A Relation Beyond the Rhyme

Many of my weekly missives begin with the inspiration behind them, and that makes this one a bit tough for me.

There’s often some kind of story behind how an idea came to me and why I then choose to write about it here, in the context of how if relates to my work advising families around their wealth or business transition challenges.

Regular readers know I use a simple Gmail folder to store ideas that come to me at any given time, and for this one I even needed to look at the date of the email to recall when the idea struck me.

That’ll help a bit, perhaps, but what I do recall is that I awoke early one morning with the idea of “curious, not furious”, but without any clue as to from whence it came.


Inspired by My Colleagues?

The date on which I emailed myself the idea was the Saturday of a weekend-long peer meeting I’ve written about here at times, where colleagues gather to share how we do our work with families, in order that we may all improve.

We began on Friday afternoon, and for some reason when I awoke on Saturday morning, I had “curious” and “furious” on the brain.

I don’t recall any particular discussion from the previous day that might have caused this, but alas, here we are.

I have to believe that just being with these colleagues was somehow responsible for this.

Now my challenge is to turn this into something useful, while being entertaining at the same time. Here goes.


Curiosity as an Antidote

A couple of years back in Curiosity as the Antidote to Assumptions in Families, we looked at how getting curious and asking questions can be a great way to get out of the rut of sticking with our assumptions, which are so often wrong or simply just outdated.

But it now strikes me that when I’m angry, which is not as bad as furious, I can usually walk myself back from the ledge by thinking about why someone might do what they did which has now angered me.

I touched on some of this last year in Stop Assuming the Worst – Using the MGI Method. There, we looked at how forcing oneself to think of the “most generous interpretation” (i.e. MGI) can be useful in lowering our own anxiety.

Trying to come up with such an interpretation cannot be done without getting curious.


Important Family Discussions Can Create Tension

A huge part of my work involves helping families have important conversations they need to have.

They know deep down that they need to have such discussions, yet despite this, they almost always have difficulty starting them and then having them go well, when left to themselves.

Having a neutral third party in the room can do wonders, and so I am often the person who brings my curiosity out first, and then encourage others to follow suit.

In a similar way, I often flex my calm, in the hopes that it too will become contagious. See Calm Is Contagious from 2018.

Discussions about how things will need to evolve and change going forward are fraught with emotions, and it’s not unusual for things to get charged, and inevitably someone may become angry, if not furious.

Those who experience these strong emotions typically don’t even know exactly why they’ve been riled up, because the thinking part of our brains is not where the emotions are regulated.


Curiosity to the Rescue

As the unrelated party in the room, it’s much easier for me to inquire as to the source of the emotions.

I can and do ask questions about what’s at the root of the outrage, because I’m genuinely interested in learning the answer.

The person in question can often be perplexed by my intervention and desire to know, but the mere fact that I’ve asked can be enough to interrupt the tension long enough to provoke some necessary reflection on their part.

On some occasions the self-reflection can be outright surprising to everyone, and if the space feels safe enough, others in the room may offer their own answers too.

Much of the success of such interventions comes down to a positive attitude that an experienced facilitator brings, so as to properly hold the space for productive dialogue.

And genuine curiosity is always a huge component of success.

Things Always Take Longer – And That’s Okay

It’s now been a bit over a decade since I discovered and entered the family enterprise transition world as an advisor to families.

Having come from my own family’s journey and closely followed that of my wife’s family, I came at this with lots of lived experience but not much else. (Okay, plenty of passion and curiosity too.)

Diving deeply into training in coaching, facilitation, conflict resolution and family systems, I was looking for any and every way to learn to do this work well.

Having decided to specialize in the family circle (as opposed to the business or the ownership areas) I had some catching up to do.

Regular readers will also know that I have latched onto every possible peer organisation as well, as my interactions with those have inspired many of my weekly missives here.


Hanging Out with a Bunch of Psychologists

One such peer group was founded thirty years ago by several psychologists who were hoping to create a place where those with that training, who’ve also developed a practice serving enterprising families, could come together and form a learning community.

A few years ago, a couple of its members approached me, suggesting I could make an interesting addition to their group.

At first I declined, stating that I was not a psychologist, so I was likely not “qualified” to be a member.

A couple of reassurances, arm twists, and Groucho Marx quotes about “being a member of a club that would have me as a member” later, and I was in.

