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2 people disagreeing and looking in the other direction

Choosing Sides in a Family Business

Choosing Sides in a Family Business

I sometimes write about conflict management and resolution, because family businesses are rife with opportunities for clashes of personalities and ideas.

(See: Embracing Conflict in Family Business & FamBiz: Conflict is NOT an option)

But this post will be a bit different from others I’ve written in the past.

Today I want to get into a family conflict and ask readers which side they would choose in a fictitious war between two sides in a family.

 

The Guerrero Family

Vince and Walt Guerrero are the two oldest brothers in the family that owns a specialized factory in a mid-sized northern town.

Their father, Guillermo, started the business some 40 years ago and is preparing to retire, leaving the business to his four children.

Sabrina and Teresa, the two youngest siblings, used to work in the business as well, but both left because there was just too much conflict.

 

Vince’s Side or Walt’s Side?

Vince and Walt don’t exactly see eye-to-eye on many things, and each of them wants to be the new President when Dad finally retires.

Sabrina and Teresa get along very well with each other, and they both love their brothers equally, and the boys are constantly trying to get their sisters on their side of every issue.

Which side should they choose?

 

A Common Scenario

While the scenario I just described is actually quite typical, the question that I’m asking you is not.

Of course, there isn’t enough information to give a reasonable answer to the question, and I already spent a couple hundred words describing it.

It’s actually a really stupid question because I’m asking you to “choose sides” when there really aren’t any sides to choose!

 

Study Group Example

One way that this post is different from my usual format is that I usually start out by giving some context to the genesis of the post, but this time I’ve saved that for here, in the middle.

I’m part of a peer study group through the Family Firm Institute (FFI) and we had a meeting recently where some of us got together to discuss a variety of topics, including some real case examples we are dealing with.

 

Conflictual Family Drama

One group member spoke about two siblings who were always in confrontations and how the other family members were always trying to decide which one of them to support.

We have a long-term FFI member who acts as a mentor and moderator on our calls, and she made a statement that resonated with me, so I wrote it down, intending to use it for a blog.

Nancy said, “Oh, so they’re choosing sides when there really aren’t any sides to choose!”

“Bingo!”, I thought.

 

Whose Side Are You On?

The point Nancy was making (I think!) is that while the combatants are trying to make it about “my side” versus “his side”, anyone else who looks at it that way is falling into a trap.

Taking sides is usually a false choice.

Oh, I get that this happens in family businesses, and it still happens far too often.

Family members who work together or manage assets together won’t always see things the same way and will often try ot get others to come to their side of every argument, but that doesn’t mean the other family members need to oblige!

 

Interests versus Positions

If you’ve read even a little bit about negotiation, you’ve likely heard about the difference between “positions” and “interests”.

Fisher and Ury’s “Getting to Yes” was the first place I recall reading about this, and that was in the 1980’s, so this isn’t anything new.

If each side simply holds to their position, the negotiation will likely remain a zero-sum game, where any gain by one side is a loss for the other.

 

Digging Their Heels In

Sometimes in a negotiation, both sides really dig their heels in, usually because there’s some emotional aspect to the conflict that prevents them from letting go.

And yes, sometimes in family businesses people get into conflicts that are complicated by emotional issues.

 

Get Past their Positions

In order to have a better chance at a successful resolution, you need to get past their “positions” (My way / I’m right) and get to their interests.

Then, when you can find the common interests that both sides have, there’s something to work with.

Can the other family members avoid taking sides, and look for common interests instead?

I sure hope so!

Ownership Stages In Family Business

Ownership Stages In Family Business

Ownership Stages In Family Business

Readers may have noticed that the topic of “ownership” has been featured in this space more and more lately.

That’s no accident, because last summer when I wrote Ownership: The Forgotten Circle of Family Business” I also vowed to give this subject a bit more prominence here.

 

The Simple Stage “Model”

Most people who work in the Family Business field are well versed in this “model” that looks at things in their simplest form as a family business goes from one generation to the next:

Sole Owner => Sibling Partnership => Cousin Consortium

There really isn’t anything new here, but it’s a good starting place to discuss how the ownership of a family business can get more complex as the business goes from one generation of owners to the next.

The verb I chose there, “can get” was very intentional on my part, because things do not necessarily get more complex, depending on the desires of the family and the plans that they make about how the actual ownership will be transitioned.

