Some Useful Parenting Advice 

Every so often, I’m lucky enough to hear a great pearl of wisdom and manage to jot it down, and it turns into a perfect title for a blog post.

This one came from a presentation I attended at the recent FFI conference in Boston.

Many of the blogs I write are of course based upon the wisdom of others, and I think I do a pretty good job of sharing the credit when it’s due, at least when it makes sense for me to do so.

Let’s jump into the details so that we can then unpack this subject a bit more, as it relates to family wealth and its eventual transition.


Emerging Adults Don’t Always Launch as Desired

The presentation in question was a breakout session entitled “Emerging Adults: Moving forth the family firm”. 

It included three presenters who shared ideas and strategies around helping families get positive results for their family businesses by ensuring that their rising generation members were well prepared for what is expected of them.

One of the presenters, Diana Clark of the O’Connor Professional Group, provided my money quote, towards the end of the discussion.

As someone who has worked in the field of addictions for decades, she had a warning for all parents.

“Don’t make having “happy” kids your main goal; make sure it’s a by-product”, she said.  “Otherwise”, she continued, “they’ll end up coming to see me.”


What’s Wrong with Being Happy?

To be clear, she was not saying that having happy children was not something to strive for.

She was, however, providing a warning that I think all parents should heed, i.e. Don’t make their happiness the primary focus.

The familiar refrain we’ve all heard (and likely even said), “I just want my children to be happy”, can lead to many undesirable consequences.

I touched on part of this way back in 2015, in the post “Over-Parenting: Worse than Neglect?”

What I had labelled “over-parenting” back then included some examples of not allowing children to struggle for themselves, which has as its root a desire to keep them “happy”.

What I think Clark was getting at is that making your children’s happiness the main focus is actually kind of a cop out.


From Dependent to Independent

When you reflect on the roles that parents are expected to play, I’m not even sure if happiness is supposed to be near the top of the list.

To me it is much more of a recent phenomenon, a far cry from the “children should be seen and not heard” that was popular not too many decades ago.

I’ve been a parent for over twenty years now, and it is definitely a work-in-progress

Also, times have continued to evolve, and it’s often difficult to swim against the current when you live in a society of instant gratification.

I’ve always felt that one of the primary parental responsibilities is to make sure that our offspring progress from a state of dependence upon their parents to a state of independence from them.

What a child needs a parent to do for them at the age of 5 is different from what they need at 10, and at 15, and at 20 and 25.


From Independent to Interdependent

When dealing with the families I work with professionally, those who’ve built up a significant asset base, that they hope to transition to the next generation of their family, making sure their offspring are independent is only the beginning.

I urge these families to work towards a state of interdependence, because that’s what is necessary to increase the likelihood of success.

I believe that Clark would agree that trying to make sure that those who succeed us become independent, and capable of functioning as adults in every way, is way more important than making sure that they’re happy all the time.

In fact, when parents succeed at this, their children will more likely be happy, as a by-product, as she suggested.


A Tale as Old as Time

This can get quite complex, and the struggle to get it right is a story that’s been around forever.

Getting parenting right is tricky, especially when you can do everything for your kids. It’s hard to say “No”.

But having them never require addiction treatment is probably something we can all agree is a good thing. 

Best of luck (that helps too!)

The Continuing Evolution of Our Professional Space

There’s nothing like a conference with peers, who come at our work with enterprising families from a variety of different professions, to stimulate reflection about the journey we’re all on.

When that conference (FFI Boston ’22) is the first big get-together in 3 years, it’s even more impactful.

And, when that conference has as its theme the future, it makes members of that community even more reflective and inspired.

Please join me as I continue to process all of what I took in, along with all the debriefing I’ve done with colleagues since then.

See Now What? After the Great Meeting


From Multi-Disciplinary to Interdisciplinary

Let’s begin with the insightful framing of an FFI Award that was shared by this year’s recipient. Jack Wofford received the annual FFI Interdisciplinary Award for 2022 at the FFI Fellows breakfast on Friday morning.

Wofford is an attorney who has a long history of acting as a mediator in all sorts of multi-party disputes, including many involving enterprising families.

