Testing My Message for Resonance

I recently returned from a quick swing through the Toronto area, along with some new business partners.

We met with a number of folks I’ve already known for a while, along with some new faces.

Having recently aligned my services for family enterprise clients with a group of like-minded professionals, we did a little “road show” to explain our methodology and offering to potential collaborators.

These visits allowed me to repeat a favourite message of mine on a number of occasions, to a varied audience, which helped me to gauge its resonance.

I’m happy to say that most people truly got it, and so I’ll address it here once again, along with a new twist.

Unfortunately, this new idea won’t be a panacea, but I hope it will stimulate some thought among readers, which is always a goal of mine here.

Getting Clients to Realize They Need Us

I’ve long understood that the type of resources and services that enterprising families could benefit from are not necessarily very obvious, even to those families who face the challenges that they do.

Working with family members or co-owning assets together presents some significant yet predictable challenges, but the families themselves typically think of themselves as unique.

Of course each family is unique, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any other families who have successfully faced and overcome similar challenges to theirs.

The way I’ve explained this is to say that while there is a huge need for what we do, that doesn’t nicely or neatly translate into a similar demand for these services.

That message, the one about the fact that there’s a large need, but not necessarily a huge demand, was the one I repeated at each meeting.

Most heads nodded in agreement, as I had expected.

Big Pharma Seems to Have It Covered

Anyone who watches TV, especially programming from the US, will be quite familiar with the multitude of pharmaceutical commercials with which viewers are constantly bombarded.

The drug companies spend millions coming up with products that solve for a condition from which many people suffer.

But in order to get those people to buy their product, the end customers need to learn about the existence of this magic solution, so that they can then go see their doctor and ask for it.

Of course it wasn’t always this way, but it seems to be quite prevalent now, so I think we can conclude that it must be working.

Rather than focusing on pushing their product through the medical community (which they surely also continue to do) they create awareness through their commercials to instead pull the demand through via the end users.

“Ask Your Advisors About Family Governance”

So whereas we’re all familiar with phrases like “Ask your doctor about Blekthrypligo”, somehow a similar “Ask your advisors about family governance” doesn’t sound like it holds as much promise.

This field is continuing to evolve, though, and has a lot of room to grow still.

There are many players from a variety of professions who serve and interact with families every day.

These people can see and detect issues that each family faces, even though they may not be in a position to work with the family to resolve these needs.

Our hope is that once other professionals are aware of our offering and ability to become additional, complementary resources to their family clients, the necessary introductions will be made.

Turning Supply into Demand, One Family at a Time

This requires these other professionals to have an abundance mentality, and not fear bringing in outside specialists with complementary skill sets.

I wouldn’t say that this attitude is prevalent or even widespread yet, but it does feel like we are moving in that direction.

In some fields, notably financial wealth management, it seems to be moving a bit faster.

Collaboration in this space continues to be a challenge, but progress is happening.

With time, and with more and more people concentrating on serving the families and not just their enterprises, we can make a bigger impact.

Not every family needs these kinds of resources all the time, but as a generational transition approaches, complexities increase and “structural” solutions are often insufficient for handling “relationship” issues.

Families don’t typically handle these challenges well on their own.

But reaching out for guidance and assistance doesn’t have to be a challenge.

It’s Not as Universal as You Might Think

The inspirations for these weekly missives have come from all sorts of places over the decade I’ve been sharing my perspectives here.

This is surely the first one that comes from writing a blog two years ago, mentioning it to a coaching client recently, and then sharing that experience with my coach afterwards.

So you get to see how the idea has evolved over the years as I’ve continued thinking about this subject.

Let’s start with that old post from 2021, called The Family HUG We’re All Looking For.

“Everyone Wants the Same Three Things”

That blog came on the heels of my teaching a course on Family Governance for the Family Firm Institute. (GEN 502 for the extra curious).

During the capstone webinar that year, one student claimed that all families want the same three things, i.e. Harmony, Unity, and Growth, which I then put into the obvious acronym, HUG.

