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Building strong foundations: the pillars of governance in family businesses
5 October 2023 | Minutes to read: 3

Building strong foundations: the pillars of governance in family businesses

By Chris Leahy

Family businesses are often built on a foundation of shared values, trust, and a vision for the future. While these qualities contribute to their success, they also introduce unique complexities. Navigating the intersection of family dynamics and business objectives can be challenging. This is where governance in family businesses is pivotal.

In this article, the second in our family business series, we’ll explore the pillars of governance in family businesses, key principles that provide structure, clarity, and cohesion. These pillars help family businesses thrive by fostering effective communication, preserving harmony, and ensuring a seamless transition to the next generation.

1. Defining roles and responsibilities

One of the initial and most fundamental pillars of governance in family businesses is the clear definition of roles and responsibilities. When family members participate in the business, it’s vital to establish well-defined boundaries that clarify who does what.

  • Family vs. business roles: Distinguish between family and business roles. Family roles may include owners, shareholders, and board members, while business roles involve management and operations. Defining these roles helps minimise potential conflicts of interest.
  • Competencies and qualifications: Assign responsibilities based on individual competencies and qualifications rather than family ties alone. This ensures that the most qualified individuals are in positions of leadership, benefiting the business’s performance.
  • Succession planning: As part of this pillar, consider succession planning. It outlines the process for transitioning leadership roles from one generation to the next, providing a roadmap for continuity and growth.

By clearly defining roles and responsibilities, family businesses create a framework for accountability, which, in turn, fosters a sense of fairness and minimises misunderstandings.

2. Establishing decision-making processes

Effective decision-making is at the heart of every successful business. In family enterprises, where familial bonds can sometimes blur the lines between business and personal matters, well-established decision-making processes are essential.

  • Transparency: Create transparency by clearly outlining how decisions are made, who is involved, and what criteria are used to evaluate choices. Transparency builds trust among family members and stakeholders.
  • Conflict resolution: Define mechanisms for resolving conflicts that may arise during decision-making. Having a structured approach, such as family councils or independent mediators, can help ensure that conflicts are managed constructively.
  • Major vs. minor decisions: Distinguish between major strategic decisions and day-to-day operational choices. Clarify which decisions require input from family members and which can be delegated to management.

Establishing a systematic decision-making process promotes inclusivity, reduces the risk of impulsive decisions, and ensures that choices align with the family business’s long-term vision.

3. Setting up a family council

A family council is a central pillar of governance in family businesses. It serves as a forum for family members to come together and discuss matters related to the business while also fostering open communication.

  • Purpose and objectives: Clearly define the purpose and objectives of the family council. It may encompass discussions on ownership, succession planning, financial matters and the preservation of family values.
  • Regular meetings: Schedule regular family council meetings to facilitate ongoing communication and decision-making. These gatherings provide an opportunity for family members to voice their concerns, share ideas and stay informed.
  • Professional guidance: Consider involving external advisors or professionals who can offer unbiased guidance. They can help ensure that discussions remain focused on the business’s best interests.

Family councils play a pivotal role in nurturing a sense of unity among family members, promoting cohesion, and maintaining alignment with the family’s values and goals.

4. Creating robust policies

Governance in family businesses is fortified by the creation of comprehensive policies. These policies serve as a set of rules and guidelines that all family members agree to follow. They encompass various aspects of the business, including:

  • Employment: Address issues related to family employment, such as recruitment, compensation, performance evaluations and professional development.
  • Ownership: Clarify ownership structures, including shareholding, equity transfers, and voting rights. Consider mechanisms for accommodating family members who may not be actively involved in the business.
  • Succession: Develop a succession policy that outlines the process for leadership and management transitions. Ensure that the policy is aligned with the family’s long-term vision and business goals.
  • Code of conduct: Establish a code of conduct that defines acceptable behaviour and ethics within the family business. This code fosters a culture of integrity and professionalism.

These policies provide a framework for consistency and fairness, helping family businesses navigate complex issues while upholding their values and objectives.

The pillars of governance in family businesses serve as the bedrock upon which these enterprises build their success. By clearly defining roles, establishing decision-making processes, creating family councils, and implementing robust policies, family businesses can navigate the intersection of family and business dynamics effectively.

In the next article in our family business series, we’ll delve deeper into the role of conflict resolution and mediation in family business governance. We’ll explore how these mechanisms can transform conflicts into opportunities for growth and strengthen the bonds that hold family businesses together.

Please read our other articles in the series:

Article 1: Governance in family businesses: its critical role in nurturing success

Article 2: The family business advantage: nurturing legacy and success

Article 4: Bridging bonds: conflict resolution and mediation in family businesses

Article 5: Passing the torch: navigating the generational shift in family businesses

For more information on how to implement good governance in your family business, contact your local William Buck business advisor.

Building strong foundations: the pillars of governance in family businesses

Chris Leahy

Chris is a Director in our Business Advisory Division with over 16 years experience within the accounting and finance industry working with business owners. Chris has a unique blend of commercial and professional experience seeing him lead the financial functions of privately owned international companies across five continents as CFO and Statutory Director.

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