During his acceptance speech, he made a point of stating that the name of the award is “interdisciplinary” which he contrasted with another, oft-used similar expression, “multi-disciplinary”.

Hmmm, I thought to myself, I’d never thought about this distinction before.


A Multi-Disciplinary Field, Requiring Interdisciplinary Effort

There is no denying that the people who serve family firms come from a multitude of different disciplines, this has been known and acknowledged for decades.

What is more recent is the understanding that in order to do this work well, and not just in our original silos, requires some effort to be able to work with people from disciplines different from one’s own.

Many professionals do not even really recognize this, and even among those who acknowledge it, my guess is that there are only a small minority who really do a good job of learning how to do it well.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that it merits its own award.


From Field to Ecosystem

The title of this post hit on two parts of the evolution of the professional space in which I and many readers endeavour, the part about the disciplines, as well as the issue of how we label the area in which we all work.

Let’s switch gears and take on the second question.

The A-Ha Moment for this came during an off-site dinner that I attended with what we called “Team Canada”, which was a wonderful opportunity for many of us Canucks to spend some time getting to know one another a bit better.

Without naming names, I was seated next to a friend and colleague who I happen to know was born about two and a half decades after I was.  Across from him was a woman I know, who I also understood to be much younger than my late-50’s.

As it turns out, they had already compared notes and were born in the same year.  I was suddenly quite jealous, but maybe not for the simple reasons you might guess.


Entering and Ecosystem, Not Just a Field

I had my calling to do this work relatively late, and so I’ve been trying to make up for lost time for a decade now.

I’m jealous of these two professionals not just because they are so much younger, but also because they both seem to have found work that really suits them and that they enjoy.

And, the field has continued to evolve, to the point where it is now so much more than a plain old field, it has become an ecosystem in its own right.

The opportunities for those entering this space are so much better defined and available now than they were even a decade ago.


The Family Enterprise Parallel Version

I always like to draw some sort of parallel to the situations involving business families in these posts, so let’s do that before we run out of room.

Any FamBiz going from the founder’s generation (G1) to the next, offers some complexity and opportunity, and things to work on.

But when you see a family where there are active members in G3, G4, and G5 (and so on) that’s when things really get interesting.

Just as the young professionals I spoke about have plenty of opportunities, I’m also jealous of the rising generation members of such families, because they have a much broader path of opportunities ahead of them too.

Finding a Reason for Organized Family Discussions

Every week here I tackle a subject relating to families who either work together or own assets together. 

The main thrust typically involves the challenges these families face in organizing themselves in ways that increase the likelihood that they’ll be able to keep a great thing going right through the next generational transition of the family.

That often means I talk about the importance of having regular family meetings and beginning to institute some forms of family governance, which is often a tough swallow for some families.

For certain families, there’s kind of a nice “back door” to this that presents itself, and that’s family philanthropy.


A Subject That’s Long Overdue Here

I’m almost embarrassed that I’ve written so little about philanthropic activities in this space, because family enterprises are often quite generous, especially in their local communities.

When I got into this field, the ideas I had around philanthropy were quite simplistic, eg. Companies makes money, so they give some of it back, that seems logical.

It was only later, when I noted that some families had found it necessary to organize their activities on a more formal basis to actually implement everything required to properly execute their giving, that I realized the wonderful side effect this can have.


The Family Governance Angle

Regular readers recognize that we are now venturing into familiar territory, i.e. family governance.

I typically lament the fact that most families seem almost allergic to the idea of implementing any form of governance, and I fully understand their reluctance.

In my first book, SHIFT your Family Business, there’s even a chapter called “Governance, Ugh!”

So one day it finally clicked, philanthropy offers some families a wonderful onramp to this world, because family giving, done right, actually necessitates many of the steps required for other types of family enterprise governance.


Philanthropy Experts Abound

The professional circles in which I travel and connect also contain philanthropy experts on a regular basis, and it is amazing how much we have in common.

On the podcast that I often host for Family Enterprise Canada, Let’s Talk Family Enterprise, I once did an episode with a colleague, Dr. Sharilyn Hale, called How Philanthropy Can Support Both Family Governance and Legacy.

Yet it still never clicked that I needed to share this idea with my blog readers. Like I said, this is long overdue.