At the time, I was pretty much in agreement with the fact that these were things that all enterprising families are truly interested in and concerned with.

Yes, they’re all laudable goals, as that post pointed out, but recently I’ve been questioning the universality of that triumvirate. 

Not So Fast! Coaching My Client

Recently during a Zoom call with a coaching client I’ve been working with for a few years now, he mentioned something from a recent blog I’d written.

I’ve gotta say it’s pretty cool to have a client mention something you wrote for a large audience but that spoke to him personally, even though his situation was not in my thoughts when I wrote it.

It was about the post On Evolution, Emergence, and Rebirth.

That blog ended with some thoughts on the fact that nothing lasts forever, and family branches going their separate ways shouldn’t automatically be seen as a failure.

This client has been working on engaging his rising generation in a number of ways, and was now second guessing himself.

Sharing the Experience with my Coach

A few days later as I debriefed this with my coach, I got to go over it again and had a bit of an A-Ha moment about this.

I walked her through the HUG acronym and came out of it with a new perspective.

Sure, every family wants the Harmony, we can pretty much agree on that.

But what about the Unity? Well, it certainly is nice when it occurs naturally, or even requires some encouragement, but is it really something for every family?

And what if pushing the unity too hard starts to weaken the harmony, then what?

Can We Even Agree on Growth?

As I went on, the HUG started to fall apart.

My client is in the fortunate position to have attained a level of wealth where the idea of growing it even more is not really a priority.

It’s hard for many in the 99% to understand this, but after a certain point, more wealth can be tougher to deal with than less.

Back to the HUG scenario though, if you are going for Unity, then you actually need the Growth, because otherwise the family will continue to get bigger and then the wealth better grow too!

Just talking through this made me come away with a fresh take on those in my field who make our living serving such families.

Has the Pendulum Swung Too Far?

A decade ago I was typically lamenting the fact most families were ignoring the “family circle” and only getting professional help on the structural side of their transition planning.

Now I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve gone too far in some cases, to the point where the families feel that they must be working on Unity or else they are wrong or bad.

I’m pretty sure we have not overshot in general, but the idea that there’s something that “all families” want or need must be questioned.

What Makes Sense for THIS Family, Now?

My conclusion for those of us who work with families preparing to transition their wealth to the next generation is to help them consider all the ways they can go about it.

As we get to understand their reality, we can then support them as they evaluate which path makes sense for their particular circumstances.

And, we also need to consider where they are in the arc of time in their transition. If we try to push them down a certain path too early, that can backfire too. Please be careful.

Colleagues in Search of Articles

I recently received an email from a colleague asking me if I’d come across a seminal article on the challenges of including spouses in a family business.

I replied that I didn’t know of such an article (although I’m sure that some exist out there), and thanked him for the blog idea.

This is a subject that families ask about often, and yet I haven’t really written much about it over the years.

Let’s change that now, fully recognizing that a 750-word blog post will never qualify as “seminal”, and that’s OK too.

I hope the thoughts I share here are useful nonetheless.

It’s Less About “Yes or No”, More About “How and When”

Let’s settle a couple of matters right off the bat: There is no correct answer that applies to all families and businesses, so it’s rarely a question that has a yes or no answer, and more about how and when we should consider including them.

This may take a while to sink in for some, because an attitude of “it’s none of their business” may exist and be difficult to overcome. (Thanks to my wife for that perspective!)

When we think about the business itself, the basic starting point is that anyone who marries in to the family that owns the business, begins as an outsider.

As they marry in to the family, do they also marry in to the family’s business? 

That’s a loaded question, of course, and it does not have a “one-size-fits-all” answer, as noted.

If a Rule Applies to One, It Applies to All

To me there’s an obvious place to start, and that’s to say that if and when a family begins to create their own rules on how to answer this, whatever rule is made must apply equally to everyone.

So if I am going to insist that my wife be allowed to attend a certain meeting about family stuff as it relates to the business, then I cannot tell my sister that her husband isn’t invited.

