Cultivating resilient leadership can help a family business to succeed

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

What makes a leader? Is leadership a genetic trait or a learned ability? Are men better leaders than women? Is leadership ability universal or situational? Do leadership skills fade if not used?

These are questions that research has yet to answer. But leadership development is one of the major concerns of American executives. Business owners are frequently faced with the problem of developing leadership skills among executives and managers. These same executives and managers may be highly skilled in their particular specialty, but lack what it takes to lead his or her people to excellence in their industry.

The qualities of a leader are many. And to some extent the type of leadership style that works in one setting may not work in another. What is common to all successful leaders however, is the ability to communicate with his or her subordinates, colleagues and superiors. The confident leader communicates this confidence and encourages the best from others. Over the years I have often been surprised at how many successful and wealthy business owners have such poor communication and leadership skills. Apparently having good interpersonal skills is not a requirement for business success, but it certainly makes things go more smoothly. One wonders how much more could be accomplished by these wealthy and successful people if they had improved interpersonal skills.

When you are the boss you can compensate for poor people skills by firing troubling people. Most entrepreneurs are extremely hard workers, so another way to compensate is to put in more hours to cover for your lack of leadership ability. In family firms, if no family member emerges as a successor to the founder, the business can be sold.

These strategies seem rather primitive when good communication and interpersonal skills can be learned. It may be that some people are just born to lead, but with training in communication skills, a natural leader may be discovered who may otherwise have been overlooked.

The kind of skills that will enhance any leader’s position and that could create a leader from someone with raw talent, come under what I call the “resilience factor.” Within this factor are the qualities of flexibility, the win-win philosophy, quality over quantity, toughness, and foresight.

No matter what surprises lay in store for this leader, he or she is flexible enough to do what works in the moment. He or she can learn from even the lowest employee in the hierarchy. A father can take direction from his son or daughter.

Competition is a waste of time for this leader. A husband and wife who work together learn to appreciate the unique talents that each brings to the business. This leader’s philosophy is that everyone wins.

Doing things fast is replaced by doing things thoroughly, efficiently and with quality. The leader who has mastered good interpersonal skills has a devoted work force, family and clientele. Therefore, taking the time to do it right and to learn from others pays off.

Leaders who win are tough. They don’t give up. Their employees and family members can count on them to come through. They aren’t afraid to speak, nor to speak an unpopular position. And when they speak, they have thoroughly researched their opinion. Winging it was OK in those start up years, but if you want people to follow you, be thorough.

Among family business owners, cultivating leadership is even more difficult. The development of interpersonal skills is often thwarted by the system of primogeniture. That is, the leader of a family business may take leadership solely because he is the eldest son of the founder. He may have little leadership ability, and poor interpersonal skills, but as the son (or eldest son) no one looks further for true leadership.

Leaders of family firms who want the best for their families and their business confront the problem of cultivating leadership openly and honestly. They insist on training the next generation in the development of problem solving skills, communication skills, confrontation skills as well as the skills of the specific product manufactured.

Passing the business on to the next generation requires foresight, another quality of successful leadership. Being wrapped up in ego needs, leaves a business owner with no one to trust the business to when he or she retires or dies. The truly resilient leader is one who has planned ahead and created a resilient business.

Resilient leaders recognize the abilities and talents in others as well as themselves. These leaders realize that their greatest contribution to the business is their ability to lead, to cultivate excellence in others, to create a quality business with longevity. Without developing the interpersonal skills that create trust and confidence in the leader, this is just not possible.

E-consultation is ideal for members of a family business

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

“How can I help my Dad? He is part of a family business that he inherited from his father. Now Dad and his brother run the business, except that my Dad does all of the work. Dad is stressed all of the time but doesn’t want to disrupt the family. I’d like to come to work for my Dad but I don’t want to be part of carrying my lazy uncle. What should I do?”

This was the first problem ever presented to me when I hosted an Internet Chat for members of family firms. We “chatted” for about an hour, via our computers and covered a lot of territory. Even though the young man who contacted me lived on the East Coast, he was able to get expert advice on the precise subject he needed help with because he was comfortable searching the World Wide Web. And by the tone of his messages, he was pleased by the end of our hour to have a plan of action to present to his father.

This new medium of e-consultation is ideal for all business owners, but especially family business members. A son can’t always call up his father’s accountant or attorney and talk over such problems. He is not likely to feel brave enough to confront his uncle or even his father on such a touchy subject. He could hire his own local consultant or psychologist, but isn’t likely to find a local expert on families in business. But from the comfort and privacy of his home, he can “surf the web” until he finds just what he needs. In this case it was a psychologist whose specialty is helping families in business solve those sticky problems that cross over from loving relationships into the business marketplace.

E-consultation is ideal in many other ways as well. It’s tailor made for travelers and those of us who work odd hours. You can get on line anywhere, anytime. The convenience means that you will probably take advantage of the service more often and get to the bottom of the problem faster. In fact, a study at Johns Hopkins University found that people open up more quickly using a computer than they do face-to-face with a psychologist. E-consultation may attract those who are too embarrassed to bring a problem up fact-to-face or it may just be that they can ask the questions when they come up, rather than having to wait for an appointment.

