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So Many Families Think They’re Alone

Recently I realized that there’s something I do a lot of, which is telling families (and individual family members) that what they’re experiencing is not unique to them.

The best word to describe this is “normalizing”, and it’s really growing on me. 

Despite the fact that the word is also used in the context of politics and the media’s role in it, it has a huge place in the kind of work I do on a regular basis when dealing with family enterprises.

This week we’ll look at what it is and why it’s prevalent in my work, and how it brings both comfort and clarity to so many.

When I recognized that I was doing an abnormal amount of normalizing, it became clear that it was time to blog about it.

Let’s start with a few concrete examples.

Lack of Maturity in the Rising Generation

As someone who typically works with a number of different members of the same family, often from different generations, one of the key benefits I offer is an unbiased perspective on what I see in each person, which I can then share with others as needed.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this often involves sharing my views on those in the rising generation with their parents.

Parents’ views of their own offspring are naturally skewed (here I am normalizing again!) and so it often happens that I offer a new way of thinking about where they appear to be in my eyes, and how mature they actually are.

Underestimating how far our children have come is pretty commonplace, as you can imagine.

Another area related to this is sharing thoughts on the relative maturity of various family members.

I recall sharing with one mother that it seemed normal to me that the youngest sibling who was still single would be less mature than their older sibling who was married and raising teenagers.

Families Unsure of How to Plan Their Transition

Switching gears here, I’m thinking about a trip I made last fall where I was invited to speak with the parents of about a dozen wealthy families, all of whom are planning their eventual wealth transitions.

There was a certain angst among many of them, who seemed to feel uneasy about the fact that they weren’t really sure about what they were doing, or how things would play out.

I tried my best to make them feel like they were actually way ahead of most families, who typically give this subject little thought until something forces them into action.

The fact that these people were coming together with their wealth managers who had invited them was a great sign.

Indeed, I said, it’s quite normal to feel a bit overwhelmed and under-prepared, and here they were actually being proactive about this challenge.

Do They Have Too Much Informality?

Pivoting once again, I now want to share a bit from another role I play, as one of the instructors of the Family Governance course (FFI GEN 502) offered by the Family Firm Institute.

I enjoy teaching this course every year because is allows me to interact with other learners from around the globe, all of whom are interested in finding ways to better serve their family clients.

A recurring theme is that successful families typically achieve some success with very little in the way of formal procedures or structure.

Both the families and their professional advisors then begin to feel like a bit of “imposter syndrome” as they come to realize that some formality is now becoming necessary, assuming they wish to continue, and eventually transition what they’ve built to the next generation.

That feeling of “Hmmm, we’re not so sure about what we’re doing and what we need to be thinking about and doing next” is very normal.

But, as I discussed with my guest on this podcast I hosted a few years back, The “Natural Advantage” of Family Businesses, the outside advisors should hesitate before offering “best practices” to these clients.

Giving Comfort, Clarity, and Positivity

In the end, the normalizing I do is usually designed to give family members both comfort and clarity about their situation, all the while reassuring them they’re on the right track.

Doing this with the requisite positivity this entails is also part of the secret sauce that people like me can bring to these complex situations.