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family owned business challenges

5 Things you Need to Know: Family Meetings

This week we are back to the “5 Things you Need to Know” format, and our subject comes via an emailed question.

An overseas colleague and fellow Family Firm Institute member recently asked me for my thoughts around family meetings.

Rather that send her a lengthy reply, I told her I would write this blog in response, and I hope that many of you find it useful.

(Note: we are talking here about enterprising families having an occasional get-together with many family members, some of whom are involved in business matters, along with many who are not.)

 

  1. Involve Many People

The more people you can have involved in planning the meeting, the better. Input and ideas should be solicited from as many of the participants as possible beforehand, and it should never appear to be a one-person show.

Furthermore, on the “many people” front, the execution of the meeting(s) or day(s) should also feature as many different people in leadership roles as possilbe, and active involvement by everyone (as opposed to passive) is a must.

 

  1. Not Just Business

The business aspects of the meeting are naturally important, otherwise you likely wouldn’t go through the trouble of officially convening everyone in the first place. But please resist the temptation to make it “all business”.

If you want people to look forward to these events and attend them regularly (see No.3, below), they ought to have reasons to look forward to them.

A mix of business, fun as a large group, education, fun in smaller groups, downtime, physical activity, icebreakers, and just plain socializing are all worthwhile considerations for the schedule.

 

  1. Regular, Repeating Forum

An error that some families make is to try to have THE family meeting, once, to finally share a bunch of information that they have been keeping private for a long time. That is rarely the best course to pursue.

Rather, having regular meetings, on a repeating basis (annual, semi-annual, or other) is almost always a better idea. Those in attendance who are new to much of the content need time to absorb it, learn, and get up to speed before they can even conceive of the questions they’ll have.

The idea is to have a “forum”, or “an exchange of views” that brings out interaction and learning, which is better suited to a regular and repeating event, with an agenda that evolves over time.

 

  1. Past History and Future Outlook

Most family businesses considering holding this type of meeting have been around for a few decades.

So, sharing stories and facts about the history of the business, 10 and 20 and 30 years ago (or often much longer) can help give everyone in attendance a better appreciation of what came before, including major milestones, successes, and failures.

The trip through time should not necessarily end with today, though. Projecting another 10 or 20 years ahead, and getting various points of view on how family members see the business and their potential future involvement is also an opportunity that should not be missed.

 

  1. Process is More Important than Content

You may approach the idea of a family meeting as a chance to tell, teach, or share a number of important pieces of information with those members of the family who are less aware than others, in order to “level the playing field” and make everyone feel involved.

That is a noble idea, and at the same time, the temptation for too much content is always there. People who are thirsty for information are not always best served with a fire hose.

A habit of regular meetings, with the participation of many people, including interactivity, talking and listening, sharing of information to level of the information playing field, getting to know each other better, and of course having fun, are the ways to judge the success of family meetings.

The processes involved in all of this are what you need to get right, and the actual content is secondary.

When you get different people volunteering to serve on various committees to plan parts of the next meeting, you will know that you have launched a worthwhile venture that will stand the family in good stead for the long term.

Although you won’t likely get there quickly, slowly but surely it can be done. And you will all be glad you made the effort.

Family Business Prespective

Putting Perspective into Perspective

We all see things from our own unique perspective, first and foremost. Our personal point of view serves as our default view of the world.

The ability to see things from another’s perspective is important, and not everyone is good at it, since this ventures into the area of empathy.

But whenever we force ourselves to look at things from a different perspective, it’s almost always enlightening. “Hmm, I never thought about it that way”.

 

Always Worthwhile

Getting help to look at things from a different point of view is especially useful for those who are successful.

Smart people who’ve had great success can sometimes start to believe that they know everything, and they frequently overestimate their abilities.

For these people, stopping themselves to take a second look can be especially beneficial. Do you know anyone like that?

If you live alone on an island, the perspective of other stakeholders is a moot point. But what about if you work in a business with other family members?

 

Insiders Vs. Outsiders

Working with business families, I am often forced to remind family members to think about how their ideas will impact the other people involved. Some do this easily, others require more practice.

