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Joining A Legacy Firm: Don’t Be Intimidated By What You Don’t Know

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by Julie Charlestein, CEO of Premier Dental and author of “How To Lead Your Family Business: Excelling Through Unexpected Crises, Choices, and Challenges

When you join any existing business, including a family business, you may find yourself surrounded by people with a lot more experience than you — people who may seem to know things about the business that feels like you have no hope of knowing. Makes sense. But it can also be intimidating. It can make you feel like an idiot when you are in meetings with these people. It can discourage you from offering your own ideas. In short, it can prevent you from thinking and acting like a leader. Don’t let it.

If you are working with people who have deep knowledge of your industry, that’s great. It creates a huge opportunity for you to learn. But if you’re going to take advantage of that opportunity, you have to overcome your trepidation. Here’s how:

First, do your homework. Read whatever you can find about the technical or business aspects of your industry. Watch videos, attend seminars, visit websites, subscribe to industry magazines. Little by little, you’ll pick up the jargon and be able to start participating — intelligently — in meetings.

Second, ask questions. When you don’t understand something that’s being discussed, pipe up. Request a brief explanation. (You may not be the only one who could use it.) If you’re too shy to ask for help the first time you need it, you may miss your best chance of getting it, since it will only make you feel much worse to ask the tenth time the topic is discussed.

Third, if you are a family member, take advantage of the education that’s available to you. In most companies, most people’s jobs are siloed. Being in the family allows you to be exposed more broadly. This experience will be important to call on as you lead—remembering, relating, and requesting buy-in. People will be looking at you differently. You need to harness what you’ve picked up to make connections throughout the company and win people’s support for your leadership.

Fourth, keep learning. Even after you develop some expertise in your industry, there will always be more to absorb, especially since, in today’s world, change is constant. I’ve been with my firm, Premier Dental, for decades now. I still often find myself in the same room with PhDs who know terms and equations I’ll never understand. That’s okay—I’ve learned that what matters most in business is not how many facts you can recite, but your ability to ask smart questions and then make good use of the answers.

It’s essential as a company leader to see the big picture — the long-term trends that are shaping the company’s future, and the steps you need to take to ensure that future will be long-lasting and successful. This skill isn’t something that comes naturally to most people. It takes training, practice, and deliberate effort.

It’s especially true if you have worked your way to the top of the organization after starting in some specific department or niche. If you spent your first few years in the business focusing on one particular set of issues and challenges — product development, sales, customer service, marketing, financial management, or whatever — it’s easy to retain that narrow lens even after you rise in the organization and take on much broader responsibilities.

So as your career progresses, pay conscious attention to the need to expand your horizons and learn to think strategically about the long-term future of your business. There are lots of ways you can practice this new skill. For me, earning my master’s degree in business was an important way to hone this kind of thinking. But you may not need to take on a complete MBA program to get the same benefit — attending lectures and workshops, watching YouTube videos (not kidding), and taking specific classes focused on business strategy, market analysis, emerging economic trends, and similar topics can also be extremely helpful. Read mind-opening books and articles by big thinkers in business, including not just the latest trendy bestsellers but classic books by gurus whose wisdom has stood the test of time.

Make connections with experts who can help you hone your strategic thinking skills—academics, veteran executives from your own or other industries, consultants with real insight into the ways the business world is evolving. Spend time with them brainstorming about possible future scenarios for your company. They can help you develop a big-picture understanding of your industry, and they can help you practice looking at your business as it might appear to outsiders — customers, suppliers, competitors.

Of course, it’s not possible to predict the future with certainty. But with practice, you can develop the ability to see major developments in your industry as they are happening, rather than waiting for their impact to hit you. Then you can take the steps needed to prepare yourself and your team to address tomorrow’s challenges today, which can help to ensure your company’s enduring survival and success.

 

Julie Charlestein is a Philadelphia-based business leader and healthcare innovator who serves as the fourth-generation CEO of Premier Dental, just named a 2023 Top Ten Most Innovative Company in Wellness by Fast Company. Her new Wall Street Journal bestseller is “How To Lead Your Family Business: Excelling Through Unexpected Crises, Choices, and Challenges“.