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“Clunky Ownership Syndrome” in Family Business

“Clunky Ownership Syndrome” in Family Business

Ownership usually doesn’t get much attention in the area of family business, and there are many reasons for that, and we’ll get to some.

Maybe I’m emphasizing it too much. I did a quick search of my website (www.ShiftYourFamilyBusiness.com) and found that I’ve already written 3 blogs with “ownership” in the title.

Everything is relative, though, and even with this fourth blog on the subject, that’s less than one blog a year about this “forgotten” circle. (see: Ownership: the Forgotten Circle of Family Business)

 

Status Quo That Lasts

The people who own a business have certain privileges that come with ownership, but with those, there are also responsibilities.

Most people who work for a family business know who the owners are, and they’re usually given certain deference.

The owners, in turn, try not to act like superior overlords, and this dance can continue for decades, as long as nothing changes.

 

Fast Moving World

While ownership remains fixed over time, the two other “circles”, family and business, are constantly in flux.

The business evolves, new products are launched, new locations opened, expansions bring in new employees, and new markets are developed.

Financial results are compiled monthly and quarterly.

The family also changes, as members find partners and have children, people get educated and find their passions, some join the business, and everyone grows older every year.

Oh, and some die.

Things are constantly evolving, and changes are part of life, and these days things seem to move more quickly than ever.

Yet ownership usually stays fixed, and rarely even gets a second thought.

 

Clunky by Definition

I chose the word “clunky” to describe the situation because it felt like the right word, and I’ve used it to explain this to people in the past.

Searching shutterstock.com to find an appropriate image for this post, I almost had second thoughts, as the photo choices for “clunky” were mostly 1980’s cellphones.

(I went “outside the box” a bit with my choice of hippos; not sure it worked (?)).

Then I Googled “clunky definition” and I was immediately sold on the fact that clunky was the right word.

Here’s what came back:

clunky: awkwardly solid, heavy, and outdated.

 

So What? 

I’m not suggesting that ownership should necessarily change more frequently than it does; that would be stretching it.

What I am saying is that the definition above includes a couple of words that many family businesses should be thinking about much more than they typically do.

There are only four key words in that definition, so you can probably locate the two that are ringing alarms bells in my head.

 

Awkward!

“Awkwardly solid” almost sounds like a backhanded compliment. Solid is usually positive, but when it’s awkwardly so, well, maybe not so much.

Family business relationships are often already awkward, simply because family and business overlaps cause complex situations.

Now throw in ownership overlaps, compounded by the fact that things are stuck in the past, and things get even clumsier.

 

Outdated

“Outdated” is probably the simplest word to describe the issues that I’ve seen regarding the ownership of family businesses.

It’s not hard to understand why things change so infrequently, but that doesn’t mean that everyone should just be cool with it.

Rising generation family members crave some clarity about their futures, but they often continue to put up with vague replies when they broach the subject.

“Don’t worry, some day this will all be yours”

 

When Exactly is “Some Day”?

Once again I feel the need to explain my views on this, lest readers get the impression that I think ownership changes absolutely need to happen more regularly and quickly.

I’m advocating for some thoughtful discussion and planning, and hopefully some transparency.

 

Transition Planning

As the business evolves and family members age, transition plans are contemplated to make sure that people will be prepared to assume their future business management roles.

Don’t forget that there needs to be an ownership transition too.

 

Two-for-One

Do you really think it makes sense to think about those things as completely separate discussions? I don’t.

And if you ask those being groomed for future management roles, I bet they’d agree too.

Look 15 years into the future. People will be that much older, and the business will have grown.

If nothing changes, your current ownership structure will be pretty clunky.

Start planning those changes now too.

Family of adults and kids sitting together

Realistic Family Governance Goals

Realistic Family Governance Goals

I recently spent a day in New York City at the second annual conference of the Institute for Family Governance.

It wasn’t only interesting, but in some ways inspiring. But upon further reflection over the following days, I almost felt like it might’ve been a bit too inspiring.

I’ll get back to that part later.

 

Generative Families

The opening speaker was Dennis Jaffe, who didn’t disappoint, as usual. His presentation was titled “Do you need a different mindset to create a fortune than to hold onto one?”

I love that title because it’s a question that answers itself, with an “of course” as soon as you read it.