I just returned from my third annual in-person weekend meeting with them (after 2 years of virtual encounters thanks to you-know-what) and want to share some of my thoughts.


Appreciating the Process

It’s amazing to me that a decade into this work, I still have plenty of A-Ha moments.

Spending quality time over a weekend with like-minded professionals who are all trying to learn to do this work better was chock full of them once again.

Working with families as they prepare to transition their wealth to the following generation is all about process, as opposed to content.

The “deliverable” is thus quite hard to define.

Psychologists, in their individual practices, typically see clients one-on-one, or sometimes as a couple.

The deliverable for their clients is also difficult to define, but those clients (patients?) are typically able to discern whether or not continuing to see their mental health professional is worth the time, effort and expense.

They spend time sharing thoughts with their doctor and work through how they are doing and what changes they can and should think about making in how they live their lives.

Making time to regularly visit someone like this is all about process.


Respecting Everyone’s Processing Time

Similarly, in my coaching work with clients, I help them think through what’s going on in their lives, give them a fresh perspective, and encourage them to make positive changes in their day-to-day actions.

While their time with me might last an hour, the weeks between sessions are where most of the processing takes place.

And different people process things at different speeds.

Much of the complexity that arises when working with a whole family comes from the fact that the members rarely process the required changes they need to make at the same speed.

During that recent weekend with peers, one of them noted that working with a whole family is like heading to the ski hill and seeking out only the double black diamond ski runs.

If you can survive those, everything else is a walk in the park.

Not only are we dealing with the family emotions, we layer in a family enterprise, and there’s a lot at stake in every meeting.

The rising generation family members in their thirties and forties have much different desires and priorities than their parents who are in their sixties and seventies.


Guiding the Process for the Family

Working with a family on their transition is a lot like being a tour guide. See Choosing your FamBiz Tour Guide

A good guide adjusts their speed to allow each person to process the journey and keeps everyone together.

The most difficult part can sometimes be slowing down those who want to move quickly.

Making sure that everybody has had enough time to process changes will always help.

Owning a Family Enterprise Has Many Facets

This week we’re going to look at a topic that affects every family business, even if it doesn’t get discussed very often.

I write a lot about the overlap of the family and the business circles, but less often about who owns the company.

See Ownership: The Forgotten Circle in Family Business

That’s partly because the people who work in and own most family enterprises don’t talk about this subject very often either.

Of course that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t, or that these conversations aren’t important, far from it.

It can get pretty complex at times, but I want to just bisect it into its two most essential elements: value and control.


Beyond Tradition, Pride, and Duty

When people involved in a family owned enterprise do actually talk about what ownership means to them, they often talk about intangibles like tradition and pride.

That makes plenty of sense, of course, but it often just puts off the discussions about what really is at stake, i.e. who can derive the value from the business (financially) and who gets to call the shots.

Many people who are part owners of a family enterprise feel like it’s part of their duty to keep the business in the family, and they adopt a stewardship mindset, which is often also rightly praised.

But while the family and business circles move quickly, changes in the ownership circle often drag.

See Varying Time Factors in Each of the Three Circles


Who Can Profit, Who Gets to Decide

Where families sometimes get stuck in discussing what the best ownership structure should look like, they sometimes fail to make the distinction between the two main elements I’m highlighting.

I’ve lost count of how many parents I’ve heard saying that they want to treat all of their offspring equally, even as they recognize that they are certainly not equal in many important respects.

I’ve yet to meet a family with even just two next gens who are equal in ability, work ethic, motivation, education, availability, contribution…. 

You get the idea.

Where they often run into problems is when they get stuck in the belief that allowing all of their children to benefit from the family’s ownership of the business also means that every one of them needs to end up with an equal say in how it will be run.


Learning to Share All Over Again

Growing up together as siblings, the parents surely spent some time teaching them to share, whether it was about food on the dinner table, clothing, sports equipment or even just the TV remote.

See Who Gets to Decide Who Gets to Decide

Figuring out how the family should best share both the benefits of owning the business and control over business decisions is yet another tricky subject that needs to be worked out.

But it all begins with getting unstuck from the idea that the default of “everyone needs to be equal” can often lead to disastrous consequences.