In the organisations I belong to, including the Family Firm Institute (FFI) and the Purposeful Planning Institute (PPI), I regularly interact with professionals who work with families to support their philanthropic activities.

I guess I’m starting to realize how much we have in common.


When There’s No Operating Business (Anymore?)

One way this situation suddenly appears is right after a liquidity event, when the family realizes that now that they no longer own and operate a business together, many things are different. 

See Huge Liquidity Events – Great News, Right?

Yes, they now have much more liquid wealth to handle and organize, but they’ve lost that common asset that they used to rally around and identify with, likely much more than they ever realized at the time.

How do you get a family excited about rallying around a pile of money?

Well, one answer, one that seems to be gaining in popularity, is very much centered around philanthropy.

It takes work and intention to do this well, especially if the family leaders have realized that doing this in a way that will last beyond their own lifetime, they will need to do this as a family, and not just by one or two people.


Building a Strong Foundation

Whether the specific vehicle(s) the family chooses to use include a family foundation or not, it will be important for every family to build a strong (figurative) foundation upon which they want to structure the family’s giving.

That important work includes defining the family’s values, which needs to be done pretty early on. Likewise, co-creating a vision and mission can also be important pillars that can help strengthen a coherent effort that all family members can get behind, and possibly also be involved in executing.

This will involve figuring out how they are going to communicate and make decisions together, as well as solve problems as they arise.

And as regular readers will recognize, I just laid out the key elements of family governance, right there in that last sentence.

Indeed, philanthropy offers many benefits for the family, not just for society!

Following Up After the Big Meeting is the Key

“Now what”, or “what’s next”, are so important to making the progress we want to make, in so many areas of our lives.

And, it’s good to remind ourselves that even though we need to take time to recover from a big event to rest and reflect, we cannot take too much time “off” and very much need to get back into the rhythm of what was so great about a meeting.

Okay, so let me step back here and share what I’m getting at, because I uncharacteristically jumped right to my point without much context there.

I’ve just returned from another wonderful conference and I’m still coming down from the high of spending time with so many wonderful people, and as I planned to share the experience here, I realized that there are parallels here to the kind of work that I do with families.


Setting the Date for the Next Meeting

Whenever anyone asks for tips on holding a great family meeting, I’ve been known to say that the most important thing you need to do is make sure that you set the date for the next meeting, so that everyone can put it on their calendar and make sure they’ll be there.

I drove back from the annual FFI Conference in Boston yesterday, and so I just followed my own advice and added next year’s event to my calendar for October 25-28, 2023 in New York City.

I also made a note on my calendar for Monday morning, when I get back to my desk, to make sure I look through my notes and the event brochure and be sure not to let any follow-ups fall through the cracks.

I already went through the attendees list and made sure to hit up all the new folks I spoke with over the past few days with LinkedIn connection requests.

My notes will surely reveal some blog ideas and at least one follow up for a podcast guest request, if not more.


Connecting Like-Minded Colleagues

During the three days of the conference I was on the lookout for other fellow Canadians, so that I could add a Canadian flag sticker to their name badge.

I can’t believe that the 25 stickers I brought weren’t sufficient and I ran out. I must remember to bring more next time, and I should probably make sure I order extras, because they were quite popular.

Besides trying to herd all my fellow great-white-north friends, I was also on the lookout for any French-speaking attendees.

FFI has had a Spanish language study group for a decade now, and some fellow Quebecers want to launch something similar in French, so I spent some time trying to connect colleagues for that too.


More Jolly Good Fellows

Every year at the FFI conference they announce another group of members who have achieved “FFI Fellow” status, and this year I was very honoured to be part of this group.

I’m still a tiny bit disappointed that they haven’t adopted the tradition of singing “For he’s the jolly good fellow” during the ceremony, but I’ll get over it.

It is indeed gratifying to be part of the growing group of leaders in the field of family enterprise, all of whom make an effort to share so generously with colleagues so that we can all serve our family clients even better.


Back to the Family Meetings….

I just spent a few paragraphs writing a lot about “who”, and when you think about family meetings, the “who” part is also huge, because spending family time together is obviously a huge part of what you are trying to do.

Sharing common experiences is key to the family bonding and understanding, which is all part of making sure that your communications are working.

