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toy train derailing

5 Things that Can De-Rail a Family Business

5 Things that Can De-Rail a Family Business

It’s been a few months since my last “5 Things” blog, so this might be overdue.

While I usually deal in positives because it’s my nature, this week we’re going to look at some potential pitfalls that many family businesses face.

Let’s get started.

 

  1. Assumptions

The word “assumptions” that I chose here might surprise some, but I wanted a word that stood on its own, without requiring a negating adjective.

So while I could have said “Poor Communications”, I chose instead to look at what IS there, as opposed to what is NOT.

The reason many families don’t think that they need to talk is because they actually assume that everyone else in the family knows what they are thinking, AND that everyone is in agreement.

That often turns out to be wishful thinking at best, and hides serious misunderstandings at its worst.

 

  1. Bad Timing

Another issue that can de-rail things is that family members from different generations will often have different views regarding timing.

I call it “bad timing” but it’s really about poor alignment of timing, different priorities around timing, and just plain waiting too long to get started on things that are important.

The rising generation needs to step into roles with a long runway so that they can learn while the elders are still there.

More often than not, the elders hang on way too long, telling themselves that the “kids aren’t ready yet”.

That usually has much more to do with their own sense of importance than anything else.

 

  1. “Us-against-the–World” Attitude

Business families are notorious for keeping things very close to the vest and having great difficulty trusting any outsiders.

They often think that they’re the only ones in the world who have family issues to contend with as they run their businesses.

They wrongly believe that everyone else is “out to get them” and have trouble trusting anyone who happens to have a different last name.

This can be harmful in terms of attracting good employees, qualified advisors, and of course eventually outside independent directors for their board.

 

  1. Jealousy and Superiority Complexes

You had to know that I’d eventually get to something in the area of sibling relationships, and here I’ve chosen to label it as jealousy.

When there’s a lack of harmony in sibling relationships, quite often it can be traced to some jealousy issues.

And even when one sibling isn’t really jealous, sparks can come from what I like to call someone’s “superiority complex”.

I’m not sure if that’s even a real term, but I like to use it as the opposite of the more familiar “inferiority complex”.

When a sibling occupies a leadership position in the business vis-à-vis their siblings, it brings about some potential difficulties, like jealousy, for example.

A humble sibling leader will face less issues with this, than one who boasts about his relative place with his generational peers.

 

  1. Stagnation

Family businesses can become stodgy and complacent with time and not quick enough to innovate. Lack of foresight and getting out in front of industry changes can become a problem.

This often accompanies the bad timing noted above, where the younger family members know that things need to change, but aren’t able to convince the current leaders that changes are needed to be profitable in the future.

 

Wait, Where’s “Conflict”?

Just guessing here, but I assume that some readers may be surprised that “Conflict” did not make my list.

It certainly isn’t because conflict doesn’t exist in business families, nor because I don’t think conflict needs to be addressed.

Of course conflict is an issue, and it exists in almost every family business. But, in and of itself, conflict won’t de-rail a family business.

Unresolvable conflict, due to an unwillingness to work on resolving it, can certainly be a huge risk.

Likewise, unexpressed conflict that lays beneath the surface for years or decades has certainly sunk more than one family business.

 

Manage the Conflicts, Look Out for the Other Five

Conflict can be healthy (see: Embracing Conflict in Family Business), so I suggest concentrating on the other five areas.

No. 3, only trusting insiders, can be the biggest one.

Regular, honest, open communication is the best antidote to all of these.

Recognizing everyone’s interdependence is probably the “magic bullet”, if there is one.

 

What keeps you up at night?

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

Someone playing ganja and one of the blocks has governance written on it

FamBiz: Management vs. Governance

FamBiz: Management vs. Governance

In a family business, there can often be confusion around the questions surrounding the management of the business, and the separate, but equally important area of its governance.

I see it in many places with family clients and this post will hopefully help clarify the differences.

 

Management = Day-to-Day

Management of the business starts with all of the day-to-day actions and decisions that it takes to keep the business running.