 

Does this Tree Need Pruning?

As I wrote last year in Pruning the FamBiz Ownership Tree”, sometimes the difficulty in passing a business down through generations is complicated by something as simple as math.

I recently spoke with a second-generation member of a farm family, and their case facts make for an interesting example.

Mom and Dad had 4 children, and each one of them is now married and they each have 4 children of their own.

The family group is expanding at a geometric pace. Will the farm be able to match that growth? That’s the proverbial $64 million question.

 

Counting People and Households

The farm initially supported 6 people in one household. One generation later, that became 26 people in 5 households. So far the math is pretty simple but only in a textbook example do things remain that way.

Did I mention that the range of ages of the grandchildren (G3) varies from late 20’s to single digits?

The oldest G3 member already has children and yet their generational “equal” is still in grade school.

How are they going to work out all of that stuff?

 

Getting Good Help

I often write about the importance of getting help from outside the family to assist and guide any family through these difficult decisions.

Luckily, there are surely plenty of well-qualified lawyers and accountants out there who have crafted the types of agreements and structures that are required to work out these complex cases.

So is that my answer, to go out and talk to a lawyer or an accountant?

Not so fast, please!

 

What Exactly Are You Trying to Do?

Before you look to technical professionals to structure things and write up the agreements necessary to formalize things, don’t you think it makes sense to figure out what you’re trying to do first?

How will the four siblings in the example above work through the decisions surrounding the best way to structure things?

I’m going to assume that the four siblings won’t all necessarily agree with each other on every question right off the bat.

OK, so what if the one who is the de facto leader of the business were to simply get a lawyer to write it up his way?

Well, that might be efficient, but I’m willing to bet that some negative consequences would result, somewhere down the road.

 

Governance and Ownership

Who died and made him king? Maybe that isn’t just a rhetorical question; maybe before Dad passed away he did “anoint” his successor.

I don’t know enough about the specific case facts here, but they are not that important to the discussion.

My point is that the ownership of the business is a very important aspect to understand and work through in a thoughtful manner, but it is not sufficient by itself.

A family facing this type of situation actually needs more than just clear ownership, they also need to agree on governance.

 

How Will We Decide Things Together?

When people try to simplify governance, they usually mention communication, problem solving and decision-making.

I can’t really make it any simpler than the six-word question, “How will we decide things together?”

It’s a pretty short and simple question, but answering it is rarely short and simple.

And getting the right answer for your particular family is actually more important to work out than the more straightforward questions about ownership.

 

Please see: Family Governance, Aaaah!

A guy helping another Guy while hiking

When Is Helping Not Helpful?

When Is Helping Not Helpful?

This subject has been kicking around in my head for a little while now, and I’m finally tackling it this week.

I’ve been seeing more and more things I could add, so I’m curious to see how this turns out. Let’s go.

 

It Feels Good to Help

Let’s start with the fact that most people feel good about themselves when they can help someone else.
Sometimes it’s completely altruistic, sometimes it’s more about being “one-up” on others.

It may stoke our superiority complex, or make us flash back to the parental approval we got for helping, when we were kids.

The point is, helping is something many of us do instinctively, it makes us feel good about ourselves, and that makes it a great win-win.

 

So What’s the Problem?

If you’re a parent, you’ve surely experienced situations where “over-helping” eventually had its downside.

If I continued to tie my kids’ shoes because that’s how I can help them, they’ll never learn to do it themselves.

 

Family Business Version

In a family business, the most prevalent version of this phenomenon comes up in the area of employment.

The owner’s child “can’t find a job”, so they’re hired, out of a desire to “help” them.

If you can’t see that this may turn out to be a future lifetime under-performing employee, then you probably aren’t paying enough attention.

 

Asking for Help

I’ve also written about the fact that family businesses are often reluctant to ask for help from outsiders.

(Blog version      and       Video version)

There certainly is no shortage of potential “helpers” out there, especially regarding issues that affect the business.

In fact, getting help with “business” issues versus “family” issues is still a far more common request.

 

Different Kinds of Help

For many situations, the requested help is pretty clear.

When you need advice with investments, taxes, or legal structures, there are specialists who deal in those things every day, who’ll happily provide you with a solution.

As to whether the help you think you need is actually what’s best for you, that’s another question.