The truth is, by the time I enter the picture, they’ve already made the most important decision.

Families who take the step of hiring an independent, unbiased, objective outsider to advise them have recognized that a new perspective is not only useful, but essential to successfully dealing with many important issues.

 

Definitions of Perspective

The more complex things are, the more important the independent ousider becomes. Here are a couple of definitions of perspective (emphasis added):

       – the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaningful interrelationship

       – the faculty of seeing all the relevant data in a meaningful relationship

Family business situations are full of complexity, with plenty of interrelated issues, stemming from the overlap of the family system, the business system, and the ownership system.

Add in everybody’s individual preferences and, well, good luck!

 

“Why the world NEEDS family business consultants”

I read a lot of stuff about family business, because I write a lot of stuff about family business. When I get something from the Family Business Consulting Group, I always read it.

This week, they sent out a piece about our profession, and why it is important. I knew that I needed to share it, and wondered about the best way to do so.

Since I was already planning this blog about “perspective”, I decided to incorporate it here.

Here’s an excerpted paragraph, and a link to the article. Please take the time to read the whole piece.

“An excellent family business consultant is probably the only advisor you’ll work with who considers how family,        management, ownership and governance impact each other on a day-to-day basis and is able to create a safe place to openly and creatively consider how these four necessary systems uniquely and powerfully affect your family and your enterprise.”

Link: Why the world NEEDS family business consultants

Relating to ALL the Pieces

A family business consultant (or family legacy advisor), will see how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together from a different perspective.

Seeing and understanding how the pieces relate, without being one of those pieces, is essential.

Anyone who is part of any of the systems simply cannot offer a fully objective viewpoint. And anyone trying to sell you other services will also be biased.

 

Defusing the Emotions

There are many emotions in family business because family is all about love and business is about money, and when you put them together, things get messy.

Some suggest removing emotions, but they might as well suggest not breathing; emotions will always exist.

This is where a trained outsider is most useful. Someone who can remain calm despite the anxiety in the room, and can slow things down, reminding everyone of the number of different perspectives in the room.

 

The View from 30,000 Feet

An independent outsider with no stake in the game can provide the proverbial 30,000-foot view, and offer a new perpsective on all the interrelated pieces of the puzzle.

That can make all the difference in creating a shared perspective that everyone can believe in.

Families who have successfully transitioned their business and wealth have rarely done so all by themselves.

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

 

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.

 

 

Family Biz Conflict and how to handle it

FamBiz: Conflict is NOT an option

Miami: FFI at 30

I am currently in Miami, having just spent the past three days at the Family Firm Institute’s annual conference, during which attendees were continually reminded that the organisation is 30 years old.

I recall that CAFÉ, the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise recently celebrated its 30th anniversary as well.

Also early in its fourth decade is the Three Circle Model (Family, Business, Ownership), co-created by John Davis of Harvard. Davis received what amounts to a lifetime achievement award from FFI at the Gala dinner last night.

I finally got to meet him in person and shake his hand afterward, and gave him a belated thank you for not only allowing me to quote him in my book a couple years back, but mostly for replying to my emailed request for that permission within an hour, which surprised me at the time.

Having now met the man, I am no longer surprised.

 

Conflict comes standard

FFI conferencs are filled with so many people and learnings, and I was reviewing some of my notes last night trying to decide on this week’s blog topic. I settled on Conflict is NOT an option.

But I met yet another experienced practitioner this week who happily noted that he rejects 90% of potential client families who come to him in full blown conflict mode. He doesn’t need the aggravation and much prefers to work with families in preventative ways.

But the potential for conflict in family business situations remains ever present. If this sounds familiar, you may have read something similar in this space a few short weeks ago. (FamBiz Conflict: Resolve it, or manage it)

One breakout session that I attended was moderated by one of the authors of Deconstructing Conflict, mentioned in that blog. She repeated that in any situation where family and business overlap, conflict is NOT optional. It will always be there, by default.

