I was in Ironbridge recently in the Victorian Town, a living museum which brings to life what life was like at the beginning of the 20th Century. My kids were particularly fascinated by the dentist. He explained how the poor, who couldn’t afford sugary sweets, would sell their healthy teeth to the rich who had rotted theirs.
“Daddy, do you believe him?”
My response was to ask their grandmother. After all, her grandma would have been alive then. Their jaws dropped – and not because of the sweets. The idea that they could have insight into life 100 years ago, just one step removed was amazing.
Granddaughter knows best
More recently I was struck by Eliza, my 11-year-old daughter helping my mum set up a personal hotspot with her iPad. She sighed as she patiently explained that she could now get her emails even when there’s no Wi-Fi.
And here lies the juxtaposition of which the next generation of family businesses face into.
On the one hand, multiple generations of experience and ‘corporate knowledge’ stretching back decades, where matriarchs and patriarchs who were economically active in the 1950s can give perspective.
But on the other, knowing that in some areas, lessons from as recently as 2019 are woefully out of date.
Which way’s up?
When I was advising businesses in the aftermath of the UK voting to leave the EU, I was facing boards who had never known life outside the trading block. Some of them had been sending goods abroad for years but had never wrestled with incoterms or customs paperwork.
Overnight they found themselves “real exporters”.
Scarcely had they overcome that, the pandemic hit. “Going to work” became something lots of people stopped doing, some for two years, some forever.
Even my kids talk about the daily commute as something we did “back in the day”.
And the latest of these topsy turvy shifts is the labour market. We have more vacancies than jobseekers for the first time since the 70s.
I find myself challenging leaders’ experience.
“That regulation doesn’t apply anymore”
“Hybrid working won’t settle down for decades, if ever”
“A 2019 job ad is only good for the bin”
But sometimes counter-intuitive thinking can become an annoying habit. I could risk finding myself rejecting perfectly good orthodoxy, challenging perfectly sensible decisions – being more like my thirteen year old daughter who constantly tells me I’m wrong based on her lived experience.
And that’s not helpful.
Loose cannon or visionary disrupter?
I mitigate that by constantly testing my ideas, especially the ones which seem radical. Everyone who comes to a dinner party, or a warm prosecco evening becomes a member of my informally recruited strategy evaluation committee - I’m fun at parties.
The best thing to happen to a bad idea is to kill it quickly, before it gets out into the wild.
I’m lucky in that I have access to a really diverse group of KPMG partners and colleagues who know enough about subjects to steer me back.
Or, if the thought survives contact, I get the confidence to pitch it, build on it or write a blog.
A safe space
What’s the equivalent for next gen leaders? Where is their safe space to test visionary thoughts without acquiring an unhelpful reputation in a business they might be involved with for the next half a century?
I think having a peer group of fellow leaders wrestling with the same macro-economic environment becomes vital. They have ready access to experience, multi-generational corporate knowledge and industry experts within their family, their business or both. But we know that diversity makes for better decisions; how to get access to diverse thought in an organisation in which lots of the board literally share the same DNA?
When we designed our KPMG Family Business Leadership Academy, one of the things at the heart of our design is the peer group learning, and the alumni network we develop. It’s our hope that participants will form relationships that will last them a lifetime and provide their own informal testbed.
And maybe to help decide when to heed the voice of experience and when to rip up the rulebook.