It’s about what you can see happening in many areas, and it usually involves all of the activities that are done by the vast majority of the employees.

The management of any business is all about the short-term execution of the company doing what the company has decided its business is.

 

Who Decided?

So in case you didn’t notice, the key word in the last sentence is “decided”. I purposely said that “the company decided”, but in reality it isn’t decided by “the company”.

There are people who “govern” the company and what it does, and then the managers of the company implement those decisions via their management functions.

But then that just begs the next question, which is, who gets to decide? And then there’s another level of that, which I‘ve already addressed here: “Who gets to decide who gets to decide?”

 

Corporations Are Easier

In contrast to a family business, if we look at a big corporation, things are pretty clear. The shareholders elect the board of directors, who decide who the management will be.

There are plenty of layers and checks and balances and there are formal structures and procedures in place to guide all of these decisions.

In a family business, well, usually, not so much.

 

Informal Governance

I used the word “formal” intentionally just there, because it reminds me of the expression I like to keep in mind:

“Formality is your Friend” 

I need to thank Ruth Steverlynck, one of the instructors in the Family Enterprise Advisor Program, for that expression. I’ve used it a lot and will continue to do so.

Family businesses often resist formality because they don’t want it to slow them down. Sometimes it’s simply the founder who has a preference for flying by the seat of his pants.

 

Governance sounds Formal

Regular readers will be familiar with my personal struggles with the word “governance”, and the fact that I have a sort of “love-hate” relationship with it.

It sounds almost TOO formal, to the point where it can actually scare people off.

I try to soften it by repeating that you don’t necessarily have to be overly formal, and that any governance you choose to put in place is best done incrementally.

 

Constitutional Crisis

I read a lot of stuff from the academic field of family business and I see people using the term “Family Constitution” a lot lately. A family constitution CAN be a great thing for a family to have.

BUT, and it’s a huge but, that shouldn’t be the place that you start the governance process.

In fact, I personally would probably never even mention the term “constitution” during my first year of working with a family.

 

Management Confusion

Sometimes company management acts as if they are also in charge of governance, because, well, frankly, they can.

But a family business is a complex system, involving not only the business, but also the family, and the ownership.

These interdependent systems are where some formality and definition of roles and responsibilities comes in.

In fact, the part about figuring out, deciding, and writing down who decides which questions is what governance is all about.

 

Clarity goes a Long Way

There can be lots of ambiguous situations in a family business, and when things aren’t clear, people step on each other’s toes a lot, which can create conflict.

It’s important to clarify which groups of people will be responsible for which decisions.

But sometimes that’s really hard to do.

It really needs to be “hashed out” as a group. Some “horse trading” and compromises may end up needing to happen too.

 

“Don’t Try This at Home”

What can happen is that families will try to work these things out by themselves and end up making things worse.

An independent person, who has no stake in the systems, can go a long way to making these discussions more productive, and more civil! It’s worth trying.

 

Boss vs Leader written on a chalk board

The “Leader” Versus the “Boss”

The “Leader” Versus the “Boss”

If you go to any bookstore (almost seems quaint to imagine that these days) you will see lots of books on the subject of leadership.

You will find very few books on being “The Boss”, and any time the word “boss” is used, it’s usually in a negative sense.

I like to think that there’s been an evolution in the way organisations are managed over the past few decades, from one generation to the next.

The old fashioned “tell them what to do, and if they don’t do it, tell them again, only louder” seems like it was almost normal in the 70’s but today, well, not so much.

 

Family Business Version

The idea for this post came from a discussion with some members of a family business, who were talking about a relative of theirs whose management style they were less than enthralled with.

“He doesn’t want to be a leader, he just wants to be the boss”.

I really appreciated the phrasing used, as I had never heard those terms juxtaposed that way, and it was pretty clear what he was driving at.

 

A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

So I quickly put this idea into my “future blogs” file and let it simmer for a few weeks. This week I pulled it out and dusted it off, and then looked for a photo to accompany it on Shutterstock.