Jaffe went on to talk about what he terms “generative families”, which others call “legacy families” and still others dub “enterprising families”.

Generative families, according to Jaffe, see themselves as a “collective entity”, who’ve decided to develop into a “great family”.

 

Great “Family” vs. Great “Business”

This reminded me of a line that some people like to use with successful business people, to convince them to shift their focus.

“You’ve already created a great business;

now, why don’t you create a great family?”

It also fits nicely with the question that served as the title of his presentation.

Jaffe has studied dozens of such generative families who’ve been successful at transitioning their wealth over several generations.

 

Examples and Role Models

The rest of the day continued with examples of families who’ve figured out that family governance is the key to having a great family.

Simply put, without any governance, a family’s legacy has virtually no chance to survive over generations.

In the past few decades, people like Jaffe have done the work of learning what these families do, and have written about it so that other people can follow these role models.

 

Too Inspiring

So here’s why I think that in some ways the examples we heard about might actually be “too good”.

I’m willing to bet that none of those families made the decision to create a governance model on one day, and then had created and implemented it successfully within a year.

I bet most of them still had lots of work to do even after a decade. This work takes lots of time and effort, over many years.

 

Family Culture

Mitzi Perdue was our closing keynote speaker and she talked about family culture, which includes the answers to questions like “who we are” and “how we do things”.

She also correctly noted that these things don’t just happen by chance.

This stuff takes lots of work, and it takes lots of time.

And it takes a different mindset.

 

Family Alignment and Vision

I know that in order for a family to be receptive to putting any sort of governance into place, they need to be aligned, and have a similar vision of what’s possible.

Regular readers of mine also know this to be true (assuming they’re drinking the KoolAid).

But I feel like many of the attendees at this conference might have had the impression that some of the examples we heard about possibly seemed “too perfect”.

Advisors to families, and families themselves, who’ve never heard of family governance often need time to grasp everything that’s involved in this work.

Likewise, the entire family will rarely buy in all at once; there usually needs to be an “early adopter” or “family champion” who “gets it” first, and then leads the way.

 

Ironman Inspiration to Get Off the Couch

I love analogies, and I think of these great generative, legacy families that are the role models, as if they were champion Ironman Triathletes.

They’re awesome and inspirational, and that’s why they’re on TV.

Most people will never get to that level, and if they choose to stay on the couch because they know they’ll never be an Ironman, then that’s a missed opportunity.

Lots of families could benefit from getting off the couch and just going for a walk or a jog.

 

One Step, One Person, One Family at a Time

Family Governance starts with a mindset, and a group of people who are aligned.

It takes lots of time and effort to get there.

The good news is that it’s very incremental in nature.

Start small, get another person on board, and grow slowly.

Don’t compare yourselves to the best and get discouraged.

It can be done, and it is so worth it.

 

Shifting FamBiz Time Horizons

Shifting FamBiz Time Horizons

Family businesses are known for looking at things from a much longer time perspective than larger, publicly traded companies.

They aren’t concerned with how their decisions will affect their next quarterly earnings release, and instead focus on how things will look in a quarter century.

 

How Fixed Is a Time Horizon?

The long-term view can stay the same for decades, but sometimes events occur that make changes desirable over a much shorter timeframe.

One of my continuing roles in managing our family office is handling the asset allocation to various professional outside investment managers.

We recently decided to divest one position and I was surprised to learn that there would be an early withdrawal penalty for not having held it for the 5-year minimum.

Hmmm, I wondered, why had I not noticed that back then (it’s been over four years)? Simple, at the time it did not seem like it could ever be an issue.

Things change…

 

Time Flies

In another sphere of my life, a couple of years ago I was in Boston with the family, and we went to the Harvard bookstore to look at their swag.

I curiously asked my kids if they’d ever thought of attending that school.

I’ve since done campus tours at most of the Ivy League schools, plus a bunch more, with both of them, and yet in a few months that important chapter of my life will also be behind me.

How could my focus change so quickly? It feels like just yesterday we were looking at daycares.

 

Teens, Seniors and the Sandwich

Maybe it’s just that I’m part of the sandwich generation, with two teens and an octagenarian mother who depend on me.

During those life stages, a few short years can change many aspects of one’s life.