 

Even if you don’t want it

Go back a few decades and think about buying a car. Do you want power windows and power steering? Air conditioning? There were lots of options available that you could choose to add or not, depending on your wants and needs, and your budget.

These days, (almost) all cars come with all of those former options, and many more, as standard features.

And so it is in a family business, conflict comes standard, and you cannot even opt out of it! Recall the days when you could have an unlisted phone number, but that cost extra, to not be listed in the “standard” phone book (these days, what’s a phone book? Ask Grandma…)

So assuming that you accept that conflict is built in, what now? My take is that you acknowledge it and always be on the alert for where disputes might flare up, and try to get out in front of them.

 

Carving a Safe Space: Art vs Science

A common term for mediators and group facilitators is the “safe space”. An independent and neutral outsider comes in and creates a safe space for all parties to be able to share their concerns, wants and needs.

One of the panelists in the conflict session artfully pointed out that his task is always to “hand carve” that safe space. You cannot buy such a space at IKEA and assemble it out of the box.

This carving analogy fits quite nicely with my own assertion, which I made both in that post a few weeks ago and during the FFI session; there is much more art involved in facilitating group process than there is science.

 

Who I Am vs What I Do

Organisations like FFI are great at helping this young industry develop and share the science part of family firms, but the art in mediating conflict often comes down more to the “who I am” of the neutral third party than the “what I do”.

The work that one needs to do to become an effective third party is very personal and “internally driven”.

For me, coaching courses, mediation and facilitation workshops, and even Bowen Family Systems Theory training, have all been integral to my becoming more than simply competent to do this work and conduct these group processes.

They say, “practice makes perfect”, and while perfection seems too lofty a goal, practice certainly does make one “better”.

 

How to stay Calm in Family Business situation

“Calm-Fident” Advice for your Family

Sometimes the right word for something doesn’t exist, so we need to make one up. Okay, we don’t actually need to, but it can be a useful exercise.

On sports radio last week, a commentator was talking about a certain hockey goaltender and how his calm performances had helped his team get their season off to a good start. Right after uttering the word “calm”, he moved on to the fact that the team was quite “confident” playing in front of him.

That was when the “word” calmfidence sort of hit me, and it also fit nicely with some of the personal work that I continue to do, trying to become and even better advisor to legacy families.

(When I Googled “calmfidence”, I learned that while it certainly is not very popular or well known yet, I am not the first one to use it. If you also decide to do this, please say hello to Juneous for me.)

 

Bowen Family Systems Theory

Let’s get back to the idea of calmness as a key ingredient to helping a family. I am now into my third year of studying Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST), and it has been eye opening to say the least.

I have already vowed to write a book on Bowen Theory as it applies to family business and wealth, because I have yet to find the book that I was hoping to find when I first took an interest in BFST.

That book is still in my plans, but it will be a couple of years away at best.

As any “amateur” Bowenite can tell you, there are eight concepts in BFST, and as some of those will surely note, being “calm” is not one of them.

So where do I think I am going to go with this? I am glad you asked.

 

Anxiety versus Calm

One of the over-riding issues that Bowen talked about throughout the eight concepts is anxiety.

When Bowen spoke of “Differentiation of Self”, which we might more simply call “emotional maturity” today, he regularly noted that those who are more differentiated (i.e. mature) can and do function well, even during times of anxiety.

Those with lower levels of differentiation or maturity will have their everyday functioning impaired during times of high anxiety.

Anyone who is part of a business family will certainly recognize that family discussions can be anxious times, and are often far from calm.

 

Bring an Outsider Inside

Advisors will preach to any family who will listen, that it is important to have an external person at the table to help them with these discussions, especially when important subjects like succession are on the agenda.

Most families prefer to keep things private, not wanting to air their laundry to an outsider, and also often assume that they alone are going through their particular difficult family situation.

They also recognize that an advisor who suggests bringing in an outsider is being self-serving, you know, like the barber who hints that your hair is getting a little long.

 

Bring in some Calm-Fidence

So here is where I want to bring things back to calmfidence.

When an outsider to your family enters the scene, there are two ways to quickly evaluate whether or not they will ultimately be useful to the family. You guessed it, they are “calm” and “confidence”.