Lo and behold, I stumbled across more wisdom. There was a picture of something nondescript, along with these words:

A Boss says : “Go”

A Leader says: “Let’s Go”

This reminded me of a quote of mine that my social media team likes to send out on Twitter and LinkedIn, “Telling people what to do is actually one of the worst ways to get them to do something”.

 

Leading from the Front, or the Back?

The old style of leadership was almost always “from the front”, but then we started hearing and reading about “leading from behind”.

I like the symbolism of these words, because you can almost imagine a group of people and a leader positioned in a certain place, even though the physical positioning may never happen that way in real life.

Then there’s leading from the middle, which almost feels like it might be the best place, because that’s where you’re actually the closest to the greatest number of “followers”.

But I’m not even sure if leading from the middle is “a thing” or if I just made it up (?)

 

What’s the Issue, Anyway?

When we talk about this boss vs leader issue, what does it really boil down to?

If we just look at the family business scenario that inspired this post, it seems like it comes down to these two points:

  • Autocratic decision making
  • Brusk communication style

There are surely other things that cause dissatisfaction among the followers, but “fixing” just these two would go a long way to improving morale.

 

Generation to Generation

Earlier I mentioned the 70’s, and I’d guess that there were more autocratic bosses then than now. But there were surely some collaborative leaders then too.

Nowadays, there are more true “leaders”, but that doesn’t mean that there are no longer any “bosses” still around, just less of them.

Family Business Dilemmas

The family business version of this issue is of course more complex. Exits are not as simple and other family “baggage” can make it even trickier.

The flip side is that there are lots of leadership roles in a business family, and one of the biggest mistakes some families make is having the same person fill too many of these roles.

 

Three Circles, Three Systems, Three Leaders?

The Three Circle Model shows us that there are three systems at play in a family business: Family, Business, and Ownership.

Each system can and probably should have a “leader”, and it really doesn’t have to be the same person.

In fact, I recommend that families try to avoid having the same individual occupy more than one role.

Collective Responsibility

With different people assuming different leadership roles, the possibility of developing a sense of “collective responsibility” is heightened, and that’s a good thing.

In fact, getting all of the key people to understand that they truly are interdependent can go a long way to improving relationships.

Can this be learned? I sure believe so, but the right attitude is key!

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.

Women in a work enviroment

Lessons Learned from Women in Family Business

Guest blog from Kim Harland – Thanks Kim!

Lessons Learned from Women in Family Business

Family businesses account for 50%–80% of all jobs in a majority of countries worldwide.[1] And it seems women are leading the way, doing far better in leadership and management positions in family businesses than those in the non-family business sector. For example, 80% of family-owned businesses have at least one female director whereas only 17.7% of companies in the FTSE 100 have female directors.[2]

To celebrate the key role women play in family businesses, we spoke to a number of leading ladies and asked them to share their advice on range of topics plus give you a few tips on how to apply them to your family business.

 

What makes family business successful?

Across the board, all the women we spoke to felt three important principles underpin family business success – communication, a clear family vision and trust.

According to Lea Boyce, a key advisor at Boyce Family Office (5th generation family business), family businesses also have a crucial competitive advantage over the corporate sector – their nimbleness.

“While non-family businesses are busy having layers of meetings, a family in business has made the decision, got family buy in, done the deal and moved onto the next opportunity. As a result, they are able to be more entrepreneurial,” she says.

Another factor vital to family business success is the induction process for the next generation of family owners. On this topic, Priyanka Gupta Zielinski (author and executive director at MPIL Steel Structures Ltd, a 2nd generation family business), has some important advice.

“As you bring your daughter or son into the business, remember that you are unsettling an existing framework – things will change and you have to be willing to let them. It is important to let your children make their own mistakes. Sometimes their screw-ups will be of enormous magnitude – but remember, at least the worst is happening while you’ve got their back,” she says. “Whenever possible, help your children calculate and mitigate the risk without taking away their sense of ownership of the project.”

