Vermont, a Global Hub? What the FECC?

Burlington Vermont is not a place most people think about when globalization is the subject. But once a year, that all changes, and people involved in Family Business congregate there in January for a one-of-a-kind experience.

The Global Family Enterprise Case Competition (FECC) just wrapped up this weekend, and the fourth annual edition was better than ever. The folks at the Grossman School of Business at the University of Vermont can truly call their event “Global”.

I had the privilege of serving on the judging committee at this competition for the third year in a row, and as always, it was an enriching experience. So how global is it?

Well on Thursday I served on a panel with another Montrealer, but he happens to hail from Mexico (as did a couple of the Undergraduate teams participating). That same panel featured a woman from Switzerland, who was born in Czechoslovakia (which is now 2 countries!)

There were 24 student teams competing, with 16 in the Undergraduate section and 8 in the Graduate portion, and these teams hailed from 10 different countries, but if that weren’t enough, the students themselves came from even more diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds.

I don’t have vital stats for all of the participants, but from just the eight teams that I saw, here are a few examples:

A team from Sweden featured at least 2 competitors who were German, which they clearly used to their advantage on the case of the Juchheim company, which, suprisingly (or not) was about a Japanese family enterprise.

Another team, from Texas, featured students with both Latin American and Asian roots, and a team from Spain featured one presenter with a Middle Eastern background.

I could go on, but I think that I have already given you a flavour of what the event is like, and I have probably already used some terms that will have offended some people who are more politically correct than me.

So what is it that makes Family Enterprise such a great field for a global competition? That’s an easy one.

The languages and the culture change from country to country, but the prevalence of family business is pretty well widespread around the world. And not only that, what parents want and hope for when they go into business with their family members is not very different from one location to another.

Furthermore, the issues that come up in family enterprise situations that you can find in one country will invariably show up in just about every other country too.

The good news here is that you can learn a lot about the big issues and how you may want to handle them simply by studying what has gone on elsewhere. You know, learn from other people’s mistakes.

The field of family business as a discipline, to be studied, researched, and taught in schools is still relatively new. The related field of family business advising is also still considered pretty new.

What this means is that the families who are eager to get involved with examining their own situations by opening their eyes and themselves up to what is going on with other families, are still part of what one would term the “early adopters”.

Family Business is not yet seen as “mainstream”, and is not taught as a separate discipline in very many business schools yet.

Likewise, many people like me who call ourselves Family Business Advisors are still looked at as a little bit odd (OK, I confess, you got me there) and we are sometimes met with questions like, “Is that a thing?” when we describe ourselves as such.

Things are changing, slowly but surely, in the right direction. If you have any interest in the field of Family Enterprise education, I invite you to check out the FECC at UVM and get involved in next year’s 5th annual edition. I know that I am already planning a return trip.


Parenting & Family Business Leadership

Many people throughout history have worn both the “family-business-leader” hat and the “parent” hat simultaneously.

A certain percentage of them have excelled in both roles, some have been much better at one than the other, and still others never really mastered either.

Of course there are plenty of areas where the things one does in one area will undoubtedly have an effect on the other, because it is virtually impossible to separate the roles completely.

And just as I noted above, where some people excel at both, others at neither, and many at one at the expense of the other, the same can be said about certain actions that one takes while playing these roles.

There are many trade-offs where it seems clear that working late and missing your kid’s soccer game is a plus for the business and a minus for the family, or the reverse is true if you leave early to make it to the game but don’t finish that important order.

I like to think that the best thing that I can do as a family business advisor is to point out the situations that are in fact a lose/lose, and help families avoid them, and also point out the possible win/win situations, and help families exploit those.

It sounds simple when put that way, but simple and easy are NOT synonyms.

Interestingly, the two examples of the lose/lose variety that arise most often are opposite sides of the same coin, and they have to do with how we treat our kids and value their input.

On the one hand, there are lots of examples of parents who spoil their children with easy, high-paying jobs, with low expectations of performance. This is not great business leadership, nor is it great parenting.

The other side of that coin also occurs rather frequently, and it looks like this: The kids work really hard, are underpaid, are ready to take over the business, but they are never given the reins, because the parents are not ready to let go. Once again, the business suffers, and so does the family.

It all comes down to finding the correct balance, just like Goldilocks. We don’t want the porridge that is too hot because it will burn our tongue, and the cold porridge is just, well, yucky.

So what is the secret to finding that balance? Part of it is simply recognizing that you are playing both the role of the parent and of the family business leader. But that clearly isn’t enough, because as we just saw, you can actually screw up on both simultaneously.

Besides recognizing that you are playing two roles, it is important to think about your perspective, and to compare and contrast that perspective in two major ways.