But every family has people at various ages and life stages, and that’s part of why business families are so complex.

 

Family Life Cycle

If you read some of the books around family wealth and making it last over generations, you’ll surely come across authors who talk about “100 years” as a timeframe to consider.

I have to admit, when I first saw this a few years ago, I thought it would be difficult for most people to grasp.

Heck, I was working in this space, and I was having trouble wrapping my mind around it.

I’m pretty sure I “get it” now, but I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve become used to hearing it, because I’m a few years older myself, or because I’ve “matured” into a different life view.

 

Legacy Families 

If you want to learn from families who’ve been successful in transitioning wealth from one generation to the next, and done so more than just once, well, you almost have no choice but to look at those who have lasted a century or more.

At the recent Institute for Family Governance conference, one speaker mentioned that a 20-year investment time horizon for a family might be considered “short term”, and I agree.

But if I want to look at things that way, first I need to almost be able to remove myself from the equation.

I now realize that maybe the investment we were divesting shouldn’t ever have been made because it did not fit such a long time horizon.

 

My 100-Year View

Or maybe for my family, a 100-year horizon isn’t appropriate, because our family never quite reached the wealth level necessary to become a “legacy family”

Maybe another lesson here is that it’s easier to help some other family deal with these questions than it can ever be to look at this for your own family.

It’s really difficult to look at these kinds of multi-generational issues when you and your life are part of the equation.

It’s much easier for me to draw out your expected lifespan and matter-of-factly talk about how things will look decades later. Doing that for me, um, not so much.

 

Not Fun? Doesn’t Mean You Don’t Need to Do It!

Realizing that things are complex and potentially not fun does not absolve you of the responsibility to actually take care of important things, though.

Thinking about the importance of this is the first step to getting started. Now go and find someone who can keep you on track.

Then together you can take the steps needed for a true 100-year plan.

The 3 R’s: Finding a “Responsive Reliable Resource”

The 3 R’s: Finding a “Responsive Reliable Resource”

The 3 R’s: Finding a “Responsive Reliable Resource”

There are plenty of qualities we look for in people we want to work with. A few weeks ago I had an interaction that made me realize that there are 3 I find to be near the top of my list.

I was working on a project and needed some feedback from a potential partner, “Tom”, who hadn’t responded to my email request for almost a week.

So I emailed Tom’s colleague, “Nicky”, asking if the email address I had for Tom was current.

I got a reply within an hour, with a new email address for Tom, plus an explanation as to why Tom wasn’t checking that old email address very often anymore.

I replied to Nicky with a “thank you”, noting that I appreciated her being a “Responsive Reliable Resource”.

Hmmm, I thought, this could be a blog post!

 

Three Distinct Qualities

The three qualities all begin with the letter “R”, and there are also definitely some overlaps.

But today, I want to look at each of them separately, because there are aspects of each that are important enough to emphasize individually.

 

Responsive

Let’s start with “responsive”. This one has everything to do with timeliness in getting back to you.

In today’s world, things move more quickly than ever, so a timely reply when you need something can be extra important.

Sometimes even after just a few hours, the usefulness of whatever you were asking for has disappeared.

In my example above, I’d already been in limbo for a few days, so a quick reply was what I was hoping for, and what I got.

 

Reliable

Reliability is a kind of “catch-all” word, often encompassing the responsiveness mentioned above.

But I want to talk strictly about the quality of what people can deliver, without attaching the timeliness of it.

Not that the time element isn’t important, but because it is, it deserves to be looked at separately.

When I think about reliable people, I’m usually assessing them based on whether or not I can count on them.

 

Count on them for What? 

So let’s think about what it is that we’re counting on people for, besides, of course, responding in a timely fashion.

Well, first off, I want to believe that whatever I ask of them, they’ll tell me the truth, even if it hurts.

That works both ways, by the way. I want to be able to rely on someone to tell me the truth,

even if it hurts me, AND, even if it hurts them.

As I write these words, I’m realizing that there’s a whole other blog that I’ll need to write, to expound upon this question.

 

Resource 

The third of my 3 R’s is “resource”. Here’s a quick definition I just Googled:

       a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or    organization in order to function effectively

I’ve gotta admit I don’t love it, because the main thing that most people I deal with are looking for in resources, would have to fall under “other assets”.

