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Family Business Leadership Lessons from a Symphony Orchestra

Julkaistu 23.08.2018

As family businesses age, they typically have many family members who wish to be engaged the family business in a variety of ways. These family members have grown up in a business family and around the family business, typically are well-educated in their area of interest, and have a healthy self-confidence in terms of their preparation to work in a family business.

Family businesses in fact could be facing a problem of plenty – many qualified family members who can potentially contribute to the business, which is a direct result of raising the family well. As family leaders try to accommodate family members with an eye on the broader goals for the business, they may grapple with their own judgments about the family members’ potential and place in the business, versus the self- assessment of the family members themselves. If family leaders do not manage this dynamic well, they may lose qualified family members as the latter move away from the business to find other interesting opportunities that inspire them.

How can family leaders and family members have a healthy and productive dialog and relationship in this context? We can use a symphony orchestra as a metaphor to glean great lessons about leadership and working in a family business.

What the musicians (the family members) must realize:

  • If they want to lead, they must learn to respect the leadership, and earn the trust of the fellow players. They should acknowledge each other as talented professionals. They should play their part and trust the conductor that it will create great music. Making good music requires collaboration, commitment and hard work and discipline. They must be respectful of others to create great music – otherwise it will be a cacophony.

No matter what the internal divisions are among the musicians, when the time comes to perform, they need to perform together to make music – which is how they earn their keep.  Finally, there is an appropriate time to shine – timing is everything. Listening and being mindful to one’s cues is important to play one’s part at the appropriate times.

What the conductor (family leader) must realize:

  • Acknowledge each musician (family member) as a talented professional, and allow each person the freedom to pursue their talent. Make them realize that they must be totally professional in what they do, because everyone else is counting on it. If the musicians don’t trust the conductor’s leadership, they will not be inspired, and it will be reflected in the music produced. Leaders need to earn the legitimacy of their leadership by deeds and empathy with the musicians. Best music is produced when musicians enjoy what they do and enjoy what they do together with others.

Family leaders have to make an extra effort to treat family members, especially those who have a voice in the business, as professionals. This is because family leaders’ views of these members may be colored by their perception of the same members in other contexts – family leaders see family members at their most vulnerable, over a long period of time.

On the other hand, musicians may be able to hide other aspects of their lives from the conductors’ judging gaze. Symphony conductor and the musicians also have the luxury to self-select each other. Conductors may be able to attract and recruit musicians that fit their style, and musicians may find work with conductors whose leadership style they find inspiring, comfortable, and in line with the musicians’ goals.

These luxuries are not available to a family leader and family members, putting a greater degree of burden on them to find ways to understand each other, and develop a working style that works for both, and produces “beautiful music” (i.e. has wonderful outcomes) for the family as a whole.

Professor Sanjay Goel, University of Minnesota, Duluth

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