Guidelines or rules need to be made in logical ways that are clear and simple to determine, so that even a child could be brought in to impartially determine if someone is eligible or not.

Not One-Time Decision; Inclusion vs. Exclusion

The next key point is to admit that whatever decision is made about involving in-laws absolutely needs to be subject to continued evaluation and review.

Rewind the clock or calendar, when none of the rising generation had spouses, and there’s your baseline, i.e. there are no outsiders involved because they don’t exist yet.

Fast forward a few decades, to where they do exist, and also have their own offspring who are involved, either as employees and/or owners, and now it’s hard to maintain that hard and fast rule that the married-in people have no place.

At some point, during the life stage of the family, the business, and whatever attempt is being made to establish family governance, it becomes important to consider how including these people makes more sense than excluding them.

Human Capital and an Abundance Mentality

Let’s now look at a couple of other ideas, one of which I talk about often, and a newish one.

The people in a family can (and should) be viewed in terms of their human capital, i.e. they each bring something to the family, and the family should rightfully be concerned with each person and how the family can support their ability to flourish as a human.

And if a family is fortunate enough to own and manage a successful enterprise, then finding ways to spread those benefits to all family members can hopefully also happen, for the benefit of the entire family, including those who marry in to the family (and presumably add more family members through procreation).

An abundance mentality is helpful here.

Back to Evolution and Emergence

The decisions around including people needs to constantly be revisited over the years, decades, and generations of the family’s life cycle.

And because it’s difficult to undo something that has been done, families should proceed slowly, because like adding salt to your soup or sugar to your coffee, once it’s in there, it’s hard to get it out.

Think back to last week’s post, On Evolution, Emergence, and Rebirth and how we need to let things emerge, and then consider if and how they deserve a place in what is evolving, as your family governance takes shape.

Just What Are You Trying to Achieve?

The subjects I cover in this space typically have something to do with families who’ve accumulated a certain level of wealth, who eventually get to the stage where transitioning that wealth to the next generation has become a priority.

When I work with such families, it’s always simpler when they’re still early in their journey, because when they start fresh, I can guide them through some of the important considerations that I know will become pertinent down the road.

Oftentimes they’ll have already begun with some of the legal and structural preparations that other professionals have suggested in good faith, but that end up causing issues on the human and relationship side of the family’s reality.

All of this preamble is designed to set up a look at making sure that a family’s transition plans are actually “fit for purpose”.

Consumer Protection Origins in the UK

The term “fit for purpose” is one I’ve heard off and on in recent years and at some point I noted it as a possible blog topic.

As I dusted it off recently, I decided to do some quick research and found that its origins are based in the UK, and derive from consumer protection laws.


That is, if a product is deemed to not be “fit for purpose” the purchaser can return it for a refund.

The term later got renewed life in a political context when an opposition party stated that someone or something in the government was not “fit for purpose”, and when that story got legs, the term became part of the lexicon.

So why am I bringing this up in a family wealth transition blog? I’m glad you asked.

Asking Some Basic Questions Is Key

When we attempt to determine if anything is “fit for purpose”, the first question that begs is “what is the purpose?”

Getting back to the general topic of planning for a transition of wealth, such plans are typically supposed to tick a number of proverbial boxes, i.e. they have multiple purposes.

Having both the wealth AND the family relationships survive the next generational transition are usually among the goals families have.

But because relationships are nebulous and hard to define, this can play second fiddle to other purposes that are more easily quantified, like, oh, maybe, saving taxes?

Most clients’ heads will nod when presented with an iron clad plan that guarantees that they’ll owe less taxes, without getting into the details of the side effects of such plans that may impinge the family relations purpose noted above.

Doing Things “On Purpose”

If we think back to our childhood, our first exposure to the word “purpose” was likely in the context of a sibling interaction where someone got hurt and then blamed the other.

“He did it on purpose”, you may have exclaimed to the nearest parent.

“No, it was an accident”, the other would say, in their defence.

So here we have our first nugget, one “opposite” of doing things on purpose is getting something haphazard, i.e. by accident.

