25: Dear Younger Me


Welcome to Let’s Talk Family Enterprise, a podcast that explores the ideas, concepts and models that best serve Family Enterprise Advisors in supporting their clients.

All views, information and opinions expressed during this podcast are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of Family Enterprise Canada.


In this episode, Steve Legler speaks with David C. Bentall about David’s latest book, Dear Younger Me: Wisdom for Family Enterprise Successors. They also discuss some of the traits that successors to family enterprises may want to develop and how FEAs might better “walk the walk” when working with enterprising family members.

Guest bio

David C. Bentall is the Founder and President of Next Step Advisors, based in Vancouver, BC, where he works with people from enterprising families in a variety of different capacities.

Let’s talk family enterprise explores global ideas, concepts and models that help family enterprise advisors better serve their family clients brought to you by family enterprise Canada. All views Information and opinions expressed during this podcast are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those a family enterprise Canada.

Hello, and welcome to another episode of The let’s talk family enterprise podcast. My name is Steve Legler. And it’s great to be your host once again. Today, we’re going to be talking with someone who’s very familiar to the family enterprise advisor community in Canada, because we’ll be speaking with one of the longtime instructors from the MBA program. Our guest today is David C. Bentall. And we’ll be talking about his recent book, dear younger me, wisdom for family enterprise successors. David is the founder and president of next step advisors based in Vancouver, where he works with people from enterprising families in a variety of different capacities. I met David in March of 2013 When I was a participant, and he was an instructor for the FAA program module, business boards and family councils. And that seems like a lifetime ago. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. So let’s say hi to our guest to kick things off. David, thanks for joining us today. And welcome to the let’s talk family enterprise podcast.

Steve, thanks very much. Great to connect with you on this looking forward to our conversation.

David, I mentioned your your recent book, but I might have equally said your latest book because you’d already written a couple of books over the last few decades. So what prompted you to write Dear younger me and why now?

Well, thanks, Steve. What prompted the actually was a a couple of family meetings that I had led that actually hadn’t gone very well to be honest. And you know, I’m speaking largely I know to other family enterprise advisors. Maybe none of you have ever had that. Experience. But I had a couple of Back to Back family meetings that didn’t go very well. And Steve, I honestly I thought I’d prepared well, frankly, I think the agendas were good. I couldn’t get did a pretty, pretty good job of leading the meetings. But as I got on a plane flying back to Vancouver from these two meetings in two different cities, I was thinking about them and I thought, why did they go so badly? And I was thinking about them. I thought well, in one meeting, one of the successors seemed pretty impatient. We’re all impatient at times, but this particular individual was impatience was maybe his middle name. And that seemed to just derail things very often in the not just that meeting, but in others and then thought about the other meeting, and there was a successor in that meeting that you might have described as frustrated or maybe even angry. And Steve, that, again, put a cloud over everything and I was I was thinking about that. I thought, Gee, I’m sure glad I wasn’t like that. When I was in our family business. And you’re laughing because you’ve read my book, you know, of course, I was I was impatient and I was angry. And so I started thinking, you know, having worked with well over 100 families over the last 25 years in various stages of their succession planning and their working together. I realized that I was not alone in being impatient or angry. I was not alone in lacking empathy. I was not alone and not listening to the elder generation. And so I started thinking, you know, maybe Steve, I could help some members of the next generation. Learn to cultivate some of these emotional intelligence traits, so that they could get a better result than I did, frankly, and so that families like the ones that I had just lead meetings with could perhaps have a better result. So it was really, Steve a result of reflecting on the fact that the best best laid plans that can go very badly without emotional intelligence on the part of the participants and particularly the successor so so that’s what really got me started that make any sense as I’m sharing that.

