Attracting and retaining high-performing talent is one of the biggest challenges facing family businesses in Australia today.

Few would argue that the ability of a business to attract ‘top talent’ – real performers – will to a large extent dictate how successful the business will be in the longer term, as it moves beyond requiring just the founder’s expertise.

Yet many family businesses struggle to attract that talent.

I’ve worked with family-owned enterprises, of all sizes and across many industries, in Australia for the past 12 years and am constantly seeing businesses battle with this critical issue.

In my experience, it’s not that the talent isn’t there – the issue is in attracting the right people. A significant percentage of candidates I interview for roles within family owned businesses will either decline to pursue the opportunity or will show hesitancy for the role through our discussions.

My process then involves dispelling some of the common concerns prospective staff have in working for a family business. So, what are these concerns? They include:

  • The perception that career advancement opportunities will be limited.That the opportunity for profit-sharing, or potentially equity, rarely exists.
  • That they will never be viewed as a true leader in the business – the owner will always be regarded, internally and externally, as the top dog.
  • That they will never fully have the owner’s ear – they’ll always be competing with family members for it.
  • That they must always be prepared to have a family member brought in to become their boss. Being the owner’s son or daughter trumps any education, experience, longevity or history of performance with the company they may have.
  • Longer-term certainty or future potential is unclear, given the nature of succession issues inherent in family businesses and the fact that a relatively small percentage of family businesses successfully transition across generations.

Do any of these issues sound familiar? I’m sure you’ve heard at least some of them yourself, but what really concerns me is the regularity in which I hear these fears and how often I see top talent choose not to pursue terrific career opportunities because of three little words – family owned business.

So, what to do? Well, acceptance that these are (potentially at least) real issues and a genuine desire to do something about them is a great start.

A realisation on the part of the family owners that they are not the stores of all knowledge, and that bringing top talent into their business will not harm its growth and longevity prospects – in fact, quite the opposite – is the second step.

Once we’ve made the psychological leap and accepted that we have a perception problem, addressing it can be relatively simple. For instance, if I address the concerns raised above, they might be countered by:

  • Being able to provide examples of career advancement within the business by non-family staff members.
  • Offering a realistically achievable, transparent incentive scheme that rewards performance.
  • Ensuring that clear lines of authority exist, that senior staff are empowered to make decisions, and that that empowerment is clearly communicated internally and externally.
  • Ensuring that decision-making is made on sound commercial grounds and that, should there be ‘family’ issues that may impact on those decisions, they are clearly communicated to non-family staff who are impacted by them.
  • Employment decisions are made on merit and that the appointment of family members to senior positions can withstand objective commercial scrutiny.
  • Ensuring longer-term vision and succession plans are clearly communicated to non-family members, to the extent that they can have confidence in the future of the business on which their career aspirations are founded.

These are just a few examples, but I’ve found that being able to clearly address the initial concerns of prospective candidates results in them choosing to progress their interest in the role I’m recruiting.

It can be confronting and it can mean having to make some uncomfortable decisions at times, but improving the prospects of attracting high-calibre talent is surely the only way forward for the family-owned businesses that represent the back-bone of Australia’s economy.

Michael Simonyi is a Senior Consultant with Davidson Corporate

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