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Contracts versus Covenants in Family Business

Contracts versus Covenants in Family Business

Contracts versus Covenants in Family Business

 Comparing and contrasting words has always been something that I’ve enjoyed doing.

As I just wrote that sentence and looked at the title I chose for this post, I wondered how often I’ve used the word “versus” in a blog title.

I’ll save you the research, there are already eight, making this the ninth time.

 

Blog Post Inspired by a Blog Post

Something that I don’t do as often, is writing a post that was inspired by someone else’s post.

A few weeks ago I was looking at my LinkedIn feed and noticed a post from a colleague and acquaintance, Roy P. Kozupsky.

I like Roy and I know that we share many beliefs about the kind of work we do with families, so I began reading his piece “Random thoughts while travelling”.

 

A Lawyer and a Rabbi Walk into a Bar 

His post is really worth reading and I recommend you do so, especially if you get something out of the subjects I write about here.

I want to concentrate here on a couple of contrasting terms that were highlighted in one of the quotes he used.

He features the words from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at length, and I want to take a couple of snippets from those quotes to share here.

But before I get to his words, a bit more context is in order.

 

Contracts are Legally Binding

The word “contract” has a legal definition, and lawyers and the court systems spend a great deal of time arguing the interpretations of the definition every day.

In no way am I suggesting that a family business should ignore contracts or try to find ways to substitute covenants in their place.

 

Covenants are Morally Binding

Perhaps this subhead is a bit of foreshadowing, but that’s my interpretation.

If the lawyer is comfortable with the contract, the rabbi may be more at home with the covenant.

 

In Rabbi Sacks’ Words

Without further ado:

Contracts are about “Me” and “You”;

Covenants are about “Us”.

I think you can see why this quote felt particularly à propos to me from a family business perspective.

The business aspect may cover things between the company and its suppliers and customers via contracts, but the intra-family stuff should be more about “us” and therefore covered by covenants.

 

And Furthermore

“…framing a covenant will help keep

people together, without any side

claiming victory or defeat”

Once again, it just feels so much more appropriate to me for families to think about how they interact and work together to be focused on “keeping people together”.

When there is any sort of conflictual issue in a family, finding a resolution that works for the entire family should be more important than seeing one side or another “claiming victory”.

 

One Final Snippet

 The whole quote is good, and so is Roy’s post, and I bet Rabbi Sacks’ book is too.

But here’s one last part:

A covenant lifts our horizon from

self-interest to the common good.”

When you’re dealing with family members, the tendency of some people to be more concerned with their own self-interest rather than the common good of the group can be the biggest source of conflict.

 

Definitions and Synonyms

When you look for definitions, “contract” usually mentions something about “enforceable by law”

When you search for “covenant” you’re more likely to see references to the Bible, to God, and words like “promise”.

A search for synonyms of covenant gives results like:

pact, compact, promise, arrangement, deal,

agreement, commitment, contract. 

So Now What?

 You may be thinking, “thanks for the vocabulary lesson, but so what?”

Well, writing these posts is a way for me to think through issues, much like people who “think out loud” by talking (I do that too).

This post is a perfect example of that.

 

Covenants BEFORE Contracts

My “A-Ha” moment writing this, and my conclusion is this:

The family should work on its covenants first,

and only then

should they turn those covenants into contracts

I have been saying it in less elegant ways for years.

Families should figure out what they want the future to look like for their family, first.

Once they know what they want, then they should turn to professionals (lawyers, accountants, trustees, tax experts) to turn those ideas into legally-binding structures and agreements.

Too often, they do it “Bass-ackwards”.

Somehow the idea of “Covenants BEFORE Contracts” hadn’t come to me yet.

Feel free to use it, and share it.

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!

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

Family of adults and kids sitting together

Realistic Family Governance Goals

Realistic Family Governance Goals

I recently spent a day in New York City at the second annual conference of the Institute for Family Governance.

It wasn’t only interesting, but in some ways inspiring. But upon further reflection over the following days, I almost felt like it might’ve been a bit too inspiring.

I’ll get back to that part later.

 

Generative Families

The opening speaker was Dennis Jaffe, who didn’t disappoint, as usual. His presentation was titled “Do you need a different mindset to create a fortune than to hold onto one?”

