running a family business tips

Who Gets to Decide? (Part 1 of 2)

Last weekend at the Bowen Center spring conference there was plenty of food for thought, as expected, as we talked about family systems and how they also apply in other organisations.   (See A Systematic Business Family?)

There was also lots of fascinating scientific information presented about collective behaviour in the animal kingdom, and we learned some surprising things about how schools of fish and groups of locusts work together, subconsciously, to move about en masse.

Wait, am I saying that human families work the same way as fish and locusts do? Well, not exactly. But I’m not saying that we’re completely different either.

Family vs Other Groups

It’s also really interesting to think about how a family group is similar to and different from other types of human groups. Things we learn in the family realm are used in other circumstances, and things from other groups of people are used in our families.

There are more similarities than most of us realize and the same goes for animals and humans. We’re obviously the most advanced species, but our evolution surely followed many similar paths.

Leadership and Decision-Making

But how do groups of people and animals make their decisions, especially those that affect a group?

Leadership has been written about ad nauseum and there’s little doubt that it’s important to the success of groups. One thing that I’m starting to notice more is that the singular leader is becoming less of a phenomenon, and group leadership is getting trendier.

Authoritative and dictatorial styles are giving way to collaborative and consensual ways of leading. (See: Is Your Family “In Line”, or Aligned?) And what better area to look at these benefits than family business and intergenerational wealth transitions.

Family Business and the 3 Circles

The Three Circle Model has been around for over 3 decades now and while some find it too simplistic, I’m still a huge fan. (See: Three Circles + Seven Sectors = One A-Ha Moment )

Each of the circles, Family, Business, and Ownership, are separate, yet overlapping, systems. By “system” here, I am referring to a group of interrelated people.

In a first generation family business, there’s usually lots of overlap and having circles with the exact same group of people is a real possibility. Even then, it’s important to make family decisions as a family, for the family, and business decisions for the business, as a business.

If you’re lucky enough to transfer the business and wealth to subsequent generations, things invariably get more complex. The family will usually continue to grow, and the business may grow even faster, especially by adding non-family employees.

System = Group of Related People

But you still have three systems, or groups of related people. Some will have formal leadership positions, with titles and clear roles; others, well, not so much. But why not?

In order to make decisions, a business has a CEO and an organisation chart, and formal roles and procedures. Should it be the only circle like that?

If there’s an ownership group, or system, shouldn’t it, too, have a formal structure, along with decision-making bodies and procedures? A shareholders agreement should contain most of this information, but is it actually ever used, and do the owners know what’s in it?

Last, and certainly NOT least, is the family. Talk about a potentially thorny group, and likely the circle with the least formal structure and rules. But decisions still need to be made.

All in the Family

So if a business is run based on some sort of formalized hierarchy and procedures, and an ownership system is subject to a shareholders agreement, then at least some governance exists for these interrelated groups of people in the family business realm.

Is there a good reason why the Family should be the exception?


Do families really go through the trouble of working this stuff out, “just for family issues?”


Only the ones that care about their legacy and want to make sure that all of their hard work doesn’t end up being for naught.

Bottom Line:

Family Business is complex stuff, and “formality is your friend” when you want to ensure that that the transition to the next generation will be successful, because decisions will always need to be made.

Next week in Part 2, we’ll look specifically at the Family circle and take this to another level, literally, with “Who Gets to Decide Who Gets to Decide?”

Father and Daughter playing

Is Your Family “In Line”, or Aligned?

The subject of family alignment is near and dear to my heart, and it has been for a few years now, probably since I first heard it.

Family alignment can mean different things to different people, but in the arenas of family business, family legacy and family wealth, it seems to be more and more common, and recognized as increasingly important.

The first time I tackled this subject, last year, I didn’t just write a blog on it, I created an entire “white paper”. However, since I kind of despise that term, I called mine a “Quick Start Guide”. Link here: Family Alignment – What it IS, Why you NEED it, How to Build It.

