WASHINGTON – Especially in family-owned and operated businesses, values and culture are the foundation for the identity of a company. And in times of changes and challenging business environments, company leaders set the tone for their employees and establish an image to customers, for better or worse. This was just one point discussed by Tom Emigh, a consultant with The Family Business Consulting Group, based in Chicago, during a Sept. 17 webinar hosted by the North American Meat Institute. During the webinar, which is part of NAMI’s Family Business Focus partnership with MEAT+POULTRY, Emigh’s presentation, “Steadfast Leadership in Constant Change,” challenged leaders to consider if their companies’ values are clear to others.

“And do they inform the culture at your organization and are the cultural values clear; and do others know them?” asked Emigh, adding that while a family may have an unspoken understanding of their company’s values, sharing them with others overtly is critical to effective leadership.

“We see it as a great opportunity to really enrich and energize a business by saying the things that we know are true,” he said, “but (also) by saying them together, we align around them and that gives us focus and direction.”

Attendees were encouraged to reflect on their family businesses in terms of how they would describe the current state of their business and then reflect on the current state of their family. In assessing the state of the business factors such as the current employees and the availability of labor should be considered. Turnover rates and employee retention, especially during challenging and changing times are telltale signs of a company’s culture. Tied to employment is morale, another factor that speaks to culture, Emigh said.

Many family members in the business judge morale by their gut. “Some people will say ‘morale is great.’ But how do you know that? What are you using to understand and measure the current state of morale? Who are you talking to? What are the sources of information around that?”

In assessing the values and culture, Emigh also recommended looking at the current state of the industry and how that is impacting the business and ultimately the employees. He gave an example of a small family business client that has seen revenues remain flat but not negative, thanks to the 80 or so employees stepping up to the plate during the past six months, minimizing the impact of the pandemic. However, despite everyone’s efforts to keep the company out of the red, financially rewarding them in the current business climate isn’t feasible.

“I talked to the G-2 owner about how she could do some things that were more symbolic and really leverage that family business feel that they have, and they do have it strongly around some of their values and culture. To say, ‘thank you’ In meaningful ways to employees, even though they're not going to be able to write checks to people.

“If you're in the C suite or you’re in the family ownership, you are looking at those P&Ls and those kinds of things, you really want to see growth. You want to see profitability,” Emigh said. “But you're also a family business and you have the opportunity to care deeply for your employees and express that in ways that are meaningful.”

To that end he suggested that during challenging times leaders try to portray some characteristics that will build morale and instill a sense of goodwill among workers and customers. Confidence is essential, and if the company’s performance doesn’t warrant it currently, leaders should find employees to highlight that gives them confidence in the servitude of workers. Displaying the ability of the leaders to identify oncoming business obstacles and responding to them is another way of displaying confidence and telling stories about these victories.

“Even now, we've got enough time in this current situation, this crisis that you can begin to tell stories about who the heroes are in your business, because you've seen acts of heroism,” Emigh said.

He went on to espouse the value in leaders displaying authenticity, even if that sometimes means saying “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” This instills a sense of credibility among employees and customers, he said.

Staying informed is another attribute of leaders of family businesses, not only about technical issues in their industry but also to be able to listen and know about what people in their company are telling them about the business. Emigh also discussed the value of leaders staying humble.

“One of the simplest ways to be humble is to give the credit away,” he said. “You're just putting a spotlight on people across your organization – family and no – who are exemplifying the values and contributing mightily to your success, and that is so inspirational.”

Other leadership attributes discussed included self-awareness, including leaders taking care of their mental and health needs; flexibility, which means listening and then making the best decision possible.  Especially during the pandemic, resilience has been a valuable leadership characteristic, Emigh said.

“Building your resiliency and then asking your top leadership to do the same is a great way to strengthen your organization and the confidence of those who are following in your organization. They realize that you may not know right now, but you're going to figure it out and you're going to manage it.”  

To view the entire on-demand version of this and other NAMI Summer Series webinars, click here.

To read MEAT+POULTRY’s Family Business Focus report in the September issue, click here.