I love that title because it’s a question that answers itself, with an “of course” as soon as you read it.

Jaffe went on to talk about what he terms “generative families”, which others call “legacy families” and still others dub “enterprising families”.

Generative families, according to Jaffe, see themselves as a “collective entity”, who’ve decided to develop into a “great family”.

 

Great “Family” vs. Great “Business”

This reminded me of a line that some people like to use with successful business people, to convince them to shift their focus.

“You’ve already created a great business;

now, why don’t you create a great family?”

It also fits nicely with the question that served as the title of his presentation.

Jaffe has studied dozens of such generative families who’ve been successful at transitioning their wealth over several generations.

 

Examples and Role Models

The rest of the day continued with examples of families who’ve figured out that family governance is the key to having a great family.

Simply put, without any governance, a family’s legacy has virtually no chance to survive over generations.

In the past few decades, people like Jaffe have done the work of learning what these families do, and have written about it so that other people can follow these role models.

 

Too Inspiring

So here’s why I think that in some ways the examples we heard about might actually be “too good”.

I’m willing to bet that none of those families made the decision to create a governance model on one day, and then had created and implemented it successfully within a year.

I bet most of them still had lots of work to do even after a decade. This work takes lots of time and effort, over many years.

 

Family Culture

Mitzi Perdue was our closing keynote speaker and she talked about family culture, which includes the answers to questions like “who we are” and “how we do things”.

She also correctly noted that these things don’t just happen by chance.

This stuff takes lots of work, and it takes lots of time.

And it takes a different mindset.

 

Family Alignment and Vision

I know that in order for a family to be receptive to putting any sort of governance into place, they need to be aligned, and have a similar vision of what’s possible.

Regular readers of mine also know this to be true (assuming they’re drinking the KoolAid).

But I feel like many of the attendees at this conference might have had the impression that some of the examples we heard about possibly seemed “too perfect”.

Advisors to families, and families themselves, who’ve never heard of family governance often need time to grasp everything that’s involved in this work.

Likewise, the entire family will rarely buy in all at once; there usually needs to be an “early adopter” or “family champion” who “gets it” first, and then leads the way.

 

Ironman Inspiration to Get Off the Couch

I love analogies, and I think of these great generative, legacy families that are the role models, as if they were champion Ironman Triathletes.

They’re awesome and inspirational, and that’s why they’re on TV.

Most people will never get to that level, and if they choose to stay on the couch because they know they’ll never be an Ironman, then that’s a missed opportunity.

Lots of families could benefit from getting off the couch and just going for a walk or a jog.

 

One Step, One Person, One Family at a Time

Family Governance starts with a mindset, and a group of people who are aligned.

It takes lots of time and effort to get there.

The good news is that it’s very incremental in nature.

Start small, get another person on board, and grow slowly.

Don’t compare yourselves to the best and get discouraged.

It can be done, and it is so worth it.

 

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.

 

Coach in soccer field

No, Dad, Coaching is NOT “Helping Losers”

No, Dad, Coaching is NOT “Helping Losers”

I’ve just begun a series of coaching courses that have been “right up my alley”, and the process has also triggered some memories and anecdotes about the coaching profession that I think are worth sharing here.

When I first learned about ORSC (Organisation and Relationship System Coaching) I was instantly intrigued and thought it might be the perfect place to hone some of my facilitation skills.

Working with families means that there are lots of “relationship systems” already in place, and there is both some art and some science behind knowing how best to work with them.

 

Flashback No. 1

So let’s start with my first flashback, which is the source of the title of this post. It touches on some of the misconceptions and general misunderstanding of what coaching is, and conversely, what it isn’t.

It was over a decade ago, and someone who respected my father as a businessman made the unfortunate mistake of asking for his opinion on a matter he knew little about.

My Dad deserved the respect for his business acumen, but his penchant for offering strong opinions on matters he knew very little about was also part of the deal.

A family member in his forties was thinking about coaching as a career change. This person could have / would have made a great coach, but never pursued it, thanks in part to being dissuaded by my Dad.

I learned of the discussion later from my Dad, who off-handedly mentioned that so-and-so was considering going into the business of “helping losers”.