 

Your family business check-up

  1. Do you have a formal structure to allow open and honest communication as a family group?
  2. Has your family group articulated and documented shared business and family goals?
  3. Are you harnessing the opportunities presented by your next generation?

What’s the biggest challenge for women in family business?
Many of the women we spoke to believe the greatest challenge they face in business is the struggle to be taken seriously.

Lea says when it comes to families, patriarchy remains the dominant world view so when clients encounter a matriarch running the business they find it very confronting and challenging.

Priyanka feels that even in 2017, there is still a lack of role models for women in business. But she has an interesting idea for change.

“What is needed is a community of feminist men in family businesses who help women along the way by challenging the opinions of other men,” she says.

 

Your family business check-up

  1. Look for role models within your own or other family businesses.
  2. Consider a mentor – it is always helpful to work with others who have been there before you.
  3. Keep in mind that many women in family businesses can draw great inspiration from the men in their lives – their fathers, brothers and husbands.


The benefit of hindsight.

Everyone loves a bit of hindsight and when asked what advice they would give to their 25- year-old selves, our interviewees provided some excellent food for thought.

Looking back, Sara Pantaleo – CEO of 2nd generation family business La Porchetta – has this counsel for young women.

“Fight for what you believe. Gender doesn’t matter so just go for it. Don’t be mediocre. Strive to achieve. I sometimes see amazing, intelligent young women just accept things and I think that’s quite sad.”

Finally, Corrina, a 6th generation member of the Oliver winemaking family, suggests reflecting on one’s partner to see how they can help – rather than hinder – your family business.

“Recognise the key role your husband plays in enabling you to succeed in business and life – with support, not competition or jealousy, and contributing his share to the family.”

 

Your family business check-up

  1. What can you learn from the elders in your family? Ask your older family members the same question we did – “What advice would you give to a 25-year-old version of yourself?’ You might be pleasantly surprised at the answers and what they can do for your business.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these Insights from a few prominent women in family businesses. We have recently published our “Women in Family Business E-book”. If you’d like to learn a bit more about what we do, head over to our website.

[1] Global Data Points, Family Firm Institute, http://www.ffi.org/?page=globaldatapoints, accessed 18/10/17

[2] Imperial College Business School, Leeds University Business School and Durham University Business School, http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_22-5-2013-12-0-36 , Accessed 4/10/17

Horse shoe with a 4 leaf clover and a lady bug

Genetics, Luck, and Karma: Secrets to FamBiz Success

Genetics, Luck, and Karma: Secrets to FamBiz Success

People ask me where my blog ideas come from, because I find something different to write about each week. My answer: “anywhere and everywhere”.

This week it’s from watching Jeopardy, and one of Alex Trebek’s brief interviews with the contestants.

 

Top 5 of All Time

A bartender named Austin Rogers had a fantastic run recently, running up over $400,000 in winnings in just over two weeks, which placed him in the top 5 of all time Jeopardy winners.

After he had accumulated some sizeable winnings, Alex asked the likeable young man from New York to what he attributed the success he’d been having on the show.

His honest reply struck me as quite refreshing:

“Genetics, Luck, and Karma.”

 

Fits with Family Business Success Too

 I couldn’t help think how nicely these three elements fit with family business success too.

I realize this isn’t necessarily obvious, but hey, that’s why I write these blogs, to share my thoughts on just this kind of thing. Let’s take them one at a time.

 

Genetics

The family business angle fits pretty clearly with the genetics comment. “He sure seems to take after his Dad”.

Yes, indeed, we do inherit many traits from our parents, and in a thriving family business, the hope is usually that the next generation will have many of the same positive characteristics that made the parents successful.

Problems can arise though, when the children have different positive traits, and clashes can happen when the generations don’t see eye-to-eye on everything.

 

Luck

Luck is a bit harder to get agreement on. Successful people like to think that they alone are responsible for their company doing well, and in most cases that’s true, but it’s only part of the formula.