I love the part about “that can be drawn on”, because that fits nicely. I’m usually looking for information and/or direction, often to other resources.

 

A “Resource” as distinct from a “Helper”

While doing some of my personal work with coaches over the years, I’ve begun to try to remove the word “help” from my vocabulary.

This arose once when working with Amie, my Bowen Family Systems Theory coach, when I mentioned wanting to “help my wife” with something.

Her reply was simple, “What if you were just a resource to her, instead of trying to help her?”

“A-Ha”, I thought.

 

What’s the Difference?

I hope some readers will get this instinctively and quickly, but I assume many won’t, so here’s my view on the difference.

A resource is there for you, to be drawn upon, if and when you need it.

A helper is there to help, but it often turns out that the help they’re bringing isn’t the help needed, and comes on their terms.

It also puts the helper in a “one up” position to the “helpee”, which has its own negative consequences.

We all need “Responsive Reliable Resources”.

And in a family business, it’s great to have at least one who isn’t related.

2 angry men facing opposite directions

Avoiding the “60% Problem”

Avoiding the “60% Problem”

A few weeks ago one of my “tweeps” (Twitter peeps) shared a news article about family business that quoted an interesting statistic.

The field of family business as a specific “unit” of study still being relatively new, there aren’t necessarily lots of stats to choose from when someone sits down to write such an article.

It seems like the same studies, usually decades old, have their stats recycled and re-used over and over again. But that’s a problem for another day.

Sixty Percent of FamBiz Failures

Here is a quote about the main stat from the story:

 

“Sixty percent of the failures were due to breakdowns in

trust and communication within the family unit”

 

I’d like to address the 60%, but first I need to fill in some of the context. The sentence before the one quoted above read: “A comprehensive study identified reasons why family businesses don’t last.”

If we wanted to add to the list of things that “don’t last”, we could add businesses in general, and of course, people, because we will all eventually die.

Okay, now that I dealt with my pet peeve on how family business stats are thrown around by some writers, let’s get to the good stuff.

 

Breakdowns in What?

Let’s look at the “problems” with family business that were mentioned as being the most prevalent, i.e. 60%.

“Breakdowns in trust and communications” is how it was worded, and I take that to mean “breakdowns in trust” and “breakdowns in communications”.

Of course one could make the argument that “trust and communications” are so intertwined that they are actually inseparable in this context, and I would not argue against that either.

The fact that they were “lumped together” in the first place sort of makes that point already. But just for this exercise, let’s begin by looking at them separately.

 

Breakdowns in Trust

In order for there to be a “breakdown” in trust, there needs to have been some trust to begin with.

Here is the presumed scenario: 1. There was trust; 2. It broke down; and 3. Eventually the family business was no more.

Presumably, if the trust had remained strong and not broken down, the business would still be around.

It would be really interesting to look at the details around the trust breakdowns, because I have some theories I’d like to check out if we could see the actual data.

I’d be willing to bet that the trust level between individual pairs of people did not change very much over time, because in my experience it usually stays pretty constant.

However, changes, over time, in the make-up of the overall group running the business, can certainly result in a trust level that gets worse.

 

Breakdowns in Communications

Communications breakdowns are often easier to see than trust issues. That’s because when the issue is trust, that fact tends to be kept mum.

When we picture communication problems, we may be inclined to think about screaming matches and altercations that people in the office can see and hear.

I’ve known some family businesses that are no strangers to these types of scenes.

But I think that the kinds of communications breakdowns that are at the root of family business failures are more often the silent type.

Sometimes the screaming doesn’t happen anymore, because nobody is even talking to anyone else anymore.

 

Reasons and Opportunities to Talk

The good news is that trust and communications issues don’t usually just show up one day. They are usually gradual. Why is that good news? Good question.

To me, if a situation is slowly degrading, there is an opportunity to address it and try to rectify it. Of course there does need to be a willingness to actually work on it.

Family members who are involved in owning and/or managing a business together have plenty of reasons why they need to be in regular communication with each other.

Sometimes they don’t create enough opportunities to talk.

 

Regular Meetings

My best advice for families that are worried about these “trust and communications breakdowns” is to schedule regular meetings to talk about working ON their business.