When a particular ownership structure has been in place for a while, a certain amount of homeostasis sets in, meaning it’s difficult to introduce change without meeting resistance.


Leadership for Important Discussions

Undertaking such discussions requires courage and leadership.

It can be difficult for families to do this by themselves, so outside assistance, facilitation, and guidance can certainly help.

Preparation for this is key, which requires plenty of time, intention, and effort.

 

This is not a subject you want to just throw on the table and see what happens.

Those who currently own the shares need to put a lot of thoughtful consideration into how they see the future and establish their perspective first.


Not a Fait Accompli!

At this point, a fulsome discussion with the next generation can begin, presenting what the current owners have in mind, and why they think their ideas make sense.

You don’t want to present this as already done, or a fait accompli.

The final version needs to be co-created by the family, so that everyone is heard and feels like they were part of the decisions.

You cannot realistically expect this discussion to be done quickly, rather a series of meetings is quite likely going to be required.

It’s more important to end up with a result that everyone has bought into than to get this over with so you can cross it off your to do list.

Everyone needs to get something, but nobody should expect to get everything.

You are looking for consensus here, not unanimity.

Two Key Elements Working Together

As someone who shares my thoughts weekly on a variety of subjects relating to intergenerational wealth transitions, I need to have an eclectic array of inspirations.

Since the Covid pandemic has largely receded into the rear view mirror, I’ve noticed how in person meetings can develop into deeper discussions that more easily trigger ideas for these posts.

Such was the case when I recently had breakfast with a colleague who happened to be in town on other business.

This man has experience as a lawyer and a family office executive, and he is enamored with the idea of a “family bank” as a strong foundation for successful family governance.


What’s Right for THIS Family?

As we discussed his thinking and how a family bank can be exactly the right structure around which some families can and should build their legacy, the conversation took some interesting turns.

At one point he was in the middle of a sentence about what a family bank can bring and in my mind I jumped ahead and filled in my own word, assuming he would say the one I was thinking.

As you might guess from the title of this piece, we had different words.

I assumed he would say “structure”, but instead he said “discipline”.

Hmmm, I thought…. And this is exactly how many of my blogs are born.


What Angle Am I Taking?

Let’s take a minute to consider the angle one would be coming from to choose between those words.

I was coming from a big picture view of creating some structure around how a family might consider setting things up, in order to bring some necessary formality to the decisions they will want to make regarding the funding of various ideas that are expected to come from certain family members.

My friend was instead focussing on the discipline that having such a structure naturally imposes on those who wish to partake in a request for funding their idea.

Neither is necessarily better than the other, and in fact, they are complementary, hence my decision to highlight these synergies in the title I chose for this post.


Somewhat Like Engagement and Alignment?

The contrasting of structure and discipline reminded me of another pair of words that I like to look at together, engagement and alignment.

See Family Engagement and Family Alignment – Chicken and Egg

Regular readers know that I like to pay close attention to the words I use, and I also appreciate conversing with people who also choose their specific vocabulary with care.

In a similar way that alignment and engagement can be seen as two sides of the same coin, I think that structure and discipline also work well together.

When my friend said “discipline” while I was expecting “structure”, it probably mostly had to do with the fact that I feel like imposing discipline on people seems more judgemental that I think is necessary, whereas structure feels more neutral.


Back to the Synergies

Stepping away from how “judgy” these words are, let’s get back to how they work well together.

Structure is about the way you put something together, and some formality is inherent in the process, because we’re not talking about a physical structure, but a theoretical one.

The discipline is more about what that structure naturally imposes on those who want to interact with the structure, which includes some elements of formality, preparation, and diligence.

I’m flashing back to something I learned a decade ago in my Family Enterprise Advisor training, “Formality is your friend”.


Perfect for Certain Kinds of Families

A family bank can provide both structure and discipline, and for some families, it’s a great foundation for the family’s governance needs.

Other families will be better served with a different foundation, depending on where they are in their evolution and what their major activities and priorities are.

Some families anchor their governance to a philanthropic mission, others will base theirs around an operating business, while others will use a family office as their base.

What they all have in common, hopefully, is some basic structure, which then imposes some discipline for the family to organize around.

It’s important to find the right balance that can serve the needs of the largest group of family members who need to come together to make decisions together in the interest of the entire family.

Some structure and discipline are always required.