 

A New “Profession” 

The coaching “profession” is still relatively new and misunderstood, although it feels to me that things are getting better slowly with time.

Something interesting I have noted in my work in the area of Bowen Family Systems Theory is that Dr. Murray Bowen was calling himself a “coach” since at least the 1960’s, which likely pre-dates much of the current coaching “industry”.

Unfortunately, many family leaders from the senior generation have a hard time grasping the idea of hiring a “coach”

I know of at least one family who missed out on hiring someone that I know would’ve helped them greatly, but the patriarch was not convinced, in large part because the person presented herself as a “coach”, and he couldn’t get past the fact that his family wasn’t a “hockey team”.

 

What should we call ourselves?

I touched on this last week in Providing Counsel to the Family Council, where I mentioned that I don’t like to call myself a consultant. So I use the term “Advisor”, but then I really don’t like to give “advice” per se.

One of the best words to describe the kind of assistance I provide is “guidance”, but calling myself a “guide” just feels a little too nebulous.

 

Tour Guide or Wilderness Guide

Let me play with the “guide” theme a bit here. I really don’t think the city tour guide at the front of the bus is a good analogy. However, a safari guide or wilderness guide might be a better fit.

When you go to a place where things are unfamiliar and potentially dangerous, you really shouldn’t go it alone.

I don’t think too many people just book a flight to Kenya, stop at the Hertz counter and drive into the jungle to find the lions.

 

A Safe Expedition

Working on your family alignment and governance also requires making sure that everyone feels safe and that nobody is ever in danger. You want to make sure that you have at least as many members in your party at the end of the trip as when you started.

In the cases where some members are no longer part of the journey, you want it to be because they chose to come home early or to go on a journey with a different route.

 

How about a FLAG?

Now I’ve added even more elements, i.e. alignment and governance, that people who do this kind of work like to talk about, which can also add to the variety of titles.

So a Family Legacy Alignment Guide could be shortened to FLAG. I’m not sure that one would resonate though.

I think I’ll stick with Family Legacy Advisor for now, while continuing the coaching courses, which are actually more about “facilitation”.

 

Moral of the story: All families are different, and so are the people they hire.

Also please see: Going Far? Go Together!

Family sitting around a table

Providing Counsel to the Family Council

Providing Counsel to the Family Council

I enjoy wordplay more than most, and this week I stumbled across something I probably should have addressed in this space already, but seemingly haven’t.

So by exploring the words “Counsel” and “Council”, which are homonyms, I get to touch on a couple areas that are important to me and to my practice.

 

Family Counsellor

My current business card identifies me as a “Family Legacy Advisor”, but I’m never sure what I should actually call myself.

I cover a few bases by adding “sub-titles”, (Facilitator, Coach, Mediator), but even then it never feels 100% “correct”.

I prefer “advisor” to “consultant”, but when I’m crossing the border I always say I’m a consultant, because it sounds more straightforward.

Somehow, “family counsellor” feels like an appropriate title for a role I really enjoy playing, although that could also be easily misconstrued.

 

Business Family versus Family Business

Regular readers know that I often note the difference between a “family business” and a “business family”, and I have a clear preference for which entity I prefer to serve.

I like to work in the “family” circle, serving the business family first and foremost, because the family side is usually “under-served” by outside professionals.

The business circle has plenty of outside help from lawyers and accountants, not to mention various other professional consultants.

“Business counsellor” would sound kind of funny, but “family counsellor” has an interesting ring to it.

 

Family Governance = Family Council

I’ve written quite a bit about family governance, and family meetings, and one of the most basic terms in this area is “Family Council”, but until now I haven’t used that term.

Governance can get a bad rap, and too often it scares people because it sounds way more formal than it needs to be in real life.

This week I attended an event for business families held at a local University family business center, where the topic was “family councils”. Actually, since it was in French, it was “Conseil de Famille”.

There were representatives of three local business families on a panel, and the moderator asked them questions about their family councils.

 

De-Mystifying Governance

I truly appreciated the family members who spoke in front of a group of strangers about personal subjects, and I applaud the organisers for trying to de-mystify the idea of having a family council as a basic element of family governance.