Yeah, it does. And in fact, the first thing I want to say is, it’s good to know that someone with as much experience as you’re leaving family meetings, has had bad outcomes and walked away from meetings shaking their head because I know it’s happened to me, and I don’t have as much mileage behind me as you so it’s good to know that Are you saying I’m old? No, no. I’m saying you’re more experienced. And it’s interesting because I also, you know, was was groomed to be a successor in my family. And I don’t know that I was as impatient as as many are, but I know that having lived it gives you a really interesting viewpoint on things and so when you talk about character traits, like humility and empathy, I don’t know how, how popular it is for people to consider those kinds of character traits as important I think most people look at you know, who are good successors. Well, how technically ready are they how skilled are they How well did they know the business but you spent a lot of time talking about some of the more like you just mentioned emotional intelligence areas. What specifically about family businesses makes those traits important.

Steve brilliant question because I would suggest to you that humility, curiosity, listening, all the traits that I wrote about in my book, are relevant for any business leader or any aspiring leader. But and you know, people like Daniel Goleman, who popularized emotional intelligence would would advocate that we all need emotional intelligence if we’re going to be successful leaders and in our in our businesses, but you ask why particularly in the family enterprise, because the stakes are higher relationally we’re dealing with relationships that are irreplaceable. I can’t if I damage my relationship with my dad in our working relationship. That’s an irreplaceable relationship. It’s like a it’s like a vase. Once it’s broken. It’s done. My relationship with my dad missed me I only have one dad only have one group of siblings. So the stakes are much higher, and the relationships are much more complicated. We’ve just been rereading, deconstructing conflict. Fantastic book, and Blair, Blair trip one of our instructors in the FDA program is one of the co authors of that and they talk about how you know, interrelatedness leads to the more interrelated list leads to more relational or challenges or potential for more relational challenges. I jokingly was trying to explain it to one of our family members and said, you know, if you take two people and put them each on a desert island, and they have no communication with each other, and they’ve never met and they don’t call on anything, the two people on the desert island they’re not going to separate desert islands will have no conflict. But if if those two people are a brother and a sister, and they’re on the same desert island, and they call on the the resources that have been left on that desert island for them, there’s lots of potential for conflict. And so Steve, because in a family enterprise, we’re not just dealing with business, we’re dealing with the relationships with siblings, with the older generation, and frankly, with the senior executives. There’s more need for cultivating emotional intelligence and certainly in my experience,

I agree and one of the things I liked is you talk about in the book about a lot of heroes at the beginning of the book, you talk about your hero when you were young was Vince Lombardi. Yes. Later, I guess you realized that there were some shortcomings in in having him as a hero as a family business person. And you have morphed over to more people like Benjamin Franklin and Nelson Mandela. You want to talk a little bit about that.

Great question, Steve. Vince Lombardi still a hero of mine. One of my early heroes was Winston Churchill. He’s still a hero of mine. But what I discovered as I progressed in my career is their leadership styles. If somebody saw Winston Churchill’s leadership style, not necessarily the best style, for leading in a family enterprise, which Vince Lombardi was known for saying, you know, winning is not the most important thing. It’s the only thing Well, I brought that to our family business and so in disagreements with my uncle, or my dad, and with others, winning became the only thing. Well, that’s not a very helpful trade. If you aspire to lead in a family enterprise and similarly with, with Churchill, you know, he, he, he was known famously for saying never, never give up and I’m sure glad he never gave up during the trial. That was the second world war, and that horrible season in our world history. But bringing a never, never never give up. perspective to conversations and discussions in a family enterprise. Not necessarily a good thing. And so, you know, I’ve read Steve Jobs, biography, there’s lots of things that we can learn from Steve Jobs. He built an amazing company. I’ve got lots of Apple products, not sure that his leadership style would be the right leadership style for most family businesses. So Steve, what I’m suggesting is that we need to choose carefully our heroes and so that’s why I’ve lifted up in my book some of these other individuals because then we can learn styles from them, leadership traits from them that may be more appropriate for a family enterprise

in the book, you go over a number of different character traits, like listening and empathy, and humility, which are sound like they’re more on the soft side although, but then you get to one called critical thinking and and I really liked the discussion where you talk about the difference between critical thinking and critical spirit. And I thought that was really really interesting, because I guess the younger you that was impatient, exhibited more of a critical spirit and then later you learn that it was more important to be ethical thinker. Can you can you shed a little more light on that?

