The Value of a Trusted Family Business Advisor

Putting the Consent into Consensus (Part I of II)

Sometimes things that are right under our noses are the hardest to see. Few people are immune to this, although many act as if they are.

In the interest of leading by example, I usually cherish the opportunity to share things that strike me, but which seem so obvious in retrospect that I am actually nearly ashamed to admit them.

This week’s post is about how business families make decisions together. When the founder starts a business, it is not unusual for most decisions to be made in the six inches or so between the founder’s ears.

One of the “fun” parts of family businesses, and the business families who own and manage them, is that as the business makes its transition to the following generation, the number of decision-makers often increases.

And therein lie many of the major issues that these families face, as they wrestle with how the group of people who own and manage the business will decide together, communicate, and solve problems together, as the business and assets of the family move from one generation to the next.

With large groups of people, voting is frequently an option that gets explored, and is often adopted in one form or another. This works well in politics, sometimes.

In a family business, or in any family that co-owns and/or co-manages assets together, voting has a lot of potentially negative consequences. Advisors to families in these situations will usually recommend that the family work toward more of a consensus model instead.

Now we are getting back to my embarrassing admission. I always assumed that consensus meant a decision that everyone agreed to. While that is not completely wrong, it is far from being a good definition.

If I were explaining it to a kindergarten class, it might fly, but I usually deal with a crowd that is a little older, and better educated. Interestingly, my epiphany came on a college campus.

Ever since I began doing college campus tours with my son these past few months, I have heard many college admissions folks talk about what makes their institution unique.

We sat in on sessions at some small Pennsylvania colleges that have a Quaker tradition, and during one of these (Haverford, if I recall correctly) they spoke about the consensus method of decision-making on campus.

The presenter explained that consensus is working on finding a decision that everyone could and would consent to, even if it weren’t their first choice.

OMG, you mean consensus comes from consent?!? Aaaaaggghhhh! Had it really taken me 52 years to figure this out? Well, yes. But I am really glad that I did, and not just because I got a blog subject out of it.

The devil, of course, is in the details. It is all well and good for me to talk about how much better consensus decisions are, but if families don’t understand what is really involved in achieving them, how much good will come of it?

Interstingly, most of the conclusions I will now present are ones that re-occur frequently in my blogs and my discussions with families.

Here goes:

Simple vs Easy

Consensus is simple to explain, especially with my “revelation” that getting people’s consent is how it works. But simple does not equal easy, as in “easy to do”.

 

Happens by Itself, NOT

My oft-repeated “things don’t just happen by themselves” applies here too. It may be easy to get everyone to consent to the idea of making decisions by consensus, but that will often be the last decision on which consensus comes quickly.

 

Communication

A common thread in families where things run smoothly is good, frequent, clear, open communication. Enduring consensus is nearly impossible without it.

 

It Takes Time

Everyone always seems to be in a hurry. But good, lasting decisions take time. Time to talk, time to think, time to listen, time to reconsider, time to caucus, time to research, time to sleep on it, time to invite outside opinions.

The decisions that last generations are the ones that all stakeholders have consented to.

We will look into some of the details in Part II next week.