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Priyanka Gupta Zielinski on next generation succession and women in family business

By James Beech

Reassuring women that their place in the family business is permanent is “absolutely essential” to empower women to become successors, next-gen family business leader and author Priyanka Gupta Zielinski says.

The executive director of MPIL Steel Structures Ltd has written her book The Ultimate Family Business Survival Guide to inspire the next generation in their pursuit of new opportunities and fulfilment in their lives and careers. She shares her lived experiences in addressing the biggest pressure points facing the next generation of family business, from “reclaiming” the family business and donning multiple roles to “working past fear” and adapting to change in the post-pandemic era.

Gupta Zielinski holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and gender and women’s studies from Connecticut College, a visiting fellowship in development economics from the University of Oxford, and a master’s degree in international public finance from New York University.

After completing her master’s degree, she returned to India in 2008to join her family business, MPIL Steel Structures, a steel building and manufacturing company headquartered in Mumbai.

Initially learning by observing her father, Ashwani Gupta, and team, she quickly took on more responsibilities and initiatives. As the executive director of MPIL, she has led her family business to exponential growth and diversification. The company was a three-machine manufacturing set-up, producing 75 tonnes of steel structures every month, but by 2017, was shipping 3,000 tonnes of finished, complex steel structures every fortnight.

Based in Dubai with her husband and three children, Gupta Zielinski has worked with such financial institutions as the Women’s World Banking and the Fund for the City of New York. In 2012, she was named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by ET Now.

CampdenFBasked Priyanka Gupta Zielinski how she was engaged by her family into the business and what families can do to encourage more women and upcoming generations to join.

What are the do’s and don’ts of succession planning in family businesses?

For a vast majority of family businesses in India, succession planning is a given, hardly deliberated because of scarcity of options and resources. We rely on our next generation to be the de facto in charge in the grooming.

Here are my biggest do’s and don’t’s:

Do: Let it take its time and course. Don’t force it and don’t expect it to have a very particular outcome. The beauty of curating the next in line is to allow them to bring their own self into the process and the business. Allow the ownership for that change to take place.

Don't: Perhaps its better to consider it “graduation” or “matriculation” than succession planning—to give you the sense that you, as the previous generation, equipped the next generation adequately enough for them to go out on their own and lead the family business. “Succession planning” sounds very terminal, almost daunting.

How were you engaged with your family business as a next generation?

I have distinct memories of events that took place in our family business from when I was as young as eight-years-old. I grew up watching my father and mother build our business and began to take responsibility for small tasks when I was a teenager.

In this sense I was brought in early on which allowed me over two decades of exposure to our business. This also bound me to the business, emotionally. I was given a great amount of leeway with decision making and trusted with important and varied roles. I have found it to be the greatest platform for my personal development.

On reflection, was that engagement the best way to encourage you to join the family business?

Yes, it absolutely was! I witnessed firsthand our growth of our family business transformed our lives and I was driven by this success to contribute and do my bit. I do wish that when I joined the business in my early-20s, the transition into the business responsibilities was a tab bit slower and allowed me some time to reflect. I was motivated and overlooked the need for me to step back every now and then and gain a wider perspective.

How can families encourage more women to become successors?

Thank you – this is a terrific question. Family business owners must make it clear to all the women in the family, that their role and place in the business is permanent. That it is not temporary or a placeholder until they are married or have children. The confidence that they are not replaceable will allow women to better imagine themselves contributing over the long term. This agency is absolutely essential to encourage women to become successors. 

Are you seeing differences in family business expectations and attitudes between Generations Y and Z?

Yes, I am seeing some differences in the management styles of Gen Y and Gen Z. Gen Y are likely to be more controlling and tend to hold their cards close to their chest. They are more guarded. Gen Z, on the other hand, are generally more collaborative, less threatened and less competitive in their outlook.

Should family principals adapt how they engage these differing next generations?

We all have to adapt to the changing times or we run the risk of not being able to understand each other any longer. With such vast post-pandemic shifts coming our way in how business will be conducted and what aspect will take priority, we have to find common ground.

As family members, we need to be significantly more open-minded and progressive in our views, learn to keep our judgments under checks and allow the next generation their true expression of their identity and their reality. I know this is easier said than done, but we cannot maintain the authenticity of our family business without building on the integrity with which we treat the next generation.

How can the next generation encourage the ageing founder to transfer control of the family business?

This is a difficult one. Aren’t we all struggling with this! Watching my father at work, I doubt there will ever be a complete transfer of control and I have learned to manage expectations of all of us in the family business. I think the best-case scenario to aim for is that we become trusted confidants of the ageing founder, above all. This would be a more achievable goal, less frustrating one and more fulfilling.

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