As long as we’re looking at expressions that contain words about purpose, regular readers already know my love for the Purposeful Planning Institute and the great community I belong to thanks to that group.

For All Intents and Purposes

The word “intent” gets combined with purpose in the expression “for all intents and purposes”.

Families I work with need to be very intentional about how they make sure that their relationships will remain strong.

“Things don’t just happen by themselves”, I often tell them. This takes work and families need to be very intentional.

Getting back to “fit for purpose”, my intention here is to make sure that families make the effort to consider how their plans to transition their wealth are going to impact their family relationships.

Very Fit for One Purpose, Unfit for Others

Too often, some of the decisions families are advised to make for one purpose, like saving taxes or making sure that access to the wealth is severely limited, end up creating undesirable side effects.

I try to make sure families think through their choices so as to avoid those shortcomings.

Openly sharing the purpose of what the family is trying to achieve is also a big part of how families succeed, because that transparency is part of the solution too.

Continually asking “what are we trying to accomplish” never hurts.

There Are Different Ways to Take a New Look

LinkedIn is head and shoulders above all other social platforms for professionals, and I’ve found plenty of great content there over the years, not to mention the wonderful connections I’ve been able to make and nurture there.

This week’s post was prompted by something I saw there recently, and even though the majority of my network on LnkdN is connected to the world of family wealth transitions, this particular piece came from a local colleague whose professional life is very much elsewhere.

This friend had recently experienced a sudden and unexpected career disruption, after which he took some time away to think about how he wanted to come back fresh for a restart.

I was so pleased to see that he shared a quote from Leonardo DaVinci on the experience of stepping back and taking a fresh look at his life and career thanks to this experience, and I know that I can use it as fodder for some ways to look at my work with families.

Back to Some Translation Issues

Setting out to write about this topic this week, I hadn’t realized that I was going to once again run into an issue around translation, which is something we looked at last week.

See: On Coaching, Parenting, and Sub-Optimal Translations

But because the LinkedIn post in question was in French, I’m writing this in English, and I’m pretty sure the original quote from DaVinci was in Italian, I’ll need to take a bit of editorial licence here.

(Despite some attempts via Google, I wasn’t able to locate a direct English translation.)

Here’s my quick version of what he posted:

“Take a step back, and the problem looks smaller. And in one glance you’ll have a better view of the full picture, and a lack of harmony or proportion will be easier to see”   – Leonardo DaVinci.

Planning to Transition your Family Wealth

This is the point where I now switch from the inspiration for the post to the message for families whose main challenge is transitioning their wealth from the current generation to the next.

These families have many potential resources available to support and guide them on this journey, yet the hard work cannot be farmed out to outside professionals.

The idea of stepping back and looking at the problem differently is definitely something we can suggest as a worthwhile action.

Because I also understand the context of my colleague’s recent challenge, I also know that his “step back” was not just a simple one.

I know for a fact that he included both time and space in his reflection.

Time Away to Clear your Head

His efforts involved taking several weeks off and travelling across an ocean.  He was also able to spend a good deal of family time with those most important to him, and get his mind away from what had been his usual work grind.

Many family leaders employ similar methods, such as getting away and taking longer and longer vacations (and weekends) over their final years of working in their business, to allow those on their way up more opportunities to take on leadership roles.

That works well in many cases and isn’t anything new, but I’m talking about more than that here.

Clearing your head completely and beginning to think about “working ON the business” as opposed to “working IN the business” is a bigger step.

Being able to see the picture more fully, including where there’s a “lack of harmony” can take a bit longer and require more effort.

Add an Outsider to the System

In many ways what I’m getting at is that this requires a fresh perspective, which can really only occur after some kind of a break, either in time or space.

Getting away from being in the middle of something is needed to be able to look at things from the outside.

Having someone along who is also an outsider to the system can also be useful, because they will automatically have a different viewpoint, as well as way less “baggage”.

When you’re constantly surrounded by the same people who all look at things the same way, you can get caught in the tough space of “group think”.

Getting away in both time and space, and bringing in a coach who is there for you on your journey, are great ways to make a fresh start.