Part of what prompted this blog now is my newfound interest in the subject of family governance.  Well, it’s not really a newfound interest in that subject, it’s more of a newfound appreciation for the word governance, especially as it applies to families.

Back in January, my blog, “Family Governance, Aaaah!” recounted how I had come to terms with my revulsion of the “G-word”, thanks to repeated exposure to it from more and more respected places.

Collaboration and Leadership

Around the same time, I read the book “The Collaborative Leader”, and another light went on.  In that book, authors McDermott and Hall talk about two words that seem to have a symbiotic relationship (my words, not theirs).

They explained that the words “collaborative” and “leader” are actually very difficult to separate, because one is almost always used to describe the other. There is almost an implied nature of each within the other, so to speak. (Again, my clumsy words, not theirs)

To collaborate requires leadership, and to lead requires collaboration.

Hmmm, interesting, I thought to myself.  I wonder if I can think of other pairs of words like that.


Alignment and Governance

So naturally, my thoughts lead me to alignment and governance, admittedly, two much less common words.

My thinking goes like this.  If you want to align your family, it needs to be governable, and if you want to govern your family, it needs to be aligned.

Now if you really want to pick holes in my arguments you certainly can, and maybe not just small holes, but bear with me here.  And let’s agree to take a 2017 perspective, not one from 1987 or 1957.

Just as the definitions of collaboration and leadership have evolved, so have those for alignment and governance.


Getting Everyone in Line

Decades ago, having everyone in your family “in line” had a different meaning, likely much more autocratic and “top down”. I think we can all agree that that horse has left the barn.

In the same way that leaders today need to be collaborative and collaboration needs leadership, today’s governance structures exist best in situations where there is alignment.

It seems like this would be true in any situation, not just in the areas of family governance and family alignment.

Where do you Start?

The good news with these pairs of words is that in order to get moving, you can start working on whichever one resonates more.  If you want to help someone with their ability to lead, but they don’t really see themselves as leaders, you can work on their collaboration.  And vice versa.

If you have an aversion to family governance, you can work on family alignment, and for those who think family alignment is too “touchy feely”, maybe you can convince them to work on family governance.

Are You Feeling Lucky?

If you’re lucky, your family (or the families that you work with) will automatically have leaders who love to collaborate and people who “get” governance and are easily aligned.

Most people aren’t that lucky. Most people need to work at these things.

My favourite expression in this regard is “Things don’t just happen by themselves”.

Some of the current buzzwords that I hear and like on this subject are the following:

  •  Deliberate
  •  Intentional
  •  Purposeful

Please recall that your legacy comes from both people and assets, and your wealth and legacy won’t preserve themselves.

Bottom Line: You can work on better alignment through governance, or better governance through alignment, but you need to work on them. Intentionally.

Family Business - Family Ownership Tree

Pruning the FamBiz Ownership Tree

Family businesses come to life in different ways, but their ownership structure usually starts out pretty simple. With the coming of age of the next generation of family members, things inevitably get more complex.

Preparing the rising generation to work in the business is a subject that gets talked about quite a bit. Preparing them to be good owners is also something that we are beginning to hear more about as well. All of this is good news.

But my subject today is based on a real life case, brought to my attention by a colleague. I asked her for permission to address it in this space, because I have not seen much written on it, and it can be pretty tricky.

Unfortunately there isn’t necessarily an easy solution, but then again, in the arena of family business, there rarely is.


The Case of the XYZ Family

My colleague and I are members of a “study group” of a dozen or so members of FFI, we come from a handful of countries, and it is always interesting to note the cultural flavour that comes with the stories we share.

The XYZ family is based in another country on another continent. X and Y are brothers, and they own their business 50/50. So far it’s pretty simple. Oh, one more important point, X is a silent partner, and Y runs the business.

I don’t know for sure but will assume that there is no shareholders agreement in place, likely because of the standard, “hey, we’re family, we trust each other, we will work it out” attitude.


Arrival of the Next Gen

The business continues along without issue, and the brothers start families of their own.   Y, the active brother, has a son and a daughter. X, the silent brother, eventually also has a daughter.