This outside resource should bring a calm presence, no matter how much anxiety there is in the room, whether that anxiety is actually on the table, or hidden behind an elephant somewhere.

After a couple of meetings with the advisor/consultant, the family (or at least a significant portion of it) will begin to feel much more confident that they are on the right track.

But what if they are not calm, and the family does NOT feel more confident, you ask? Simple. Get someone else!

 

Too Important to Ignore

You’ve probably heard “the biggest investment most people make in their lives is buying a house.”

Families with a business, wealth, and a legacy to pass on are not “most people” though, and this is the biggest issue that they will ever face.

Inter-generation wealth transfer is not easy, and getting the whole family on board is the toughest part.

Find someone who gives you the CALMFIDENCE to get it done properly. Keep trying until you find them.

 

 

 

Family Business To do list

What To Do with a To Do List

 

Hand with marker. Blank TO DO LIST list business concept, chart, diagram, presentation background

Most people are familiar with the concept of a “To Do” list, but there are so many different ways that they are used, and their relative importance in various people’s lives got me thinking. And of course when something gets me thinking, a blog post invariably soon follows.

Along the way, I am going to touch on the “will do” question, the “must do”, as well as the “could do”. As usual, there won’t be much “telling you what to do” from my end, because the older I get the more I am convinced that telling people what to do is one of the worst ways to get them to do what you want them to do.

The “will do” question doesn’t necessarily fit with this topic, but I could not help but include a quick discussion on it. It comes from the world of HR and hiring practices, and I have seen it a couple of times recently.

When you are looking to bring someone into your organisation, you will undoubtedly look at their qualifications to see what they “can do”, because you prefer not to hire someone who cannot do the job. But more and more, HR people are also being asked to look into what candidates actually “will do”.

I’m not sure if this is a “millennial” thing, but having people decide that some tasks are beneath them is becoming an issue that more and more companies are dealing with.

Moving along to more conventional “to do” list questions, I have found that it can be quite helpful to separate things out into a “must do list”, with a timeframe, and then everything else.

Some people rank their items A, B, and C, and start with the A’s until they are done, and then move on to the B’s. Some people plan things out for the week, others on a day-to-day basis. Whatever works for you is better than nothing, but coming up with a system that becomes routine has been a key for me.

I plan things out on Sunday as I look at the upcoming workweek, slotting in important tasks among whatever scheduled events I have booked.

If you are also trying to incorporate some physical workout goals (4 times a week has been good for me) this can be useful too, in the mode of “making an appointment with yourself”.

The items that are less urgent and don’t need to be done this week still need to be housed somewhere, because you need to keep longterm ideas, projects, and goals in focus. I use a whiteboard in my office, where I keep monthly and quarterly items in view at all times.

After looking at an important item for a while, I will often begin to feel some guilt about not having started it yet, and that will usually get me to break it down into more bite-sized pieces, the first of which will then go on to my following week’s “must do” list.

But my favourite aspect of this “_____ do list” question is the one I call the “could do”list.

To me, life is all about possibilities, and I find it liberating to have a number of big ideas laid out as things that I could do, both personally and for and with my family. I even like to think this way about client families that I am working with.

Whenever I am in a leadership position with a group like this, my preferred modus operandi is to share a variety of possibilities with members of the group, and then lead a discussion where the group selects what they think is best as far as next steps.

Of course there are some choices that I might logically prefer over others, but when harmony is important, whether it be in my own family or in a client family, this method works much better that the old style authoritarian way.

This is not exactly leading from behind, a concept that some people love and others despise, but more akin to leading from within.

Now, you don’t have to do this, but you could!

Simplifying Complexity and Ethical Wills | Blog on Ethics in Family Business

Simplifying Complexity and Ethical Wills

Writing Last Will and Testament. Closeup shot

A few weeks ago I came across a blog post by the Blunt Bean Counter on Ethical Wills that I liked, and I encourage anyone interested in this subject to check it out. Perhaps I can whet your appetite with my take on the subject here.

