Slothful, Indeed

David Ransburg
David Ransburg

The December 18, 2013 blog post on Freakonomics discusses recent research on family firms and draws the conclusion that non-family CEOs drive better performance for their companies for the simple reason that they work more hours than do family CEOs. Strikingly, the term they use to describe these family CEOs is “sloth.” While you’ll find no bigger fan of Freakonomics than me, their use of this term misses the mark by a wide margin.

My quarrel is not with the underlying research – it does come from Harvard, after all – but instead with the simplistic conclusion drawn from this academic paper. While the number of hours worked by a CEO may be one useful indicator of a CEO’s effectiveness, there is much more to consider when evaluating their performance. For starters, the old adage about “working smarter rather than harder” comes to mind. It is too often the case that activity is mistaken for productivity… and that seems to be part of the problem here.

I would also like to point out an often-overlooked element when considering the performance of any CEO, whether a family member or not: Do they understand the culture of the business. Culture is key. Perhaps the greatest authority on management practices, Peter Drucker, once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

And, when it comes to a family business’s culture, who will understand it better, a family member who has grown up from childhood within that very culture, living it every single day… or a non-family CEO who has joined the family business from the outside?

Clearly, even a family member who “gets” the culture must also possess strong management skills… but, to look at two candidates for the CEO position – one who is a member of the family, and one who is not – and to assume that the non-family candidate is superior just because they might log more hours at the office would be not only simplistic and short-sighted, but it would also be potentially damaging to the family business long term. This is what the authors of the Freakonomics blog would seemingly have us believe, and there’s a term for that kind of thinking: sloth.

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