Just to add a bit more complicating “spice” to the story, Y’s son, Z, ends up going to work in the business along with his Dad, Y. X remains silent. Everything is fine, right? Well, for now, seemingly, yes.


Projecting the Future

So if you are Z, the son working in the business, what might concern you, long term? What issue keeps you up at night, to the point that you would raise it with your friendly neighbourhood family business consultant?

If you guessed “ownership”, give yourself a gold star.

The young man has likely already witnessed some of the difficulties that his father has had in running the business while being responsive to a silent partner, uncle X.

When he projects to the future, he sees a situation where he is the only family member working in the business, but his “silent partners” could be his sister, and his cousin.

If ownership follows the standard equal distribution among children that is the default in their country, he foresees himself owning 25% of the shares, and having to answer to his 25% owner sister, and their 50% owner cousin.


Sustainability in Question

When something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

Just to make sure we see the difficulty here let’s add another layer. Let’s say Z has five kids, and his sister and cousin only have one child each. And let’s say only one of his kids joins the company and runs it, along with his silent relative partners.

How would it be to own 5% of a company and run it for relatives who own the following shares:

Owner-Manager:        5%

Siblings:                        5%   /   5%    /   5%   /   5%

Cousin:                       25%

Second-Cousin:        50%


Thanks, but No Thanks!

Talk about a thankless job. Family businesses CAN last many generations, but those that do are the exceptions, not the rule.

We often look for whom to blame when they don’t last, yet sometimes just the way they are structured and the simple math of family division make it nearly impossible to make this work.


So Do We Give Up?


We look ahead and foresee the potential issue, and talk about ways to resolve it. The brother owners need to realize that this can’t work long term, and figure out their next steps.

Assuming that Y can buy out his brother’s 50%, that would resolve a big chunk of it, for now, anyway.

They might even use a formula that Z will be able to follow to eventually buy out his sister down the road.

Bring it up, talk it out, resolve it before it kills the business.




Good Governance Structure for Family Business

Family Governance, Aaaah!

It’s hard to get a handle on “governance” sometimes, and depending on the context, its meaning and connotations can vary greatly.

In some contexts, it’s a pain in the backside. In others, you can’t live without it.

Put me in the “can’t live without it” camp when it comes to family business continuity and family legacy.

Governance in those situations can be tricky, but you really need it, and this post will shed light on that perspective.


Institute for Family Governance 

This week I was in New York for the first annual “Institute for Family Governance” conference. The IFG is in its infancy, and came into existence at the crossroads of STEP (Society for Trust and Estate Professionals) and FFI (Family Firm Institute).

Babetta von Albertini, of Withers Consulting Group in NY, the Program chair, is a member of both FFI and STEP, and I first met her at the FFI annual conference in London in 2015.

She is the driving force behind IFG and must be congratulated for pulling off a great kickoff event.

She also announced that the 2nd annual IFG conference will take place on January 25, 2018, and that none other than the legendary Peter Leach of Deloitte UK will be a featured speaker.


What the Heck is “Family Governance”? 

“What is Family Governance?” could be the proverbial $64,000 question. But it’s more like the $64,000,000 question, because sometimes size does matter

If your family net worth is in the range of $64,000, please skip the rest of the questions, thanks for your time completing our survey.

If, however, your family net worth is in the $64,000,000 range, perhaps this topic is one you need to be paying attention to.

Okay, let me rephrase that.

If you care what happens to your wealth over the next generation or two (or more), then good governance will be important. If you don’t really care what happens after you die, don’t bother reading past this point.


What Happened to “Governance, Ugh!”? 

For longtime readers and fans of my work (Hi Mom!) you may be confused by the title of this blog, which seems to suggest, via the “Aaaah” after “Family Governance” that it’s something good, and which brings relief.

You may be thinking “Hey Steve, how does this square with Chapter 8 of your book, SHIFT your Family Business, which I clearly recall was titled “Governance, Ugh!”?