There are plenty of solution providers who’ll “help” you by giving you what you ask for. It’s often done very efficiently, even if it turns out not to be very effective.

 

What About Help for the Family?

When you move over to the family issues, that’s where things get a bit trickier.

As someone who works this space, I can tell you that the requests are often formulated in the same way.

What I mean here is that “Tell us what we should do!” is a common way of asking for help.

There’s also no shortage of “helpers” out there, that’ll gladly step up and “help” by simply answering that question.

You may be wondering why I’m implying that there’s a problem here.

 

“For the Family, “By the Family”

Here’s why the “Help me!” request, followed by “OK, here’s the answer” method usually doesn’t do the trick.

I can tell you that when I get “Tell us what to do” it can be pretty difficult to not just simply spew forth my best advice, in the guise of helping.

That’s because I know that the best results for tricky family dynamics situations are always the ones that are co-developed by the family.

 

The “Process Versus Content” Dilemma

I’ve spent the better part of the past 5 years acquiring and honing the skills necessary to become a better “process” consultant, rather than simply being a “content” expert.

Having come to the family business space by “living it” my whole life, and continuing to study the “content” of “best practices”, it can get tricky.

But I also know that any help that I offer always works best when it is subtle and indirect, especially at first.

 

Who Are the Real Experts?

When dealing with questions of family dynamics, the real experts on “how the family operates” are the family members themselves, not the outside “expert”.

In fact, if I try to offer too many “helpful solutions” before I have a good feel for this particular family, they’re bound to backfire.

 

Who Does the Work?

Those asking for help often hope for a “short cut” solution, where the expert provides an easily implementable “quick fix”.

In truth, there are few magic fixes available, and in the end, it’s always the family members who’ll need to do the work, with the helper acting as a more of a “guide”.

And you’ll each tie your own shoes.

 

Family Heritage

What is your “True Family Legacy”?

What is your “True Family Legacy”?

The term “Family Legacy” can conjure up different images and thoughts in anyone who hears it, depending on their age, wealth, and life circumstances.

This subject comes up a lot in my work, but I haven’t necessarily written about it much, and I feel a need to share more thoughts on it.

 

Twitter Chat

I recently took part in the monthly #FamBizChat on Twitter, where a bunch of my colleagues tackle a subject for an hour on that social media platform.

The subject this time was “Legacy”, and I naturally went to my view of legacy as being much more of a “family” thing than a “business” thing.

What struck me is that I felt pretty alone in that perspective.

Maybe most of the others were advisors who worked more on the business side of things, and less with the family, I’m not sure.

But it stayed with me, so I thought a blog on the subject would be timely and useful.

 

Business Card Title

The title on my business card is “Family Legacy Advisor”, which hints at my bias.

It used to say Family Business Advisor, but because I really prefer to minimize my interactions with the business, in favour of those with the family, I made the change a couple of years ago.

Admittedly, I usually answer “family business consultant” when I’m asked what I do for a living in some circumstances like going through customs.

 

Whose Legacy Is It?

But my bias is to concentrate on the family legacy versus the business legacy, although in truth, they certainly can and do co-exist together, often for decades at a time.

In a multi-generational family business though, at some point they can bifurcate.

Family involvement in the ownership and/or management of the company eventually changes, and the family eventually diversifies its focus to other endeavours.

 

Who Takes the Lead?

A business has many resources at its disposal, and they’re necessarily organized into functioning groups of people with more or less clear roles and responsibilities.

So ensuring that the business legacy is captured can actually become part of the job of a person or group. It will often fall under marketing because the business legacy is closely attached to the company’s brand.

And so of course the corresponding person whose job it is to ensure the family legacy is, um, well, of course it must be, um, well, uh, I’m not sure…(?)

“Sorry, our family doesn’t have a marketing department”.

 

Why Did You Work So Hard?

Most business founders work hard because they want to support their family, and as their wealth grows thanks to those efforts, they continue to work hard so that their wealth can serve the next generations of their family.

Many of those people, however, will fail to properly transition that wealth to their family, and that goal will never be reached.

Research shows that about 60% of the failures can be attributed to a breakdown in family communication.

 

Family Governance and Alignment

The exceptions, the ones who manage to keep their wealth in the family for multiple generations, are the ones who actually put in the work to establish some family governance.