There’s also the “what” part you need to consider, and the content and planning are not something you want to skimp on or leave to the last minute.

Just like this conference I was at, many people spent a lot of time creating the conditions for success, and your family meetings deserve as much as well.

Make sure your agenda includes learning and fun, as well as some break time for people to just “be” together.

You want them to leave satisfied and looking forward to the next one.

Holding the Power of the Process

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to the center of the universe, which every fellow Canadian will recognize means Toronto.

During the 48 hours I spent there, I had occasion to catch up with some folks I’ve known for years, as well as meet some people with whom I’d only recently exchanged a couple of emails.

The return to the world of face-to-face conversations is refreshing, and five meetings over two days allowed me to speak with people about the work I do and how I approach it a number of times.

These conversations had me rehashing a story I’ve shared many times when speaking with people, but have yet to write about here.

That changes today.


Facilitation Is NOT About the Content

Let me share that story now to set up my point.

Years ago I was in the board room with a family for the first time, and about an hour into things the matriarch stood up and began using very colourful language to berate her nephews and sons.

As she began to put on her coat and gather her things as she stormed out, I suddenly felt that all the eyes were on me.

The specific words that this woman had used with me weeks earlier, about wanting me to “referee” their family meeting, were coming more into focus right then.

That was when I needed to summon all of my strength to just sit there and watch, silently.

It has become my real life, lived experience of “don’t just do something, sit there”.


Hat Tip for the Inspiration

That type of occasion, where not doing something is what’s best, is very rare when presiding over a meeting.

The idea to write a blog about this came from a LinkedIn post by a colleague a couple of months ago.

Dr. Stacey Feiner shared a story about a meeting she was in where things suddenly got heated and everyone stared at her.

She had the perfect one-liner that got everyone back to reality and eased the tension, allowing for productive work to continue.

Going back to my story above, that meeting also continued, minus one person, for many hours of useful discussion, and in which my referee’s whistle remained in my pocket.


Reading the Room and Holding the Space

Not everyone is suited for this type of role, because there’s a weird power dynamic that you need to deal with.

In some ways, it seems like the person presiding over the meeting has a lot of power, because they’re guiding all of the process.

However, assuming that they are there because a process person is needed, then they actually don’t have any power at all, and are really there to allow all the other people to be as powerful as they can be.

This entails lots of observation, reading the room, especially the emotional field, and really holding the space for productive discussions to take place.


Intergenerational Discussions Fraught with Emotions

Let’s also not forget that I’m talking about meetings that involve family members, often from more than one generation.

We’re talking about the crossroads of family and business, with a lot at stake, and some power dynamics that can make things tricky in a hurry.

There are always plenty of important subjects to discuss in any business, even more so in a family enterprise.

But having those discussions go well and be productive is not always easy.

While I didn’t necessarily like the idea of being seen as the “referee” of the meeting, sometimes that’s what’s necessary.

I did referee hockey for a few seasons decades ago, and also umpired baseball games for a number of years too.

Little did I know then that these activities would give me some much needed experience that I could call upon in my 50’s.


Learning How to Be Together

When family members also work together, they sometimes fall into communication patterns that don’t work very well, especially for members of the rising generation, who may have difficulty being seen as responsible and mature enough for their roles.

In cases like these, they almost have to learn a new and more appropriate way to “be together”, in a way that works for everyone.

And never forget the saying that you know a game was well refereed when it’s over and nobody even remembers the ref’s name!

Business, Family, and Ownership Each Have Their Own “Clock”.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Three Circle Model since I first saw it almost a decade ago, and wrote about it almost instantly. See Three Circles + Seven Sectors = One A-Ha Moment.

It remains the simplest way to quickly get at so many of the issues that enterprising families face, in a way that just about everyone involved can quickly grasp.

That model from Tagiuri and Davis has been around for over 40 years now, and many people have commented on it, tried to modify it, added circles, changed the sizes of the circles, turned the circles into spheres, etc.

Rarely, however, have I seen much comment around the time elements that affect each of the three areas.

That will change today.


An Old-Fashioned Analog Clock Analogy.

Many of the posts I write here are inspired in one way or another by group discussions that I’ve been part of over Zoom, and this is yet another of those.

