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Threads of Purpose

By Naveen Khajanchi

A well-defined purpose reflecting across generations is what can take a family business forward

Family businesses have been around for hundreds of years and continue to do so, at times for known and often for unknown reasons. There may be several reasons behind formulating a business: to survive; to branch off after a fallout with family members; to seize a business opportunity; to pursue an innovative idea; etc. And making profits is possibly the biggest drive to survive for most.

But in the long run, all of them have a said Purpose to take a family business forward. It can be building on the legacy or supporting generations or even giving back to the society. For the newer generation, at times it could be about securing rights; position; and power. This is where we may tend to lose the idea of being fair – both, to oneself, and to others as co-owners of a business.

It is really important to ask this question about Purpose and define some of the unclear aspects as much as possible. There may be an initial hesitation due to friction and discomfort but if handled properly, it enables better communication, opens up opportunities for collaboration and transparency, and helps in better alignment amongst different generations. A clearly defined purpose also helps us know where we stand vs. where we want to be.

I recently asked a group of family business members what was their Purpose as an individual, and as a family business. Individually, most from the younger generation kept it articulate talking about reduced use of paper, better treatment of women employees, promoting veganism, etc. as their purposes in life. The elders, on the other hand, had their eyes set on building a legacy and spoke of past acts of stewardship and keeping their position secure going forward. As a family member, everyone wanted to be better off on the core values of honesty, quality and better profits. Some also wished to stay away from profiteering, which often results in misuse of law or people.

They seemed to be fighting cold wars with each other and operating more on self-interest. As an outsider, I was overwhelmed with what I heard behind the back as against what I saw on the face of it. I tried to flip the situation as the atmosphere was getting tense with an argument over some amount to be kept aside for R&D and innovation. But after some facilitation and a good discussion, the group realised it was a pointless fight.

I asked each one of them to write down five values and describe what it means for each of them. I also asked them to list down steps to achieve those values. Some of the values that came up were: family love and peace of mind, fairness and transparency, building a legacy, giving back to employees, community development, gender equality, better communication and better understanding between the old and the young generation.

Few unusual thoughts also came about: profit at any cost, exit from business options, need for 100% control in decision making, assured share, etc.

In consensus to the above, some threads that could be worked upon are:

Better quality of products, brands and preparing for competition with innovation

Need for growth and more profits but not via profiteering or by adopting wrong means

Empowerment with responsibility and adherence to a framework

Fairness in distribution of power and control ensuring accountability with responsibility

I then asked them where they were vs. where they wanted to be. Soon, the tension was back and sparks flew. I tried calming them down but was asked not to interfere.

After I came back from my break, the atmosphere had sobered. A discussion was initiated and threads of a larger Purpose started gaining strength and getting understood. Gradually, after several such meetings, the documentation work began getting finalised – though there was too much additions and deletions initially. I made them understand that the document was a starting point and could be modified if and when required.

I explained that it’s a great idea to have a warm handshake. It sends a positive message across both sides without saying a word. We always shake hands with our right hand and at times even before or after a deal has been signed. Can two people walk for too long, holding the same right hand? It’s difficult and that’s a key learning point here. Our Right hand is meant to partner/ collaborate with the other’s left hand and together we can walk miles. Acceptance of this deep thought can help solve many problems.

Finally, the Purpose was to exist in a wholesome manner with a legacy that each one would be proud of. I believe, the goal can be to make profits but it is fairness, trust and the intention to give back that gives any family business a larger Purpose to thrive on.

The author Naveen Khajanchi is CEO and Director of Executive Search Service.

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