Many of our Chairs at The Executive Connection are aware of the challenges that come with being the leader of a family business, with a number specialising in helping these organisations and their owners. After all, those leading a family firm have to juggle a range of additional relationships along with making commercial decision.
For our members in this position, having a mentor who understands the specific challenges that come with family businesses is invaluable. John Broons, one of our Western Australian TEC chairs, has certainly seen how important this specialised advice can be for leaders. After taking over the business his grandfather started, John moved into his own role as a mentor for others who are leading family businesses.
Recently, after speaking at The Family Firm Institute’s Global Conference for 2015, John was awarded his Advanced Certificate in Family Business Advising. He was also recognized with a Fellowship of the Family Firm Institute, This status is FFI’s way of recognizing experience and commitment to the field of family business advising.
We sat down with John to discuss his personal journey; both working as part of a family business and his subsequent role as a mentor, along with the advantages this relationship can bring to a family-run organisation.
Understanding the intricacies of running a family business
John’s own experience with family businesses began straight out of school when he started working in the company started by his grandfather.
‘After joining the family business I was able to sit in on board meetings, understand board documents, read budgets and learn from some very smart people how businesses were run,’ said John.
‘I also saw how different allowances were taken into account because it was a family business and how conversations within the business were shaped by the family.’
This was also when John first had his own mentoring relationship – with his father being one who provided him with an early source of feedback. Since then, there have been a number of businesspeople who have helped John in his leadership roles.
‘Mentors generally turn up when you most need them. Sometimes, you just find the right person to be able to share an issue with or have a conversation. It may not even be a mentor arrangement, it might just be that they are the right person to have a conversation with at this point in time,’ explained John.
As John moved into a leadership position within the company, he also had to navigate the different stakeholders within his family, including his immediate family and their partners. When John assumed sole ownership of the business, he went through a specific engagement process with each individual to ensure they were on board with these changes.
‘In hindsight, there was a process that I went through, but at the time it just felt like the right thing to do,’ said John. ‘That process ended with me not only having sole control of the company, but also maintaining a great relationship with my sisters, their partners, my mother and my stepfather.’
It was only after that transition that John realised how unusual it was for family businesses to change hands amicably, an insight that helped spark his own interest in the dynamics of family firms.
Transitioning from a business leader to a mentoring role
John’s decision to move out of his position as a business leader and into one where he could specialise in mentoring began after he joined TEC in the early 1990s. Through these conversations with other leaders, John decided to sell the business and exit the industry. When he sold the company in 1997, John focussed on a number of entrepreneurial endeavours before becoming a TEC Chair in 2006.
For John, the experience of first working in a family business laid the foundations for his current work as a mentor.
‘It puts me at a great advantage because a large proportion of TEC members are the CEOs or leaders of a family business. If we just focus on the organisational side, we often miss the relationships that do come into the business and that a CEO needs to address.’
Mentoring both leaders and family businesses
In John’s experience, being a mentor is all about helping people realise what they want to get out of life. That means working out where they want to be in 10 year’s time and where they want the family business to be as well.
‘If you aren’t aware of that family stuff as a mentor, it means you won’t be able to ask all the questions that you need to. I find working as a CEO mentor is a great position to help leaders reflect on what they want and also to reflect on how they might choose to lead the family.’
John’s work outside of TEC also involves consulting with both CEOs and family members themselves. Knowing their stories and understanding the different perspectives that exist within the business is key to solving many of the issues that family businesses encounter.
A further benefit that John has observed is that leaders will often face specific problems or decisions that they can’t share with family members or their executive team. That’s where having a mentor can help.
‘For me, mentoring is never about telling people what to do, it’s about helping people come to their own conclusion and their own decision so they can maintain accountability for those choices.’