Sometimes Less Really Is More

This week we’re looking at a topic that’s actually pretty common with family enterprises, but that most people don’t like to discuss.

We’ll get into some tricky areas where family members all work together, and even though that can be great when it works well, when it causes problems, those problems get bigger in a hurry.

The expression “addition by subtraction” is pretty self-explanatory, but just in case it has eluded you, I’m talking about making an improvement in something (the business) by actually removing something (or someone).

In that specific context, I think you can all imagine why this can get tricky, especially when the person you need to subtract is a member of the family.


No Simple or Magic Solutions

Now lest you think that you will read this post and walk away with the silver bullet to make this easy to do, let me disabuse you of that notion.

Situations like this are never simple to deal with and there’s no magic answer here.

What I do want to share is that situations like this should not be ignored because they cause follow-on problems throughout the company.

When an underperforming employee is tolerated and held to different standards just because they have a certain last name, the work culture takes a hit.

The longer that persists, the worse the culture gets.

You may pretend that others don’t notice and are unaffected, but you are almost certainly wrong.


The Family Enterprise Model

Regular readers may recall that I’ve been redoing all of the courses of the Family Enterprise Advisor program (FEA), as part my new role as a project team advisor.

This has re-introduced me to a visual called the “Family Enterprise Model”, which I want to share here, as it can be part of the answer when faced with this kind of challenge.

This model is actually so simple that my friend Mr. Google came up empty when searching for a shareable version here.

It basically just shows that while a family may own a business, they also typically own all sorts of other assets as part of their enterprise, such as real estate, liquid investments, a foundation, vacation properties, heirlooms, a family office, etc.

In such cases, there may be other areas where the employee you need to subtract from an operating business may be more suitable for employment.


Ownership Versus Employment Compensation

Another consideration that families need to keep top of mind, especially when employment in the business is not a good fit, is to really think about how family members can gain from being part of a family that owns a business.

Employees get paid to do work, whether they are family members or not.

Owners of a business can also collect dividends, presumably when the business has made a profit. Such owners may also be employees, or they may simply be owners who do not work for the company.

When family members are owners who also work in the business, this distinction of whether they are being paid to work or are receiving compensation as an owner needs to be clear.

Confounding these two ways to benefit can cause problems.

The negative culture effects of a poor employee may make it so that paying someone to not come to work and having them simply collect a dividend may make more sense economically.


Sooner Is Better Than Later

When an underperforming family member is tolerated and not held to the same standards as others, it can become contagious.

The sooner you decide to deal with this the better, because it won’t fix itself on its own and it will probably get worse with time as others eventually become infected.

Honest feedback isn’t easy to deliver, but is necessary. 

In the end, the goal is for the family member to come to their own conclusion that continued employment is not working out and that a change of scenery will be better for everyone.


The Best Thing That Could’ve Happened 

You often hear stories about people whose careers took an unexpected turn, where the person is shocked to have been fired but then later looks back and admits that it was the best thing that could’ve happened to them.

That’s what I hope you’ll be able to achieve by confronting such a situation.

It’s not easy, but it is necessary.

There Are Lots of Ways to Get Started

Over the years since I had my calling to do this work with families, I’ve sought out and even created peer groups where colleagues come together to discuss particular cases they’re involved with professionally.

The way that one family handles the work of transitioning their business or wealth to the next generation will differ markedly from the way another handles the process, for lots of good reasons.

As someone who advises families and helps guide the process, I can tell you that this is not something you can learn from a book.

When there’s a good deal of complexity involved with the family system and in the assets they want to transition, there are always a number of places you can begin, and figuring out where to start involves plenty of discernment.


Recognizing That It Will Evolve

One aspect of this work that can go unrecognized is that it can be very difficult to predict how things will actually unfold.

The technical part of wealth transitions, like the legal, financial, estate and tax planning and execution that more people are familiar with, can be comparatively straightforward, compared to the family and relationships part where I specialize.

Quite often much of the technical work will have been done before the family recognizes their need for some support in learning how to govern themselves together going forward.

It’s so important to get families started on discussions about this early on, while recognizing that a timeline and exact steps will be almost impossible to predict in advance.

See, for example, The Evolution of Family Governance.


Looking for Some Small Wins Early On

Back to the various peer groups in which friends and colleagues from various fields discuss real cases we’re dealing with, it’s always interesting to hear the variety of viewpoints, ideas, and tactics we suggest to each other.