I can’t help think that luck has more influence on how things turn out than most people acknowledge.

Yes, I’m quite familiar with the expressions “You make your own luck” and “The harder I work, the luckier I seem to get”, and they resonate nicely with me too.

But, for every business person who blames failure on “bad luck”, there’s probably another who should be thanking “good luck” for their success.

 

Karma

If you think that luck was a difficult concept to grasp, let’s move on to karma, and try our luck there.

Let’s start with a quick Google search, which turned up this nugget:

          Karma (car-ma) is a word meaning the result of a person’s actions as well as the actions       themselves. It is a term about the cycle of cause and effect. According to the theory of Karma, what happens to a person, happens because they caused it with their actions.

That wasn’t exactly what I thought my search would turn up, but who the heck am I to argue with Google? That might not bring me good karma. (See what I did there?)

A lot of different things come to my mind when I think about karma. The “Golden Rule”, and “Do unto others” are a couple of them.

I also think about humility, and not acting like you’re better than everyone else, because that probably won’t create good karma.

 

Humble and Kind

The Karma idea made me flash back to a blog post from June 2016, Humble and Kind, in which I wrote:

And if you do start out humble and kind when you are young, how did you get that way? My guess is that most of it comes from your parents and the example they set.

When family businesses fall apart, it is usually in large part because of family conflict, so what happened to the humility and the kindness?

When I first thought about Karma and family business, I thought about in the ways that the business interacts with customers, suppliers, and competitors; you know, the outside interactions.

But now that I’ve re-read the excerpt from that blog, it makes me realize that the internal Karma, within the family, is probably even more important.

Teaching your children about karma brings good karma.

 

Something to Think About

Back to Austin, our Jeopardy contestant. He eventually lost a game and was dethroned, but his reaction seemed to fit with his penchant for keeping the karma gods happy.

He was last seen laughing and high-fiving the woman who beat him.

His luck might’ve run out, but his karma was going strong.

Family Business meeting where there is confusion between members

You Look Concerned. Or Are You Just Confused?

You Look Concerned. Or Are You Just Confused?

This week I want to look at the question of clarity.

My premise is that when you can see things clearly, there are plenty of potential benefits, so taking the time to make sure that you are truly seeing things clearly is usually well worth it.

Family businesses are full of ambiguous situations that can often exist for years or even decades. Many roles and responsibilities are poorly defined, but somehow, sometimes almost miraculously, things still manage to get done.

Family businesses are notoriously resilient.

 

Communication Breakdown

One of the major challenges that most business families face is clear communication. It has always been that way, and probably always will be.

Of course each person has their own communication style, and some are simply better at it than others.

When I work with a family, I’ll often spend more time at the outset just working with them to make sure that they all really understand each other than on anything else.

I also believe that just about anyone can improve their communication abilities, if they want to. Part of my job is usually to make them understand why it’s worth their effort to do so.

 

It Starts at the Top – But…

We’ve all heard that everything important starts at the top. I agree with that, in general, but that doesn’t mean that if you aren’t the one at the top, there’s nothing you can do.

Communication is a two-way street. To me, that means that the “sender” and the “receiver” of any communication have a responsibility to make sure that the message was understood.

One of my favourite expressions is this one, is attributed to George Bernard Shaw:

“The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

 

Allow Me to Clarify

Now, in the interest of being “ultra” clear, I will try to make sure that everyone reading this understands what this means.

The biggest problem with communication is that very often the person who has spoken or written something truly believes that the person to whom they were speaking or writing actually received and understood the message as it was intended.

Unfortunately, far too often, in reality, the person either did not receive the message, or they got it, but didn’t understand it.

I personally drive my family members crazy sometimes with my obsession to handle my end of any communication. “Did you hear me? Could you please acknowledge that you understood?”

 

Getting Back to Confused Versus Concerned

The idea for this blog came from seeing someone’s face and trying to evaluate what was going on in their mind. I do this a lot, and you probably do too, even if it is only done subconsciously.

