Why discipline within (family) businesses is the most underrated value for growth

26 April 2019

26 April 2019

By definition, family and DGA businesses are born of entrepreneurship, by seeing and seizing opportunities and from perseverance. Most entrepreneurs have experienced setbacks but have nevertheless persevered, changed course or simply worked very hard to realize their dreams. So you could say that discipline, in addition to entrepreneurship from passion and talent, has been at the root of the success of most successful family businesses. But as the business grows, discipline suddenly seems like a dirty word and is often felt as an opposing (or bureaucratic) force.

The four key elements of success for entrepreneurs and athletes

That passion, talent and discipline are prerequisites for success know not only entrepreneurs, but also top athletes. In the book “golden discipline” by Mayta Braun, entrepreneurs, top athletes and sports coaches tell us that these three elements combined with a concrete and challenging goal are the most essential elements for success. They describe that discipline is the least “sexy” but most decisive element in this. No elite athlete wins without training and nutrition schedules, rhythm and regularity. Creative processes such as innovation also fall or stand with discipline (see Harvard Business Review: The hard truth about innovative cultures, January 2019). This does not alter the fact that passion is necessary to enjoy going to work every day and that in a world of change, (new) talent and an external orientation are prerequisites for continuity.

Is purpose thinking the holy grail?

In recent years, “purpose thinking” has been implemented in more and more companies. Hard objectives are supplemented or replaced by meaningful objectives, which increase employee and customer loyalty to the company, and employees take ownership and create value from intrinsic motivation. For many family businesses, this is sometimes quite exciting: on the one hand, they desire more ownership and entrepreneurship from their employees, but on the other hand, as a family, they would still like to continue to set the lines and remain leaders. I believe that having a real, authentic and non-marketing driven purpose is very valuable, especially if the purpose is linked to the original DNA of the company and its founders. It can give family, board and staff wings for further growth and flourishing.

So why focus on discipline anyway?

Many executives of family businesses want freedom of action for themselves, the ability to (continue to) do business and are often allergic to frameworks and structure. They do not want to be hindered by others and carry this into the organization. They often have more faith in passion and purpose than in structure and discipline, although they often forget that it is precisely the discipline of the founder that has been a key pillar of success. At the same time, they understand that without the discipline of training and nutrition schedules, for example, elite athletes will never become successful, and they also rationally understand that businesses that grow need structure. The challenge for entrepreneurial organizations, therefore, is to change the thinking from purpose or discipline to purpose and discipline.

In my experience, even in innovative environments (such as marketing and business development), the enjoyment and drive of employees increases greatly when they experience that more innovations are successfully launched precisely because of discipline. And that many employees and their managers like it when there is rhythm and regularity in the organization, that meetings lead to concrete actions and decisions, and that frameworks are clear. You might even say that especially mediocre organizations shy away from structure and discipline because it allows them to hide the fact that they are just messing around.

The challenge at many companies, though, is how to implement discipline and structure in a positive constructive way. In this regard, exemplary behavior from management is a prerequisite for success. If we know that especially at the top and in the family the allergy to structure is high, here is the challenge. There are several solutions to this, the most important being that the entire organization starts experiencing the positive effects. Again, the parallel with sports is quickly made: It is much more fun to be on a team that wins by sticking to the agreements than to lose because everyone is doing what he/she/it likes. Discipline, then, can be purging and accelerating and, combined with a clear purpose, talent and a passion or true purpose, can lead to real and sustained flourishing of the business in a world in change.