As a psychologist for many years I have encouraged my clients to educate themselves about life’s problems by reading books and articles. Now in addition to some excellent books, I recommend highly regarded websites. Ignorance about life slows you down. Educating yourself helps to reduce your fears and defensiveness. With knowledge you are in a much better position to problem solve. With knowledge comes confidence and with confidence comes creativity and with creativity, options and solutions start to materialize. It seems to me that the World Wide Web provides us with a wealth of information in a convenient form that can shorten your problem solving time.

Of course there are downsides to this form of consultation too. How do you know who you can trust? Is your e-mail or chat confidential? In addition to a wealth of helpful advice, there is a wealth of garbage and damaging material on the Internet. The surfer does have to beware. You can’t assume because someone has a website that they are honorable, legal, credentialed, caring or experienced. However, if you use the same common sense you use in business to size up any person or situation, I think you can sort the wheat from the chaff.

For example, on both of my websites, I not only provide a lot of information on the common issues that families in business face, but I include all of my credentials, extensive information on confidentiality, and several ways to contact me for more information to check on my background. If you are not going to meet the person face-to-face or you do not have a personal referral from someone you trust, take the time to read what the consultant has posted on their website about their qualifications.

If you are still shy about accessing the World Wide Web for information take the plunge. As a business owner you need the Internet to stay alive and ahead of the competition. You already know that. Now consider using the services of websites to keep yourself up to date on more personal issues such as those vexing problems of keeping a healthy balance between your work and your home life.

Your ideal employee may be seeking ideal employer – like you

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

“Employees are the worst part of having a business. If I could run a business without employees, I’d have no problems!”

This is a quote, more or less from my Uncle Phil. Uncle Phil was an electrician, who eventually started his own electrical contracting business. He grew that business for many years, becoming wealthy and successful. Eventually he was able to retire to Palm Springs and turned over the well-established business to his two sons. I am not sure, however, that his hiring practices are what fueled his success.

Uncle Phil was one of my favorite relatives when I was a little girl. He made big fluffy pancakes for breakfast, bought real firecrackers on the Fourth of July and took his family on adventures, like to wilderness lakes to hike and canoe. He also had many stories to tell of his early life, when he left North Dakota as a teenager to find his fortune in Oregon, during the Great Depression.

Naturally when the grownups talked I liked to overhear the conversation to learn of some of Uncle Phil’s adventures. I often heard a lot about Uncle Phil’s business when I visited, but I didn’t always understand what the adults were talking about. For example, a common theme for my feisty uncle was complaining about his employees. Even as a kid I thought he had a negative attitude about employees. I certainly admired my uncle, but it was not his personality that was so engaging. It was his rugged individualism that appealed to me. I just figured that his disparaging remarks about employees meant that he was a bit of curmudgeon. . . until I hired employees.

Like my uncle I too struggled with the mystery of how to hire capable, responsible, hard working employees. For small business owners this can be a major obstacle when you don’t have the benefit of an HR department, with professionals trained in the science of hiring. Most small business owners rely on their instincts or those of their managers, but that leaves a lot of undiscovered employee problems. But after a few years of trial and error, you probably have come up with a system that works most of the time, or you are out of business.

To save time for those of you just getting started I thought I would share my formula. And I would love to hear from other employers about the methods they have discovered that really work.

First, ask yourself, have you ever had a terrific employee that you wish you could clone? If so, make a list of that employee’s qualities, from their actual work skills, to personality traits, to even seemingly superficial qualities like style of dress or music they like. Don’t leave anything out. This exercise is a kind of free association test for you. As you examine the qualities of this ideal employee, you will open your mind to the traits you are looking for in your next hire.

Out of this free association you will develop a list of the qualities you need to fit your particular setting. From this list, begin drafting questions that will elicit from prospective employees whether they have these qualities.

Second, always use screening tools to search out personality traits, emotional problems and psychological issues that do not surface during an interview. It is probably best to use the services of a psychologist who is expert in interpreting these tests, because you want more than a simple label. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a popular test for employers, but often the results are used by untrained people much like astrological signs are discussed at a party.

Third, you must ask yourself if your workplace is attractive to the type of employee you want. Do you need to remodel to make the workplace more ergonomic? Is your management progressive? Are there other benefits and perks you can offer? Remember, a healthy, hardworking employee is looking for a good match in an employer too.

Fourth, it is important to realize that all employees have problems in their lives from time to time that will affect their work. If your goal is to screen out all “bad apples” you will not succeed. Rather, after doing a thorough screening, and hiring the very best person for the job, make sure you have a back up system to deal with problems as they emerge. For example, providing a child care allotment, or flexible scheduling, or some form of employee assistance plan, goes a long way in correcting stress in an employee’s life, so that they can solve life problems as quickly and effectively as possible.

