise concept to heart”

Notably, 33% are actively accelerating and seizing opportunities, turning a global challenge into opportunity. Given the importance of family businesses to our economy and communities, it is encouraging to see that fully a third are mobilizing for increased opportunity and impact. To us, it is an early indicator of recovery and a glimpse of hope for our economic future.

Families have unique strengths

Some respondents found they could lean on family as a source of advice and guidance in this time. Perhaps as a result, 63% of respondents felt this time had brought the family closer together to some extent. Our participants told us their stories – for example, that having a family bubble and business bubble be one and the same was a unique advantage; that the disruption helped move important change, including generational change, ahead; and that family members who had been a bit distant from the business engaged or re-committed.

“We are stronger together”

For some others, this time of stress and challenge brought divisions in the family. There is strength in family enterprise, but there is also an additional layer of complexity than some other organizations have, where business and family intersect. When business strain leads to family strain, stress and complexity are compounded for business leaders and family members alike.

Actions and reflections

Unsurprisingly, many organizations (with the exception of those lucky enough to thrive through the pandemic) scaled back in some way. The most common place to scale back – and not just in this sample – was in the organization’s staffing model. Beyond that, there was no one-size-fits all: participants also identified that in many cases they narrowed their geographic or location footprint, and their product or service offerings; and to a lesser degree some exited lines of business, changed service delivery models or reduced sales channels.

“Faith in the business and management”

But in line with the optimism and entrepreneurship that are a strong thread through the survey responses, many organizations expanded – broadening their target markets, expanding long-term operations, adding new lines of business or product offerings. While these sound like positive steps, it must be understood that not all of these moves were about accessing new opportunities; many would have been an organization’s attempt to somehow retain or replace flagging revenues. As one respondent put it, “our focus is staying alive by whatever means”.

When asked to reflect on strengths and gaps in their businesses, participants identified the following:


Top 5 gaps: Top 5 strengths:

  1. Mergers/acquisitions/divestitures
  2. Transformation, including digital
  3. Business planning
  4. Marketing and communications
  5. Risk management and business continuity

  1. Leadership capacity
  2. Financial management
  3. Facilities, health, safety and wellness
  4. Culture, engagement and trustd
  5. Strategy and positioning

In making these decisions, respondents said they leaned on different sources of advice. As noted above, family was a source of advice for some. Notably, the source of advice leaned on the most was leaders within the business; this is consistent with the strengths identified above and speaks to the value of strong professional leadership whether from within the family or outside.

Some organizations leaned on Boards of Directors or Advisory Boards, but many identified that they do not have either of those in place. This finding was interesting to us; such boards can play a role in filling the gaps identified, ensuring the strengths identified are sustained in the long-term, and helping align family and business leadership.

 

As organizations look forward to an extended period of change and uncertainty, we are thinking about the building blocks that will help them navigate with confidence. Our next pulse survey asks about some of those pieces – tools and practices for preparedness and top team performance – the things that will make a difference, and that members of the family enterprise community would recommend to their peers.

Please take a moment to complete our next survey and help contribute to the shared learning of this important economic community.

Survey HERE

 

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