Usually at least once per quarter, key family members need to come together and air things out, so that things don’t get worse.

If you need a “referee”, find one. But please do it.

 

Link: Family Business: When business is personal – Smart Business Magazine

2 kids on a side walk sharing a red apple.

“Sharing”: My Theme Word for 2018

“Sharing”: My Theme Word for 2018

Happy New Year 2018

The fact that this blog would be going out to subscribers on Monday, January 1, helped spark the idea for this post.

I’ve been working with a coach for a long time now, and I recently had my last Skype of the year with her. As usual for this time of year, she asked me some questions about my accomplishments in 2017, as well as my intentions for 2018.

Her final request is for one single word that will be my theme for the coming year. I thought about it for over a day (she had sent the questions to me in advance, from her blog) and I came up with “sharing”.

 

“Spreading the Gospel”

Back in 2013, when I was actually just starting to discover this field, I wrote a blog entitled Spreading the Gospel vs. Cornering the Market and my feeling about this subject has only become stronger.

Not only has my belief in the importance of sharing grown, thankfully my ability to share useful ideas has also increased.

Just today I was involved with two separate groups of colleagues on calls as we prepare to submit proposals for the 2018 conferences of some of the major organizations in the family business/legacy space.

 

Content Creation and Dissemination

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation as a content creation machine in this space and I wear that badge with pride.

So I recognize that “sharing” may not seem like a new theme for me, but there are a few other things I have planned going forward to hopefully “kick it up a notch”.

In addition to possibly presenting at some of the conferences that I attend regularly, I’m now looking at other ways to get in front of other advisors in the family business space to share some of my ideas and tools as well.

This is still in the embryonic stage for now, so I’ll just leave this here as a bit of a tease, but there are some other aspects of sharing that I’d like to highlight here too.

These thoughts about sharing are directed at the enterprising families themselves.

 

Business Families Should Share More

Most business families could also stand to share more too. You may think that I’m talking about being more philanthropic, but that’s not my angle here.

The more I learn about the subject of philanthropy, the more I realize to what extent business families are already among the leading givers in our society.

No, I’m talking about sharing internally, family member to family member. So what kinds of things should they be sharing?

I put these into two major categories; Past and Future. Those labels are pretty good for conceptualizing the differences, but aren’t very descriptive.

How about “History” and “Dreams”?

 

FamBiz History Lessons

Leaders of a family business often take for granted that because they lived the beginning of the company and its growth, and came home every night and shared their day with the family around the dinner table, well, everyone already knows the company “story”.

But most of the key events from 20 years ago will be lost today on those who were teenagers at the time. An occasional sharing of how we got to where we are today can be helpful.

Naturally, it’s nice when the audience plays along and is in an accepting mood to hear the stories, so don’t forget the word “occasional” I used above.

 

Dreams of What’s Possible

Having family members share their dreams is also something most business families could stand to do more of from time to time.

The rising generation may not be enthralled by the particular business that Mom or Grandpa started, and they may have their own entrepreneurial dreams.

Asking them to share those in a safe space can be very enlightening, and provide future growth paths for the family to invest in.

 

Family Interdependence

I’ll end here with a word on “interdependence”, which I might suggest any business family use as their “Theme word for 2018”.

The “NextGen” and the “NowGen” depend on each other for different things, and the balance of that equation changes over time.

Realize this, share the history, share the dreams, and build the future together.

The balance will shift some day, if only due to ageing. Sharing nicely now will beget sharing nicely later.

Santa Playing with the ipad

Christmas Resolutions for a Family Business

Christmas Resolutions for a Family Business

I hope everyone reading this has a great Christmas, or whichever other holiday they celebrate at this time of year.

I also hope nobody thinks that I actually wrote this on Christmas Day.

I’m a creature of habit and pride myself on being consistent, and my blogs have been going out to subscribers on Mondays for years now, and I’m not changing that just because it’s Christmas.

Recently I started writing them a week ahead of time to take the pressure off my website/social media team.

And if you’re wondering if there’ll be another blog in your inbox on New Year’s Day, stop wondering, because that’s a Monday too.


