Amul India - Oprah Meghan Markle
Image Source : Amul India

The Private Client team at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas shares their comments and opinions shared in an article in the  following article which was published by Family and Businesses Magazine and the online edition of the same can be found here.

By now, many of us would have seen the explosive interview between the Duke of Sussex Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, with television talk-show royalty Orpah Winfrey. The focus of the interview was on the troubled relationship that Mrs. Markle has with the Royal Family and Her Majesty The Queen, and her difficulties in settling into the roles expected of her. At its simplest, apart from being an exit interview of a disgruntled ‘employee,’ the interview echoed what many Indian spouses go through when they marry into a family business – to quote the New York Times – “The struggles of a glamorous, independent outsider joining an established, hidebound and sometimes baffling family firm”.

The Royal Family and the Crown is one of the world’s most successful family businesses, with its legacy spanning hundreds of years and generations.

Not many family businesses can say they hold a fractured nation together. It is a complex tapestry of landed estates, assets, and iconic family members – tied together in often unwritten rules. The Royals in their interview referred to the Crown as ‘the firm,’ a fitting description for the establishment.

So, what can be expected from a new member joining the Firm? Are there any similarities with Indian family businesses? One key similarity is the need to make individual aspirations align with those of the Firm. Mrs. Markle was a successful actress in a hit TV show before her marriage. She was a vocal advocate for causes she believed in but had to suppress her passion once she joined the firm. She was expected to play a pre-written part, as the Duchess and wife of a potential future King. One may say she walked off from the sets of Suits onto the Truman Show.

The Firm expects everyone to put the Crown / Institution above themselves and play their assigned role, even if it caused severe distress and if you do not like it, too bad. This was a rare, unprecedented incident where there was ‘live’ washing of the Royal Family’s dirty laundry on a global stage (with Oprah). In India, parties would move the Court / NCLT in similar situations. Unfortunately, such stories are not uncommon in Indian families.

India is littered with the shattered dreams of highly educated, competent spouses (female), who may have had glittering careers if they have been permitted to become entrepreneurs or run their own businesses. But in traditional Gujarati and Marwari families, very few daughters-in-law can follow their dreams and career aspirations. They play a supporting role to their husband and in-laws, are not permitted to work outside the family business – and even then, in nominal roles like running charities, small ancillary ventures or as occasional dinner hosts. Asking for an individual identity beyond the bahu / daughter-in-law roles offend the patriarchal sensibilities of such families. In changing this mindset, current societal changes and trends are not enough. It is both incumbent on the husband and the in-laws to create a welcoming and supportive environment, modernize traditional expectations and make room for individual aspirations. Mutually agreed boundary conditions would help. It is a delicate balance, and if achieved, will preserve businesses and families alike.

A key element in achieving this balance is direct and clear communication, showing empathy, vulnerability, and a willingness to accommodate. If the family home and business is causing its newest entrant to have serious mental health issues and suicidal thoughts, there is something fundamentally toxic at play. It would not be difficult to believe similar situations exist in Indian family businesses – addressing them is substantially more difficult, with issues of hierarchy, and expectations of deference to elders / in-laws. Another similarity between the Firm and the Indian family businesses is that they need to evolve into modern institutions. The Firm is run by a female leader, appointed not by stakeholders or under the principles of good governance; but a role bestowed by the accident of birth. supporting her is a well-oiled army of 400 plus servants, footmen, estate managers and the like.

The power center in the Firm is well known. Likewise, Indian family businesses are run by primogeniture, and the company is administered under the direction of the leader and conservative senior staff – who are often are inherited from the previous generation. Generational change is only at death, often not in the smoothest way. The inherited employees do not always support the incoming leaders (or their spouses) to affect a smooth transition. With unsupportive senior staff, unwilling to adapt, it is not clear whose interests they are serving or protecting. Emotionally, many successors are torn between preserving the legacy of the past and being static versus evolving the business.

It is essential for every new leader to both respect ancestral legacies but look to the future with a fresh perspective. The past is the north star that needs to guide them, but it should not become a straitjacket to stifle change. Both the Royals wanted to modernize the Firm and make it relevant for the 21st century, but as Mrs. Markle alluded to, the senior staff at the Firm granted her few liberties (or permission for lunch with her friends). Similarly, Indian family businesses need to be more accepting of successors, which needs to occur in a planned manner (i.e., not just at death) and who must wisely pick teams to buttress their ambitions. That does not mean a mass firing / corporate style execution of the old guard, but the adoption of a more considered approach can help the young leader sculpt the firm into his vision. Families need to consider not just succession at the individual level, but at the corporate center and board as well.

In conclusion, it will be prudent not to burn bridges with the establishment, as Mrs. Markle and her husband appear to have done. This glamorized, westernized ‘saas-bahu’ conflict is the stereotype found across many Indian homes and businesses, and it must be reformed. When a valuable family business and fragile relationships are at stake, both sides need to do whatever it takes to preserve the same for future generations. Who knows, maybe the birth of the next Royal Baby can bring the Windsor family together again!