Women in Family Enterprise: 4 Takeaways for Success
Insights for women in family enterprise.
Their individual stories may be different, but the themes are largely the same, pointing to important takeaways.
A panel for MBA students hosted by Kellogg's John L. Ward Center for Family Enterprises revealed important insights for women in family enterprise.
The panelists, all current woman leaders in family firms, were Alison Gutterman '02, CEO and President, Jelmar (maker of household cleaning products); Meghan Juday, Chairman of the Board, IDEAL Industries (producer of electrical and telecommunications products); and Taryn Goodman, VP Finance, Industrial Rivet & Fastener.
Jennifer Pendergast, John L. Ward Clinical Professor of Family Enterprise and faculty director of the Center for Family Enterprises, moderated.
The panelists spoke broadly about unplanned career paths, navigating transitions to larger roles and responsibilities within family enterprise and overcoming related barriers. Here are the key takeaways from the discussion, which are relevant for rising professionals within and outside family enterprise.
Find the Right Path
All panelists described finding their way to the right role within the enterprise.
In many cases, they didn't view the family firm as a likely career choice. Even with strong educational backgrounds, including MBAs from top-ranked programs and prestigious, competitive jobs, their path to leadership in their family enterprises was not clear.
Gutterman worked previously in retail, assisting with broadcast-media sales. "It was great training for working with consumers," she said. "But I didn't have much business experience when Dad said, '"Your mom recommended I offer you a job.'" Gutterman's father promised she could quit if she disliked the work but also made clear he would let her go if she wasn't capable. She joined Jelmar in 1994 - "It was like jumping off a cliff" - rising to succeed her father as CEO in 2007.
Goodman worked previously in financial services, including with Barclays, and enjoyed the work but felt "something was missing - especially following through on what happened after large transactions." That feeling motivated her, eventually, to join the family firm, where she worked on financial initiatives including renegotiation of the firm's credit facility, while learning the industry as a fourth-generation family member.
Juday, too, transitioned to her family firm from outside work: consulting. "It was stimulating work but often didn't move the needle for large clients," she said. Moreover, the demanding lifestyle made it challenging to see her young children. So, when her father asked for help with the family business, she agreed, joining the enterprise to work on the family side by building the family council. In 2020 she became board chair, serving as a conduit between owners and business, a natural step from her previous work. Juday is the first female family leader in the firm's century-long history.
As these examples suggest, it's about finding the right path and, ideally, a role in which to have immediate impact. Sometimes that's best fulfilled by work in a specific function, rather than a general management program and in a place that leverages skills and experience.
In many cases, women professionals may not be seen as successor or leaders in male-dominated contexts, particularly the industrial and manufacturing businesses where our three panelists work. Though they didn't originally aim for leadership roles, once they saw their potential to take responsibility, they worked hard to prove themselves and bring other women along, proactively.
Juday's family, for example, had always looked for male successors - her father was named successor as the only boy of seven siblings, and chaired the company for 40 years. "I didn't have aspirations to lead," she says, "but coming into the company I realized I had value to bring and looked to take on more leadership." After working closely with her father on IDEAL's board for years, she became board chair herself last year.
Juday also realized that to make more space for future female leaders in their family, she needed to champion creating structured development opportunities for rising leaders, including job descriptions for executive and director/chair roles, formation of a development education committee, funding for development (such as paying for MBA programs), and formal mentorship.
Find - and Be - Champions and Mentors
Finding champions within and outside the organization can make all the difference for rising women leaders.
Gutterman's largest supporter, to the end, was her mother, as she described: "On her deathbed she told my father he had to let me lead. He gave me the title of President but remained involved, slowly giving me more space."
Goodman benefited from seeing her aunt working in the family firm - and industry. "She was a trailblazer," she says. "It was a gift to see her in a leadership role." To give back, Goodman has become part of a fastener-industry group for women: "I want to mentor others in this male-dominated industry."
In Juday's case, her family firm's outside CEO became her champion: "He saw what I was doing in the board room, and pointed out my potential to my father, who was skeptical but supportive." She lacked female role models among the previous generation but now serves as one for her fifth-generation nieces: "My taking my lumps makes it more possible for them to enter the business."
Going further, Juday cofounded the Lodis Forum for female board chairs, with the broad mission of supporting women in leadership. "I joined a mostly old-white-male board and people wanted to make me a figurehead as chair," she says. "When I found another female board chair last year it motivated me to start the group. We now have 35 members and counting." Beyond providing support, the forum also conducts research revealing the tiny proportion of women in private-firm board roles, and offers guidance on improving leadership diversity.
Other peer-to-peer groups like Vistage or less formal ones can also be helpful, as Goodman notes: "It has been invaluable for me to have people who share different perspectives with me and hold me accountable - they help me take time from working in the business to work on the business."
The John L. Ward Center for Family Enterprises offers mentoring circles to Kellogg students led by family enterprise leaders as well.
Succession is a Transition for Everyone
As the narratives above suggest, succession is a team effort, and requires adjustment by everyone.
"The business was Dad's hobby," Gutterman says. That made it difficult for him to step aside as she ascended in leadership. "It took years for him to believe he had more to give in life than leading Jelmar," she continues, "and he had to stop seeing me as the little girl who danced on his feet." Believing in Gutterman's ability and immersing himself in nonprofit board work helped her father ultimately let go - a win-win.
Juday's father, too, had no transition plan in place: "I worked closely with him for eight years. The people who are stepping down also need to prepare for it - if it takes you eight years then plan for it to take them eight years too." In some cases, leaders stay engaged well into life's last stage: Gutterman's grandfather came to the office daily until he died; Goodman shares her current office with her 91-year-old grandfather!
Family-enterprise expert John Davis writes about the three stakeholders that must prepare for succession: the successor, the person being succeeded, and the business. People often overlook the latter two.
Together, the takeaways here highlight the importance for women professionals to challenge the status quo, whether as an individual or group, in family enterprise or nonfamily firms. It's critical to remember that not making a choice - to find the right path, to be proactive, to champion others - is still a choice. So rising women leaders are best-served being thoughtful about their current situation and moving strategically toward the right path for them, using all the resources they can find.