Gaia Marchisio is Junior Lecturer at the Strategic and Entrepreneurial Management Department, SDA Bocconi, Bocconi University School of Management, and member of the Family Business Research Team within the same School.
A while ago I was in the classroom facing around 30 sons and daughters of entrepreneurs, aged between 25 and 30. It was one of the last lessons of a one-year master's programme (Master in Small and Medium Enterprises, SDA Bocconi) that had been planned and created precisely for this target. The next Monday they would return to their family businesses. The programme lecture was clear: it was on the topic of developing and transferring entrepreneurship to the young children of family business entrepreneurs. I was lecturing on an important, recently concluded research project*, bringing the results in the form of models and best practices. Together with a group of colleagues I had spent the last two years reviewing family business and entrepreneurship literature, interviewing entrepreneurs and their children, and studying their cases. Our objective was precisely that of defining the determinants of family firms' varying ability to keep or enhance entrepreneurial skills over extended periods of time, and to understand the role of education in fostering them.
In this regard, the question that most frequently animates conferences, round tables, research projects and books, is whether being an entrepreneur is something inborn or something one becomes. The positions here are very different: some authors believe it is a genetic fact; others feel that becoming an entrepreneur is the result of a learning process that matures more or less rapidly.
Without making any claim to resolving such an articulate and debated issue, there are several items in the previously mentioned research study that provide food for thought and captured the attention of Claudia, Stefano, Daniela, Alessandro and their classmates, adding an original perspective to the debate.
What the young adults take on is a unique shape precisely because each person's human experience is unique. What makes this experience unique is the professional calling. Everyone is called to achieve his full potential, to do what he desires, enjoys and is capable of doing well. Desire, enjoyment and talent are, in fact, the fundamental conditions required to recognise one's professional calling (see Fig. 1 – Adapted from Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life by Michael Novak, Free Press, 1996).
Young members of families with an entrepreneurial tradition have to verify if they have the desire to become entrepreneurs, whether they enjoy it and whether they have the talent for it. Understanding this is certainly no easy task! Some children of entrepreneurs have a clear idea of what they desire to do from a very young age (ie, enter the company and follow in the footsteps of their entrepreneurial parents). Others are equally certain that their professional life will lead them far from the family business. But the majority of these young adults do not immediately have a clear idea of what they want their professional life to be. It is not uncommon for them to proceed by attempts, to then finally end up in the company, following a series of more or less casual events.
The second condition, the enjoyment of working in the company, can only be verified through direct experience. If we look at how the young adults enter the family company, we can identify a number of moments: the decision to enter the company (not always the result of a rational decision); actual entry into the company and the development; or non-development of entrepreneurial behaviours within the family business.
The decision to enter the company, in particular, is strongly influenced by freedom of action (the room the youngsters will have in the company) and by their motivation, which takes on different connotations according to whether the issue is entering (or not entering) the company or staying in (or leaving) the company and working there. In fact, the research showed that the motivation that prompts a young adult to enter an already existing company is usually dominated by a sense of responsibility towards the company, and by a sense of duty towards the predecessors who dedicated their professional life to developing the company. So, the elements that influence the decision to enter the company are:
- a strong relationship with the founder;
- the amount of time the child spent inside the company (often located very close to the house);
- the relationship among siblings;
- a sense of responsibility towards what has been built from scratch;
- a state of need within the company or a business opportunity to be seized and the need for someone to take on that responsibility;
- the heirs' personal goals – including marital status – among which their preferences and values help them determine their priorities;
- the characteristics of the company, such as the kind of business in which they work, the level of risk involved, the level of performance achieved, etc.
Once they enter and have the opportunity to actually make a contribution, the successors can develop a deeper awareness of what they are called to do, professionally, and discover whether they enjoy working for the family company. From this enjoyment derives a sense of profound satisfaction (that often arises from taking on particular duties) and a renewed energy that allow the efforts and sacrifices linked to a challenging job to be faced and overcome.
Abilities and talent
A (professional) calling in general and therefore also an entrepreneurial calling, however, requires a series of abilities that we can call entrepreneurial talent. Talent recalls a series of predispositions and abilities, among which there are:
- personal traits (self-confidence, egocentrism, ambition, stubbornness);
- a set of values and attitudes;
- a set of important capabilities such as having a vision, being able to see beyond the day-to-day problems; making decisions;
- creating different solutions to the same problem;
- managing and motivating people;
- organising in the sense of being able to structure tasks and information;
- both general management and industry background knowledge.
Then there are elements that facilitate the development of entrepreneurship and that are, instead, linked to external elements, such as the incumbents' entrepreneurial behaviour; previous experience (both work and leisure-time related) that siblings develop before entering the family company; and the presence of a network with several benefits, such as: providing specific help; helping in developing an open-minded attitude; increasing the number of opportunities; and helping in recognising and exploiting opportunities.
Recognising the calling
If being an entrepreneur is a calling, then the relevant question becomes how to recognise and foster it so that each young adult with this calling becomes aware of it as soon as possible.
There are particular moments in which each of the components of professional calling can manifest or come into action. Desire, in particular, is strongly linked to the motivation to enter the company; it can reinforce the decision or, to the contrary, orient the young adult towards very different choices. The dimension of enjoyment, on the other hand, is linked to action and to direct experience of life in the company and it can feed that enthusiasm that leads the young person to stay in the company and to increasingly see it as something that belongs to him/her, instead of leaving. There is also the dimension of talent, which facilitates both the creation of entrepreneurial behaviour and development through learning.
The family role
One last item for thought remains. It is the role of the family with regard to each of the components taken into consideration. The family should avoid forcing the desires of the younger generation. It should instead help the children discover and express even their most hidden desires. The family should also offer occasions that make working in the company a pleasant experience for the young member. Assigning him precise tasks, clear responsibilities – even if they're small – that leave enough room for the young person to question himself make a difference. Finally, it is essential that the attention of the family be focused on discovering whether the young person actually has talent, offering opportunities for training and experiences that might enrich him/her. Such experiences can take on the most different forms: not only classic university or business school training, but also experiences abroad such as work, study, social life, trips and, an exposure to contexts rich in stimuli and to very different environments from the very first years of life.
What we have said so far is not always linear nor easily identified in the interpersonal relationships that become increasingly sensitive through life in the company. One should not forget that these are complex procedures involving persons and their respective individual characteristics and freedoms and that external events can suddenly change the environmental conditions.
What is certain, though, is that the greatest help the successor can be offered is the opportunity to discover his/her (professional) calling as soon as possible; because only if he/she knows what he/she is called to do can the successor start taking action.