The Daughter Also Rises

Women are taking over the family business; their initiative is the key.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the March 2001 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Women in their 40s and 50s who have ascended to leadership positions in their families' businesses have frequently done so because their brothers have stepped aside. But that's changing, insists Leslie Dashew, founder of the Human Side of Enterprise, an organizational development consulting firm in Scottsdale, Arizona. While daughters in their 20s and 30s may not become leaders in their families' firms as quickly or as easily as their brothers, they're definitely stepping up the pace.

Nevertheless, sons and daughters in a family business are still treated differently in subtle ways. Here are a few:

Gaining entry. "Because women, even now, are not usually in the picture their fathers had painted of the business, they typically have to ask to join it," says Fredda Herz Brown, founder of family consulting firm The Metropolitan Group in Tenafly, New Jersey.

"Women rarely assume that entering the family business is an entitlement," adds Leslie Spira Lopez, president of Kew Management Corp., a family business that owns and manages commercial real estate primarily in New York City. "That was true in my case," she says. "I initiated the discussion of my joining the firm, something my brother probably didn't have to do." Lopez, who says she always wanted to be in the family business, left an 11-year career in software development to join her father's company before there was a crisis or a family emergency.

Learning the ropes. Daughters frequently find learning from their dads is easier for them than it is for their brothers, because they're more sensitive to and respectful of their fathers' needs. "Sons are more likely to put their stakes in the ground and fight it out for power and control," says Brown.

Developing credibility. It used to be that a daughter had to work harder than her brother to develop her credibility. While there's still a slight predisposition toward sons, says Dashew, the credibility gap is closing. "It's a capability issue," she says. "If a brother is less mature, less responsible or less disciplined than his sister, she becomes the more credible sibling."

Becoming strategic and political. In the past, women generally weren't conditioned to speak their minds-the conventional wisdom was that they'd respond emotionally to issues. But that, too, is changing. With so many women going into business and getting advanced degrees in business management, they're becoming better and more focused political and strategic thinkers, says Brown.

Dealing with the mommy connection. The distinction between working and rearing children still exists and often permeates many family business cultures. "For some daughters, being in a family business puts her squarely in the middle of the work/family conflict," says Brown. "Her father wants his daughter to be in to work at 6 a.m. and leave at 10 p.m., but he's also the grandfather of her children and, as such, wants her to be at home for their sake."

In Lopez's case, her father assumed she'd minimize her role in the business when she became a mother a year ago. "I had to convince him that though I might have to cut back on some time, I had no intention of cutting back on responsibilities," says Lopez, 45.

Developing leadership abilities. "Command-and-control" is no longer a successful management style. Today, a leader must be flexible, cooperative and collaborative, and he or she must rely, to a large extent, on the knowledge, experience and skills of others. This style has been more closely identified with women than with men, so daughters, not sons, have an edge here, Brown says.

Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author of two books: Managing Alternative Work Arrangements(Crisp Publishing) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage(Betterway Press).

Smart Moves

What, then, do family business advisors think daughters should consider so they can pave their way smoothly into positions of leadership in their families' businesses?

As soon as you're interested in getting involved in your family's business, express it. But don't necessarily go to work in the family business right after college. This advice is important for all children, but daughters especially should gain experience, credibility and a reputation outside the confines of the family.

Learn from the senior generation, but not out of the corner of your eye. Talk to your parents directly about what the business means to them and how its meaning has changed over time.

Be sensitive to your parent. That doesn't mean being the doting daughter or dependent on dad.

Even if you're not in the family business yet, ask questions, voice opinions and get involved. Perhaps you could sit on an advisory board or head up the family's philanthropic efforts.

Meet with other women who have leadership positions in their families' businesses. Get their insights into the issues you face. If you're a mother, talk with women who think of motherhood as a relationship, responsibility and joy rather than an all-encompassing identity or career.

Wherever possible, embrace and institute new business practices and policies that enable and encourage women in your company (yourself included) to combine the best of their personal and business worlds. One such policy is a flexible work schedule.

Define for yourself what contribution you think you can and want to make to the family business.

Develop a compelling vision for your company's future as well as the ability to convey that vision to others.

More women (daughters) are moving into leadership positions in their families' businesses, but it still isn't the norm. That's why making a conscious effort to prepare yourself and others for your ascension is so important.

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