family business

Top Leadership Traits Needed to Successfully Manage a Family Business

Latest posts by Denise Federer (see all)

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say many people don’t like change of any kind. The status quo, which is known, is usually preferred against something new, which is unknown. With respect to a family business, change can be particularly troubling, especially when it’s unexpected — the death of an owner, a key employee or family member departing, or even unforeseen market conditions. These situations don’t just affect the professional lives of family members, but can be devastating personally, as well.

As a family business advisor, I’ve seen the detrimental effect this type of major change can have on a family and the family business. The conclusion I’ve reached is that leaders who are resilient and agile stand a much better chance of successfully managing through change to a positive outcome, despite the inherent challenges of the family business dynamic.

Let’s take a look at those two attributes.


When leaders are resilient, they have the ability to persevere, remain focused and move forward with their responsibilities and goals in spite of obstacles and challenges. This skill is particularly important with a family business, since professional and personal issues frequently become intertwined, even without the added stress of change.

The good news is that the behavioral qualities necessary to be resilient can be learned. The core features of a business environment that promotes resiliency are:

  • Developing personal/professional vision and goals
  • Aligning of individual values, principles and beliefs with the organization
  • Creating a work environment that fosters support
  • Assessing individual motivation for change
  • Encouraging self-initiation of the coaching process
  • Teaching effective coping and problem-solving skills
  • Teaching strategies to increase self-efficacy

You’ll notice many of those features are applicable outside of the business arena, as well. That makes sense, since in all my years of family business consulting, I’ve found the qualities that contribute to focus and the accomplishment of business goals are the same ones that allow someone to “bounce back” from personal challenges.


Being an agile leader means having the ability to change focus, using vision and courage to make decisions about the future and perhaps disturb the status quo based on changes like the loss of a key client or the need for a new revenue stream. It’s especially important in a small family business to be agile, or flexible, rather than staying stuck and refusing to budge even in the face of major change.

Like resiliency, agility can be learned, but it’s not an overnight process. The journey begins by challenging current thinking and assessing readiness for change, something I gauge with these seven questions:

  • What factors affect your industry?
  • How do these factors influence your current performance and behavior?
  • What behaviors/thoughts have made you successful so far?
  • How is your behavior affected by your motivations, values and goals?
  • What lessons can you learn from the experiences of other successful people in similar situations?
  • What new behaviors or proficiencies might you consider as keys to your future success?
  • What specific shifts in thinking and behavioral changes are you willing to make to achieve your future goals?

When leaders stop resisting agile thinking (due to a fear of successfully navigating the unknown) they may be amazed at how well they respond to change. At a family business, that bodes well for long-term success, since change isn’t an “if,” but a “when.”

Future change in family business

In the best-case scenario, family businesses have leaders whose resiliency and agility help them get smoothly through change, but what if that isn’t the case? I believe going through any type of change at a family business presents a great learning opportunity — a chance to develop a blueprint on how to be resilient and agile when addressing similar situations moving forward — by turning “lemons into lemonade.”

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