Getting the Exact Meaning Can Be Tough

Because I consider myself a bit of a wordsmith, I usually strive to be very precise with my choice of words.

I also admire those who take the time to ensure they use the right words during conversations, and I actually pointed out my appreciation to a colleague recently, as we were discussing something delicate.

And as regular readers are aware, I sometimes work in French and speak it daily, which allows me to play with the meanings of words in two languages.

This sometimes brings up situations where the most accurate word I want to use happens to exist only in the other language.

It actually happened to me earlier today on a Zoom call, but luckily enough the person with whom I was speaking was another Montrealer, so even though our conversation was in English, he understood me when I slipped into French to find “le mot juste” in a sentence.

I’ve Never Loved the Term “Coaching”

A few weeks back in Education as a Prescription for Discomfort I teased the fact that I’d soon be writing another “bilingualism-inspired” post, so here we are.

In some ways it’s been a long time coming, because as someone who trained as a coach and with a coaching certification, I’ve long lamented the fact that the term coaching doesn’t resonate well in many cases.

See No, Dad, Coaching Isn’t “Helping Losers”.

As it turns out, coaching is also something that my wife does a lot of as well in her work, although she deals with very different situations than I do.

But recently she was working on something and was trying to find the right word to describe what her team does, and even though she had the perfect word in French, she couldn’t seem to find the corresponding English word that conveys it properly.

“How do you say ‘accompagnement’ in English?”, she asked.

“You don’t”, I replied. “Accompaniment isn’t a word”.

“It’s too bad”, I continued, “because it’s so much clearer than the word “coaching” for what we both do”.

(As it turns out, it is a word, but the main definition is about music, so it isn’t helpful.  We could also get into wine pairings, but that doesn’t really apply here either).

Work with Me, Walk with Me

When I did my training to become a coach, one of the two fundamental takeaways was the we need to learn to “be with” the person we are coaching. (The other is listening without judgement).

Later while doing some conflict resolution training, I began to like the term “walk with”, because it speaks to both the “being with” and the journey that people take.

See Work with Me, Walk with Me

Being with someone and joining them on a journey are so important, but so is our motivation and attitude.

I sometimes refer to myself as a guide, because that also conveys the journey and the role I play.

I need to be there with you and for you, and be looking out for your interests, not mine. So when I coach someone, I accompany them on their journey.

But for “Parenting” It’s the Other Way Around

Lest you think that finding the right word is only a problem in English, let’s now turn to a word that really doesn’t translate well in the other direction.

Thanks to one of my mentors, Denise, for pointing this one out to me.

She does most of her work in French, and she laments the fact that there really isn’t a good French word for “parenting”.

(Google gives us “parentalité” but that’s not a word that anyone ever uses).

I can understand her frustration because poor parenting is a huge cause for many of the issues faced later on in life, especially in the context of a family that is expected to continue to own and manage assets together, even after their parents are gone.

Parents as Coaches?

As we think about coaching and parenting, we can naturally consider how they can be interrelated.

The key to being more of a coach to our offspring lies in the fact that once they are grown adults, we need to foster an adult-to-adult relationship.

The part about listening without judgement also comes into play.

And the “being with” can’t be overdone.

When I’m coaching someone, the call ends and I typically don’t see them again until the next call

Limiting just how much time you spend accompanying them can be tough.



There’s a Huge Step Along the Way

Last week’s post ended with me teasing this week’s topic, so if you’ve been waiting, thanks for your patience. (Insert Wink Emoji here!)

See Education as a Prescription for Discomfort

We were looking at how important it is to educate everyone in a family to a certain level of common understanding, so that they could then come to important agreements on a fully informed basis.

All that is of course still true; AND it’s almost always easier said than done.

When family members need to come to agreement on important matters, there’s often a history of emotions that gets stirred up that makes it a bigger challenge than it would be in a similar situation involving unrelated parties.

Outside professionals who only occasionally deal with families are often surprised by this, and can become disappointed and disillusioned when they learn that seemingly simple decisions on the surface turn out to be anything but.