Timing Is Everything

Because I knew that this would be arriving in people’s inboxes on Christmas, and realized that many people wouldn’t be reading it until later, the “Resolutions” part that’s normally associated with New Year’s feels less clunky.

And it should help me make my point. So what is that point? Glad you asked.

During a recent exchange with a potential client, a lightbulb went on in my head as I realized they had some possible similarities with one of my current client families.

And in fact, I know of a few other families who could benefit from the kind of work I’m doing with them.

 

Rising Generation Group

The family client in question is one where I work with only the third generation sibling group. I’ve met with the parents only once, and this is an engagement that began almost two years ago.

The parents of the four Millennials from that family decided to hire a coach to work with their children, and that is what I’ve been doing with them, almost exclusively without their parents’ involvement.

I admit that this is a bit of a “non-standard” type of engagement, because most parents would not think of doing this in such a “hands off” fashion, but they put their trust in me to work with their offspring and haven’t looked back.

The other family I mentioned, the potential client, is one where the third generation family members are a larger group, and it includes four groups of cousins. But I’m going to suggest they try something similar.

 

Budget for Development

So the holiday tie-in I’ve contrived is that giving a generational group of people the gift of hiring them a coach to work with them could be a great Christmas gift.

But the gift can be even better if it is combined with a resolution (New Year’s tie-in!) to essentially stay out of trying to direct what the group works on with the coach.

If you are hiring someone to tell your kids what to think and do because they aren’t listening to you, save your money and time and forget it.

If you want to establish a budget for their development, especially to work on things together, that’s a pretty cool angle to take.

 

A Leap of Faith with the Right Attitude

My client family kind of took a leap of faith with me, but it was combined with the right attitude of trusting their kids enough to let them figure things out with me together.

My premise with them has always been that parents who have built up a business or great wealth all have the same fear:

that after they‘re gone, the kids will fight over things

and the wealth will destroy the family.

Having me as an independent, unrelated outsider to work with them has been a great exercise in teamwork for them, as I am essentially mostly a guide and mentor, as they do the real work of planning activities for the extended family group.

 

Early Stages

The early stage work we’ve been doing is also paving the way to the future important discussions that they will soon be having with their parents, once their parents recognize that they are ready.

After they’ve gotten to know each other better, and have learned how to work together as a team, those future “tougher” steps will be soooo much easier for everyone.

 


Xmas gift, NY resolution…

If you’re a family with the worry I noted above, why not resolve to look into this idea in 2018? I’ll gladly share some of the secrets of what I’ve been doing and see if it could work for you too.

Family sitting around a table

Providing Counsel to the Family Council

Providing Counsel to the Family Council

I enjoy wordplay more than most, and this week I stumbled across something I probably should have addressed in this space already, but seemingly haven’t.

So by exploring the words “Counsel” and “Council”, which are homonyms, I get to touch on a couple areas that are important to me and to my practice.

 

Family Counsellor

My current business card identifies me as a “Family Legacy Advisor”, but I’m never sure what I should actually call myself.

I cover a few bases by adding “sub-titles”, (Facilitator, Coach, Mediator), but even then it never feels 100% “correct”.

I prefer “advisor” to “consultant”, but when I’m crossing the border I always say I’m a consultant, because it sounds more straightforward.

Somehow, “family counsellor” feels like an appropriate title for a role I really enjoy playing, although that could also be easily misconstrued.

 

Business Family versus Family Business

Regular readers know that I often note the difference between a “family business” and a “business family”, and I have a clear preference for which entity I prefer to serve.

I like to work in the “family” circle, serving the business family first and foremost, because the family side is usually “under-served” by outside professionals.

The business circle has plenty of outside help from lawyers and accountants, not to mention various other professional consultants.

“Business counsellor” would sound kind of funny, but “family counsellor” has an interesting ring to it.

 

Family Governance = Family Council

I’ve written quite a bit about family governance, and family meetings, and one of the most basic terms in this area is “Family Council”, but until now I haven’t used that term.

Governance can get a bad rap, and too often it scares people because it sounds way more formal than it needs to be in real life.

This week I attended an event for business families held at a local University family business center, where the topic was “family councils”. Actually, since it was in French, it was “Conseil de Famille”.

There were representatives of three local business families on a panel, and the moderator asked them questions about their family councils.