The man behind the blog and the website is Mark Goodfield, who is an accountant from Toronto. I would not necessarily call him an old friend of mine, but we did meet professionally last summer at a BDO SuccessCare course, “The Role of the Most Trusted Advisor”.

We spoke about blogging one day at lunch, and it was thanks to some of his comments that I undertook a rebranding and reworking of my online presence, for which the feedback I have been receiving from some of you has been gratifying.

An ethical will is essentially a letter that you write to your loved ones, outlining your wishes, which they can refer to and reread after you have passed away.

As Mark so nicely states, some examples of what people convey in an ethical will include:

  1. Your values
  1. Your hopes for your family
  1. An explanation of decisions made in your will
  1. Providing or asking for forgiveness

This is one of those ideas that seems to make so much sense to me, but that for many reasons is not as easy a sell as it appears on the surface.

It reminds me of Tom Deans’ great book, Willing Wisdom, in which he implores people to share the contents of their will with their beneficiaries. I get it, I love the idea, I encourage people to do so as well, but at the same time, I also know that he gets a whole heck of a lot of pushback whenever he gives a speech about the subject.

Now the title of this post mentions simplifying complexity, and that is where I want to go now, so please join me. This was its own separate blog post idea, but I often need to combine ideas because I seem to get way more than 52 ideas a year, and I vowed to keep these to once a week.

Whenever someone dies, the remaining family members are left to sort things out and move on. We have all heard stories about people who died without a will, or before ever having taken the time to put their proverbial affairs in order.

Let’s call that one “Simple Life, Complex Death”.

There is an alternative, but it takes some work, some foresight, and some courage. It’s all about doing the complex work up front, while you are still alive and of sound mind.

If you are willing to share the information about your decisions with your loved ones, you can make things as complex as you like. You do the hard work yourself, and then when you are gone, everything will be so much simpler for your family.

My father liked complexity more than most. He bought a farm as a retirement project, then bought more land from neighbours over time. When he was diagnosed with cancer, I feared that I would be stuck with the task of disposing of all these different acreages.

One of the greatest gifts he ever gave me was the fact that he sold the farm, in no less than four separate transactions to four different buyers before he died. All I had to do was go to the notary’s office four times to sign the papers and pick up the cheques.

But of course before doing any of that, we had a family meeting, during which we discussed whether or not we wanted to keep the farm in the family.

We knew what he wanted us to do after he died, because the day of his diagnosis, he went home and hand wrote a multipage letter to us, which I later dubbed his “manifesto”.

Little did I know it at the time, it was his Ethical Will.

During subsequent family meetings, we have referred to it often, mostly early on, less so now.

With Father’s Day around the corner, I wanted to say, “Thanks again Dad”.

 

“Know How” Vs. “Show How” in FamBiz Advice

“Know How” Vs. “Show How” in FamBiz Advice

One of the things I enjoy doing occasionally is revisit parts of my eclectic professional career and find subjects that can help me explain things in areas around my most recent incarnation as a family business advisor.

Exactly 20 years ago, I was studying Intellectual Property Law in New Hampshire (Franklin Pierce Law, now part of UNH). During a class on patents, the terms “know how” and “show how” were discussed.

The MIP (Master of Intellectual Property) program was aimed mostly at international students, many of whom came from Asia, to get a one-year intense dose of American IP Law. A classmate from Colombia, whose English was still not great, asked me to explain the difference between the two terms.

We were standing in the student lounge at the time, and there were some vending machines nearby. I always love the challenge of taking complex issues and finding ways to explain them in terms that everyone can understand.

So I started with Know How, and suggested to my friend that if he were thirsty, he should go to the machine, put some money in it, and press a button. He looked at me intently, and said, “Okay…(?)”

Then, I walked over to the machine with him, and said, “Show How: Put your dollar bill in this slot here, and make sure you flatten it out. Slide it in until the machine picks it up. Now, look at the choices and decide which drink you want. Press that button. See, this is where it comes out. Don’t open it yet, because it just dropped and might make a mess because it got shaken. Get your change out of this slot. Show How.”

