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The road to leadership has been a long and winding one for many women in business. And for women in family businesses, that road has had its own unique twists and turns. The important role that women play has not been in question, particularly their stabilizing influence within the family and their ability to perpetuate the family’s values and traditions. However, while these roles are important for creating harmony and extending the family’s legacy, their contributions have often been quietly hidden inside the family business.

KPMG Private Enterprise wanted to gain some firsthand insights into the dynamics of today’s family business environment. To this end, KPMG Private Enterprise and the STEP Project Global Consortium collaborated on a global family business survey among more than 1,800 family business leaders globally. The survey was then followed by in-depth interviews with members of selected family businesses to gain their practical insights on the ways in which changing demographics are influencing their family business practices. These insights on topics such as succession, governance and legacy are being published in a series of co-authored articles dedicated to empowering the future of family business, which can be found on the KPMG Private Enterprise website.

KPMG Private Enterprise and the STEP Project Global Consortium were particularly interested in hearing about the impact that different generations of family members might be having on the strategic direction, mindset and leadership approach of their family firms. During several discussions on this topic with family business leaders and their families, a recurring theme appeared: there is a new generation of women who are expanding their roles in many family businesses and many are changing their firms’ trajectories.

The next leadership revolution

Whether in the home or in business, segregating roles on the basis of gender has a long history, going as far back as the Industrial Revolution. I would suggest that a very different and reformative revolution is underway today, and it demonstrates the powerful influence that women in family businesses are having.

There is recognition that society is changing, as is education and children’s upbringing, and GenX and Millennial women are stepping up in family businesses, including those in traditionally male-dominated industries. For example, young Millennial women like Jodi Bloomer, Cofounder of Canadian Fiber Optics, are playing instrumental roles in setting this new direction. “In this case, being a woman has had advantages because the men around me don’t need to try to intimidate me,” she told us, “I am not challenging to them. I acknowledge that they know more than me in their own special areas; that I am here to learn, and I need their expertise and input to make good decisions for our company. There is a mutual appreciation for what each of us does well.”

Gaining a fresh perspective on the future

Because of societal bias and cultural or family traditions in some areas of the world, women have often been consigned to the role of ‘chief emotional officer’ in their family firms. In this hidden ‘CEO’ role, they take care of the emotional needs of the family, keeping the family together and perpetuating the family’s values and traditions across the generations.

Men have traditionally been associated with traits such as independence, autonomy and achievement, while women have generally been classified as nurturing and caring.

However, traditional feminine characteristics such as loyalty, concern, sensitivity to the needs of others, problem-solving and conflict resolution represent a holistic and constructive leadership style for both women and men. In a family business, this leadership style can be an asset because it combines loyalty to the firm and the family with a sensitivity to individuals’ needs, as well as a collaborative decision-making approach that is based on instinct, intuition and evidence.

In fact, encouraging a diversity of views and approaches can have tremendous power in helping to move family businesses toward more interesting and prosperous futures. And women and men have an opportunity to strengthen their family businesses by embracing their differences rather than fighting against them; in benefitting from the talent, knowledge and skills that each can contribute.

While the glass ceiling may not yet be shattered, I believe that there is a new generation of women in family business who are blazing their own trail. They are too busy looking forward to look up at the ceiling, and they are likely to be the role models for many female and male family business leaders of the future.

I encourage you to read more insights from these prominent women in family businesses in the KPMG Private Enterprise and the STEP Project co-authored article, The power of women in family business: a generational shift in purpose and influence”.

With this new multi-generational outlook, new opportunities are opening up for future family business successors. If you are interested in exploring deeper insights on this topic, you may be interested in these additional co-authored articles: “The courage to choose wisely: Why the succession decision may be a defining moment in your family business” and Creating value through good governance: How to balance what is right for the business and for the family" and "The enduring legacy of business families: Sharing what matters across the generations"

Original article authored by Mary Jo Fedy, National Enterprise Leader, KPMG in Canada.