The particular situation isn’t important (and, truth be told, I don’t even recall what sparked it) but it struck me that sometimes people appear concerned about a situation, but if only they were less confused, they would end up less concerned.

 

Clear Up the Confusion

My “prescription” for many families is pretty much the same.

Clear up the confusion, the ambiguity, the “fog” and the uncertainty, and everyone will have less things about which to be “concerned”.

This is why families so often feel “stuck” in a situation and then due to inertia, they remain there.

It is usually only when something changes that they get propelled into action.

 

Shine a Light

Quite often what the family really needs is an additional perspective on things. Each person in the family is naturally preoccupied with their own situation, which they typically only see from their own viewpoint.

When they bring in a person from the outside, who can then shine the flashlight onto some of the areas of confusion and ambiguity, things get a bit more clear.

 

Shared Viewpoints

If the person with the flashlight is also skilled at facilitating a conversation around ways to determine a collective shared viewpoint that everyone can buy into, then they can really start to make progress.

The word “consternation” came up when I was thinking through this “confused vs concerned” idea. I wondered why the word “consterned” doesn’t exist. Maybe I just invented it.

So, if you are consterned with things going on in your family business, I suggest that you work on ways to clarify things first.

When things are clearer, you’ll have fewer things to be concerned about.

Different shapes and forms of tents

Combining Strategy and Structure for Families

Combining Strategy and Structure for Families

I got an email a few weeks ago, inviting me to an upcoming Family Office conference, and the wording of the subject line caught my eye.

Now that my thinking on the issue has gelled in my head, I’ll try to turn it into a useful blog post. Here goes.

 

Strategy AND Structure

Let’s begin with the email subject line, so that you’ll get the context:

“Essential structures & strategies from leading families”

The event itself was billed as a “Family Office and Investment Conference”, but the tease in the subject line had succeeded in intriguing me to believe that they might be talking about topics that are much more up my alley (i.e. family issues)

When it comes time to plan the transition of a family’s wealth from one generation to the next, a lot of effort is usually put into finding the best way to structure things.

There are many different ways to accomplish the goal of transitioning the ownership of assets from the current owners to the future ones, and the choice of which way to go will often be driven by the family’s advisors, who each have their particular favourite techniques and structures.

The family client relies on advice from these trusted experts, who are believed to know what they are doing, and strictly speaking, they usually do.

So what’s my issue with this? I’m glad you asked.

 

The “What” Shouldn’t Come First

A family faced with this scenario is really only going to do this once per generation, and few families are experts in knowing exactly what they want, or even knowing what’s possible.

The tactical experts who advise them are just that, “tactical”, they specialize in the “what”, and when a client shows up looking for help, the expert will almost always go back to the “tried and true”.

But what if they’re pulling an old structure off the shelf that they used before for another client whose situation was completely different?

Too few advisors will take the time necessary to explore the “why” questions with their client families, and to think in terms of the overall family strategy, in order to make sure that “what” they are proposing actually makes the most sense.

 

“Why” Should Precede “What”

It’s really useful for the family to have the important planning discussions amongst themselves to plan strategy before engaging the outside structure experts.

As I wrote back in March, in “We Treat Them All Equally – (That’s Good, Right?)”, these discussions are not necessarily done quickly or easily, but they sure are important and worthwhile.

You may be curious as to my selection of the image I chose to accompany this post, perhaps wondering “what’s with all the different tents”? Each of them is a structure, and they are all different, some of them markedly so.

 

Are We All In This Together?

In “Going Far, Go Together” I wrote about families that are planning to stay together for the long term.

What I didn’t stress at the time was the actual question that the family needs to clarify beforehand, i.e. does the next generation of the family WANT to stay tied together, and continue to work together as a shared ownership group.

Too often there is a presumption that the answer to this question is YES, and when that happens you can end up with siblings who are forced into partnership with each other.

