Kate Stranberg is a Partner with Stranberg Resource Group and the first 2nd generation family member to join the family business. Kate recently celebrated her ten-year anniversary with the company and we took the opportunity to ask her about the experience as a part of our “Becoming a Family Business” Series.
Below Kate reflects on her decision to leave corporate america, and the lessons and advice she's learned over the first 10 years working with family.
You had a great career outside the family business and joining SRG was never on your radar. What led you to the decision to join the company?
When I started my career, I was extremely money-driven. I went to college to be an Investment Banker, because it would make me the most money in the shortest time. However, interviewing with the big banks was such a demeaning, horrible experience that the money instantly became less important. Before my career even started, my goals had already drastically shifted; it became less about money and more about life and people.
I think my decision to join SRG is unique because it came about while I was considering two very different opportunities, one to join Ann Taylor’s Logistics team in Louisville, the other to return to consulting with Accenture in Australia. They were both very attractive to me and it was not an easy or fast decision. As I thought through it over multiple months, the idea of moving home to join the family business naturally became a 3rd, and increasingly appealing option. The one thing I remember clearly is thinking, “if I join the family business, it’s forever; no going back, no changing my mind; I can’t do that to my parents.” So, I really had to convince myself that I was ready to leave big company life. Even through this period of deep thought and reflection, neither of my parents made the argument for the family business – they wanted whatever I thought was best for me.
Yet, it was a conversation with my dad, Jim, that ultimately made the decision clear. He, with both children showing no interest in the business, was thinking about the future– how long he would continue to work and whether to sell or let it fade away. After that, there was no question – I was proud of the business my parents built and didn’t want it to simply fade away.
You have described your father, Jim, as a role model and a tremendous resource for you throughout your career. What are some things you have learned from him that you hope to carry on in the family business in the future.
My Dad has always been the voice of reason and a natural mentor for me. I would call him before and after every interview - he never told me what to do or how to act but provided advice and asked questions that allowed me to figure it out for myself. This not only helped develop my critical thinking skills but also built my confidence and helped me stay focused on my goals and the future.
He’d tell me “Remember, it is best to have multiple good options to consider" and "a good interview is not a job offer.”
As a young professional, I was driven and impatient, and my dad’s ability to clear the clutter in my head had a huge impact on me. He advised me to start a journal and write down my thoughts and feelings - to reflect on what I really wanted and why I was considering different decisions. These are lessons that have stuck with me – if I am feeling frustrated with work, life, relationships, I step back to reflect. My tools for doing this are different than his, my moms and my brothers – I walk, ride horses, and journal – activities that help me refocus, see more clearly and make better decisions.
Your parents never pushed you into joining the business. Can you expand on that experience?
As children, we watched as our parents started the business from our basement - we saw the stress, fears and sacrifices – as well as those first wins and the ecstatic relief that came with it. I think we both understood that having a business that our parents built is an incredible privilege but that we could create our own paths. They put a high value on "real life" experiences – not just career experiences. My mom in particular has always been an advocate for grabbing life by the horns and doing the things that are uncomfortable. She is the reason our family business exists; she had the experience to know they would be happier if they struck out on their own and the confidence in my Dad to make it work. And that they did. But they could not have done it without each other and their combination of life experiences.
One of my favorite stories, early in my career I actively sought out an interview with one of the biggest executive search firms in the world – thinking that I MIGHT want to join the family business one day and it would be good to gain experience at a big firm. My first interview went well, so I called my Dad to talk and, instead of supporting or opposing the idea, he told me to talk to some of his friends and ex-colleagues in the industry to see what advice they had for me.
He stayed neutral while giving me tools to guide me toward my own decision. I really respect the way he handled that. And, I believe I made the right decision in waiting.
There was no formal on-boarding plan in place when you joined. How did you get up to speed early on?
I have been close with both my parents my entire life and they were often the first people I’d call when I was frustrated with work – they both knew my learning style and the type of environments that helped and hindered my performance. So, while we didn’t have an onboarding plan, we talked through it. My dad asked me how I saw myself in the business today and a year from today and to outline my expectations for how my role would evolve in that time-frame.
By that point in my career, I had confidence in my business skills and ability to perform intellectually, but I felt green communicating directly with clients/business owners and executive level candidates on such a personal topic. It was important to me to shadow and observe how my Dad interacted with clients and candidates in different situations; to witness how his tone and approach transitioned in difficult and emotionally charged conversations with executives of varying personalities and backgrounds. At the same time, I took on behind the scenes activity immediately – research, candidate screening and new business development strategies – providing me with a well-rounded view of the day-to-day business. I also look back and think, my parents jumped in feet first; if I had to, I could have done that.
In a family business, how important is it that the children are not pressured into joining?
I think it is very important not to shield children of any age from the business. If they show interest in the business when they are younger, answer their questions or bring them to the office. If you fall on hard-times or are considering closing/selling when they are older – give them the chance to help. At the same time, encourage gaining real-world experience to help them understand what they are good at and what they like to do from a career perspective. Working for people outside of your family will help teach humility, work ethic and a wide range of other interpersonal skills that can’t be as easily developed when working with family and in an “ownership” capacity.
A well-rounded, emotionally intelligent and experienced individual is an asset to any business – pressuring a child to join your business can potentially rob them of the chance to gain the skills and experiences to be the best they can be.
What advice do you have for family businesses that have the first member of the 2nd generation joining?
The process and experience will always be unique to the family, the business and the individual. Their prior knowledge of the business, the point in their career that they join, and a lifetime of personal experiences and relationships make it impossible to set a firm process. It is important to communicate frequently, and give them the time and space to feel out their place in the business. If it is their first job, consider rotating them through the different functions to give them the opportunity to find what they are good at and enjoy. Unless necessary, don’t put them in the “future President” position but allow them to grow into that role IF they want it. Most importantly, be flexible and figure it out together as a team.