There are times in the life of a multigenerational family business when it might be suitable to appoint a non-family member to lead it. There could be many reasons for this with the most common being that when a succession is due to take place there are no family members qualified or willing to take up the role. In this case some families may hire non-family CEOs to serve as a “bridge” while the rising generation acquires the necessary experience or knowledge, whereas other families may choose to fully transition into the role of owner-investors, ceding ongoing management to non-family professionals.
Needing to source a CEO from outside the family shouldn’t be seen as a failure, rather an opportunity. It’s a chance for fresh eyes to consider new areas of business or growth opportunities that family members, having learnt from other family members, may not see. They can bring expertise not available in the family and depending on what the family wants for the business they can choose a CEO with the right skills and experience from a far wider pool than if only looking within the family.
One significant advantage of bringing in a non-family CEO is that it also opens up an opportunity for better communication. The CEO can act as an effective liaison between generations to ensure mutual understanding. Where there are several branches of the family with an interest in the business it may also widen options for the next successor. Even inside the same family there can be factions, with each faction interested in their branch succeeding in the family business. A non-family CEO is able to impartially appraise who in the family might be suited to certain roles without bias, unconscious or otherwise.
However, the benefits of appointing a non-family CEO can only be achieved if family members respect the authority of the CEO, and don’t undermine him or her. This is easier said than done, as I have witnessed several times. Bringing in a non-family CEO is a big transition for most family businesses and is therefore challenging.
As well as being willing to accept the change the family should also look to mend fractured relationships and resolve tensions before appointing the new CEO. While a non-family CEO can perform a certain amount of mediation it is not their main job and spending all their time managing difficult family relationships will make it much too difficult to perform their role as CEO effectively.
Once the family is prepared for the introduction of the non-family CEO, the CEO must also play their part to make a success of the situation. I’ve worked with many wealthy families and their businesses over my working life and where I’ve seen successful non-family CEOs they all seem to establish these key principles early on:
First, that they are separate from family affairs and family politics. Maintaining impartiality and not getting involved in family matters ensures that both family members and other staff trust the non-family CEO and respect their authority.
Second, that they establish clear rules that focus on equality. In many family businesses there aren’t the formal structures and rules that may exist in a non-family business. While this can work for smaller businesses, where a non-family CEO is appointed it is important to implement policies that clarify the rules for everyone to follow, whatever their status or seniority. This is key to maintaining impartiality and independence throughout the CEOs tenure.
Such an approach is likely to move the business towards a structure much more formal than the family might be used to. However, I argue that this should be a welcome change for most family businesses. It not only opens up opportunities for growth but also makes working in the business more attractive to other, non-family talent who might not usually consider a family business where their growth opportunities are traditionally limited.