Pushing Boundaries or Breaking Bonds?

May 31, 2024

In South Africa, many businesses are family-owned and operated, with ownership often passing from one generation to the next along the male line. Traditionally, this means that many women support their fathers, brothers, and spouses in the business. Although this sounds familiar or even “as things should be” situation, managing a family business involves navigating complex personal and professional relationships. Be that as it may, family businesses are more than that – they are central to the reality of many families. It is not just another business; it goes to the very core of financial prosperity and home dynamics. It is indeed a complex situation, but let’s add another layer of complexity, one that we rarely hear ventilated until we are in a courtroom. What happens when a woman is the leader instead of a man? Perhaps, let me put it bluntly, it is when a woman employs her husband, partner, father, or brother. The issues this brings is a shared responsibility to address, it refers to how we raise our children and support our friends and families that find themselves in the grips of this reality. If we get this right, this will not only benefit the women at the helm but also strengthen the family business sector and the family unit as a whole.

In South Africa, many businesses are family-owned and operated, with ownership often passing from one generation to the next along the male line. Traditionally, this means that many women support their fathers, brothers, and spouses in the business. Although this sounds familiar or even “as things should be” situation, managing a family business involves navigating complex personal and professional relationships. Be that as it may, family businesses are more than that – they are central to the reality of many families. It is not just another business; it goes to the very core of financial prosperity and home dynamics.

It is indeed a complex situation, but let’s add another layer of complexity, one that we rarely hear ventilated until we are in a courtroom. What happens when a woman is the leader instead of a man? Perhaps, let me put it bluntly, it is when a woman employs her husband, partner, father, or brother. This situation is becoming more common, yet it is the most overlooked scenario and labelled as “unnatural”. The hard truth is that many of these women, despite feeling like they are alone and carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, show remarkable resilience. I cannot say that I judge that because they often carry their worlds on their shoulders.

The root of this issue lies greatly in societal dynamics. Despite advancements in gender equality, there is still a pervasive belief that men should lead, especially in the business realm. For many men, not being in the driver’s seat is mortifying, and it remains a deeply seeded sentiment that still echoes throughout society. On the flip side, the lack of acknowledgement and celebration of these dynamics contributes to a sense of isolation for women leaders and a sense of helplessness for the men. These women feel trapped and overwhelmed by the immense responsibility of everything from the business to the well-being of the family is theirs alone. This often leads to a downward spiral that frequently results in burnout. For men, there is a whole range of issues that usually centre around feeling powerless in the situation, especially when things get tough. This, too, leads to what I perceive as an even harsher burnout, as this burnout is never publicly called what it is. This is a potent combination that often has dire consequences on both business and personal fronts.

However, what this societal oversight needs to recognise is that these women are not working alone; they are part of a team working hard to make the business successful and expand. This perception and experience are not universal. Many men do support their partners in business, forming successful, albeit often unrecognised, partnerships.

The family business’ main focus should be on standing firm as a team, and for that to happen, the partners should be strong as a team first. Successful family businesses prioritise the business’s growth and success by cutting through the noise and concentrating their energies on what truly matters. The required shift in societal perceptions requires celebrating partnerships and acknowledging the contributions of women leaders and that of their partners. Addressing these issues involves changing how society views and supports women in family businesses. By recognising and celebrating their contributions, we can create an environment where women leaders feel less isolated and more empowered. This is not just a matter of fairness but a responsibility we all share.

Some key strategies include effective communication between partners, accountability, and, importantly, not putting the proverbial shoe on if it does not fit. This requires a lot of resilience. The change, therefore, needs to stem firstly from within.

As for shared responsibility, it refers to how we raise our children and support our friends and families that find themselves in the grips of this reality. If we get this right, this will not only benefit the women at the helm but also strengthen the family business sector and the family unit as a whole. To support these critical role players, it’s important to recognise the specific challenges that family businesses face. These challenges are present not only in businesses with a history of male leadership but also in businesses with different family structures. Acknowledging this diversity is essential for creating an environment where all family business leaders feel valued and supported.

The reality is many of us may be reading this post and resonating with the innuendo and raw truth of the matter, yet we will not say anything. We should reconsider that, be brave, and share our experiences and challenges! There is so much strength in the community.

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Nicolene
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