Ashley Fina’s grandfather was a natural networker. As the founder of his own New York retail store, Michael C. Fina relied on his network to build his company into a beloved Manhattan institution, which counted Frank Sinatra among its customers. But when Ashley first entered the family business, she realized that while her grandfather had a robust network, his sons, including Ashley’s father, who eventually took over the business, did not.
“They were so focused on maintaining and building what their father and mother had built, they didn’t turn their attention to building their own network. It was really my father’s biggest regret,” Ashley recalls now. Her grandparents’ vast array of friends and advisors — and reliable customers — didn’t simply pass from one generation to the next.
So when Ashley was asked to become the company’s president and CEO when she was just 24, she made building her own network a priority. She joined the Young Presidents’ Organization, the Women Presidents’ Organization, and a women’s executive leadership organization, called the Committee of 200. And she made a point of attending industry conferences and executive education courses. Her last name opened doors. “When you meet people, it’s an easy conversation starter,” she recalls. “Having this last name that was also a brand name helped.” In one instance, she was so intrigued after a keynote at a conference, she followed the speaker — a tech industry thought-leader — around until she found an opportunity to speak to him. That person eventually became one of her most valuable advisors.
Ashley recognized that in order to keep the family business relevant and thriving, she had to embrace opportunities that her visionary grandfather had not dreamed of. The store’s bridal registry business, for example, which her father and uncle helped popularize, faced stiff competition in the internet age. She needed relationships with rising leaders in technology and entrepreneurship who could help her prevent that line of business from becoming obsolete.
You and Your Team Series
Plus, working in a family business can be isolating. It’s likely that you’re surrounded during your work days by the same people you see at night and on weekends. This existing network of family members who have served as role models and mentors as the business evolved in the past can be helpful, but your familial relationship can make it difficult to get neutral advice. So it’s essential to branch out and have people outside the family enterprise that you trust.
If, like Ashley, you’re a member of the younger generation of your family’s business, here’s some advice for gleaning the best of your family’s network while creating one that is distinctly your own.
- Build a network across age brackets. Don’t discount contacts and advisors who might reflect your grandparents’ or your parents’ generation’s values. Sometimes their input can serve as a useful proxy for what your grandfather or your mother might advise you to do — without the emotional baggage.
- Establish peer relationships within your own generation in the family. There are a lot of issues that can make it difficult to get along with people in the same generation in your family business: rivalries, proxy wars, family branch dynamics, differing relationships to wealth, and geographic distance. Actively fight unhealthy dynamics within your family. Cultivate relationships with people in your generation — both family members and non-family peers — to support each other and help avoid the battles that sometimes destroy great family businesses down the line.
- Transition your family’s existing network across generations. Just because you didn’t chose the existing network your family has, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. The ability to form multi-generational relationships with business partners from other family businesses — e.g., suppliers, customers, or distributors— can be a key advantage. These relationships are often not just transactional — they’re built on trust, and better bonds are often formed knowing your parents or even grandparents did business together. But these relationships won’t transition from one generation in a family business to the next without effort. Work with the current leaders of your family business to identify which families in their existing networks you should build your own relationships with, and then develop a plan for getting to know them. For example, organize a business meeting where the next generation of both families listens in, and debriefs together. Or attend a talk at the industry conference for your sector together and discuss the implications for the future of each of your businesses.
- Cultivate two or three inner-circle advisors. It’s terrific to have a good number of people with a variety of opinions and experiences with whom to confer, but at the end of the day, you need a few people you truly trust to help you make good decisions. Though some people might be receptive to the idea of being in your network, many are too busy to actually help you. Focus on the people you can turn to when you need help and it’s OK to cut your losses with those who don’t.
- Beware of the ‘’users.’’ With a family brand name, it can also be easy to attract people who are more interested in what you can do for them than a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, Paul*, a fifth generation owner of a global industrial manufacturer, is aware that his family connections are unusually high-powered for someone who is only 30 years old. ‘’To put it bluntly, I have connections beyond my years — connections I have no business having, considering my own career trajectory,’’ he admits. But that has actually served to make Paul more cautious about tapping his family network at the request of others when it’s not likely to turn into a reciprocal relationship. Make sure you guard and protect the network that your family has already built.
- Take advantage of your unique opportunities. On the flip side, having a brand name can be a real benefit in building out your network. Jenn*, a third generation owner of a prominent family business, has taken to cold calling people whom she admires. She always has a good reason for reaching out — “I want to learn about your board,” or “What is your family’s approach to dividend policy?” — but she’s well aware that her last name encourages people to reply. Our experience has been that family businesses think of themselves almost like a secret society and are eager to help others who ask. So don’t be afraid to reach out.
Working hard to develop her own network paid off for Ashley and her company. With the help of her cousins Jeffrey, Michael, and Steven, she was able to re-energize the family business at a crucial time, when competition from online businesses challenged their brick-and-mortar model. Then, her network of advisors helped her to make the difficult decision to sell the division of the company that created personalized awards and other recognition items for a company’s employees, while maintaining the ecommerce retail business in light of changing industry dynamics. And finally, her network has been instrumental in helping her determine her own career path by providing guidance on how to lead and reinvent the company after selling a key part of the family business. “I don’t know if I would have made such a conscious choice to build my network if my father hadn’t been so clear that he wished he’d done better,” she says now. “But in hindsight, I can’t imagine what I would have done without it.”
*Not their real names.