Acceptance: Coming to Terms with a Reality

So while increasing clarity to promote better understanding is a necessary precondition to coming to agreement, it’s usually insufficient.

More often than not, at least one family member will need to come to terms with some reality for the first time, and learn to accept it.

For example, agreeing that one of my siblings will now be in charge of something, may require me to accept the fact that I have not been chosen for this role.

This may be very difficult for me to accept, and can take time to sink in, for me to consent to.

And the more anyone tries to rush me to agree to it, the more I may actually dig in my heels to try to defend my position.

Revisiting Consent and Consensus

This brings up another key element that families must deal with when trying to establish important parts of their governance.

Governance is a word that makes a lot of sense in this context, even though most people (myself included) don’t love the word and the connotations it sometimes has.

For me it’s mostly about communication and decision-making, and that’s exactly what we’re talking about here, i.e. the challenges families face in making decisions and coming to agreement.

My suggestion for families usually involves concentrating on making most of their decisions by consensus.

I wrote a couple of posts about this in 2016, after having an A-Ha moment when I finally realized that the word consent is at the root of consensus.

See Putting the Consent into Consensus Part I of II and Part II of II

You Don’t Need to Love Every Part of It

Most of the decisions that families need to make are something far from being crucial to survival.

One of the reasons I encourage families to begin working on governance early on is that they can practice working together and coming to agreement on matters of lesser importance.

That gives them opportunities to practice how they need to be when they come together, and get used to giving their consent to decisions that they may not love entirely, but can certainly still live with.

What’s Good for ME, What’s Good for WE

It’s important to have all family members involved in making decisions that will affect their future, and too many families avoid that because they worry about any disagreements that may arise in the process.

Groups of people can learn to make collegial decisions for their own good, but this requires leaving your selfishness at the door.

As workplaces and organisations progress in society, it feels like more of this is happening, and that’s a good thing.

For families, there’s another layer of possible complications present, thanks to the decades of history they have together, where not all of it has typically been perfectly rosy for all family members.

Playing to Win as a Family & Kissing Your Sister 

All of this falls under the heading of learning to play to win as a family, as opposed to winning for myself.

I wrote about this four years ago in Kissing your Sister – Playing for a Tie in the FamBiz.

The good news is that once you have established the type of culture in a family where the needs of the family come before anyone’s individual needs, it gets easier.

Education and clarity lead to understanding, and then giving everyone the time to accept whatever reality the family faces, are all important.

If you try to rush through acceptance to get straight to agreement, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

A Convoluted but Useful Conclusion

Last week we looked at the various types of skill sets that people who work with families might need in order to provide them with the whole breadth of service they require.

See Liberal Arts Vs. STEM Skills to Serve Families

As I openly shared then, that idea and concept came to me from a colleague during a Zoom call with peers, which is nothing new.

We ended that post with another peer-inspired idea, that of thinking of this as a “left brain / right brain” dichotomy.

That one came from a different call, one that I’m part of locally in Montreal, that meets in French.

We’ll get to yet another bilingualism-inspired post soon enough, don’t worry.

Although this week’s idea is a bit convoluted, that has nothing to do with language, and more to do with the way my brain is wired.

You Can’t Have Too Much Education

During that call with my francophone colleagues, one of our leaders made the point that education is always her first “go to” when beginning to work with any family.

Heads were nodding across the screen at this, as it’s difficult to argue against.

But let’s look at that a bit longer here, to consider the context she was speaking about.

When a practitioner enters a family system as an outsider, we need to quickly try to establish some common ground on which we can then firmly stand.

We want to show that we are knowledgeable and trustworthy of course, but also able to communicate with all members of the family.

Most families suffer from a serious case of “information asymmetry”, as I like to call it.

That’s just a fancy phrase to say that some family members typically know everything about what the family owns and manages, while others are very much in the dark.

Bringing everyone up to the same level on some subject(s) with some education is an important first step for all of these reasons.