That word, “governance”, scares some families, and I get that.

See:

It doesn’t have to be that complicated, especially when you are just starting down this road.

What it does require is some intention, which begins with a decision, normally from the top, that it’s important enough to direct some time and effort to this task.

 

True Family Legacy

Your “true” family legacy is one that’s custom tailored to your family. No other family resembles yours, so why even pretend that this work can come ready-made, off-the-shelf?

Two expressions capture this whole question rather well, and I’ve been known to use both of these:

  • Instead of concentrating on preparing the family assets for the heirs, make the effort to prepare the heirs for the assets
  • Don’t just concentrate on transferring the family’s valuables, work on preserving the family’s values

If you’re the person in your family who recognizes the need for this, you already know you can’t do this alone.

Maybe this can get you moving in the right direction:

The Exponential Magic of Family Collaboration

Also note the photo above this post: “Heritage”.

That’s much more about Family Legacy than any business the family happens to own.

 

Related posts:

My Beliefs on Family Legacy Advice

The Languages of Family Legacy

Brainstorming your Family Legacy

Informal Authority in Family Business

Informal Authority in Family Business

I like writing about aspects of family business that sometimes get overlooked “in real life”.

Some subjects that you can learn about in business school work OK in most places, but somehow, when looking at a family business, things aren’t that way at all.

 

The Standard Org Chart

Nowhere is this more apparent than with a document that you’ll find in just about any company, the good old organization chart.

There are usually lots of rectangles, connected together by lines, and often looking a bit like a pyramid.

Simple enough, “this person is in charge of this department”, “these people report to this person”, “those department heads in turn report to this VP”, you know what I’m talking about.

 

The FamBiz Org Chart

A family business, especially early on in its lifespan, may not even have an org chart.

When someone finally insists on creating one, the founder may not like it and may even ignore it.

Eventually, as the company grows, they’ll reluctantly agree that one is needed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll respect it.

 

Respect My Authority!

The person at the top of the chart will often simply prefer to rely on the fact that they’re at the top and therefore, everyone else is below them and in turn reports to them.

While this is often factually correct, the reporting lines at the lower levels are there for a reason, and employees come to expect that those lines will be respected.

When the owner or founder walks into a department and sees something they don’t like, it’s pretty hard for them to bite their tongue and seek out the person below them on the org chart to relay a message.

In order to “save time” they’ll usually give instructions that the lowly employee feels they have no choice but to follow.

 

Giving Up Formal Authority

The good news is that while this type of scenario is rather commonplace, it is often harmless.

That is, as long as the person who’s giving the instructions is still truly the top person in the company.

When leaders step back, whether formally retiring or just cutting back to let others build their leadership, this can get a bit trickier.

The employees who are given instructions to do something will ususally feel beholden to the oldest person, and do as they say.

But what if what they’re being told goes against what their “real boss” (according to the org chart) has told them?

 

Formalize the Authority

One of the things I like to suggest to family business clients is to formalize the authority.

What does that look like? Glad you asked.

When a business leader steps back or steps out, it is essential that the employees know who is now in charge.

There are several ways to do this, and it may be best to use more than one:

 

          – Leadership Handover Ceremony

A formal ceremony in front of the employees, during which the outgoing leader is thanked and acknowledged.

 

          – Bulletin Board or Newsletter

A written message posted on a company bulletin board and sent to employees via a regular newsletter publication.

 

          – A Simple Email to Employees

If there is no newsletter, an email explaining the changes at the top, with appropriate thanks and best wishes.

 

Culture and Leadership from the Top

The new leader needs to be able to put their cultural stamp on things, and it’s next to impossible for them to do so unless and until the former leader has officially stepped aside.

“Officially” is a big word, though, so it’s important that both parties, the one leaving and the one coming in, be part of any such announcement.

The more people who witness it, the better. This is why I have a strong preference for the ceremony.

 

Group Decision, for the Good of the Group

For all employees to be able to buy into the new reality, it needs to appear to be a joint decision, and not any sort of “coup” or forced take-over.

The outgoing leader will hopefully see this as “closure” and resist the temptation to return to a leading role.

If a support role can be identified for the outgoing leader, to still retain some presence (at a much lower official level) that can also be good.

 

Clarity is Key

Few things in any organization are more important that clarity. Clear lines of authority are a must.

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.