In the business world, it is common to pass ownership of the business from father to the eldest son, simply to ensure that management remains under the family name. In Japan, fathers may go one step further if they don’t have a son — adopting one that they trust. The practice is entrenched in Japan’s ancient civil code, and while the code has since changed, the practice has not.
As a matter of fact, the practice is so common that 98 percent of adoptions in Japan are a result of this civil code, rather than families adopting newborn children. It is usually paired with a legal arranged marriage (known as “omiai“) and results in the adopted son changing his last name to that of the family’s, which is known as “mukoyoshi.” The practice has even become a business, with matchmaking companies springing up to match businesses with prospective adoptive “sons.”
If anything, the practice could continue to grow at an exponential rate due to the ever-increasing number of Japanese citizens over the age of 65. The generation meant to reproduce and raise the next generation is instead choosing the corporate life over that of a personal one, and it’s estimated that by 2060, 45 percent of the Japanese population could be over 65. Instead of producing their own children, Japanese higher-ups might simply just adopt them at the unusual age of about thirty.
The same thing can be seen in China: because of the country’s one-child policy, companies have resorted to “adopting” their own sons.
“No Chinese man would want to change his name,” says Annie Koh, who is a professor of finance at Singapore Management University. “But if the family firm is fixated with their own surname, in rare cases you have found a man who will change his name.”
While a good number of companies are steadfast in their methods of adopting sons to run the next generation of their family businesses, an increasing number of women are beginning to take part in the tradition as well. Because there are fewer children being born, the option to have a woman take on the helm is becoming increasingly common. In EY’s (Earnst & Young) 2017 Women in Leadership report, 70 percent of family businesses reported that they were considering a woman for their next chief executive.
“It dramatically increases family talent pools, helps with succession planning and can make firms more sustainable,” says Adam Rowse, the head of business banking at Barclays. “It also helps avoid situations where a son feels a particular obligation to work in the family firm when they would prefer another career.”
Results are already being seen in the workplace: in a survey done by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 30 percent of the women interviewed had a seat on the board of their family business. In the same survey, more than 50 percent of the women interviewed did not think their gender was a barrier to their ability to run the family business.
Companies are also seeing the diversification in gender as an opportunity to better as a business. “There’s a strong emphasis on professionalising their governance, making sure they have a clear strategy and that the succession plan is based on skills and not gender,” says Sian Steele, the head of PwC’s family business group in the UK.
The goal in itself is two-tiered: continue the family business, but also diversify it by allowing women to take a larger part in the business. If companies can succeed in both, then the future is bound to be prosperous and creative.
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