First of the four-part "Becoming a Family Business" series. Jim shares the story of founding Stranberg Resource Group and its eventual transformation into a family business.
Jim Stranberg is the Founder and Managing Partner of Stranberg Resource Group. He has had a vibrant career in executive search and consulting. To learn more about his professional background, review his biography. Below is an in-depth interview covering the founding of SRG and its eventual transformation into a family business with the addition of his children, Bill and Kate, to the company. This is the first of a four-part series called "Becoming a Family Business," where each member of the Stranberg family offers their perspective on the firm and its future.
You started Stranberg Resource Group in the late 1980s. What inspired you to go the independent route and start your own firm?
The inspirations were my family history, the support of my wife Anne, and my executive-search knowledge and experience. My grandfather had owned restaurants, starting with a soup kitchen in Chicago that served simple meals to down-and-outers affected by the depression. Family lore told of how fiercely independent and resourceful this first-generation Swedish immigrant had been, and that stuck with me even though I never knew him—he died before my first birthday. I never would have taken the leap without Anne. She was the pillar of strength that made the early years workable—when I doubted, she never wavered. From my work experiences, I knew the executive-search field and also knew that many mid-sized and private companies felt underserved by the larger, often impersonal search firms. I sensed that building on the idea of highly personalized service with absolute commitment to completion would be well received. Those things, along with creative pricing models and hard work, drove our early years.
What do you recommend to those thinking of doing the same thing?
First, it is a long road and takes firm commitment and a willingness to accept risks that many others would avoid. Second, make sure your business is buildable—whatever the venture, be certain that the potential gains are worth the considerable time and effort.
Your first job was in a bicycle shop owned by a husband and wife, which gave you experience in a family business environment very early in your career. Can you talk about what you learned during that time and how you have applied it to SRG?
My job with the bike shop owners gave me first-hand experience and knowledge of the lifestyle and independence that could be had if you were willing to step into the entrepreneurial world. The way they lived and the way they treated customers, family, and employees all reflected what they believed about doing things the right way. Though the hours were long, they spent that time with the people closest to them—what a great way to spend life’s journey.
Mentors have had an impact on you throughout your life and career. Can you describe your experience with them and the impact they have had on you?
My dad was my first mentor, and although I didn’t work for him, he gave me access to his thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a conversational way. This helped me a lot with future mentors because I knew instinctively how to engage and speak with them while letting them know that I held them in high esteem.
The bike shop owner was much the same. Most of the other kids working for him couldn’t engage well—they treated him as a boss and nothing more. I saw him as a boss but also as a friend and that friendship allowed me to learn so much more about things like standing up for what you believe, pushing through even when you were worn out, and speaking the truth—a no B.S. style.
The pattern with my recent mentors has been the same. It starts on the human level—show them that you like and respect them and then follow-through with engagement and a good work product. Most of the learning comes from time shared on projects, so stay involved and don’t back away from the hard work.
When you started SRG you did not set out to turn it into a family business. What were your goals and motivations for the firm early on and how have they changed as the business evolved?
For Anne and me, it was simple: Don’t fail! We had a financial cliff that was real, so we didn’t have the luxury of taking the slow road or picking only ideal projects. We went after business aggressively and then figured out what we needed to do to perform at the level we promised. Bringing the second generation into the business has been the single most transformative step. Our motivation now is to build this business in a way that when we step away, it will have a strong foundation for what I believe will become a much stronger and resourceful entity in the future.
What advice do you have for those who are interested in transitioning their business to a family business?
Keep an open mind on how and when the next generation comes into the business. I think it’s best that they choose the family business after considering other options. In other words, it’s best if they don’t back into it or believe that it is their right as one of your kids. Once they’re in, accept them at the level they’re at initially and give them room to learn. Your kids are like everybody else in that every person learns at their own rate, so you need to build room into your plans for the inevitable learning curve adjustments. Finally, I constantly work at making sure that I don’t overpower the room. Our clients often look to me as the founder and I need to do everything possible to remind them—sometimes subtly and sometimes directly—that Kate and Bill are my partners and senior members of our firm.
Do you have any advice for business owners looking to have their children join the firm for the first time?
Keep it simple and remember that no two people are the same. Listen and be open to their ideas and questions. Respect is absolutely required from both sides, so pay careful attention to how you treat one another.
Most important, recognize your strengths and weaknesses as a mentor or trainer. I believe that my conversational mentoring style works for Kate and Bill, but that wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone. They are both professional and engaged, and we share the vision of this company growing with them in the lead roles. In other words, it works because they are each extremely committed to what we are trying to do and see me as a resource supporting their efforts.
Kate and Bill both went to college and had independent careers and experiences before joining SRG. Please describe the transition and on-boarding process for Kate when she joined.
Both Kate and Bill were around the business from the time they were very little, so some of the basics were picked up by osmosis. Our on-boarding process was intentional but unstructured. Since Kate had a few years of consulting experience with Accenture, she had a good sense of what the consulting persona was and how to bring that to her role in executive search. In the beginning, Kate would accompany me on interviews, first as an observer and quickly thereafter as an active participant. We did the same with client calls—going from observation to participation. The next step was for her to handle interviews and client calls on her own and then we would talk about how it had gone. My role evolved into setting the direction and then allowing Kate to develop her own approach to the solution. This works because it allows for creative expression, which translates to authenticity.
Kate and Bill have different personalities, as most siblings do. Please describe the transition and on-boarding process for Bill.
Yes, their personalities are different, but their balance together is strong. The on-boarding process with Bill was largely the same as with Kate. He brought several years of successful international experience into the firm through which he gained an instinct for networking and working with others to get things done—helpful in our business, for sure. Because Bill didn’t have corporate consulting experience, we took time to talk about the role and what was expected in terms of style and presence in this business. As with Kate, my role with Bill is more mentoring and demonstrating and then allowing him to put his own touch on how to accomplish the task. I would say that what our on-boarding process lacked in structure, it made up in direct personal dialogue and involvement. Both Kate and Bill know that they can bring any issue or problem to me and we will working together to find the solution.
Switching from “family mode” to “business mode” can be difficult for family business owners. Can you talk about your experience being “boss” and “dad” at the same time?
Anne, Kate, Bill, and I have always nurtured respectful relationships in our family, which is incredibly important. Kate and Bill work hard not to make the dad/boss thing an issue for me. Care, compassion, and commitment are major ingredients. Commitment means being willing to have tough discussions and disagreements. When those happen, we work through them and come to decisions together—not everyone gets their way, including me.
You mentioned that you are not concerned about your legacy or name on the door. In a family business, how important is it to have a healthy ego?
For a business to sustain through generations, a healthy ego at the top is essential. By healthy, I mean, capable of hearing alternative ideas—specifically not a “It’s my way or the highway” approach. But at the same time, healthy ego means having strong convictions and being willing to stand for what you believe is right inside and outside of the company. It’s not an easy balance, but it doesn’t have to be a perfect balance either.
Now that both your children have joined the company, please describe how you perceive your current role and your role in the future.
My current role is to provide guidance and advice while Kate and Bill begin to drive the business. I have changed from leading from the top to influencing from the center. I think that will continue for a few more years. Over the course of the next five to 10 years, my role will be in constant evolution to the point where Kate and Bill are leading the business and I am in an almost consultative role to them, but there for them when they need the presence that several decades of experience brings to a project.
Anything else you would like to add?
Assuming you have answered the commitment question and everyone is on board, don’t look back, but focus on where you want to go. Once the destination is determined, let the process flow as naturally as possible.