Assessing a Family’s Learning Orientation

Some part of the general agreement of our group around education naturally stems from the fact that when we get to work with a family that has an appetite for learning and education, such mandates are typically much more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Working with people who are “learners”, as opposed to “learned”, is very different, as anyone who has a “know-it-all” in their midst will readily appreciate.

When we start with any education content, we can begin to assess how hungry the family members are to learn together

Why Were We Called In?

Later on during this same call, a colleague shared his view that learning usually only happens in response to some level of discomfort.

Hmmmm; I needed to think about that one a bit.

Is discomfort a necessary pre-condition to my being able to learn? I suppose that it will increase my motivation, assuming that I am trying to learn how to ease my discomfort in some way.

Certainly the fact that a family has invited us in as an outsider to be a resource for them, there was some discomfort somewhere in the system that prompted that reach-out.

So somebody was suffering from some discomfort somewhere.

Now to the Prescription Angle

Somewhere along the way during the 2-hours we spent together, the idea formed in my head that education is always useful, and if it is to try to settle some discomfort, we could think of it as a prescription.

If education is a go-to solution to instigate some learning, and learning is a solution for discomfort, then this makes sense.

Like I said, it feels a bit convoluted and yet it might be useful, if it can remind us of these two ideas in our work.

Clarity Is More Comfortable Than Confusion

Education is almost always used with families in order to increase clarity, and to find places where every family member better understands what the family owns and how they are planning to transition that to the next generation of the family.

Educating for more clarity is always useful, because increasing clarity enables better understanding.

Ideally we want to get to the stage where everyone agrees with whatever plans are put into place, and if the family members aren’t able to comprehend the plans, it is difficult for them to agree to them in an informed way.

We’ll pick up this idea again next week, please come back!

Slotting the Right People into the Right Roles

Serving families who are hoping to transition their business or wealth to the next generation is always complex.

Regular readers know that I encourage those who serve such families to collaborate for the benefit of the family, and that’s often easier said than done.

So many specialists are involved in creating the “perfect” plans, making it difficult to keep things simple enough for the family to understand them so that they can be effectively implemented.

With so many outsiders involved, it often takes a special skill set to be able to communicate everything so all stakeholders feel heard and can then work together with the plans that have been created.

Peer Group Inspiration Once Again

This week’s post was inspired by a statement from a member of a peer group who phrased something in a way I’d not heard before, at least not in a family enterprise context.

Then, in yet another group a week later, another valued colleague phrased something in a complementary way, making this blog a “must-write” for me.

Between the organisations I’ve joined and the peer groups I’ve been privileged to be part of this past decade, my interactions with like-minded professionals are at the top of my list of learning opportunities, and blog post inspirations.

So Many Content “STEM” Experts

The first instance happened during a case discussion I was leading in a monthly meeting I host.

We were talking about a family office where some new hires were facing some challenges in their communications with members of the family.

One the peers in the group suggested that there seemed to be lots of people with a STEM background (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) on that family office team of professionals, but they didn’t seem to have anyone from the Liberal Arts field.

A light bulb began flashing in my head of course, as I now had a new way to think about this subject.

Liberal Arts to the Rescue?

I have two children who have recently graduated with Bachelor’s degrees from very good schools, and even though they share the same two parents, they could not be more different.

The first studied engineering and is now following that up with studies in business analytics, so very much from the STEM mold.

The second has a BA in philosophy, politics and economics (“PPE”) which I believe is one of the oldest and most classic fields of study at Liberal Arts schools, having started at Oxford about a century ago.

When I imagined which of my two offspring would be better suited to address the challenge that the family office professionals were dealing with, it was a no brainer.

They were not short of technical know-how, but their ability to manage the people side of things was glaringly absent.

A Great “Left Brain” / “Right Brain” Collaboration

Seven days after that call, I was with another group that meets in French every month.

This group is roughly 2/3 process and people practitioners, and 1/3 content and technical specialists.

We discuss all matters relating to family enterprise succession, and over the years we’ve been meeting, some collaborations have occurred.