If such a scenario is going to turn into a disaster because of the family dynamics, wouldn’t it be better to figure that out in advance, and not go down that road?

 

Strategy Before Structure

At the risk of harping on this too much, I’ll say it again. Before you decide on the best structures to hold the family assets for the next generation, the family needs to sort out the questions of who is on board.

It can be very tempting to choose a complex solution proposed by a tax expert who shows you to the penny how much tax you can save by going with their suggested methods, but if that solution means the next generation will be stuck in the wrong kind of tent for their trip, what was the point?

A huge tent built for the desert may not be what most of the family needs. Work out the strategy first.

 

The Forgotten Circle of Family Business

Ownership: The Forgotten Circle of Family Business

Ownership: The Forgotten Circle of Family Business

On the back of my business card, I’ve got a colourful depiction of the Three-Circle-Model that I often use to initiate introductory discussions about the kind of work I do.

Not that it takes long to draw the Venn diagram on a napkin, pad, or placemat, but since I was struck by its simplicity when I was first exposed to it, I now enjoy sharing the insights it can bring.

 

History Lesson

Harvard’s Renato Tagiuri and John A. Davis came up with the model in the 1980’s when they realized that the old “Two-Circle” version was incomplete.

It was always clear that the Family and the Business overlapped, but it was the addition of the Ownership circle that added an “A-Ha” factor.

 

In Flux Versus Static

Interestingly, while the Family and the Business are both pretty much in constant daily flux, the Ownership is usually static or fixed for decades at a time.

But when the time does come to make changes to the ownership of a family business (and it will), those changes usually affect pretty much everything and everybody.

So the term “forgotten” in the title of this blog, is meant to make the point that we don’t usually give it much thought.

But maybe we should.

 

Some Examples

Imagine a family where the senior generation still owns the business while the rising generation members have solidified their place in the day-to-day operations.

At first they will likely patiently bide their time and accept the situation and “obey” the owners’ directives. But as the years become decades, this situation can become much less palatable.

The issues that arise in this type of situation are often framed in terms of “family dynamics”, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but the best solution to the “problem” may actually come from a change to the ownership.

 

Voting Control

Sometimes families realize that ownership should transfer to the rising generation relatively early on, which often occurs at the behest of an outside expert who suggests some beneficial tax-planning strategies for making these changes.

But often the parents can’t resist the temptation to create complex share structures that allow them to maintain control.

Having ownership without control adds a complicating factor to the Three-Circle-Model.

I’m not exactly sure how to do it, but somehow a modified version of the model might be needed to illustrate those situations where ownership doesn’t include control.

But all I’m trying to do here is to illustrate ways that the ownership circle often affects many of the day-to-day family business issues, even if we don’t give it enough thought.

 

Life Events as a Catalyst

Important life events can sometimes be a catalyst to changing the ownership structure. It’s much more fun when these involve a birth or marriage than a death or divorce.

Unexpected deaths sometimes catch families by surprise and hopefully these cases serve as a poignant reminder to others to get their affairs in order “just in case”.

When there’s a long illness that precedes a death, it’s sometimes a blessing, because important moves and discussions can then take place.

Of course in some cases, family relationships are such that even when the writing is on the wall and death is imminent, the family just can’t come together and have a productive discussion and agree on how the future ownership should be structured.

 

Preparing Owners to be Owners

Luckily, for every situation where families are “stuck”, we now hear more and more about families who are working to get out in front of these situations.

Enlightened families are looking into outside coaches and/or education programs that help prepare future owners to become good owners.

While it’s true that no special training is required to own shares in a company, the people who work in the business can tell you that the ownership of the business, and how they interact with and guide the company, has a huge effect on performance.

 

It Starts at the Top

When things begin to go poorly in a business, the roots of the demise can usually be traced back to the top, and that’s the ownership.

If you’re working with a business family and there are some issues that you’re trying to put your finger on as to their source, don’t forget to ask about the current ownership structure.

There’ll often be some good clues there.

 

Photo credit: Richard Legler