Yeah, Steve, you know, it was probably my most damaging trait of all of them. I was so critical of others rather than rather than criticizing people’s ideas. For example, I talk about Bran Ramsay some folks who are listening may know brand from their family business, Brit land and engagement in Alberta and brand sharing with me that in their company one of their mottos, is they want to be soft on people, but hard on ideas. And I got that mixed up. I was hard on people. And maybe I was hard on ideas sometimes too, but I was bit hard on people and so what I what I learned, Steve, is how important is to disentangle that and to stand side by side with individuals and look at the problems rather than squaring off against another person to deal with problems and a funny little anecdote from our daughter Christina and her husband, Steve. There now been married about 10 years, raising four children and they’ve got a strong solid marriage but earlier on in their marriage. They often used to go toe to toe and argue with each other. And what they learned to do through counseling was to put their problems in a glass, put them on the table, right? Write them down, put them on the table in a glass, okay, the problem is, what should we should we buy this car that car they put the problem in the glass and they’d sit side by side and book and discuss the problem. And Steve I think so often in a family enterprise context, family members start dazzling each other, rather than sitting side by side, battling the problem. And to do that requires critical thinking and requires us to shed our critical spirit not been a huge learning for me.

That’s great. So critical thinking is one of the ones that jumped out at me and another one was contentment. And we talk about, you know, everyone talks about I want to just want to be happy. We want our kids to be happy. Everyone talks about happiness. And then one of your traits that you’re talking about is contentment. And I know that for some people happiness and contentment might be synonyms. But you make a number of distinctions and I think they’re they’re worthy of spending a couple of minutes on can you talk about the contentment angle?

Well, you know, theater was just a few years ago now. That many of us in Canada, were excited to see Canada win, or at least the Toronto Raptors win on on behalf of of the of the North, the first NBA championship. And you know if anybody watched the NBA finals or even any of the playoffs when Kawhi Leonard who was you know, this heart and soul and leader of that team, you would not think of him as a guy who was content. He was ferociously aggressive, and he was a powerful leader. But if you look beneath the surface, you would notice that there was a lot of still water. There was not a raging spirit. There was a sense of contentment because what’s what Kawhi Leonard had figured out is if I give 100% on the floor, I can be content with the result whether I make the next shot or not. And I think so often we get caught I know I did. We get caught in this frenetic this frenzy, trying, trying to make things happen. And I think as my performance coach, I’m a competitive water skier as you may recall. And my performance coaches said to me, David, the more we try the worst and the way I think about it boring from hockey, and I hope that our listeners can go from basketball to hockey and then to family enterprise in a moment here but in hockey, you know, if you’re a goal scorer, you need to have soft hands. If you go a whole bunch of games without scoring a goal, you start holding on to your stick more tightly held hands go away, you become wooden and scoring goals starts to that that goal streak disappears, or that long drought manifests itself. So Steve, what I’ve learned is that we ought to be content with where we are each and every day if we give 100% Rather than being impatient for the next step, and then much more specifically in the in the family enterprise environment. You know, they there’s a temptation for successors, certainly there was for me to look at all that I have, whether that be the the material upbringing, the generosity of my parents, you know, helping us get started with our first home or whether it be the career opportunity I have, and rather than being content and each day, being so eager to get to the next step. And so, I think that as far as advisor, Steve, if we can encourage our family enterprise successors to be go to another trait we talked about in the book is gratitude. If we can encourage our successors, to be grateful for the opportunities they have be grateful for the positions they’re in. I think it makes a huge difference in how we interrelate other people

I like that that kind of like contentment is like raising your baseline, whereas the happiness is more fleeting. And if you’re not really happy with where you are, and you’re always looking, I’ll be happy when I get to be vice president. I’ll be happy when I do this. Then once you get there, it’s sort of you drop back down but if you can raise your contentment level, I think that’s something that comes with maturity. And that reminds me of something I really liked in the book about when you’re younger. You bill it’s the you have a tendency to believe that you have all the answers and you also believe you’re supposed to have all the answers. And this I thought was really interesting because it applies not only to the successors in the family business, or anyone in the family business or the business family, but it also applies to us as the advisors when we work with the family. Like what when families come to us and they look to us as the experts. They sometimes expect us to have all the answers and sometimes we believe we’re supposed to have all the answers and and that doesn’t always work the way we hope

