Marta Grochal Conscious Leadership

Ever wondered what family-owned businesses, executive recruitment and My Big Fat Greek Wedding have in common? Never mind, I'm happy to explain.

By Marta Grochal, Senior Partner

In the film, family matriarch Maria Portokalos drops a pearl of wisdom on her daughter Toula: "The man is the head, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants."

Aside from revealing my weakness for cheesy rom-coms, this quote encapsulates the qualities an executive needs to succeed in a family business. I'm not saying they call the shots, but as the "neck," top executives play a crucial role in supporting and guiding family business owners. In turn, the "head" needs C-level talent with the conscious leadership skills (such as empathy, discretion and persuasion) to gel with family members and get everyone working towards common goals.

Whether you’re an executive looking to make your mark or a recruiter tasked with finding the perfect fit, nailing this dynamic requires a deep understanding of the family — their values, history, relationships, the whole deal. Let’s dive into the fascinating world of family businesses and explore the challenges of finding the right leadership profiles to steer these organisations to success. 

Family-owned businesses are a global powerhouse. The 2023 EY and University of St.Gallen Family Business Index, which analyses the world’s 500 largest family businesses, reveals some eye-catching statistics:
  • These businesses are growing nearly twice as fast as advanced economies and around 1.5 times the rate of emerging markets and developing economies.
  • Together, these 500 businesses generate a staggering US$8.02 trillion in revenue and employ 24.5 million people worldwide.
The Index also highlights the geographical distribution and sectoral influence of family-owned businesses:
  • Nearly half the companies in the Index are based in Europe.
  • North America hosts 30% of family businesses.
  • Asia-Pacific accounts for 16%, with a steady increase in representation since 2015, growing from 61 companies to 79.
  • The consumer sector remains the largest at 37.4%.
  • The advanced manufacturing and mobility sector has increased its presence this year to 28.6%, highlighting the evolving landscape of family-owned businesses.

Navigating the Ins and Outs of Family Businesses

With 18 years under my belt as an executive search partner across Europe, I’ve come to learn exactly what makes family businesses tick. One client that stands out is a Polish consumer company where multiple generations were actively involved in decision-making across different parts of the business, including R&D, marketing and operations. Even spouses who weren't on the executive committee had significant influence over key decisions.  

Hiring a new general manager for this company was a big challenge. We needed someone who could drive global growth, break into new markets, handle complex family dynamics, and get everyone on board with their vision.

Emotional maturity, curiosity and people skills? Non-negotiable. They had to be a conscious leader.

We found the right person. In one tricky situation, the founder wanted to cut an unprofitable brand, but his son, who was second in command and ran the day-to-day operations, pushed back because his wife was in charge of that brand. But thanks to our tailored search process, the general manager we recruited had the emotional intelligence and influencing abilities to navigate this delicate situation, steering the family toward a consensus solution.

Finding and attracting such candidates requires a deep dive into the family's backstory. It means taking the time to understand their unique challenges and aspirations for the business and then using that knowledge to find executives with the right skills to thrive in these complex and often delicate environments.

Earning Trust: The Key to Lasting Family Business Partnerships

Trust is the foundation for any long-term partnership with a family business. However, as the Polish consumer company example shows, earning trust takes time, patience, and a genuine interest in the family's story. It's not just about quick placement; it's about being there for the long haul.

I learned this firsthand when I worked with a leading FMCG manufacturer in Poland. Over eight months, I visited their HQ multiple times, touring the factory and observing their production process. By showing genuine curiosity and a desire to understand their business, I built a strong rapport with the owner and laid the groundwork for a lasting partnership.

Of course, being a good partner doesn't mean being a sycophant or a yes-person. If anything, it's the opposite. Family businesses tend to be packed with strong personalities. Executives and consultants must stand their ground when opinions clash, or decisions are challenged.

This might mean having tough conversations, giving honest feedback and finessing complex relationships with sensitivity and tact. Family members are often deeply invested in the business both financially and emotionally, which can lead to high-stakes situations and emotionally charged reactions.

As an executive or consultant, you must approach these moments with empathy and understanding, recognising that outbursts often come from a place of passion and a desire to protect the company's legacy.

At Page Executive, we prioritise building long-term relationships with family businesses rather than pursuing quick wins. We take the time to get to know them, their operations and workforces to provide solutions that make a difference.

Case Study: Finding the Perfect Fit for a Chief Operating Officer

Executive search partners build relationships by getting results. That’s easier said than done when your client is a family business owner who expects you to find the perfect fit for their organisation. Adaptability and flexibility in exploring the candidate pool are vital, as I learned when finding a Chief Operating Officer for a fast-growing Polish retailer.

The client's ambition was to become the next Zalando, the leading German e-commerce company, and they wanted to attract top international talent with experience scaling up operations. The search was complex. We were representing a relatively unknown Polish company to high-profile candidates from well-established e-commerce giants. Many were understandably sceptical about joining a family business in Eastern Europe.