He smiled and nodded. Mission accomplished. So what does this have to do with family business?

If you are looking for Know How on subjects surrounding family business, and more importantly business families, there is no shortage of it out there. Just ask my friend Google, and he will lead you to more content than you could read in your lifetime.

But just as you could look up and read millions of patents and still not be able to put the inventions into practice, most of the FamBiz content you find really would fall more into the Know How category.

I read stuff every day on the subject, much of it coming from my Twitter addiction, and there are plenty of great ideas for things that families should be doing to make sure their intended transitions from one generation to the next go smoothly.

My problem with so much of what I read is that I believe that very little of it will ever be acted upon.

This may or may not be the fault of the writer of the piece, but I often picture the reaction of someone like my father, or my father-in-law, both of whom started with almost nothing and built successful family businesses, and I simply can’t picture either of them ever putting the advice into practice.

The lack of action by many families has a couple of components to it, of course. Lack of time or urgency is usually one part, and so is insufficient belief in the worthiness of the expected benefits. I can’t help believe that not having enough “Show How” is a very big part of it.

If someone reads that having family meetings is important, they may think that it could be worthwhile, but then might get hung up on how to go about that. What is on the agenda, who gets invited, how often should we do them, how formal, what is the goal, how do we make “ground rules”, do we keep minutes, ah just forget it. Maybe next year…

Many ideas sound great when we hear them (or read them), but then we stumble when we try to implement them, because of some uncertainty in how it is supposed to all work.

There are people who can help show you how, but not nearly as many as there are out adding the vast store of know how out there. You just need to find them and reach out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There Is No “Fast Forward” Button

Last week we looked at the fact that people sometimes wish that they had the ability to hit the “Rewind” button in their life, but that outside of Hollywood, this was not something that is available to ordinary people (or even extra-ordinary people).

As I wrapped up, I promised to follow up with the mirror image of the Rewind button, which as we all remember from our 1970’s tape recorders or our 1990’s VCRs, is the “Fast Forward” button.

There are likely more people who wish they could hit Rewind than Fast Forward, based on two simple facts: our own mortality often makes us prefer to slow things down rather than speed things up, plus the fact that what has already occurred in the past is known, while the future is at best an educated guess.

Last week I made the tie-in to business families by talking about how family relationships sometimes get “stuck” because some family members hang on to past issues far longer than they probably should, and well past the point of their usefulness.

Some of you may be wondering how I am planning to make the family business question tie in to the Fast Forward button. Here goes…

Unfortunately, this subject forces us to look at a topic that most people prefer to avoid discussing, and it is one that was mentioned in passing a bit earlier. If you guessed that I was talking about mortality, take a bow.

Before I get to the ultra-frank wording of the manifestation of this problem, I want to tell you that it is something that I have seen far too often, and it breaks my heart every time.

For the past few years, even as my kids were only reaching their teens, I told them many times that even though I don’t yet know specifically “how” I am going to do it, I am determined to arrange my affairs in such a way that they will never be placed in a situatiuon where they will be hoping for me and their mother to die.

And that is the big Fast Forward button that too many people secretly wish that they could push.

Of course nobody will admit this, at least not out loud. Most will not even admit it to themselves. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening all around us, every day.

I did not wish for my father to die, as he left us, seven years ago, at the age of 72, but I sometimes wonder what my life would be like today if he were still with us. I truly hate to admit this, but I honestly do not think that I would be as happy as I am today if he were still around. (Wow, did I actually really just write that?)

There must be a really good reason for me to share this with readers, and there is. Knowing what I know now, about the importance of allowing each generation to rise and become everything they can be, is what I truly want and need to share.

This is not saying that my father was a bad person, in fact, in many ways, it says more about me, and my part in my relationship with my father, and my not having the courage to put what I needed on the table for discussion.

We did not have anyone that we knew at our disposal to help us have the important conversations that we should have been having.

It’s not that I would have pushed the Fast Forward button, but how many people out there secretly wish they could?

You don’t have the excuse that I did, about not having anyone at your disposal to help you have those key conversations, because you do. You are reading his blog right now.