will and I think that there’s a huge trap that you’re shining some light on. I think the trap is that we think that we’re supposed to have all the answers. And frankly, many of us you know if our origin in our professional career, maybe from banking or finance or accounting or legal or whatever our skill set is that we bring to the table. Most of us have gotten paid for solving problems or coming up with answers. And in a family enterprise environment. It’s tempting for us to believe that we as as advisors that we should have all the answers so I want to think specifically about family enterprise successes from you know, as a successor, I thought I needed to have all the answers because I was the son of the of the chairman of the board and CEO, I was grandson of the founder. I didn’t want anybody to think that third generation member of our family didn’t have all the answers. So I I had this tremendous burden. Steve, I had to play this charade that I always knew. I never want anybody to know that I didn’t know I was afraid to ask questions because I didn’t want anybody to think I didn’t know. So that was a huge problem for me as a successor. But I think it’s a trap for us as advisors because if our clients come to us and say, you know, this is my problem. What do you think I should do? There’s a, there’s a temptation to say, well, here’s what I think you should do because, gosh, they’re paying us aren’t they? So shouldn’t we know? And I think for us to have the humility and the curiosity that would enable us to say, you know, I’m not sure what are you thinking? If you knew that you’ve come to me for advice, what would if you if you don’t you don’t know the answer, but if you did know, what would you think you should do? And I think as advisors we need to cultivate more curiosity and better listening skills and more humility, just like I think successes ought to

I think you’re what you’re going towards is more of a coaching approach to and that really the best answer lies between the clients ears already they just need help teasing it out. And the same thing happens with a family. I’ve had people from family say, you know, what do you think we should do? And I usually say, well, it doesn’t really matter what I

think it good for you, Steve.

anything I say? If you come up with something that I think is crazy, but you all agree on it and think it’s gonna work, then that’s a better answer than what I’m going to tell you to do. 99 times out of 100.

And Steve, I think that in order to pass the FDA exam, everyone needs to be able to repeat that, you know, doesn’t matter what I think and what’s what, what works for you. That’s brilliant, Steven, I don’t I know I don’t say that often enough. And I think that that’s really wise. If

there’s one thing that comes up a couple of times in the book and it’s like the three truths that are almost always lay in a family going from one generation to another and the one is that the first one is that the parents want the kids to succeed. And the second one is the kids want to prove to their parents that they can succeed and those are almost always true. And then the third one, I think is a little bit harder to swallow for the assessors and that’s that the Elder, the elder generation gets to the side. How do you get that message across to the successors so that they can swallow it and I guess it fits with all the parts about being patient and having gratitude. But but that’s the part that’s a little trickier that the first two I think both of