My answers to this are many, including:

  • Thanks for noticing
  • Yes, it IS available on Amazon
  • Evolution


The Evolution of Governance

Back in 2013 when I wrote the book and called that key chapter “Governance, Ugh”, I did so based on my perception that the word actually conveyed that “Ugh” reaction to a large number of people.

I like to believe that the world of Family Business and Family Wealth has evolved somewhat since I wrote it, and based on what I heard in NYC this week, it has.

Even if the “world” has not yet evolved, though, I know that I have. Let me elaborate. I have always known that good governance is essential to creating a sustainable legacy for a family.

I used to be afraid to tell people that they needed “governance”, but shying away from the word made it seem “unspeakable”, which may have conveyed that it was also undesirable..


My Own Evolution

When the Institute for Family Governance, came to life, and when I realized that I was excited to discover it, that told me that I have evolved, as has my thinking and my desire to call it what it is.

Yes, we can continue to refer to it as “decision-making”, and “communication” and “structures and processes”, and “how we are all going to get along together” and “formalized rules and regulations”.

At the end of the day, for me, the best word to encapsulate all of these is GOVERNANCE.


The Real $64 Million Question

The real question is WHY is it required.

My short answer is:

Because your Wealth and Legacy won’t Preserve Themselves.

Family governance is a must, and it must be custom-developed by your family, for your family.

But it is definitely OK to get help with this. It is even highly recommended to do so.


To Be Continued

Watch this space for an upcoming blog:

5 Things you Need to Know: Family Governance.

Coming in February 2017


Lessons from a drowned phone

Lessons from a Drowned Phone

Happy New Year?

The first week of a New Year seems destined to bring up a challenge for me. Last January I was involved in a car accident that resulted in a concussion, and 2017 started with me accidentally drowning my phone.

I must admit that given a choice for 2018, I would sign up for stupidly putting my phone in the washing machine over innocently getting rear-ended at a red light.

Even though I have nobody to blame but myself for the phone fiasco, I must admit that this year is off to a better start than last. And of course the drowning of my phone has given me a juicy blog subject to boot.


The Incident

Last Friday when I finally found my misplaced phone in the “last place I looked”, i.e. the pocket of my jeans, in the washing machine, well into its wash cycle, I was relieved that at least I had solved the mystery of “where the heck is it?”

The thrill of finding it was quickly extinguished of course, as I had already concluded that it was now merely a paperweight.


Now What? 

Saturday morning I went to my phone service provider with it, holding a glimmer of hope that it might still be useful. No such luck.

I purchased a new phone, and then came the time to transfer what I had in my old phone. There is a great app you can use to transfer stuff (photos, contacts, apps, etc.) from an old phone to a new one. But it doesn’t work when the old one is dead.



My work is all about helping families define and preserve their legacy, which includes very important steps that I explain to client families, which they cannot skip if they want to keep the odds of success on their side.

My old phone had lots of important stuff in it that I wanted to continue to benefit from. But it was now dead, and I had not done what was necessary to preserve what was in it by backing up everything.

Now, recreating what I had, became a much bigger challenge. In fact, some stuff, like photos, was gone for good.

Most of those photos weren’t critical, but they did have some value, which was now lost. Likewise, much of what the senior generation members have in their heads is not truly critical for the survival of the family, but it can often rise to a level above simply “nice to have”.

In case my analogy has been lost on you, allow me to spell it out more clearly. If you wait until after people have died to try to have a valuable relationship with them, it is MUCH harder to do.



What about contacts? The way things turned out for me, thanks to technical ineptitude and the lack of foresight on my part, when my contacts updated on my phone, I got hundreds of names and email addresses from everyone I had ever emailed through my Outlook account, a majority of which are useless now.

The cell phone numbers that I actually wanted and needed were nowhere to be found.

I now have to delete a whole bunch of useless stuff, and I need to email a bunch of people and ask them for their cell phone numbers again.

So I got a lot of stuff I don’t want, and the stuff I want, I need to actually work to get, even though I already had it before.

This is kind of like having to go through all of the files and documents of a deceased relative, while never having had the benefit of the personal introductions to people who were important to the family.


