Originally appeared in Harvard Business Review
The performance edge family businesses have over their non-family business counterparts has been explained by their dogged pursuit of operational excellence. Family firms tend to take a long-term view of investments and relationships, stay in ownership control to do things their way, focus on persistent improvement and innovation, develop loyal stakeholder relationships, build key talent in select individuals, carry lower debt, and build greater financial stability. This approach to running a business reflects an Operator’s Mindset. It is informed by specialized knowledge passed down from generation to generation. This mindset is deeply embedded in the cultures of most family companies and business families: If you want to be important in the company and family, you have to be good at operations.
Cultivating an Operator’s Mindset has largely paid off because most industries and business models have, until recently, evolved slowly, making operations quality central to success. But dramatic shifts do happen and, when they do, family companies that can’t think beyond the Operator’s Mindset often fall behind.
Family companies that have persisted over generations despite changing conditions strive for operational excellence, but not exclusively. They also are skilled at migrating to new value-creating activities and at leaving activities and practices that destroy value. They don’t become stuck in traditional businesses or outmoded practices. Some, after exhausting growth opportunities in their core business, diversified into different industries. Some experienced their industry maturing and consolidating around them and decided either to stay and acquire competitors or sell their outflanked business and redeploy assets. Some have parried the disruption of technology or regulation. Such adaptations are profoundly informative.
What distinguishes these long-term adapters is their strong Owner’s Mindset among the owners and in their top boards. An Owner’s Mindset recognizes the importance of operational excellence, but insists on being in activities that create value (financial, social, relational, and reputational) according to the key values of the owners.
John A. Davis is a globally recognized pioneer and authority on family enterprise, family wealth, and the family office. He is a researcher, educator, author, architect of the field’s most impactful conceptual frameworks, and advisor to leading families around the world. He leads the family enterprise programs at MIT Sloan. To follow his writing and speaking, visit johndavis.com and twitter @ProfJohnDavis.