those are easy to swallow. What’s interesting I first heard that I was at a Canadian Association of family enterprise remember Cafe when we have Kevin, I was at a cafe function and one of the leaders of the blacks for there used to be a company blacks cameras out east I don’t know whether they still have the name and others I think the family sold the business but but one of the leaders of their anger 11 members of the family working in the company, and he was being interviewed and he shared these three truths. And the tough one is that the elder generation gets to decide. I remember coming home from that cafe function and sitting by the fire and my mum and dad’s living room, and said, to explain this to my dad, and I said that you want us to succeed in the future. We want to prove to you that we can and you get to decide and I said Dad, you’ve got a business, you’ve got a family foundation, you’ve got real estate, you’ve got dividends that are paid. Just let us know where you want it to give leadership. I’m happy to step up and say, Well, okay, I got this problem, but you’re heading through a problem to us. And I was, I was actually not so sure. I was glad I’d asked for the authority that we’re dealing with a thorny challenge, but he gave it gave us the challenge to see if we can step up to it. But Steve, the elder generation, if they own the shares, or if they own the leadership role, the leadership roles in the business, they get to decide when as long as long as they have those, those roles. They’re there to hold on to or to disseminate. And I think that it really, how do I communicate that to the next generation was your question, Steve, I’ve often actually told that story about the blacks, black, black family, because you know, it is hard to swallow and I guess the one thing that’s helped me the most in thinking about that is to is to say you will get your turn your mum and dad will not be here forever. The older generation will not be here. So you will get your opportunity but if you’re having trouble living under mom or dad and the older generations rule or or it within their ownership, then I would invite you to go elsewhere and that usually brings a sense of reality to things you know, which is good if I can just see just go from that bridge to you know, I was fascinated, you know, met Fisk Johnson, who’s now the CEO of NC Johnson and met him years ago we did an interview with him in Vancouver. And he and his father Sam, we’re here. Fisk Johnson said quite candidly, at the UVC function we did here. He said, You know, my dad was such a strong leader. I knew that there wasn’t going to be room for me in the company as long as dad was there. So he said I just decided to go to school. Well, he got his first degree in the second degree and he got six earned degrees, including a PhD in physics as well as an MBA as well as several other engineering degrees. In Steve, there was wisdom. He said, You know, my dad’s gonna decide when I have the opportunity to leave so rather than arguing, I’m gonna go do something productive. And I’m not recommending everybody go get six earned degrees. But gosh, that was a better solution than him arguing and fighting with his dad in the business for 10 years. So, Steve, I always encourage families to look at it. If you’re not happy, go work elsewhere or go back to school until you’re willing and for me, you know, it was frankly I didn’t write about this in the book but submitting to authority. If the older generation that it’s their company, we need to learn to submit to authority until it into where I study.

There’s a certain maturity level that I think the older you get, obviously, hopefully you get more mature and more able to do that. But sometimes just having someone as a mentor or an advisor who’s a little bit older, who’s been through some of these things, I know that you know, you did your Bachelor of Commerce and your MBA and I did those same degrees back in the 80s and 90s. And we didn’t have family business courses or family business clubs that like they do now. So I think the people in this day and age who are who are in the rising generation have a lot more opportunities to be mentored to how to take courses to learn about these things than we ever did. And so I think that’s certainly a positive.

Yeah. And today of you know, it’s interesting, you talk about my MBA actually, I actually didn’t get a formal MBA, I went to Harvard and took what something called the owner president’s program, which is akin to an executive MBA or mini MBA, but but instead of taking a formal MBA, I let I actually took my own advice. I was so frustrated. I was not prepared to submit to authority in our business. So I left and I went to work at the Cadillac Fairview Corporation at the time they were the largest real estate development company in North America. And Steve, that was such a gift to me. It enabled me to get out of the the cauldron of my own frustration, and live and work in a different city. Living in Toronto. It was a wonderful experience for me. You know, I encourage family enterprise successors if they can’t stand it in the kitchen, rather than trying to fight in the kitchen. Go go elsewhere. And I don’t say that lightly because I did it myself. And it was such a such a wonderful season for me in my career, Steve

I’m sure you’ve had people come to you like I haven’t saved you know, they complain about my father is tough to work for and he wants to me and he won’t get out of the way. And I almost always say well, so where else can you go? Yeah, that you know, puts it pretty stark right in front of them like do you have if you go to the you know, the getting to guess modality, you say? What’s your BATNA if you can leave and if you can credibly leave and or and or threatened to leave. Now you have something to act on, but we’re getting off track. You talk at the end of the book. About going through the different character traits that you mentioned in the book, and choosing one for you. You think you could do some work on yourself? Yes. And you mentioned personally at the end, that you decided to work on your empathy and so I want to ask you, how’s that been going? Because the way you said you’re going to work on your empathy for the next year, so when your books been out for a number of months, so when you wrote it was probably at least a year ago. How’s your own empathy project going?

Well, Steve, I think we should stop the recording now because I’m in the remedial class, as you know, what empathy involves is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Right? And in order to do that requires self awareness, which is one of the key things for emotional intelligence. requires humility, it requires listening so requires all these things so frankly, you know, I think I am jokingly about I am in the remedial class I, I wrote about that a year ago, so I’m this year that was the 2020 goal. Now it’s it’s still a 2021 goal to cultivate my empathy. But the one thing that I’m working on Steve that has been helpful, is curbing my desire to comment until I’ve asked a few more questions, because if we ask more questions that enables us to understand someone else’s moccasins, so that the moccasins they’re standing in therefore a little more easy to step into them. So I’m trying to ask more questions. That’s been the one thing that’s been really helpful for me.