 

De-Mystifying Governance

I truly appreciated the family members who spoke in front of a group of strangers about personal subjects, and I applaud the organisers for trying to de-mystify the idea of having a family council as a basic element of family governance.

However, based on some of the questions during the Q & A, I think that plenty of attendees still didn’t “get it”.

Despite the fact that the panelists were very forthcoming, explaining the nuts and bolts of how often they meet, who gets invited, what they talk about, who sets the agenda and who runs the meetings, it felt like many were still mystified by the idea.

I think it’s likely because they couldn’t picture how it might work in their own family, and I wonder if the name “Family Council” is too formal, and scares people as much as the term governance does.

 

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

It shouldn’t be so formal though, especially at the outset. Just have a family meeting, and let it evolve from there.

The only “revolutionary” step is bringing in an outsider to facilitate the meetings. Everything else needs to simply be “evolutionary”.

The most important part is actually starting to set up regular meetings to talk about how the family is affected by the business.

 

A Seat at the Table

Yes, even those family members who don’t work in the business, or don’t own any of the business, do have questions and concerns about the business, because they are certainly affected by it.

Providing them a seat at the table, so that they can be heard, and so that they can ask questions, is simple and basic.

If you organize such a forum before you need to do so, it will all go so much more easily than if you wait until they demand such meetings.

 

Counseling the Family Council

Meeting even just once a year is fine to get you started. But please start before you feel like you need to.

Start slowly, start small, and evolve from there. Learn as you go, and look for progress, not for perfection.

Eventually, you’ll find a family counselor to come in and facilitate those meetings, and then you can officially call it a “Family Council”.

conflict between family member in an office enviroment

Embracing Conflict in Family Business

Embracing Conflict in Family Business

Last week I mentioned the Family Firm Institute’s annual conference that I attended in Chicago in October, and how I came home with many weeks’ worth of blog material.

So today I’ll take one of the sessions that I enjoyed and build this post around it.

Here’s the title of the presentation in question:

 

“Can Embracing Conflict Spur Positive Change?”

Joe Astrachan and Carrie Hall were the presenters, and they based much of their discussion on a recent survey of some of the largest family businesses in the world.

Here is a link to their report.

Often when people like me get called into a business family, it’s because there’s something going on that could be described as “conflictual” in nature.

One of the first pieces of “good news” from the conflict is that it has heightened the sense that there’s a need to call in an outsider to help get the family to a better place.

Now, if that outsider is open-minded, well trained, and comfortable with a high conflict environment, then why couldn’t the conflct actually spur positive change?

What’s the Alternative?

Too often families will avoid conflict, or even any semblance of conflict, at all cost. Certain family cultures simply don’t “allow” any expressions of confrontation, negativity, or even challenges to authority.

Unfortunately, that often masks important differences that actually really NEED to be expressed, brought out, and dealt with.

One of the first pieces I recall reading about this, the one where you could say I had my “A-Ha moment” on this subject, was “The Invaluable Gift of Conflict”, by Matt Wesley.

 

Two Main Components

The presence of conflict, aside from it resulting in the arrival of an outsider to assist in moving the family forward, is also that visible conflict is preferable to simply having issues simmer quietly under the surface.

The consequences of unexpressed issues can be bitterness and dissatisfaction that lasts for years (decades?) before finally exploding. Unaddressed issues will often only get worse with time.

But the second “good news” aspect of conflict in a family business is the “energy” that it can create, and that energy can be harnessed, for “good”.

 

Stagnation and Apathy

One of the side effects of having people who are displeased in key positions (in the business or in the family, if not both) is that it can breed apathy and a feeling that things will never change, or that they’ll only change far in the future, and only when their perceived “problem person” is gone.

That apathy and feeling of resignation can turn into stagnation very quickly.

Conflict that erupts and becomes visible can be much healthier because at least you can see it and you’re forced into action to deal with it.

 

“One Story”

Back to the presentation by Astrachan and Hall.  The biggest “take home” message for me was their idea of creating “one story” for the family to tell.  Some background and context are necessary here.

They described a situation where there was a severe rift in a family, yet a couple of the branches of the family managed to come back together.

One of the keys to making it all work, was to come up with the “one story” that the family would tell (to themselves and to the world in general) about the business and the family history.

