More Here Than Meets the Eye

Working with enterprising families brings up many challenges, which I write about here weekly.

I talk about getting the family engaged and aligned, and the importance of being intentional about everything, because things don’t just happen by themselves.

When I write about professionals who serve such families, I often highlight the need for us to collaborate, and how that’s typically never as easy as we’d hope.

But one of the ideas that I’ve given scant attention to is the idea of considering the whole family as your client.

Many of the advisors who work with such families do so mainly via the business the family owns, and they naturally consider the company as their client.

Others, who work with the owners of the company, look at those folks as their client.

There’s a growing movement afoot to consider the family as the client, and while it makes lots of sense on some levels, it’s also fraught with challenges.

“Who Is My Client” – A Really Good Question

My first exposure to this question came a decade ago when I embarked on my journey to this work and enrolled in the Family Enterprise Advisor (FEA) program.

As a “newbie” to this work back then, I didn’t appreciate the distinction, unlike many of my colleagues in the class, who’d already been exposed to the distinctions outlined above, although perhaps never having considered that the family should be their focus.

So for me, this wasn’t really an issue I thought I needed to concern myself with. Of course once I began working with families other than my own, things began to sink in quickly.

You might think that those who treat the business as their client would be used to this, since the business is typically also comprised of a number of people, as is a family. But it’s not that simple.

Even when you think you understand the idea that the whole family should be your client (which is a big leap for many), at some point you’re confronted with the realization that the family doesn’t always speak with one voice!


Plenty of Groundwork Needs to Be Done

In fact, getting a family to the point where they understand that they need to learn to speak with one voice on some matters takes lots of work in itself.

In cases where there are a number of non-family members in key roles in a family business, having different family members giving direction, especially to non-family employees, causes problems.

See Nose In, Fingers Out for Family Business

The idea that each family member sees things their own way, and often expects that their way is the way the family should go, also affects the way all outside professionals working with the family interact with them as a group.

Having been trained in the FEA program, I quickly understood that the entire family needed to be my client, and I adopted that mindset from the get go.

But therein lies the challenge, i.e. what are the limits of this important mindset?

Values and Vision Work, or Mediation

Much of the fun work that people like me enjoy getting into with families involves spending time with family members trying to ascertain their common family values and getting them to identify a common vision and mission for the future.

Some of the less fun version of working with family members who have disparate views involves things like mediation and conflict resolution.

If you adopt the mindset of “the family is my client” this gets easier, because it can serve as your “north star” and give you some important grounding, which is why the FEA program teaches us that.

We must always remind ourselves that the family is a system, with many interdependent moving parts and relationships.

We are invited to work with the system, but need to be careful not to become part of that system.


The Family As a System

This isn’t as easy as is sounds, as those within the system constantly try to pull us in to their view of how things should be.

By always keeping what’s best for the entire family in mind, it becomes more straightforward, but certainly far from easy.

Most families will agree in principle to this way of working without resistance up front. It doesn’t always last, though, as some family members realize they aren’t getting the special treatment they’d like.

Yet another challenge to overcome.