Life is a work in progress, David, yeah. And just the fact that you share so openly some of your shortcomings from when you were younger and the journey that you went through personally, and how that can help family enterprise successors and how people who work with family enterprises like all the FTAs out there that are hopefully listening to this, to know that there are ways that we can be a resource for these successors, and point them into certain directions and give them some advice and be an ear for them to listen to what what their complaints are and sort of reframe some of the things that are going through it’s all part of how we can all serve in this wonderful

space. Great, absolutely. Right, Steve Absolutely. Right.

David this has been great and and as usual time runs quickly. And so we’ve we’ve got to start to wrap this up. And so I want to go to the two questions that Ruth and I always end these podcasts on. And the first one is a book recommendation. And then we’ll ask you for one piece of advice from an advisor to other advisors. So can we start Have you got a book you can recommend something that you’ve read that was important in your development?

What Yeah, I want to say two things. Multiple choice. So you have a multiple choice answer, not not about at the end of the book, I’m wanting to encourage successors and obviously the audience here today is you know, advisors, what I would like to encourage participants here if you if you were to identify as you were just saying, Steve, a trait you want to cultivate, then I would encourage you to then pick up a biography of someone who exemplifies that trait. So I’ve written in the book about empathy. You know, reading about Mother Teresa I’ve written in the book about critical thinking, reading about Walt Disney’s life or listening read about Ghandi or, or if you want to think about forgiveness, you read Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. So what So my multiple choice answer is, take someone who you want to be like, who can help you. And then so I’ve read in all about all of these individuals to help me but the most recent book that I’ve read on one of these topics that would that I would recommend everybody is probably the least known individual that I’ve talked about in the book, and that’s Kim fuq. She’s written a book called fire road Kim. Many people would recognize if I said, Do you remember that? Picture that that that iconic picture that was on the front page of Time Magazine during the the latter stages of the Vietnam War this young young girl running down the road with her clothes having been burned off by napalm, that was Kim fuq. And she’s written about that horrific day, that tragic day when the little town that she lived in was bombed. And she writes about her experience and how she has learned to cultivate gratitude in her life, in spite of all the pain that she’s been through in 19 surgeries and so that’s my latest that I’d recommend Kim folks book the fire road. I think it’s fantastic Stevens

and we’ll we’ll put a link to that. In the show notes. And and I listened to the book yesterday, and that part was fascinating, the story about her. And I also liked the fact that you’ve got this idea of reading biographies from your dad. Yes, you know, interesting time. So the last thing I want to ask you for is one piece of advice from an advisor with a lot of experience to some advisors who probably have less experience and still have a lot to learn and want to learn from someone who’s further down the road than us.

Well, thanks, Steve. Great question. I wrote this book. The subtitle is wisdom for family enterprise successors. I wrote this book for those who are coming up along in the next generation in their family enterprise or, or their business families. But actually I realized the book was for me. The book is for the book is for you. The book is for those of us who advise other family enterprise, individuals and successes because we as advisors, we need to cultivate emotional intelligence and the more I the more I reflect on what I’m hoping is, the successes will develop, the more I realize in order for us to truly help other families, we need to up our game in terms of emotional intelligence. So my advice to other successors is at eight and eight the kids problems in that family we’re working with it’s our problem does well we need to cultivate emotional intelligence so that we can have better relationships with our clients and better relationships with with others in our lives. So this is for us Tuesday would be my would be my thought.

That’s great. And we need to walk the walk as well. I’m not just talking to talk. Yeah. David, thanks again for joining us and sharing your expertise and your experience with our audience.

It’s been a real pleasure, Steve. Lots of fun. Thanks for inviting me.

Sure. Appreciate it.

Okay, thanks, listeners. If you haven’t already subscribed, please do so make sure you never miss any of these monthly episodes. Thanks again for joining us. I’m Steve Legler. Until next time,

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