Behind Every Great CEO

Shedding light on a spouse's role in the business

The spouses of CEOs are often invisible in family businesses. Yet recent studies suggest they play a key role in succession and continuity efforts. My own study, built on structured conversations with more than 100 CEOs and their spouses, bore this out. Over and over, in seldom-recognized ways, these spouses are central to developing the relationship between the owners and employees.

The lack of visibility of the spouses—mostly women—had little bearing on their influence. Overall, I found they assume different leadership functions depending on their particular relationship with the CEO and their knowledge of the business. Regardless of the role they played, CEO spouses repeatedly described themselves as being stewards of the family legacy, keeping "family" in the family business, and embodying a spirit of cooperation and unconditional support. I also found that three dominant leadership types emerged.

THE BUSINESS PARTNER. These spouses' financial investment or their professional or administrative skills are often critical to the company during its startup phase. Some of them are business partners only during the early stages of the company; others remain active for years. Rachel Renkert, for example, started a new division of Ironrock, a brick-and-iron company in Canton, Ohio, now run by her son, a fifth-generation CEO. "My husband had wanted me to join the company for a long time," she says. "The custom decorative-tile business I started within the company has grown to where many women are working at home and earning an extra $1,200 a month for their families. We needed this in our community."

THE CHIEF TRUST OFFICER. Some CEO spouses see themselves as the glue that keeps everyone united through the challenges families who work together commonly face. They act as healers, mediators, and communication conduits. Such spouses also tend to remind family members of the need for balance between work and life. They may take responsibility for creating a family council or hosting family gatherings. Marty Conway, whose husband is a retired CEO of the formerly family-owned Fasteners for Retail, in Cleveland, thinks much of the quality, innovation, and customer service shown by many family-owned companies is due to those close ties. Says Conway: "Spouses often add that more human element, and I don't think it's an accident that some commitments essential to quality are more easily provided by families than by public companies."

THE JEALOUS SPOUSE. Many entrepreneurs and family business owners, particularly those who are first- or second-generation, have a relationship with their business that some spouses say is not that different from having an affair. The family has to compete with the business for the CEO's attention, affection, money, and time. Jealous spouses feel that the CEO loves the business so much that it has become his or her first priority. Spouses of lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives sometimes also have these feelings, but the jealous spouse seems a particularly hearty type in family companies. They are often a major obstacle to finding willing family successors to the CEO.

No matter what type they embody, and whether CEO spouses have formal or informal positions, their ideas and actions repeatedly affect the growth of the company and changes in its leadership. Theirs is an important role. So don't hesitate to bring them out of the shadows and seek their advice.

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