One final word on finding the perfect employee. Remember that is you the employer who knows what he or she needs. Don’t expect prospective employees, or even current ones for that matter to know what you want. You must take the lead and define the job. If you are clear about this and have followed the advice above, it is likely that the ideal employee for you is looking for an ideal employer like you.

Are You An Entrepreneur?

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Oddly this question came to me while I was attending a conference on entrepreneurship and small business in San Antonio in February. The reason this is odd is that there were few entrepreneurs in the audience. Instead the attendees were professors of business schools from across the country. These are the professors at prestigious business schools such as Harvard, the University of Michigan, Stanford, and UCLA that teach courses on business, marketing and management. They even teach courses on entrepreneurship, but most of these professors don’t own their own enterprise. They study entrepreneurs. They develop theory about entrepreneurs. They even teach courses for entrepreneurs, but they don’t “walk the talk.”

Until fairly recently entrepreneurship has not even been a topic of conversation in the nation’s top business schools, for the simple reason that business schools are primarily about training professional managers and future professors. The graduate students from these schools go on to work in corporate America, working their way up the career ladder, hoping to reach the presidency some day, or at least earn a key to the executive washroom. It’s not that these professional managers are not talented, nor that they lack leadership qualities. They are creative and innovative too. However, they are not entrepreneurs.

If you are an entrepreneur, or are married to one, or know one personally, chances are the entrepreneur did not go to business school. Or if they did, they dropped out (i.e. Bill Gates) when they learned that business school was not going to open the doors of opportunity. A few entrepreneurs managed to stay to graduation, but they were probably bored out of their minds, just biding their time until they could do what they really wanted to do. My brother-in-law Rick is like this. To please his father, he went to law school, even joined a law firm after graduation. However, soon he realized that he was too restless to work for anyone else. Before he turned 30, he was heading up his own firm and well close to achieving his dream of being a multi-millionaire.

True entrepreneurs don’t come from business schools. They come from engineering, medicine, anthropology, the arts (all of them), psychology, computer sciences. They are liberal arts majors, history majors, athletes, general studies majors, high school graduates, even high school dropouts. They come from all walks of life and have as varied life experiences as is humanly possible. This is why the entrepreneur has been so hard to define. You just can’t fit them into a category. Psychologists have been trying to do this for years, but there is no reliable personality test for the traits of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs aren’t a type of person. They are people who are entrepreneurial.

The closest I can come to defining the entrepreneur is that this person has vision. They are able to see the big picture like no one else. And they are determined to accomplish their vision. In other words they are extremely hardworking and tenacious. They are no more intelligent than others; no more creative either. But this vision is a special gift that puts the entrepreneur light years ahead of the ordinary person. With vision the entrepreneur is able to see opportunity before others.

Even more important than vision is purpose. The vision is a like a bright beacon that guides the entrepreneur toward his or her goals. However, to determine those goals in the first place, the entrepreneur has to have purpose. Most entrepreneurs will tell you that they “just had to do it.” They have known what they were about since they were children. Their purpose is not always clearly defined in a business plan, but they have been pursuing it nevertheless. The successful entrepreneur is true to his or her purpose for a lifetime, regardless of the enterprise they engage in.

One local entrepreneur loved to build things as a little boy. He went on to get a degree in engineering and eventually started a manufacturing plant. But his purpose is deeper than that. He doesn’t just like to build things; he has to. And he doesn’t just like to build things; he has to contribute to the community. Although this man is an engineer by education and training, he is really a builder of ideas.

Not all entrepreneurs are millionaires either. Another local entrepreneur is a minister and artist. Since she was a little girl she loved to draw and paint and sculpt. She never really fit into the mainstream, but she always blamed it on her dysfunctional family. Now she realizes that she was preparing herself to carry out an important purpose in life. Through art (her own and that of those she counsels) she helps people discover their spiritual mission.

The saving grace of the conference was the noon keynote speaker on Friday, Marjorie Alfus. I was so inspired by Marjorie’s speech, that I jumped to my feet after her talk and started a standing ovation. At 78 years of age, Marjorie epitomizes the American Entrepreneur. Although she has made her wealth and could retire, she can’t stand being bored. She is taking her twentieth century entrepreneurial experiences and translating them into the twenty-first century, by creating a web business. Marjorie made her wealth by outsourcing and just-in-time inventory, when other twentieth century entrepreneurs were putting their money into brick and mortar. Now she can use that good common sense to succeed at her new venture, With a modem, fax and world wide merchandising contacts, Marjorie will probably clean up.

If you don’t have a knack for vision or you are not sure of your purpose, take heart. You may still be an entrepreneur who is holding back. It takes a lot of courage to follow your heart and create a dream that no one else can see or support. All entrepreneurs have one more thing in common. Before they are successful, no one really understands them, but with success they are much appreciated.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (1998, Davies-Black). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or

If you have a loved one on the Spectrum, please check our private MeetUp group. We have members from around the world meeting online in intimate video conferences guided by Dr. Kathy Marshack.
Learn More >
Join my Meetup Group