As we went around the proverbial Zoom room to catch up (having not met since June), one member reported some news about a collaboration she’d recently done with another colleague from our group.

She being people-focused and her collaborator being an engineer, she noted that they made a great “Left brain / Right brain” team. (Actually “cerveau gauche / cerveau droite!)

Complementary Skill Sets Are Key

It’s heartening to see that those of us who specialize in people and process are increasingly being seen as important parts of the complex world of family business and family wealth succession plans.

Unfortunately, it’s usually only after the technical specialists hit a roadblock that they feel the need to call in some reinforcements on the human side.

The bigger the family and the more complex the scenario, the more there is at stake. And the more there is at stake, the more you need to make sure that everything is well communicated and understood by all stakeholders.

Too often, the experts brought in to handle the structural and financial intricacies are not well skilled at the human element, and even uncomfortable in such roles.

Please make sure that there are some Liberal Arts types to complement those STEM folks.

A Variety of Skills Are Needed 

Working with enterprising families as they prepare to transition to the next generation, as I’ve been doing for the past decade, I’m continually amazed at the different challenges this work throws up at me.

It’s been heartening to exchange with so many other colleagues who practice in this same space, to realize that this isn’t just something that affects me, but also everyone else who toils with family dynamics, in their various manifestations.

It’s probably the biggest reason this work is so rewarding, because you never know what you’ll discover when working in the “family circle”, and even what seems like it should be simple “discovery work”, often requires lots of detective skills.

I’ve written before about the importance of discernment, that is, figuring out what everything means and deciding what’s important, but going upstream a bit, just uncovering facts to understand each person’s context, can be an arduous process in its own right.

See: On Discernment and Resourcefulness for Family Clients

There’s Information in Everything

When starting with a new prospect, the mystery-solving begins, as the person who first reaches out presents their view of the issues and the presenting problem to be addressed.

At this point it’s important to be a sponge and try to soak up any and all information, putting as many puzzle pieces on the table as possible.

As more people are heard from, typically in one-on-one calls, more information is shared, and more puzzle pieces are added.

In addition to the facts that each person shares, there’s also information in how they share it, including who volunteers to step up for these calls quickly, and who needs to be cajoled into participating.

Imagining the Entire Puzzle, and Knowing You’re Wrong

When I first started this work, I’d get to a point once I’d heard from a few people and believed that I had a pretty good idea what the challenge was, who the players were, and how I could go about working with them to make some important progress together.

Nowadays, I’d much more realistic in my expectations, and I understand that early on in any family engagement process, it’s next to impossible to get a good read on where things should go, can go, and will go.  And that’s OK too. 

Well, it’s OK with me, but often harder to get clients to buy into the fact that whatever simple situation they initially believed needed to be addressed actually turns out to be much more complex and that a simple solution won’t likely suffice.

Subjectivity and Selective Sharing

Two of the major reasons underlying the difficulty in getting the full picture as an outsider to the family system come from the way we get our information.

On rare occasions there are ways to read up on a family from third party sources, but those can be fraught with misinformation in many cases, even where they do exist.

We get most of our info from the members of the family, each of whom has their own version of the truth.

Of course knowing how each person in the family perceives the facts is very important to understand, but when the goal is to develop an objective, “outsider’s” picture of reality, skills of discernment always come into play.

There’s a deeper level to the subjectivity question too, and that’s the selective sharing that also happens, meaning that skeptical family members will hold back on sharing their full and true feelings until they believe that the person with whom they are sharing can be trusted.

Trusted with What, and for What, Exactly?

Of course trust is a key concept in many areas of life, but when it comes to family businesses and the relationships of family members, everything seems heightened.

So when we look at developing trust as an outsider coming into the system, we need to do everything we can to make sure that each family member feels like they can trust us.

They need to trust us with their deepest feelings, many of which have not been shared with all their family members.

And they need to trust that we are there for them individually, as well as for the entire family as a whole.

To do so, we need to listen to them without judgement, in order to gather all of the clues we’ll need to be able to properly serve them.

See No Room for Judgement when Working with Families