All in the Family: Next Generation of Design Leadership

October 13, 2015


The good news: you're inheriting the family business. Owning a decades-old, successful and highly respected company at least ensures job security. The bad news: you're delivering against enormously high expectations to perform and grow the business. This push and pull is at the core of countless family owned companies.

Having created design and branding programs with second-generation leaders in retail, manufacturing, real estate and hospitality I've helped activate a pivot, advising those who are ascending as they become those in charge. This newfound independence is infused with power. But the phrase "Dad always said" holds weight with our clients, even when they're running a multi-national business and commanding legions of employees. Especially on the issues of design.

Twentieth century businesses often started differently than today's start-ups. Charismatic individuals who embodied everything the company promised to be were essentially a "living" brand. They had the benefit of time. Today, the information age allows new leaders to build brands overnight. This speed of change presents the single greatest challenge to second-generation leaders: how to transform the legacy of an earlier era into something current and meaningful today. Second-generation leaders should embrace the fearless experimentation of celebrated contemporary stars and liberally apply these innovative ideas. There is as much to learn from Google as there is from one's parents. So, what are some of the new practices that can help this transition?

21st Century Opportunities:

  • Design: Design should be a strategic part of the business to create a competitive advantage. It should be built INTO the business, not added on.

  • Continuous iteration: Quickly improving products and marketing is a continuous loop for companies today. These decisions are based on both new technology as well as a continual dialogue with customers.

  • Digital currency: The brand personality must be seamlessly integrated into every experience of the business, from the point of purchase, to mobile interaction or social sharing. Even if the brand exists in the material world of products and services it is often experienced first online. Use digital media to communicate what the brand MEANS, not just what the company DOES. Understanding the difference between the two is critically important.

On the flip side, leaders of emerging new companies can learn much from legacy businesses built on time-tested principles of the past.

20th Century Fundamentals:

  • Patience: Success rarely happens overnight. It requires focus and diligence and the courage to continually invest in the business. The road to success is always under construction.

  • Humility: Be open to new ideas. Be mindful of what customers really want and continually engage your customers in the process.

  • Balance: Build strong fundamentals, such as fiscal responsibility, flawless operations, and a culture that all embodies your beliefs. Couple this with an eye to the future, and the legacy you will leave to YOUR offspring. Thinking about how you will empower the third generation, means creating a vision that will stand the test of time.

Ford, Estee Lauder, and Samsung have brilliantly amplified their founder's vision. They are ideal models of a holistic approach to strategic branding and design that is omni-channel in its dimension and rigorously reinforced. This requires expert counsel, collaborative engagement and a realistic commitment of financial resources to stay at the top.

At their inception, visionary brands are built to last. With the ideal balance of careful reflection on the past while boldly embracing the future, next generation leaders can exceed those original dreams and proudly extend a family heritage.

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