Lesson Summary

  1. Whatever happens, it could be worse. Phone issues are preferable to concussions
  1. To have a back up, you actually have to DO a back up.
  1. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.

Please realize what you have and figure out how to preserve it. And I’m not just talking about your phone.  There are so many things that the NextGen and the NowGen need to work at transfering.

Better get started today.

Thinking Outside the Boxing Day Special

I have been writing and posting my blog here each and every week for over four years now. It is a source of pride for me to be consistently present, always thinking, sharing and prodding, while hopefully also being thought-provoking and entertaining.

Because I post my blogs on my website,, on the weekend (usually Sunday) and then send them out to subscribers via MailChimp on Mondays, this week represents a bit of a challenge, or opportunity, because of Christmas.

When I realized that this week’s edition would be emailed out on Boxing Day, the opportunity became one of capitalizing on some clever wordplay in the subject line. I came up with the “thinking outside the box” part a few weeks ago, and knew that I wanted to use it with Boxing Day.

Of course the clever title really should fit the subject of the blog, at least loosely, which brings up another challenge. I acknowledge that there have been occasional posts where the content and the headline were not exactly aligned.


Who’s in Charge here?

The only one I have to blame for any of the shortcomings that occur in this space is, of course, myself, as I am the author, editor, publisher, scheduler, idea person, researcher (not that there is a lot of that going on) and person responsible for what I put out here.

It is tempting to try to listen more to people who have ideas and suggestions for me on ways to make this blog more popular. I am thrilled to know that there are people who read my stuff and the feedback that I get is almost universally positive, and that helps keep me motivated. Truthfully, though, I think I would continue to write every week even if nobody read my stuff, simply because it forces me to try to clarify my thoughts.

There are people who have given me ideas on how to grow my audience faster, and I have even tried a few of them. There are also some “tricks” that others have suggested which do not fit with the way I do things, to which I have said “thanks, but no thanks”.


Write what YOU love

This week while on Twitter, I came across a post from a writer I follow who said something along the lines of, “The fastest way to Crazy Town is to try to write stuff that you think people will like”. He went on to say that you need to write what you like, and hope enough other people agreed.

Now that guy was more of a traditional “writer”, who writes pieces for magazines and such, not some guy who is actually a subject matter “expert” of sorts, who writes a blog on his website to reinforce his credibility.

There are people to whom I pay good money to help me with my online presence, and they have given me ideas that are really hard to logically ignore. I am slowly trying to integrate some of their suggestions, but I cannot lose sight of the idea that if I ever stop writing what I love, it will surely be the beginning of the end of this for me.

So I am not sure what the true “outside the box” part is here; is the “box” the formula for quickly adding subscribers, and outside the box is just writing from my heart, a.k.a. the adventures of Steve? Or is it the other way around?


Families? Or their advisors?

This makes me think about the other line I try to straddle, the one about my ultimate target audience. My marketing folks continually ask if I am writing for families, or the professional advisors who serve them. My answer is always “yes”.

Maybe for this week the “box” was writng a blog with a family business angle, and the outside part, and also the “special” part, was just writing a “stream-of-consciousness” blog, since it is the holidays and lots of people are going to miss it anyways.

I love writing this blog, I love getting feedback on it, I love getting new subscribers. I hope you enjoy it, I hope you will forward it to friends and colleagues. I will be back next week, and the week after that, etc.

Thanks for reading, please stick around for 52 more in 2017. Oh, and please tell your friends.


How the Holiday Season can affect your family Unity

Christmas Presence > Christmas Presents

I’m a big fan of clever wording, so as the holidays approached and I got the idea of “presence” for a blog post, I could not help myself, and absolutely had to make the point about the difference between “gifts” and “being there”.

When we are young, getting presents for Christmas can preoccupy our minds. As we get older, the question of just who is going to show up to celebrate the holidays with us becomes more important.

Between the stage of life where we wonder what Santa will bring us, and that where the number of grandchildren who will be there becomes key, the idea of presence shows up more often than you might think.


