How a ‘family champion’ moves a family forward

By Barbara Spector

Many business families that have addressed their inherited conflicts have been brought closer together through the urging of a next-generation member who serves in an informal role that Joshua Nacht, Ph.D., calls a “family champion.”

Nacht, a consultant with the Family Business Consulting Group, defines a family champion as “a visionary catalyst who brings new energy into the family enterprise to support and develop the family ownership advantage.” These family members encourage their relatives to build new, stronger relationships with each other, letting go of past family dynamics.

A family champion is generally not appointed to the role; he or she simply steps up, Nacht notes. “It’s not hierarchical, and it’s not the leader of the business,” he says. “It’s somebody in the family who just says, ‘Hey, we need to do better. We can do better.’” Rather than guiding the family by command-and-control, the champion emphasizes consensus. “It’s servant leadership, really,” Nacht says

Nacht’s doctoral dissertation (“The Role of the Family Champion,” Saybrook University, 2015) examined these individuals’ contributions to their family enterprises. He interviewed 14 family champions, plus eight additional family members.

The individuals he interviewed had an abundance of energy, motivation and ideas for moving the family forward, Nacht says. They also had excellent communication and listening skills.

“What they did,” Nacht says, “is concentrate on communication, interpersonal relationships and integrating different perspectives, and really respecting that there are a lot of perspectives out there in the family.”

This often involved listening to viewpoints that were contrary to the champion’s own opinions. “But they appreciated that those perspectives exist and respected people’s opinions,” Nacht says. “And that listening tied into people feeling more engaged, more respected and appreciated.”

Hearing family members air their grievances requires “a lot of self-management,” Nacht notes. Champions, for example, refrain from responding angrily to a relative’s angry missive.

“It takes courage, and a willingness to really step out there,” says Nacht, a married-in family director of Bird Technologies. “It takes some guts to stand up and say, ‘We need to do something different.’”

Family champions must also be patient. Bringing a fractured family together can take years of work, Nacht says.

The champion role usually emerges from the next generation, Nacht comments, because the senior members tend to be entrenched in the dysfunctional family dynamic. “It takes a fresh face, a fresh perspective, to say, ‘We’re going to do it differently,’” he says.

Nacht says one of his goals in studying family champions is to help families identify next-generation members who have the potential to succeed in such a role, so those individuals’ skills can be developed before family conflict arises. “Can we be proactive? Can we be preventative?” Nacht asks.

“The more we raise awareness of this role,” Nacht says, “the greater the chance that someone in the younger generation will step up and say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

This article appeared in Family Business Magazine’s January/February 2016 issue. Consider honoring your family champions by nominating them to be featured in our special section, “Family Leaders to Watch,” to be published in our November/December 2019 edition. Find the nomination form here.