One of the angles I typically come from is emphasizing the importance of moving slowly, so as not to “scare” the family too much, while also trying to make sure that we make some quick progress and get some small wins relatively early on.

This field continues to mature and many tools are available for us to put into our toolboxes, and being flexible is an important element when doing this work.

The discernment required to read the situation and figure out what should be done next is always part of wonderful discussions with colleagues.

See On Discernment and Resourcefulness for Family Clients


On Setting Expectations and Timeframes 

Another aspect of family governance work that’s often underappreciated is how difficult it is to set a realistic timeline for the work.

This can become frustrating for practitioners early on as it’s always nice to promise the client family that the process won’t take too long.

I try to be extra careful in setting proper expectations whenever I begin working with a new family.

It is a process, and it will take time. And, trying to do it quickly can be a huge mistake.

The family needs to learn a lot and needs to become engaged in the process, and each family member has their own pace and ability for both of those.


My Favourite Arthur Ashe Quote

A couple of years ago in Starting a Family Council – Some Assembly Required, I shared some great yet simple wisdom that I like to remind myself, my clients, and my colleagues of, a quote attributed to Arthur Ashe:

                                                  “Start where you are.

                                                    Use what you have.

                                                    Do what you can.”

I’ve loved it since the first time I heard it, and it’s a great reminder when working with families.

In most cases the mere fact that you’re getting a family started is more important than exactly where you begin.

And of course at every juncture there needs to be a lot of thought and discussion around what comes next.

You can’t expect straight line progress either, as there are always some unexpected roadblocks and missteps along the way, which is par for the course.


More Art Than Science

Peer groups that include professionals who practice mostly in the structural content space are always interesting, because they often suggest great ideas, but may not appreciate the difficulty in executing them with a family.

This work is much more art than science.

I think of myself as a guide, helping the family make progress together, but where the pace of the work depends so much more on the family members than it does on me.

Many Families Include Someone Who Blocks the View

This week happens to involve a confluence of events that are pretty rare, and we’re going to see how I can turn this all into something useful and entertaining.

As I write this, I’m on vacation, which isn’t common, and I’ve managed to leave 98% of my work back home. Keeping my weekly blog streak intact is the 2% I decided keep going.

The vacation mental freedom may be part of the reason I’ve actually looked ahead and taken note of the date this post will go out to subscribers and be shared on LinkedIn.

If you read last week’s A Different Look at Process Versus Content you know that I work ahead by one week, so while I’m writing this in Costa Rica, it’ll go out when I’m back in the office.

That publication date also happens to coincide with an exceedingly rare event, the total solar eclipse of 2024.


Extra Clicks from an Eclipse?

Almost all of my posts are designed to be “evergreen”, i.e. you can read them at any time and they’re still relevant, whether a week, a month, or 5 years have passed.

This one is exceptional to a certain degree, because I’m tying in a specific event on the calendar.

If you’re wondering if I’m hoping for some extra clicks, you may be correct, but it’s more about challenging myself to find a way to work the idea of an eclipse into the subject of family wealth transitions.

Thankfully, the eclipse is all about our solar system, while much of my work involves family systems.

This may feel like a bit of a stretch, but I’m up for it, having written a book (Interdependent Wealth, 2019) whose subtitle is How Family Systems Theory Illuminates Intergenerational Wealth Transitions.


Some Systems Are More Predictable than Others

Systems theory is all about looking at how a number of interdependent parts work together in key ways.

When you look at one part in isolation, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what’s going on, but when you examine it in the context of the system to which it belongs, all of a sudden things begin to make more sense.

Our understanding of the solar system has certainly evolved in the past few centuries, and now there are only a few flat earthers left.

It’s pretty cool to think that there’s a solar eclipse today, and that we can already put the next one on our calendars, despite the fact that it’s decades away.

Our understanding of family systems has not been perfected to the same degree, and probably never will be.


Looking for Repeating Patterns

I’ve touched on family systems in some previous posts, such as A Systemic Business Family and Revealing a Family System to Itself.

As I work with families who are trying to successfully transition their wealth, I always like to ask about previous generations of the family and how things went during those transitions.

When you look at things from a systems lens, trying to find repeating patterns is part of the game.