To overcome this challenge, my team and I had to dig deep and tap into our understanding of the company's unique culture and growth potential. We meticulously prepared for each candidate interaction, highlighting the company's ambitious plans for expansion and the potential for the new COO to shape the organisation's future. We emphasised the firm's strong family values, commitment to innovation and the opportunity to be part of a close-knit, entrepreneurial team.

By focusing on the company's strengths and the unique challenges of the role, we got several high-calibre candidates excited about the opportunity. But as the search unfolded, we realised that our international-only focus might not be the best fit for the company’s needs and culture. In the rare case that this happens, we don’t just stick to plan A —  we stay nimble, working with the client to adjust the candidate profile and explore alternative talent pools.

After consulting the family, we rebooted our strategy to focus on local candidates who could bring a unique combination of international experience and a deep understanding of the Polish market and culture. Through targeted outreach, referrals and tapping our extensive network in Poland, we identified several candidates who had the right mix of skills, experience and cultural fit.

The successful candidate was a Polish executive who had spent several years working in Germany and knew the Polish and European markets inside out. He brought a strong track record of scaling up operations in high-growth companies. Most crucially, he had previously worked with family-owned firms and knew how to handle the complex interplay of business and family.

The success of our search highlights why agility is more than just a buzzword in executive search. As executive search partners, we need to stay nonjudgmental, ready to re-evaluate our assumptions and tailor our strategies to meet the distinct and changing needs of each family business.

It's a constant learning process, but it makes our work rewarding. In this case, our candidate was thrilled with the opportunity and quickly became a dedicated and integral part of the company’s leadership team. 

Passing the Torch: Helping Family Businesses Plan for the Future

Succession planning is another area where executive search partners can help family-owned businesses. As trusted advisors, we assist these organisations in handling the tricky process of passing the baton from generation to generation.

Why tricky? One reason is simply that the world is changing. In Central and Eastern Europe, private ownership remains male-dominated, in contrast to more progressive attitudes towards gender equality found elsewhere. But the tide is turning. I’ve noticed more and more owners investing in their daughters’ education and professional development, grooming them for leadership roles. This shift presents both challenges and opportunities for CEE family businesses as they balance centuries-old traditions with the need for fresh perspectives, diverse skill sets and the need to compete in global markets.

We work hand-in-hand with family businesses to create solid succession plans. These plans spot and develop the next generation of leaders. To do this, we need to understand the family's values, culture and long-term goals. We also have to objectively assess the potential successors' strengths and weaknesses.

Throughout the succession planning process, we provide guidance and support. This helps family businesses have a smooth transition and keep their leadership steady. It might mean finding key development opportunities for potential successors, like international assignments or exposure to different parts of the business. It could also involve moderating tough conversations and resolving conflicts during the transition.

Our job is to help family businesses build a strong foundation for the future. One that respects their legacy while accepting the need for change and innovation. By combining our know-how in executive search with a deep understanding of family dynamics (just don’t ask us to resolve those holiday dinner seating arrangements!), Page Executive can help these organisations flourish for generations to come.

Executives: How to Be the Neck that Turns the Head

If you're considering a move to a family business, keep an open mind and be curious about the company's inner workings. Before making a decision, you should:

●    Meet with people at different levels and observe how they interact
●    Pay attention to the company's communication style and decision-making processes
●    Understand the family's history, challenges and aspirations
●    Assess if the company's culture aligns with your personality and work style

Starting a new role? This is where conscious leadership makes all the difference. Navigating complex relationships and building trust takes time, and you'll need to adapt your leadership style to the unique needs of a family business. This may involve:

●    Actively listening to different family members' perspectives
●    Finding common ground and building consensus around critical decisions
●    Being transparent and authentic in your communication, even when delivering tough messages
●    Showing a genuine commitment to the family's long-term success and legacy

Family businesses aren't for everyone. Working closely with family members can be demanding, both emotionally and professionally. But for those with the right mindset and skills, leading a family business can be incredibly rewarding.

Executives who thrive in family businesses often find a deep sense of purpose in helping to steward the family's legacy and drive long-term success. They build strong, trusting relationships with family members and become valued advisors and partners in the company's growth and development.

Your Trusted Ally: Page Executive's Commitment to Family Businesses

At Page Executive, we believe that trust, honesty and building solid relationships are vital to finding the right leaders for family businesses. Our job is to understand what makes each firm tick and to help protect and preserve the legacy they've built. We're here to be reliable partners and allies as they grow, succeed and transition from one generation to the next.

If you're an executive eyeing your next opportunity or a family business looking for top-notch leadership to carry on your legacy, reach out to one of our partners and principals. Let's work together to ensure family businesses have the resilient, adaptable leadership they need to thrive in the modern global economy while honouring the traditions and values that have made them successful for generations.

Discover more from our Conscious Leadership series  >

Get in touch > 

Looking to hire your next leader?

Get in touch with one of our consultants now to discuss your leadership talent requirements. 

Find a consultant

Looking for your next leadership challenge?

Explore our open opportunities right now. 

Search jobs

Looking to build a Sustainability function in your organisation? Download our free eBook now

Are you hiring? Reach out to our team now. 

Please select your location: