'Chief emotional officers' and their importance in a family business
Most families have an anchor, often identified as a matriarchal or patriarchal figure. A dominant personality who keeps the family aligned and acts as the glue that holds them together. Identifying this individual, celebrating their role in the family and the growth of the unit is fundamental. We explore how understanding the impact of a family leader not only provides alignment but further creates a shared history, values and inevitability vision.

What you need to know

  • Matriarchal and patriarchal roles in family business stem from society, and refer to the person responsible for making big decisions for the family.
  • However, this leader isn’t the only person to consider as the role of ‘chief emotional officer’ is proving to be an important one for the family. This ‘CEO’ can either take on a matriarchal or patriarchal role in the family business. They’re known to influence, set the tone for and be an example of revered family morals for the business.
  • Once this figure has been identified, there are ways to engage them in governance processes to ensure they positively influence the rest of the business, as well as actively take part in safe-guarding the future of the business through succession.
Next Generation Published on Simple May 26, 2021

The head of a family is typically the person who acts as this anchor within the family unit. This can often take on the form of matriarchal or patriarchal roles. Though they may influence how decisions are made, they may not necessarily be in an official leadership role. Nonetheless, it is important to unpack the influence they may or may not have, as they may well be the person that members turn to during a crisis and with emotional issues. Though there may sometimes be negative energies or feelings attached to these figures, it is necessary to figure out how to appropriately utilise their influence and push the impact into ways that can help the family grow. You may indeed be contemplating who this individual is within your family, or even whether matriarchy or patriarchy can be positive in a family.

Beyond matriarchal and patriarchal roles: The origins of family leadership

Let’s look into the origins of the roles and terms of family leadership. Historically, the term patriarchy has been used to refer to autocratic rule by the male head of a family, however, since the late 20th century, it has also been used to refer to social systems in which power is primarily held by adult men. The definition of patriarchy is a system of society where the men are the head-of-the-household, carry the most power, and where the family lineage passes on through men. An example of a patriarchal society is where men hold the control and make all the rules and women stay home and care for the kids.

Matriarchy, however, is a social system in which females hold the primary power positions in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of the property. The mother or a female elder has absolute authority over the family group; by extension, one or more women exert a similar level of authority over the community as a whole.

It affects many aspects of life, from political leadership, business management, religious institutions, economic systems, and property ownership, right down to the family home where it defines who is considered to be the head of the household. Most societies and families identify as patriarchal or matriarchal. This is mainly because they look at the head of the family and assume that because they are the acknowledged head of the family, they make all the decisions.

Identifying the Chief Emotional Officer (CEO)

However, when dealing, in particular, with business families and families of wealth, you may need a magnifying glass to look closer and examine what is really going on. For many years we have assumed the leader is the absolute influencer and decision-maker. But that is not always the fact. In most families that present as patriarchies, there is still a presenting matriarch that usually heavily influences the decisions made by the patriarch figure. In this way, we begin to see the impact of matriarchal and patriarchal roles.

The matriarch is usually a strong maternal figure who is emotionally attached to the patriarch leader whether a mother, aunt, sister, or wife. This matriarch is the emotional support who provides a “home” for the family. She brings comfort and mediates family conflicts and creates a “safety bubble” for all family members. She may never technically step into the decision-making platforms such as the boardroom, family council, or even get involved in the business or formal decision-making platforms. However, she provides comfort and love to family members and becomes “Chief Emotional Officer”. She is the person that the elders of the family go to for reassurance in heavy decisions.

Because her influence may be veiled, her role is critical in the governance process that families go through, and often unbeknownst to the family, she is the source of the values that they uphold. As family business expert, John Broons has noted, “Every family business has a CEO: Chief Emotional Officer. This person is the primary influencer of the emotional momentum of the business and the family’s emotional connection to that business. Each family business has a CEO and it is important for the family to know who the CEO is.”

matriarchal and patriarchal roles

The head of the family often identifies as a matriarch or patriarch and can have huge influence over the family.

Although women have oftentimes held this critical role, there are also patriarchs that have too occupied this pole position. These patriarchs may have retired from the family business and no longer appear in the business boardrooms, yet their role in building the family business is still greatly respected by the family and business. They may not be involved in the formal running for the business on a day-to-day basis but their values and characteristics become the characteristics that most of the family and business tries to emulate. They are put on a pedestal with their success overshadowing their failings – and they ultimately become the centrepiece idol for all and sundry.

Identifying these matriarchal and patriarchal roles is important because all families have significant heads. Knowing who they are and being conscious of their influence helps when the family looks into governance or even reviews existing governance. This role can be stressful and go unrecognised, it can also fall dangerously by the wayside as businesses are passed on to succeeding generations. Nearly all family businesses have a person who plays the chief emotional officer role. According to Raphael “Raffi” Amit, a Wharton professor of entrepreneurship who studies family businesses, “Having worked with numerous families around the world, I have found there is always a confidant, either the patriarch or matriarch of the family”.

Characteristics to look out for:

  • They are the individual that everyone turns to for some sort of advice or affirmation.
  • They may not be asked formally for input but are asked for input and feedback before major decisions are made.
  • Look to the person who sets the mood, who — with a glance and a grimace, or a squint and a smile — can turn the direction of deliberations toward the heart of the matter.
  • They are often the peacemaker in the family.
  • They usually have more leverage on the final decision-makers and can influence how and when decisions are made.
  • They are involved in both formal and informal communication systems. In most families of wealth, the business and family will have a formal communication system and an informal communication system that is often characterised as the “grapevine”.

John Ward, co-director of the Centre for Family Enterprises at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, says chief emotional officers play a number of key roles. “Not only do they provide emotional support — smoothing things over and keeping communication open — but they also help acculturate in-laws, protect family traditions and values, and make sure the family gets together to socialise and have fun.”

matriarchal and patriarchal roles

The ‘chief emotional officer’ ensures the business is aligned with family values, while also keeping the family connected.

It is easy to idolise individuals and overlook their failings. No one is perfect, and it is important to allow all family members to be acknowledged and appreciated. More so, it is important to celebrate the role of these important figures, whilst being aware of the weaknesses our idols have. While we may not want to highlight or cause any pain by speaking on these failings, the goal is for family governance to be an experience where we include everyone and exempt no one.

Harnessing the power of the leader to create positive impact

There are many risks inherent in not acknowledging the full scope of power of these matriarchal and patriarchal roles. Firstly, there is influence. As they hold the respect of almost every family member, decisions without their approval can start influencing key decision-makers to change these decisions. When not acknowledged in major decisions this person can be the person who stirs the pot and mires a family in a series of intra-family squabbles.

Then there is the risk of isolation. Their anger, if targeted, can cause isolation and hostility towards certain family members. This can leave the family being hostile and unsupportive towards individuals in leadership, leaving them with no support.

On an overall communication level, there is a huge threat of triangulation if this figurehead is not properly integrated. Their role in the “grapevine” is important to the family dynamics, with many conflicts occurring in the realm of the family’s informal communication. To visualise the concept of triangulation, think of mother, father, and son or daughter as being the three points of a triangle. The son or daughter will go to the mother with a problem that they are having with dad. The mother then talks with the father who explains his side of the problem. The mother then reports to son or daughter what the father said – or what he tried to say. In this example, the communication linkage never directly connects the son or daughter with the father. Consequently, the problem continues to fester for it may never get resolved.

Finally, inevitably their absence can create a vacuum. The impact on the family and the business never seems so bad as when the key figurehead dies. It is not uncommon for the problems that had been smouldering under the surface to reach a flashpoint when this figure dies and sometimes these problems tear the business family apart, irreparably.

Though the challenges are aplenty, there are three key ways that you can begin to work with this key influencer to create a positive business impact.

      1. Celebrate their role: Acknowledge and ensure they know how important their role is and that they understand what their role is in the shared vision of the future of the family legacy. By doing so, you’ll guarantee that they prepare the next generation for their absence.
      2. Involve them in governance: Instead of having them be outsiders looking in on the governance process, make them part of it. Keep them updated as to what is going on in the governance process for the family, as well as abreast of business developments.
      3. Have a succession plan that involves them preparing the future Chief Emotional Officer (CEO). Smart succession management for business families includes preparing the next generation for the leadership of the business. Smart business families also prepare for the generational transition by identifying and training the next Chief Emotional Officer (CEO) for the family.

As we look at our families through a microscope, we also realise that the family system is a complex emotional system that cannot be dismissed. In wealth creation, these processes should be optimised to be business systems. We need to be mindful of these intricacies and appreciate the roles played by all family members to create succession plans for these roles. Working with experienced advisors makes this process a lot less complex and far more natural. As we all know, doctors cannot heal themselves, and naturally, we cannot expect families to identify their symptoms and prescribe their own cures.

About the Authors

Tsitsi Mutendi

Tsitsi Mutendi

Succession & governance

Tsitsi is an award-winning entrepreneur and consultant for family business and offices. As a third-generation family business owner, Tsitsi has extensive experience in international business and family business dynamics.

Connect with Tsitsi Mutendi

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