A solar eclipse can be predicted with exactitude, while family patterns are comparatively blurry.

I’m always amazed when I speak with parents who insist their offspring all work together, despite the fact that they were unable to work with their own siblings.


Seeing More Clearly After the Eclipse

Many enterprising families are dominated by a single, strong leader, especially in the first generation(s), and they can unfortunately block out the proverbial sun for everyone else.

Here’s a definition Mr.Google unearthed for me:

Eclipse: to make another person or thing seem much less important, good, or famous.

Getting back to contrasting with the solar eclipse, the paths of the moon and the sun are entirely predictable, so you know when the eclipse will weaken and then end, to the minute.

In a family, well, not so much.

 


Begin your Transitions Before You Need to

Transitions of all sorts go better when done slowly and incrementally. See Start Cleaning Up your M.E.S.S.

Getting families to understand the importance of planning, discussing, and implementing gradual changes is a big part of what I do.

The message is not always well received by those who feel like they don’t want to give up any roles or power.

The tenure of the solar eclipse will end, as will the family leader’s.

It’s always unfortunate when outliving someone is the only way through.

Sometimes it’s the only true solution, but I’m always doing whatever I can to avoid such situations.

A Look Behind the Scenes

The work I do with enterprising families who are transitioning their wealth to the next generation revolves almost exclusively on guiding the process that they’re following.

Such families also need to work with a number of content specialists, of course, who provide them with important parts of the overall solution they’re looking for.

There’s a big contrast between providing content and guiding a process, and one of the keys is simply recognizing which one you’re doing at any given time.

But this week, we’re going to deviate quite a bit from the world of family transitions, and look at process versus content from a different angle.


Over a Decade of Evolution

I began sharing my thoughts here on a weekly basis over a decade ago, just as I was discovering that the process part of this work was what I was called to do with the rest of my work life.

As it turns out, writing about 750 words every single week is not something that most people do, but I’ve got over 500 blogs up here already and have no intention of stopping.

In fact, as I write this, I’m heading out on vacation, and while I toyed with the idea of skipping a couple of weeks or recycling old posts, I decided to forge ahead.

Besides these blogs, I sometimes write longer form pieces, and I’m involved with hosting some podcasts too.

So all of that, plus two books I’ve written, amounts to a whole heck of a lot of content.


Switching to Process Now

Over the years, lots of colleagues have asked my why and how I do this, so the rest of this post will be about my process. 

I am constantly looking for (and listening for) ideas to write about. Every time I jot one done in a notebook, I typically send myself an email with the details so that I can keep these in a folder labeled “blog ideas”.

My weekly routine usually begins sometime on Wednesday, when I look at that email folder of ideas and choose which one I’m going to write about this weekend.

After sleeping on it, I sometimes get a very quick start on Thursday evening, opening a Word file, creating a title, and getting a decent opening drafted.

I also do a search for some accompanying visuals on Unsplash, where I try to find three eye-catching and relevant photos or illustrations to go with my post.


The Friday/Saturday Crunch

The bulk of the writing happens on Friday and Saturday, but it’s hard for me to say which is a bigger day.

If I really get rolling on Friday, I can quickly wrap up on Saturday. If I’m not feeling it on Friday, I’ve got more left to tackle on Saturday.

The most important thing I want to share is that each post usually involves at least 4 or 5 “touchpoints”, where I open the Word file and make some progress.

These involve spurts of writing that last 10 to 20 minutes, and move the post along by some percentage (say 15% to 50%) towards completion.

I do not carve out a block of time to do this in one sitting. That might work for some, but for me, I like to make some progress and then let it sit.

The next time I pick it up, a few hours later or the next day, I read what I have from the beginning and then add another section or two.


Sunday and Monday

My blogs go out to subscribers on Monday, and that’s also when they get posted to LinkedIn.

But that blog wasn’t written the weekend just before, it was done the week prior, to give the people who help me out with the back end work some leeway to do their parts.

By Sunday morning I’m usually just making sure everything is fine, and then on Monday I send it to my support team for processing.

Meantime, the blog I wrote about a week ago comes to me to be okayed for release on Monday.

The overall process is pretty standard now, but the details vary, depending on many factors.

Much like my work with families, the big parts are similar, but there’s a heck of a lot of variability along the way.