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Fridays from the Frontline: Developing Second-Generation Family Business Leaders at INSEAD

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Get a closer look at how INSEAD supports family business professionals in this week’s Fridays from the Frontline, featuring an account from Cecily Liu, INSEAD Class of ‘J21.

Developing Second-Generation Family Business Leaders at INSEAD

By Cecily Liu, INSEAD ‘J21

Businesses come in all shape and forms, but family businesses have always lit a magical spark in my heart. Perhaps my fascination traces back to my experiences growing up in an entrepreneurial family, watching my parents build their business over the years, and joining them on this journey as a daughter and ‘consultant’.

My experiences taught me that all decisions in the family business are both a science and art – obtaining a balance between the number crunching and the extensive relationship-building has contributed to the success and longevity of many legendary family enterprises from history to the present day.

Coming to INSEAD and having in-depth discussions with like-minded second-generation family business leaders has been such an eye-opening experience for me.

We quickly discovered that we are fascinated by the same questions – such as leading the business towards innovative paths, communication with first-generation business leaders, introducing decision-making structures and proper governance to family businesses that grew incredibly fast, as well as the critical value we as ambitious young professionals can contribute.

Often these discussions started from the fascinating cases we studied in our Family Business elective module, and quickly they extended over meals, drinks and Zoom calls late at night. We learnt so much from each other’s perspectives, precisely because of the diversity of backgrounds of INSEAD students and the inclusive environment that accommodates different perspectives.

I worked with my classmates Marcelo and Roye for our final project, and we became incredibly close friends as a result. We shared openly and collaborated on a fascinating journey to discover answers to some of the questions we have asked ourselves for years. The project has enabled me to understand the complex dynamics of a fascinating family business at a critical point of transition. It trained me to ask questions and identify issues from a consultant’s perspective, and the process also helped me to reflect the journey of navigating my own family business.

We are also grateful to Christine Blondel, who taught us the Family Business elective in Fontainebleau. She has such incredible experiences advising family businesses and serving on the boards of traded family-influenced companies, and she is always so open to share her experiences as well as listening to our opinions and perspectives.

I have also found an inspiring mentor and friend, Martin Roll, who is a Distinguished Fellow (family business) and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at INSEAD. Martin, who also holds an MBA from INSEAD, has mentored me and many of my classmates, helping each of us to discover our unique life paths and strengths. Martin is a highly respected thought leader, a regular commentator in global media and an advisor to several global boards and prominent business families. Yet he is always so friendly, approachable and fun to be with when he mentors us young students. It is through conversations with Martin that many of us found the way to shape our futures as second-generation family business leaders.

Family enterprises are the backbone of global economies.

Their focus on long-term planning and heavy investment into relationships has contributed to their resilience in our turbulent world today, and these lessons are worthy of being shared to a wider business community.

My classmates Celina, Joceline and I shared our views as MBA students at the Family Enterprise Day

For this reason, the research and knowledge sharing at the INSEAD Wendel International Centre for Family Enterprise is critical and meaningful. Last month the Wendel Centre organised its Family Enterprise Day conference, bringing together academics, family business owners and MBA students to share thoughts on the topic of family business resilience.

The insights shared by some of the experts gave me so much food for thought. I felt particularly inspired by Ho Kwon Ping, Founder-Chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, an international hospitality brand. He highlighted opportunities for next-generation family business owners to invest into their skills as ‘professional owners’.

I also felt inspired by Caroline Höllein, Former CEO, Shareholder and Member of the Advisory Board Carolinenhuette GmbH, a German family business in its fifth generation. Caroline was once an MBA student at INSEAD, and the way she exercised such leadership at Carolinenhuette, stepping up as first female CEO of the family business at a time when her family needed her was incredible. She is such a role model for us young students.

At the Family Enterprise Day conference, my classmates Celina, Joceline and I presented our views as MBA students. Flexibility, resilience and innovation are some values we highlighted as important for family businesses.

Family businesses will continue to play a critical role in the global economy going forward, and sitting in the driver’s seat will be many entrepreneurial and empathetic next-generation leaders.

INSEAD has created a community for them to form meaningful friendships, openly discuss ideas and support each other on a life journey to take up the baton of responsibility.

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