 

Singing from the Same Hymn Book

Any family business that has lasted more than a few decades will do well to compile and tell their story, if only for the “marketing” power that this can have.

When it comes time to “inculcate” younger members of the family into the business’s culture, these history lessons are pretty important too.

But in the case of a family “coming back together” after a rift, the part of the story dealing with the cause of the rift, and more importantly, the way the family overcame it, can be huge.

 

Positive Change

The presentation (and this blog) are about positive change, and getting the story straight can have more of a positive influence than many people will realize.

The first step may just be to learn to “embrace” the conflicts that you can actually see.

You can only get through difficulties when you actually put things “on the table”. And if you need outside help, then get some.

My Notes from a Great Keynote

My Notes from a Great Keynote

The Family Firm Institute recently held its annual conference in Chicago, and the subjects covered were enough to fill out my blog calendar for the next few months. But today I’ll concentrate on just one session.

The main FFI conference wrapped up Friday, and then Saturday featured a one-day “research and education” session. I’d never stayed for the extra day before, but the lunchtime keynote alone made it well worth staying.

 

An Industry Pioneer

The speaker was none other than Craig Aronoff, one of the founders (in 1994) of the Family Business Consulting Group (FBCG) as well as a past President of FFI.

FBCG has been a leader in the field of family business advising and they are held in high esteem by just about everyone connected to this profession.

They’re a leading producer of great content as well, which actually brings me to the first of the three points Aronoff made that I want to share with you today.

 

Private Lessons

Aronoff noted that business families have different ways that they deal with their challenges, and that those who actually hire an outside family business consultant are just a small minority.

The ones who do hire such a specialist are in effect opting for “private lessons”, as he nicely put it.

You can learn to play a musical instrument in lots of different ways, especially with today’s technology. Some people will just go to Youtube and find some instructional videos, while others will hire a teacher to come to their home and offer private lessons. (My analogy, not his)

 

Market Penetration 

He went on to actually put some numbers out there, estimating that only somewhere between 2 and 4 percent of family businesses hire family business consultants.

I wouldn’t know where to begin to try to figure out what the number is, but given Aronoff’s experience in a leading position in the industry, I’m inclined to give his numbers plenty of credence.

If so few business families are reaching out and hiring specialists to give them “private lessons”, then what about the rest of the families?

 

What About Everybody Else?

I guess that the other 96-98% of families try to meet their challenges “on their own” and with help from their other professional advisors from various fields (law, accounting, tax, psychology).

I would hope that more and more of those families are at least benefiting from the ever-increasing amount of great content that is being created and shared in the burgeoning family business space.

When I entered this field, I reflected on how many families I could realistically work with directly during the next 25 years of my career, and I had trouble getting to triple digits.

But that only includes families for whom I would be their provider of the “private lessons”.

Between writing, speaking and teaching, I have the potential to be a resource to so many more families.

 

Values: Guide & Goals & Glue

One final note on my take-aways from what Aronoff talked about.

(I should also note that the main subject of his talk was research and its relevance to the field of family business, which I’ve decided to ignore in this blog, since it’s not my area of interest or expertise.)

He quickly mentioned the importance of values to family businesses. (Please see: FAMILY BUSINESS: HOW DO VALUES FIT IN? for my take on this issue).

He noted that from his perspective, values provide the 3 G’s:

The Guide, The Goals, and The Glue.

As a fan of anything that helps people understand and remember important concepts, I found this noteworthy.

 

The Glue and the Grease? 

I’ve had a blog idea about glue stuck in my head for a few years now, involving “Glue and Grease”, but I’ve yet to find the substance in nature or industry to complete the analogy.

What I try to bring to families who hire me is a bit of both; glue to help keep things together, but also grease that keeps things running smoothly.

Any engineers or creative types out there who think of a substance that fits this analogy can look forward to a hat-tip and shout out from me for sharing ideas for that blog.

I remain available for private lessons for select families, and I will continue to add and share content to this fascinating field.

Note: Last week this space featured its first ever Guest Blog. Unfortunately I was a less than perfect host for my guest, and when I posted her piece I accidentally dropped a few paragraphs in the middle of it.  It has now been corrected, and can be found here: Lessons Learned from Women in Family Business

(Sorry Kim!)