First, look at the way you are acting in the two roles from a TIME perspective, and think back to when you were the age that your children are at now, and how you were treated and would have wanted to be treated.

Then look ahead to when your children will be at the age you are at now, and consider your relationship with your parents. If that is too extreme, think back ten years, and then ten years ahead.

After doing the time perspective exercise, simply take a moment to reflect on how you see things, and imagine how the other family members see things from their point of view, today. I will guarantee that if you ask them if they see things the same way that you do, you will be in for at least one or two surprises.

The key word in that last sentence is “if”, as in “if you ask them”. In my experience, few family business leaders will actually take the time to ask their children how they see things.

Yes, I know that you are the one running the show, and all your hard work is what got you here. Congratulations.

But do you have the courage to ask your children how they see things? You may be surprised with what you learn.


Life Is Finite. Deal with It.

Sometimes a provocative title just feels right. This one came to me last week, upon learning of the death of a one-time friend of who passed away a few weeks ago.

This brought to two the number of friends in their early 50’s that I lost in 2015, and I was a bit shook up by the news. Both were men for whom I had a great deal of respect and admiration, and both left a few teenagers fatherless.

As a father of two teens, in my early fifties, I feel like there is something here for me to think about, write about, and do something about. I have already started the thinking, and I am currently doing the writing, soon will come the time to start doing the doing.

I know that few people like to be told what to do, so I long ago tried to abandon that method of persuasion. And while I appreciate the importance of thinking, contemplating, and planning, that will only take you so far. The results anyone gets in life usually come back to the ACTIONS that they have taken.

In December of each year, my executive coach, Melissa, encourages her clients to think of one word that they will use to guide them for the next year, kind of like a theme to pursue. Last week I emailed her to tell her that my word for 2016 will be ACTION.

Please notice that I did not title this blog post “Life is finite, think about it”, or “Life is finite, write about it”. I specifically chose the expression “Deal with it”, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that it is meant to be provocative, and be noticed. But more than that, I hope that people will take the actions required to properly deal with the reality that everyone’s days on earth are numbered.

“Deal with it” has become almost a throw-away line, akin to “get over it”, and there is also that element that I am going for. But I am also hoping that the action of dealing with it will begin to happen, at least for some of my readership.

Since last summer, Tom, my long time friend and the brother I never had, who also plays the role of non-family member of our family council, has been pestering me about updating my will. Initially, it was, “yes, after the summer, when the kids are back in school.” He continues to pester me, but that is on me, not him.

They say that leaders go first, so I am hereby committing to undertaking my personal will review and updating in 2016-Q1, and until such time as I have completed it, I shall not push others to do so. I do promise to write again about the experience, in ways that can hopefully again encourage others to follow suit.

In the meantime, if you have not yet picked up and read “Willing Wisdom”, by my friend Tom Deans, that is as good a place to begin as any. Deans believes, as I do, that not only should your will be up-to-date, but that its contents should be shared with the family.

Sometimes people refer to themselves as “thought leaders” (kinda makes me laugh sometimes), so I will try to be an “action leader” on this.

Let me leave you with one major thought: Talking about sex never got anyone pregnant, and talking about money never made anybody rich (or poor, for that matter). So can we please stop acting like talking about death will kill you?

Ideally, after you die, your family will be sad and they will miss you. The grief should be plenty for them to deal with. Please take the time to make sure that everything else is in order, and spare them having to also deal with a big mess that you could have (and should have) taken care of in advance.

If you are fortunate enough to be part of a family that owns a business or has significant wealth, then this is even more important.

Now is the time to Deal With It.


Kermit on my Mind

When I was a kid I watched Sesame Street, and then during my teens, the Muppets moved into prime time. We hadn’t seen a lot of Kermit and his pals lately, until ABC brought them back this fall.

They have some new characters to complement many with whom we are already familiar, including my favourite, Chip the tech guy, but Kermit is still the star in my books. And for some reason I have had frogs on my mind lately.

This week, over coffee with a colleague, we were talking about the types of families who make up my “ideal client” base. I really don’t like the terms used in the wealth management space, like HNW and UHNW (high net worth, and “Ultra” HNW), but they are part of the lexicon.

The truth is, though, that if a family’s wealth isn’t into the eight-figures range, they aren’t likely to bring in someone like me to work with them for a few months to a couple of years to help them set up their family governance and get everyone on the same page.

It was then that I said to my colleague that I understood that I needed to “kiss a lot of frogs”. And then I felt like an elitist A-Hole for using that expression.

I have been working on and reflecting upon how best to take my unique life experiences, my newly discovered passion for helping families prepare for multi-generation success, and my ever-expanding network of like-minded professionals, and put them all together to “serve”.