Listening and Presence

As someone who works with members of different generations in families, I can tell you that one thing that is often missing is good communication. Now do you suppose most of that is because people don’t speak well, or because their listening skills are deficient?

Learning to listen to people is more than simply making sure that your ears are tuned in to their voice. In fact, as much true listening happens with your eyes, and real listening even goes right to your heart.

Listening, especially to those family members for whom we spend so much time working hard to grow our business and wealth, is something most of us could work on and do better.

In order to listen with your ears, your eyes, and your heart, you really have to be present, with all of your senses tuned in. In the log run, the parents’ presence in the lives of their children is worth more than the presents they give them for Christmas and birthdays.


Finding your Gift

Speaking of presents in the form of “gifts”, this is another area where parents can be truly helpful to their offspring. I am talking here about the idea of each person finding their gift, i.e. what makes them special.

There are still far too many families where the leading generation sees their children more in terms of resources for their business, instead of a more traditional parental role of helping them find their way in the world, following their natural gifts and abilities.


Who is invited; Who shows up 

Many families spend a great deal of time preparing everyone for roles in the business, and not enough do the work to get everyone prepared for their roles in the family.

Family businesses usually have some basic governance in place to run their operations, but the family group itself can always benefit from some basic governance of its own.

It seems like more and more families are getting this message, and many are doing it the smart way and having an independent outsider take the lead in making sure that things are done the right way.

Figuring out whom to invite to family meetings can be tricky, and wondering what to do if some choose not to come to the meetings are issues that arise. Having someone who is not emotionally attached can help navigate these questions and get the necessary momentum started.


Being there > Sending a gift

Woody Allen said that 80% of success is showing up, and this can apply to many family situations too. If you don’t believe me, don’t go visit your mother for Christmas and just send a gift instead. Presence > Presents.

This brings up another Christmas related statement I like. People ask me how a family puts a value on the kind of work that I bring with my presence in their family processes.

One of my replies is that it is really hard to put a dollar figure on it. And I then add, “How do you put a value on Christmas visits, if one of your children shows up and decides to drive around for a bit until Uncle Bob has left.”

Everyone’s presence, for the parents, is the best present. I should not have to add that having everyone there simultaneously is assumed to be ideal, as opposed to showing up in shifts.

Family fortunes that fall apart are also a great gift, for the lawyers.

Be there, be present, listen, and communicate. Plan for the family, not just the business.



Advice to get a family more coordinated

Helping Uncoordinated Families

I am not sure what it is about my brain, but it will often catch a word in one context, completely forget about it for weeks, and then light up like a fireworks show later when that word surfaces again in a different context.

The word will then dominate my thinking for a while, until I write a blog about it. Thanks for coming along for the ride as we deal with this week’s word, “coordination”.


Advisors: Cooperate or Collaborate?

As an advisor to business families, I am forever alert to the goings on in this space, and there’s lots of talk about how professionals who serve families should work less in their individual silos, and much more collaboratively.

I believe in this, of course, yet I am also realistic in my understanding that this is a tall order for many professionals who simply don’t know how to actually do this well, and for whom the short-term negatives will often seem to outweigh the associated positives.

Some like-minded professionals have put lots of work into trying to define the benefits of working collaboratively, as illustrated by this great NAEPC white paper.

I first learned of this document in July, at a breakout session during the annual Rendez-Vous of the Purposeful Planning Institute, where collaboration was shown to go much further than simple cooperation.

Cooperation should be a given between your advisors, but full collaboration may be a step too far for many. There was also some talk about coordination, as an intermediate place.

The word coordination stuck with me, since acting as a “coordinator” is something I already do while working with the members of the family.


Bowen Family Systems Theory

This week, I was in Washington, taking part in the Postgraduate Training Program at the Bowen Center at Georgetown University. Our early morning presenter on each of the three days was Dr. Dan Papero, and as usual he did not disappoint.

He presented some of his views on “Differentiation (of Self) from the ground up”, and along the way, there it was again, the magic word, “coordination”.