However, based on some of the questions during the Q & A, I think that plenty of attendees still didn’t “get it”.

Despite the fact that the panelists were very forthcoming, explaining the nuts and bolts of how often they meet, who gets invited, what they talk about, who sets the agenda and who runs the meetings, it felt like many were still mystified by the idea.

I think it’s likely because they couldn’t picture how it might work in their own family, and I wonder if the name “Family Council” is too formal, and scares people as much as the term governance does.

 

Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary

It shouldn’t be so formal though, especially at the outset. Just have a family meeting, and let it evolve from there.

The only “revolutionary” step is bringing in an outsider to facilitate the meetings. Everything else needs to simply be “evolutionary”.

The most important part is actually starting to set up regular meetings to talk about how the family is affected by the business.

 

A Seat at the Table

Yes, even those family members who don’t work in the business, or don’t own any of the business, do have questions and concerns about the business, because they are certainly affected by it.

Providing them a seat at the table, so that they can be heard, and so that they can ask questions, is simple and basic.

If you organize such a forum before you need to do so, it will all go so much more easily than if you wait until they demand such meetings.

 

Counseling the Family Council

Meeting even just once a year is fine to get you started. But please start before you feel like you need to.

Start slowly, start small, and evolve from there. Learn as you go, and look for progress, not for perfection.

Eventually, you’ll find a family counselor to come in and facilitate those meetings, and then you can officially call it a “Family Council”.

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.

Family “WealthCo” Opportunity Knocks

Family “WealthCo” Opportunity Knocks

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to Toronto to attend a one-day investment conference aimed at Family Offices.

As someone who used to be interested in the nuts and bolts of investing my family’s investment assets, I used to attend a lot more of these events

I had a bit of a flashback as I listened to speakers talking about the future direction of the S&P500, and what the Fed was expected to do with interest rates.

But I let out more than one contented sigh of relief, as I also recognized that I have now found more interesting things to occupy both my mind and my time.

The Family Office aspect of the conference thankfully added some more interesting ideas to the agenda.

 

Liquid Assets

The first noteworthy take-home message that I got from the day came from the very first panel.

On stage were a number of investment specialists, all of whom are charged with providing investment vehicles and advice to a number of family offices and families of wealth.

Most “family offices” are formed after a “liquidity event”, in which a substantial business asset is sold by a family, creating a pool of capital available for investment in other assets.

 

The Family “WealthCo”

One panelist (whose name escapes me, otherwise I would happily credit him) noted that when he has a client who experiences such an event, he makes sure that they do not become complacent.

Too often (and I have seen this up close myself) when a family sells an operating company and winds up with a proverbial “pile of cash”, they think that things are now going to be so much easier.

They wrongly believe that they’ll be able to become “Do-It-Yourselfers” for much of what they’ll now need to manage.

The speaker related that he always insists that these client families realize that whereas they previously had an “OpCo” (operating company), they were now the proud owners of a “WealthCo”.

This WealthCo requires diligent leadership, qualified people, and formal procedures and governance, just like the OpCo did.

His message is worth keeping in mind, and I’ll certainly be using his term going forward.

 

Opportunistic Opportunities

During the same panel, I got another interesting “blog-worthy” tidbit, and this time the fact that I don’t recall the speaker’s name may be a plus.

Speaking without notes, someone was talking about evaluating opportunities, and used the adjective “opportunistic” and then searched for the right noun to complete the phrase.

He eventually ended up uttering the phrase “opportunistic opportunities”, to a mild chuckle. I note this not to make fun of someone on stage searching for the right word (been there, don’t that) but because his “expression” made me realize something important.

 

Not All Opportunities Are Created Equal

The point that was driven home for me is that not all “opportunities” that are presented to us are in fact “opportunistic”.

In fact, one of its biggest challenges a family “WealthCo” faces is the careful selection of which opportunities to pursue.

As someone who’s selected some very good opportunities over the years, I must grudgingly admit that I have made a number of poor choices too.

And if you think that you’re qualified to “cast the first stone” as the exception, then I must either congratulate you, call you a liar, or suggest you scan your memory bank again for some examples.

 

Diligence and Governance

Earlier I noted that a WealthCo requires procedures and governance, and I know that it’s tempting to really enjoy the newfound freedom that comes with putting liquid investable assets to work.

