Megan Helzner

Megan Helzner

Senior Manager

“While a founder’s success typically depends on some combination of charisma, single-minded leadership, and determination, the succeeding and next generations must also master the skills of diplomacy, influence, and collaboration in order to steer the family, business, and other collective economic activities, successfully into the future.” – CFAR, 2016.

If that quote isn’t enough to send you running, then you are made of some tough stuff already!

You have perhaps heard Marshall Goldsmith’s famous phrase, “What got you here won’t get you there.” If you are reading this, you are likely a respected member of the next generation of a family enterprise hoping to continue to grow professionally. And if you are at this point in your working life, clearly, you have demonstrated determination, respect for previous generations, and ingenuity about the future, probably coupled with some savvy.

Note: our definition of being “in” a family enterprise includes those who work in or are considering working in their family’s business, and those who serve the family enterprise through work on their family council, with the family office, on the family business’s board, with the family’s philanthropic endeavor, or as a current or future shareholder of the family’s company.

Nevertheless, whatever got you here—to this very successful point—is likely not enough to get you there, to that next level[1]. Enter: purposeful, reflective, self-development. Self-development, by nature, is for you and by you. We call it “purposeful” because while serving you, it can simultaneously serve your family and its business. The idea is that you create a roadmap and share it with others all to keep you on a growth path.

Surely you have engaged in goal-setting activities in school or elsewhere. And each day you might set and meet goals, whether via Wordle or a health app, or something else altogether.

A critical difference is that your self-development plan: (a) is more than a collection of goals, (b) incorporates best practices for family business next gens, and (c) considers the unique professional situation that you are in, which is as a member of a family enterprise that undoubtedly has a need for talent.

Below are several things to bear in mind aimed at helping you to create a self-development plan that is relevant, actionable, and tailored to being part of your family business.

  • The process of self-development is, in fact, part of the purpose. By that, we mean that the act of sitting down periodically to set goals and evaluate your progress can be as important as the goals themselves. We recommend dividing the plan into short-term goals (the next six months), medium-term goals (the next six to 18 months), and long-term goals (three to five years). Then, periodically, reviewing them on your own and discussing them with a mentor and/or family member to evaluate progress towards the goals and adapt them as needed. Like any routine, creating, updating, and holding yourself accountable to your self-development plan is a muscle that needs to be exercised.
  • Design broad-based exposure into the plan. Any founder must, at least for a time, be the “chief cook and bottle washer” doing what’s needed for the company’s success. Regardless of how big your family’s business is now, as a nextgen and perhaps future senior leader, the people who work at the company will want to know that you understand the business, their work, and their struggles. Therefore, gaining as broad a set of experiences as possible inside the company is a must. At CFAR, we often work with our nextgen clients and business leaders to develop a rotational program aimed at broad-based experience, exposure, and results. If a rotational program isn’t possible, we advise setting up meetings or brief shadowing opportunities to gain insight into what others do outside of your functional area, and the problems that keep them up at night.
  • Align your goals with real business needs. This may go without saying, but it is important that your self-development plan is connected to the family enterprise or to your family’s business ownership. “Alignment” could therefore mean spotting opportunities in the business (e.g., it would be helpful to have someone who has a data analytics background working in the company) and incorporating those company needs/wants into your plan. As noted above, you may or may not choose to work in the family business long term. That said, “alignment” may not necessarily mean that you set goals to learn about a specific industry (e.g., my family works in medical instrument manufacturing, so I need to create a self-development plan focused on learning about medical instrument manufacturing).

However, “alignment” does mean learning about what it means to be an owner (e.g., “I am or will be a shareholder. Therefore, I need to learn about responsible and appropriate communication between shareholders and business leaders, and what good stewardship entails, to serve the business’s needs”). Fear not, there are many great ways to learn about becoming a shareholder, whether it be books and articles, seminars, peer groups, or other venues.