The specific context of which he spoke it is now a blur to me, but the jist of the idea was that in a family system, coordination was something to be aspired to. So there it was again!

My head began to spin with the concept of coordinating not just the advisors who work with families, but the members of the family themselves.


Clarity, Clarity, Clarity

The word “clarity” has also been front and center in my brain lately, and it struck me that coordination and clarity have somewhat of a symbiotic relationship.

Wait, what?

One of the biggest hurdles that a family must overcome to get their generational wealth transition “done right” is getting everyone on the same page, i.e. having a shared clear picture of what is at stake and what needs to be done.

When I am asked how I can help such families, providing better clarity is usually my top answer.

Once the picture of what needs to be done is clear, the work of organizing the family’s structures and governance then begins in earnest, but this work does not just magically happen.

You guessed it, that work must be coordinated.

The family’s work must be clear and coordinated, but much like the chicken and the egg, we can never be sure which one comes first.


Back to the Three Circle Model

It is is complex because it combines the three areas of the family, the business, and the ownership (see The Three Circle Model) and these three also share in the “which comes first?” dilemma.


Clarity before Coordination or Vice Versa?

Families who undertake the work required to achieve some family alignment will be better coordinated and therefore be much more clear on the work to be done.

And families who are clear on what needs to be done will find it easier to coordinate this work.

Some families are naturally better at this than others, but most could benefit from outside help.

The families that I had in mind when I titled this piece shall of course remain nameless. Hopefully they do not rhyme with your family name.

Most families are not nearly as coordinated as they could be or should be. Clarity, from an outside perspective, can be an enormous help.


Family Communication - How to handle mis-undestandings

No, YOU Don’t Understand!

No, YOU Don’t Understand!

This week I attended a presentation at a local University’s Family Business Center.

The guest speaker was a local legal professional from a well-known firm, and she was there to talk about things that business owners need to pay attention to when doing the legal end of their estate planning.

As she regaled us with her stories, a certain phrase came up a couple of times. When I heard it the first time, I was mildly amused. When I heard it again, I knew that it was going to be the subject of this week’s blog post.

The scenarios were the same each time. During her discussions with clients, at one point the client would say, “No, Janet, you don’t understand…”.


Who doesn’t understand whom?

After listening to the client’s explanation of what she did not seem to “get”, she would turn it around and retort with “No, YOU don’t understand”.

In my experience with families, these kinds of exchanges take place quite often, and they happen at several levels.

They happen within the family, between members of different generations, and also within groups of the same generation, such as ia sibling group.

They are also common between the family (or its representative) and its outside advisors.

When these types of exchanges take place, there is nothing inherently bad about them, at least on the surface. I am reminded of the phrase, “It’s not what happens to you that is important, it’s what you do about it”.


OK, so NOW what?

When the person who comes back with the “No YOU don’t understand” then goes on to lay down the law and force their viewpoint on the others, despite what others believe and understand and agree to, there will likely be problems down the road.

The best case scenario for this type of exchange is one where the family representative is dealing with an advisor and it is the family leader who concludes that they are not being well served, who then concludes with “And that’s why I am going to find myself a better advisor”.

The whole “I understand and you don’t” is so “I am smart and you are ignorant”, and “I know what is best and you must obey”, and it really has no place either within a business family or between a family and their advisors.


The Search for Clarity

One of my new favourite words is CLARITY. When someone asks what I can bring to their family situation, it has become my go-to first response. I will help bring clarity to the members of the family system.

Clarity, in my view, is not really much more than a common understanding. First, the family needs to be sure that they have a common understanding of where they are today.

People are sometimes tempted to rush into figuring out where they want to go, and I usually need to slow them down and make sure that they all know where they actually are first.

Once they all undestand and agree about where they are, then we can look at where they want to go, and of course, how they can get there. This will also require clarity, or, put another way, common understanding.


Inside the Family First, then Outside

Then, and ONLY then, should there be a meeting among the family’s advisors, again for clarity, i.e. common understanding.

Far too often I see situations where the outside experts are brought in with ready-made “solutions” (i.e. products and services) before anyone has done the work on becoming clear on what is required in that unique family’s situation.

