Behind the “Flawed” Family Constitution
This week’s post is about the wonderful world of the “Family Constitution”. I thought about doing a “5 Things to Know…” blog, but decided against it.
There’s a lot to get to, so let’s dive in.
Just Who Are “The People”?
As I searched Shutterstock for an image to accompany this post, I entered the word “Constitution” and was amazed (but not surprised) at how many of the pictures featured the words “We the people” at the top of an old document.
Those are of course the first words of the U.S. Constitution, and they really sum up the importance of getting the preamble right to set the context properly in the creation of any important document.
It’s not hard to deduce from the expression “Family Constitution” that “the people” here would be “the family”.
“The Family”; OK, Thanks, Now It’s Clear. NOT
That’s all fine, of course, until it comes to defining exactly who all the individual people are, especially as definitions of family continue to evolve.
If that were the only issue to resolve, this wouldn’t actually be that difficult. We’d need to start with the family leaders and then expand the group slowly, and then work together to come up with definitions and rules, and come to a consensus on who’s included. Surely not an insurmountable problem.
Putting the “Con” in “Constitution”
Having a family constitution can be a very useful thing for some families, assuming their governance has sufficiently evolved and the family members have actually been key players in its development.
For every “Pro”, there are also many “Cons”.
The inspiration for this blog came from an article I saw on LinkedIn a few months ago, by Professor Enrique Soriano, who works with families on their governance, mostly in Asia. I’ve never met him, but we have 174 common connections on that network as I write this.
His post, Elements of a Flawed Family Constitution, is essential reading for anyone truly interested in this subject, especially for those who see the Family Constitution as the “be all and end all” of things that every family “must have”.
The fact that many of those who believe this also peddle their services to families, and offer to create these documents for them, should not be a huge surprise.
One Person is NOT “People”
As I wrote last year in Family Governance: From Filaments to LED’s, if one person writes the constitution, alone, without major doses of input from people from different generations of the family, it simply will not work.
Sure, you can fool yourself that you’ve got something worthwhile, but it won’t last.
Similarly, if the document was largely put together by a consultant, or even a team of consultants, it will not serve its intended purpose. And this is true even if you hire the best consultants and pay them a lot of money to do this work for you.
As I always say about family governance (of which a family constitution is but one possible component) it really needs to be FOR the Family, BY the Family.
Soriano notes at one point that perhaps the phenomenon of “flawed family constitutions” is more prevalent in Asia, where he is based. That may be the case, as there could be more of an attitude towards the forced creation of a document that everyone is then expected to abide by in those cultures.
But I don’t care what country you are in, unless the family members were heavily involved in its creation and implementation, no family constitution is going to be worth much.
My Own Pet Peeve
The one thing that I personally hate about this subject, is that it’s so often based on the assumption that keeping the business and family together forever is desirable and doable.
There may be some cultural biases in this aspect.
If the attitude behind the creation of a constitution is to “force” people to remain in relationships that they otherwise would rather not be part of, then trouble will likely be ahead.
My “Family” Bias
My bias is always to make sure that the family relationships survive for generations. If that means that changes need to be made to the business and ownership, then let’s figure out how to make those and keep the family intact.
If a constitution that reflects that can be created, then great.
Of course any family with that attitude might never think they need one…