And then I re-read that last paragraph and hope it doesn’t come across in a way that makes people gag, and think of me as a snob who laments having to “kiss frogs”.

I hope that by sharing my feelings about this, my real humility will come through.

Then today, while thinking about the frog kissing comment, I flashed back to something I heard about a year and a half ago. It was at the 2014 Rendez-Vous of the Purposeful Planning Institute.

The speaker was none other than James E. (Jay) Hughes, who is one of the most respected authors and speakers in the field of family wealth.

He was talking about the importance of each generation developing their own interests and passions, and not getting sucked into the “black hole” of the business of the previous generation’s dream. I very much agree with his premise.

But during the Q & A, he brought up the old story about the frog and the pot of boiling water. It goes like this: If you have a pot of boiling water on the stove and you drop a frog into it, the frog will instinctively jump out.

However, if you put a frog into a pot of cool water, and slowly raise the heat, the frog will end up getting cooked. And then Hughes added that it was impossible to get out of that black hole, or that pot of water.

I took exception, but only internally. I wish I would have gone and spoken to him afterward. I believe that if you turn off the stove in time, and allow the water to cool down, the frog can jump out and find his own passion and successfully leave Dad’s black hole.

I believe that I am “Exhibit A” for this. It took around 20 years for my water to cool down and for me to discover my passion for helping other families with these kinds of family business and family wealth issues.

And I will gladly help and kiss lots of frogs along the way, not just Kermit, or the ones who have enough wealth to afford me for my “full service” option. There are plenty of families who can use guidance to help them figure out how to make decisions together, communicate better, and solve problems together.

Or maybe just to encourage them to let their offspring find and live their own true passions.

In 2016, I resolve to better communicate how I can serve them all, and continue to preach about the important role of family harmony to support family legacy.



Channeling your Inner Santa

This is a magical time of year, and this week was chock full of great experiences for me. I want to share my thoughts on one particular morning that had me in a new role, and how the things I learned might be useful for people in business families.

For the past 6 years now, I have been volunteering semi-regularly at a non-profit organisation in one of the poorer parts of Montreal.

So on Thursday, as I was helping prepare the food boxes for the arrival of about 150 people, I was pulled aside and asked if I was free to come in on Saturday morning. Someone had just called and said they couldn’t make it, and now they were scrambling to find just the right person to fill in.

As a caucasian man, I can honestly say that I don’t think that I have been a victim of racial profiling before, and maybe it had more to do with “body type” than race, but I was pretty sure that I had not been selected at random to come in to play the role of the guy in the red suit who lived at the North Pole.

Well I can belt out a deep “Ho Ho Ho” with the best of them, so this would be fun, right, and how hard could it be?

I came in around 8:30 on Saturday, and I was lead upstairs and given a box containing an eclectic mix of red pants, white beards, one boot, some red tops and hats, and a big black belt. It took some mixing and matching, a bit of creativity and scotch tape, but I managed to pull everything together.

But then a few families began arriving and some of the kids were looking at me, walking around in these red pants, gathering up my things, and I quickly realized that I needed to get “backstage”, lest I ruin the surprise.

So I retreated to a back room, got all dressed up, found a mirror so I could check myself out, and waited. And waited some more. There were some logistical details to work out and volunteers to get organised so that the giving of the gifts to the children would flow properly.

Normally, this kind of stuff is right up my alley, and I would have jumped right in and been one of the people figuring out how to process the hundreds of people who were scheduled to show up over the course of the next 6 hours. But I was dressed up as Mr. Claus, waiting backstage.

The visual of Santa getting it all organised and instructing people on what their roles should be just didn’t work, so I would just have to wait, watch, and hope for the best. When everything was finally ready, I made my entrance and sat on a nice little couch.

The families went up, one-by-one, and received age-appropriate and gender appropriate gifts, and then had the option of a photo op with Santa. The mix of reactions from the little ones was quite interesting, from the crying and screaming of some, to the warm tender hugs from others.

I asked the kids if they always listened to their parents, were nice to their siblings, and if they always did their homework, while avoiding asking them what they wanted for Christmas, since that was completely beyond my control, and I did not want any part of setting up unrealistic expectations.

Here is the family business take-away: Try out a new role, one that might be outside your comfort zone. Watch how others react to your new role, it is amazing what you can learn just by observing, not only about others, but about yourself.

If you are the one who is normally “in control”, try muting that for a change and see what happens, who steps up, how things go. I am not suggesting scrapping family traditions, but letting them evolve.

Family communication and leadership takes many forms, and we can all do a little bit better. Channel your inner Santa, and enjoy your family time over the holidays.