Bringing clarity to a family is hard work and it takes time, but it can be done. Successful multi-generation families have figured that out.


FOR yourselves, Not BY yourselves

Here is what it boils down to:

As a family, you need to figure it out FOR yourselves, but that doesn’t mean that you have to figure it out BY yourselves.

You will likely need some outside help, but the person who helps you will be a process person, not a product person.

Achieving family clarity on “where they are now” and “where they are going together” is what it is all about, and the journey to get there is at least as important as the result.

But it doesn’t just happen by itself.



Harnessing the NextGen in the FamBiz


Twin sisters riding horses in the sunset by the sea on the island of Ada Bojana, Montenegro

While attending the annual conference of the Family Firm Institute in Miami, one of of the breakout sessions contained a kind of A-Ha moment for me.

It was not a “knock your socks off” A-Ha, but enough to stimulate a blog post, which may not be a very high hurdle, considering I write one of these posts every week. Alas, it contained a “juicy tidbit” that struck me as worth pursuing here.

Now an FFI conference will always feature several well-known family business experts sharing their thoughts, but my little A-Ha occurred during a session where the presenter was relatively unknown, as he was not a FamBiz guy, but a branding expert.

It was Paul Bay, an L.A. Dodgers fan from London (!), which I learned at the opening cocktail the evening before his presentation. His typical get-up includes a three-piece suit and a pair of sneakers. I guess that’s part of his brand, and it was working for him.


A Branding A-Ha?

If you’re hoping my A-Ha had to do with branding, you’ll be disappointed, because that wasn’t it. It was all about the harness. The harness? Well actually, the verb, “(to) harness”.

As I write this, I am trying to recall how the slide with the word “harness” at the top actually fit into his branding talk, and I am at a loss. I did, however, take a picture of the slide in response to my internal A-Ha.

Down the left side of the Powerpoint slide were the words “Guide, Direct, Govern, Constrain, Control, Hold Back”.

On the right-hand side were “Involve, Collaborate, Gain, Be Guided, Be Inspired, Be Directed”.

This was the first time that I ever thought about the fact that there are two sides to the harness coin. (Insert “A-Ha” here)


Harnessing in the FamBiz

When you think about the “NextGen” in a family business, the way the family looks at what they are harnessing, and why they are trying to harness it, you can easily see that it can go both ways. How they harness it becomes key.

The positive side of harnessing, “involving, collaborating, gaining, etc.” looks at ways that the family can take the talents and inputs of the rising generation and put them to positive use, to grow the family capital and the strengths of the business.

On the other end of the spectrum, “constrain, control, hold back, etc.” you have a host of actions that unfortunately also occur in too many family businesses.


Wild Horses on my Mind

So I began thinking about wild horses and what it must have been like when the first brave souls came upon them and were motivated to try to harness them.

Horses, even wild ones, do not seem the type of animal that would need to be harnessed to dampen any negatives of their behaviour. I can only imagine that the power and strength they exhibited was seen as worth the trouble and danger of attempting to harness them in the first place.

So if you have a business family, and there is a rising generation that is coming of age, how are you looking at harnessing what they can bring to the table?


Horses with Potential and Passion

Some horses are easier to harness than others, and I can only imagine that those who are identified as having great potential will often be those for whom the time and effort are the most worthwhile.

Few of us have the skills of a Dr. Doolittle, to actually speak “horse” to find out just what a particular equine has a passion for (Math? 2 + 1 = Clop, clop, clop! Good girl, here’s a carrot.)


Questions and Conversations

Every parent actually speaks a language that their children understand, but not enough of them will take the time and make the effort to have the conversations (plural) necessary to ask the important questions, like:

  • Do you have a passion to contribute to the business?
  • Do you have a passion to contribute to the family?
  • What human capital do you already have, and what are you prepared to develop, to contribute?
  • Is there a “harness” that fits you so comfortably that you will feel happy and motivated to wear it proudly?

THEIR passion is the key to good harnessing.