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“We Are Family” – Mere Corporate Sweet-talk?

The more the Gig Economy gets stronger, and the more Millennials and Gen-Z (together, ‘GEMZ’) become a significant part of the workforce, the more important culture will be.

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You win a race, the next race, it’s a question mark. Are you still the best or not? That’s what is funny. But that’s what is challenging. You have to prove yourself every time.”  - Michael Schumacher, one of the all-time greatest champion drivers in Formula-1.

This is the quintessential definition of a high-performing individual, team or organisation. Yet, nothing makes people feel more welcomed, accepted and appreciated than a statement from the CEO/ Promoter/ Patriarch, along the lines of “We are in it together; we are a family”.

Then some of those “family” members feel let down and cheated, post the lay-offs, compensation-cuts, plant shutdown or anything unpleasant, because the context shifts to “business imperative” for the “larger good”. This let-down is an outcome of the disruption of a core belief - that being part of family is unconditional. You don’t and can’t choose your family and it doesn’t let go of you. 

Organisations will do well to not unwittingly mislead people, and instead focus on what they really want to become – a high-performing, winning team! This plays out much more in a professional sport team, than any other. While we have used Formula One as a metaphor, it could well be any team-based sport.

Purpose leads the way

By definition, organisation means there is a reason why everyone is together. This purpose can be anything – customers, communities, cities or even the world at large. It basically says, “this is why we exist”! 

By Ferrari's standards, the 2020 season was a forgettable one, having seen glorious years before. But Team Principal Mattia Binotto has announced that a return to the top three is the "minimum objective" in 2021. 

Most organisations we know, commercial or otherwise, either set or work towards setting similar specific actionable and measurable outcomes. This is not the case with a family, which comes together through forces of nature and does not necessarily apply much existential thought to the “why” of it. An organisation that gets too familial can fall prey to the fraternity-feeling of looking after one another, without much attention to organisational purpose or performance.

Right talent-team wins the championship, even after losing few races

The racing industry folks make it sound and seem a glamorous sport. But it is the Aerodynamicist, who makes sure that air flows smoothly in the car, to add more speed or downforce during a race; and the Designer, who is responsible for the dimensions and structure. And both of these experts are rarely in the public domain. 

Just like any other organisation, F1 team-leadership’s primary responsibility is to put the right team together. The CEO is expected to find capable leaders who can work well together, and each level then builds the next. HR helps put processes in place, looking for people who have the functional and behavioural fit. A family though, simply has to make do with the members born to it.

Performance is non-negotiable

Imagine this scenario in a family. Parents to child after going through a period of academic distress: “We have tried our best, and school is not the right place for you, so we are pulling you out to not waste any more money”. Not happening, right? But ask Adrian Newey, one of the most celebrated Formula One Aerodynamicists of all time. Since 1983, Newey has been hired and fired multiple times, for a variety of reasons. 

The players, coaches and staff of sporting teams and indeed, any high performing organisation, follow these principles – agree on goals, provide time and resources, allow for some failure, and act when it begins to become a drain. Familial relationships encourage loyalty, rather than accountability, not necessarily something organisations under constant performance scrutiny can afford. What they can incorporate, most certainly, is compassionate rather than cold accountability.

Leadership = Performance + Potential

Whether it is Ferrari or any of the world’s best known sporting teams, despite partial or full family ownerships, practically all of them are run by professional CEOs who have proven themselves at what they do. On the other hand, take the case of family. In India, until recently, the Hindu Undivided Family (‘HUF’) could not even have a female leader or ‘karta’ until the courts changed that. To date, a widow cannot take over until certain conditions are met, but her 18-year-old son can. 

Studies in India and internationally prove that family businesses have generally been outperforming professionally driven businesses. However, it is as important to know that over 70 per cent of family businesses do not last until even the second generation. In many cultures, and especially some Asian cultures, it is common-place to hear stories of nepotism, lack of succession planning, family infighting and favouritism. These result in rejected or missed career growth opportunities and an unfair balance of power and meaningful roles for professionals. Organisations committed to long term quality growth simply cannot afford the family obsession. Boards have become increasingly mindful of this issue, and this is why the concept of ‘professional management’ has become prevalent in even ‘family-owned’ businesses.

“Influence”: Authority continuum of leadership

A well-run organisation functions with defined guidelines and rules of delegation. In a sporting team too, the roles are clear. In F1, the drivers are the in-the-limelight, celebrated and possibly overpaid stars (at times, the brat of the family), but it’s the Team Principal who would yell orders for the team. 

A family, except in some hierarchical and seniority-based cultures of the world, operates with influence. This also creates greater psychological safety, resulting in trust and respect between the family members. This may well be the sub-conscious reason people feel inclined to call their teams a family. It is worthwhile for leaders at the workplace, to also first work with influence than the formal authority vested in them. 

Culture rules - and even more with GEMZ

It can be argued that whether family or team, culture evolves organically. Be that as it may, organisations go out of their way, as they should, to deeply embed certain beliefs and values that they believe in and would like employees to imbibe. This is not about to change. 

The more the Gig Economy gets stronger, and the more Millennials and Gen-Z (together, ‘GEMZ’) become a significant part of the workforce, the more important culture will be. Research has proven that they don’t want paternalistic leaders but want to play a meaningful role where they know how they contribute to the larger purpose and find their own meaning too. In case of F1, the average age of the drivers is 26, peaking when most are just about finding their feet at work. They know exactly what they bring to the team and what the team expects from them. 

In a nutshell, let’s face it. We can’t hire, quit, fire or retain our family! 

However, organisations should certainly continue to invest in these and focus on building shared purpose, trust and compassion within the teams, instead of familial bonds. This will ensure that they would have achieved the dreams of any Board, Markets or CEO - a winning team and a high-performing organisation!

So next time, go Pro-Team, and leave the Family at home!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Srinath Sridharan

The author is Independent Markets Commentator

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Bhawana Mishra

People Practice transformation advisor

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