Do Differences Make a Difference in Family Business?

In any Family Business, and in any Business Family, there will always be a lot of agreement and “sameness” but also a great deal of difference. One of the keys to success is to make sure that any difference of opinion does not result in “irreconcilable differences”.

This topic came to me this week as I checked the discussion board of the Governance course that I am currently taking through the Family Firm Institute. There are about a dozen of us enrolled, as part of their Advanced Certificate in Family Business Advising (ACFBA) accreditation program.

Our instructor, Dennis Jaffe, asked us to share some thoughts on whatever topics we wanted to discuss, and I found a post from Krishnan Natarajan from India to be quite interesting. Now the fact that I met Krishnan a few months ago might have had something to do with the fact that his post grabbed my attention, but not necessarily.

Here is an edited version of what he posted:

Some of the family challenges that we face are as follows:

Addressing differences at an early stage. (Non-Alignment if not addressed leads to Differences; if not addressed leads to Conflict; if not addressed leads to Incompatibility)

I took the “extra” repeated words out to simplify it into a better visual, and came up with this:

Non-Alignement => Differences => Conflict => Incompatibility

I thought that it was a good representation of a spectrum, showing how things can flow from small issues, into much bigger ones, if they are not addressed early.

Rather than re-writing my thoughts, here is the cut’n’paste of what I wrote back to Krishnan on the discussion board:

“If you can align people, they will have less difference, less conflict and more compatibility.”

“Conversely, if you have incompatibility, it is likely rooted in some conflict, which, in order to sort through, you need to figure out where the differences come from. Once you find the root of the differences, hopefully you can re-align the people.”

“This is clearly a case of “an ounce of prevention” being far better than “a pound of cure”.”

“If you know you have differences, you can explain to the family the importance of resolving these before they become conflict, and where you have conflict, you can explain to the family the importance of figuring out their differences.”

After writing this on the board, it struck me that this model seemed so well thought out, that perhaps Krishnan had seen it or read it somewhere, and since I planned to write a blog about it, I figured I needed to verify this with him.

It seems that it just came to him during a discussion with a client, as he was attempting to convince them of the importance of dealing with their differences early on.

Allow me to add my customary advice here, about the importance of communication. If you are looking to get everyone aligned, and keep them aligned, it is imperative to keep them “in the loop”, so that they at least have the opportunity to hear what is going on, and why.

It helps, of course, if this communication is truly two-way communication, with the opportunity for questions and clarifications. People can become mis-aligned due to lack of communication about what is going on in the family and the business, but it can be just as bad if there is communication but it only flows in one direction.

If you find yourself in a situation where a family is not getting along, I think that this model at least gives the advisor a way of talking about the situation with the family in a way that clarifies just how far along the spectrum they are, and what areas they need to look into to find a resolution.

I know that I expect to refer to it again, and I will have my friend Krishnan to thank for it. Please feel free to use it yourself with your family or your clients.