March is Women’s History Month, and we hope it goes without saying that people are completely capable of building and running their own business, regardless of gender. We live in a world that typically undervalues the hard work women do and often positions entrepreneurship as a career path primarily for men. We have nothing but applause and support for women who start their own businesses and build them to success, but we also want to celebrate women in another common scenario: those who take over running an existing business as a successor to a man who started the business. This could take the form of a daughter named successor by her retiring father, a wife taking over a business after the passing of her husband, or even simply a higher-up executive who happens to be a woman taking over the company. While we all like to think we live in a world where gender is no longer a factor in business success, the truth is that while we’ve come a long way, there are still challenges that uniquely affect women business leaders or women looking to move into leadership positions.
Gender and Succession Planning
While we’ve largely moved past a culture where the only roles for women in the workplace are administrative assistants and nurses, many women still end up directed into roles that emphasize “soft skills” and people-facing roles such as customer service. These roles are valuable and necessary for the function of any business, but it can cause issues when it comes to succession planning, as the roles often considered for advancement (think the “hard-nosed salesperson” or the “genius engineer”) are the roles men tend to be pushed into more than women. However, by paying attention to talents without making any assumptions based on gender, we can avoid inadvertently setting up these “glass ceilings.” Just consider this excerpt from the story of Betty Novak as told in Tom Hubler’s book, The Soul of the Family Business:
As a female entrepreneur, Betty had no formal training in business, but she grew with the business primarily because of her exceptional people and relationship skills with customers and employees. She was effective in sales and marketing, and because of her impressive technical, mathematical, and analytical skills, she was the primary estimator for the company and bid on projects quite successfully.
Betty is the perfect example of someone who’s people skills helped her get started in the professional world, but who also had the combination of “hard” and “soft” talents to successfully build and run the whole business.
Additionally, Betty and her family are a great example of navigating another common expectation that can cause friction when it comes to succession planning: women being put in the role of caretaker by default.
As Betty and her husband Ken (the primary engineer behind their company) aged, Ken was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. While Betty initially served the role of Ken’s primary caretaker while still maintaining her role at the head of the company, the family developed a succession plan to help both her and Ken lead their best lives as they aged. Betty and Ken’s children helped take care of Ken alongside their mother so Betty could continue working, and Betty mentored her son and son-in-law (along with a non-family manager) to maintain the business after her eventual retirement. While many women entrepreneurs in that position would have either been forced to work essentially two jobs (leading the company and being obligated to take care of their husband) or give up the work they loved, Betty and her family all collaborated to allow this incredible entrepreneur to continue living a truly fulfilling life.
Celebrating Women Entrepreneurs Everywhere
Every woman has her own experience with gender dynamics and her own way of approaching potential issues, but we hope that for those of us supporting, working for, and working with female entrepreneurs, this can help at least share a few of the unique challenges associated with the position. For more help navigating succession planning, family dynamics, and the challenges associated with it all, pick up The Soul of the Family Business by Tom Hubler. Through personal anecdotes, real-world case studies, useful tools and frameworks, and more, Hubler offers an in-depth look at how transitions can go smoothly and effectively, regardless of who’s in charge.You can pick up The Soul of the Family Business, available in hardcover form on Amazon.com, directly through Itasca Books, or at a bookstore near you. And of course, if you’re ready to take the next steps, you can always contact Hubler for Business Families today.