  • Connect to the broader context of nextgen family business members. When you are a member of a family business, it can be challenging to find peers. Look to your left—you may see your parents’ or aunts’ or uncles’ generation. Look to your right—you may see non-family employees who can’t fully relate to your situation as a nextgen family member working in the family business. If you have siblings or cousins working in the business, their experience may or may not be like yours. It is therefore important to create your community and find your cohort. Family business consultants like CFAR can help link you to peer groups or even one-on-one connections with others who are “in the same boat.” Family business conferences are also excellent places to meet peers who understand your situation, and eventually form your “kitchen cabinet.” Getting an outside perspective in confidential settings can be helpful.
  • Recognize how your plan dovetails with other family members’ plans. Development never happens in a vacuum, and you certainly cannot develop without help, collaboration, and insight from others. A sibling or a cousin might be working on their own self-development plan. We encourage you to coordinate, so that you can think about one another’s strengths and opportunities. For example, if you are good at X and they’re good at Y, maybe you can teach one another. Or maybe you decide to double-down on those areas of strength to serve the business’s future needs, each developing different skills. Consider how you can encourage and provide accountability to others on development journeys. Finally, consolidate learning opportunities. Are you both interested to meet and develop deeper bonds with senior executives? Rather than a one-on-one meeting, make it a joint learning session or series of sessions.

Now, to address a potential “elephant in the room.” Competition between siblings or family members is natural. Look no further than contemporary examples like “Step Brothers,” “Game of Thrones,” “Better Call Saul,” or some older examples like The Brothers Karamazov, East of Eden, or the Bible. Collaboration and support are critical to cultivate—and not always easy—amidst natural competitive tensions. There’s much to say on this topic. In brief, the key is to surface these feelings—difficult as that effort may be. “Above ground” is always better than “underground.”

  • Once you have created the plan, get others’ feedback. To ensure alignment and that you have not missed anything critical in your self-development plan, we encourage you to schedule a series of short, casual conversations with family members and non-family business leaders or outside board members. The perspective of trusted individuals one step removed from the business can be very helpful.

An opening line could be, “I’m creating my development plan for the next year and would like to get your input.” Once you have opened the door to getting others’ initial thinking, it can be helpful to plant the seed that you would like to come back to them (in a year or so) to evaluate how you’re doing against your plan. As you map out whose feedback you would like, recall the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. No one wanted to tell the emperor that he had been duped by the unscrupulous “weavers.”[2] This parable is an extreme example. The takeaway? Find people whom you trust to be honest with you, even (or especially!) when being honest is risky for them. As a family member in the family business, it might be hard to find someone who will be transparent with you. The reward of real feedback is worth the effort of finding that right sounding board.

  • Be sure your self-development plan includes the “hard” and the “soft.” You’re likely aiming to move into management in the not-so-distant future—assuming you are not already there. So, it is critical to think about hard skills (e.g., the ability to understand what the financial statements say, or a technical process) and soft skills (e.g., leading teams with empathy and communicating well). Where are you strong? Where are your gaps? Where do trusted mentors inside and outside the business see things going in the future? What skills will be required of leaders in the future?

In a recent conversation with two women leaders in financial services—MBAs from Harvard and Colombia, respectively—they shared that their most impactful classes were on… you guessed it… leadership- and people-matters. Regardless of whether your background to date has been more focused on the technical or the affective, ensure that your self-development plan going forward pays attention to both the hard and the soft. Neither one of these elements can be underestimated.

  • Make sure you and others can evaluate progress so that you can course-correct if or when needed, and also recognize achievements. You have probably heard the phrase “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” or seen John Doerr’s Measure What Matters book. As you write your plan, ask yourself: What will progress look like? What will success or completion of a goal or learning look like? What will come next if I accomplish what I committed to do? Make sure that your development steps are clear, concrete, and time-bound[3] such that you will be able to tell if you’ve hit the bar you’ve set for yourself. And if you don’t hit that high bar on your first try, take the time to look at what you have learned along the way that you can use.

With these pointers in mind, we wish you all the best as you create or refine your own self-development plan. Don’t delay! Recall that everyone’s trajectory is different. Keep in mind that in hindsight, nearly everyone’s path looks linear and planful, but many people’s paths are in fact a series of happy accidents.

Finally, as you get to work on your plan, know that you are not alone. If you want an objective extra set of eyes on your plan, a connection to a peer also in family business who “gets it,” or even an executive coach to give you a push, we at CFAR would be thrilled to support you.

[1] What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith.

[2] “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen.

[3] “A Brief History of SMART Goals” by Duncan Haughey.