There can be a tendency to see many opportunities as being much more “opportunistic” than they really are at first glance.

You need to force yourself, as a family, to look at your family wealth as a “WealthCo”, that needs to be managed and governed in as serious and diligent a manner as you ran your former OpCo.

 

Think (and ACT) Like a Family Office

In my book, SHIFT your Family Business, Chapter 9 is called “Think Like a Family Office”. The WealthCo idea takes it a bit further, and actually suggests that you “Act Like a Family Office” too.

WealthCo is just another way of saying it. However you say it, just don’t get complacent with the newfound freedom liquidity brings.

Govern yourselves accordingly.

Next Week: I’m looking forward to the first ever Guest Blog post here next week. Kim Harland will be supplying a guest piece here, while one of my original blog posts will be going to her subscribers.

Family Advice in Biz

Dealing with Spouses in a Business Family

Dealing with Spouses in a Business Family

This week’s post was inspired by an email I received from a colleague. She sent along a video blog she’d watched that spurred her questions.

Coincidentally, I’d just watched the video that morning. It was from Wayne Rivers of the Family Business Institute.

 

Your spouse is CRITICAL to your planning

The video talks about why it’s so important to involve the spouses of family business principals in all of the planning that gets done.

Rivers is speaking about the very early stages of planning, for the work business families face when transitioning a business from one generation to the next.

Not involving the spouses at this stage would clearly be a mistake.

 

All of the In-Laws ? 

The questions from my colleague, however, went much further than simple planning, to full blown governance questions, which take the issue to a whole new level.

When you’re talking about two or three generations, including many adult children with spouses and children, the question of involving spouses can get pretty tricky in a hurry.

 

Three-Circle Basics – Again

Here are some of the essentials that come to mind when dealing with these situations:

  • There are three circles, and each is its own “system”: Family, Business, and Ownership
  • Each system is made up of different groups of people, who then need to come up with ways to govern themselves, i.e. communicate and make decisions together
  • Some questions that business families face can become pretty ambiguous, so it’s paramount to think through which questions need to be addressed by which group. This is NOT a one-shot deal, it will come up over, and over, and over again.
  • Rules about who belongs in which group need to be clear, and they should be made by the members of each group
  • It’s easier to start with a small group when making the rules, and then to carefully enlarge the group afterwards
  • All rules that a group makes for itself should be logical and clearly defined

Multiple Governance Layers

There can also be more than one group in each circle.

In the business circle, at the most basic level, there are likely different groups or committees charged with certain day-to-day tasks.

At the other extreme, the business may have a board of directors or executive committee, charged with big-picture decisions.

(Yes, I realize that many founders act as their own self-contained, “one-man-show” board and executive committee.)

It’s possible to have a variety of people or groups who make decisions at different levels.

 

Family Assembly versus Family Council

For the family circle, when there are more than a dozen or so people involved, you may have a “family assembly” that brings together everyone with a stake in the family.

In order to translate their wishes and needs into a coherent forum for decision-making, they may elect to have a “family council” to represent them.

There would typically only be 5-10 family members on the council, whose role is to represent the views of the larger group.

 

Voice versus Vote

One of the most important concepts to always keep in mind here is the difference between having a voice and having a vote.

Everyone should have a voice, an opportunity to be heard. It helps when they’ve all been informed, so that when they do voice their points, they do so in an informed fashion.

If some members are voicing things from a position of ignorance of the issues, often simply clarifying things will go a long way to diminish the volume of their voices.

Many “complaints” simply stem from a lack of information.

Everyone usually wants to be informed, and to be heard.

 

Rules for Inclusion

The rules for inclusion must be clear and also “clean”, i.e. easily explained and interpreted by anyone. For example, if my wife is in, so is my sister’s husband.

There’s no room here for picking and choosing without solid reasons.

All of this is easier said than done, of course, and easier in theory than in practice

The key is to go slowly, it’s not a race. Taking the time to get it right will be well worth it in the end. Building consensus takes time.

 

How Many Is Too Many?

The photo I chose to accompany this post is a bit of a trick.

There are 15 people at that meeting.

That’s NOT a good number to begin with.