This one involved a number of local family business folks who have begun kicking around an idea to host an event next year to celebrate the community in some way.

The call included people from a local university, some practitioners who work with enterprising families (like me), and a few who run some pretty cool family enterprises, who I was happy to meet.

The discussion went all over the place and was all positive, and although I didn’t attend in order to find a blog topic….

When the academic on the call mentioned the Three Circle Model, my ears perked up, because I wasn’t expecting it to come up in this context.

And then he added the part about a clock, and the second hand, the minute hand, and the hour hand.

Bingo!


Flashback and Confusion, But No Time to Argue.

He shared that someone had pointed out to him that you could look at an old-fashioned clock and think of each of the circles as being represented by one of the sweeping hands.

I’m pretty sure I stopped listening at that point because my imagination had taken over

I’m not even sure which hand he had assigned to which circle, but that’s probably moot here. I’ve got my own thoughts on that and I’m not sure they agreed with his, but in this context there was no time to argue either.

It also caused a flashback to a post I wrote about ownership and how that’s the circle that changes the least often, so for me it would have to be the one that gets the “hour hand”.  See Clunky Ownership Syndrome in Family Business


What About the Seconds and Minutes?

So what about the second hand and the minute hand, to be assigned to the family and the business?

Well, more often than not, I’d be inclined to say that the business turns at a faster rate, especially when there’s an operating company with lots of employees working there, possibly for many hours every day, possibly even around the clock.

I’d say that the family circle would be best ascribed to the minute hand, because things change there more frequently than in the ownership, but there aren’t necessarily any noticeable changes happening on a frequent basis.

If you have a family genogram with everyone’s age on it, you could update it once a year and never be too far off.


Attention, Focus, and Intention.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with anything, and if you are still left wanting, (and still reading this!) I’ll share my thoughts on the relevance of this.

Quite often, family members who also work in the business can become overly focused on the business, at the expense of the attention they pay to their family.

They follow that second hand around because it’s moving quickly, and in the time that the business went around the circle five times, the minute hand barely moved, so it’s easy to ignore.

Now extend this analogy to the ownership, and you can barely even notice that anything there needs to even be thought about.

But eventually….


Don’t Get Caught Watching the Clock.

It can be very seductive to pay attention to the fast-moving business circle and forget that the minutes and hours also continue to move along at their own, slower pace.

The other circles, most notably the family circle, also require attention, focus, and intention.

Don’t get seduced by the second hand.

It’s Never Too Early nor Too Late – But….

This week we’re going to take a look at a common question that people in my line of work get, and dig a bit deeper into my standard answer, to try to test its limits.

It so happens that a couple of the client families with whom I’m presently working are showing signs of concern with the pace of our work together, which has brought this to the front burner for me.

I want to write something here that I can share with them, and at the same time make some broader points about how my engagements with a family can play out.

But first a flashback to a skit from an old Saturday Night Live episode that came to mind when I wrote the title above, which I immediately realized could be misconstrued.

 

“You Can’t Put Too Much Water in a Nuclear Reactor”.

That 1984 skit featured guest host Ed Asner (begins at 53:42) as a retiring boss at a nuclear plant, who gave the workers he left behind some advice that ended up causing confusion, from which much humour then ensued.

“Just remember, you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor” had some workers believing that you shouldn’t ever put too much water in, while others opted for the opposite interpretation, i.e. that it’s impossible to put in too much.

My “You can’t start too early” suffers from the same shortcoming, but my sub-head, “It’s never too early” clarifies my views.

Starting WHAT, Exactly?

It may help if I define what I’m referring to when I say “start”.

My work typically involves families who are trying to ensure that the wealth or business that they’ve created can be successfully transitioned to the next generation of their family.

Those efforts involve a number of legal and structural steps and procedures, of course, but those are always handled by other experts in those subjects, not by me.

My work is in the family circle, working the family dynamics and relationships aspect, which usually includes getting the family started with regular family meetings.

The work around these efforts, bringing the family members into these key discussions, is what I mean by “getting started”.

 

Try Not to Make a M.E.S.S.

I wrote about this back on 2017, in a post called Start Cleaning Up Your M.E.S.S. where “M.E.S.S.” was an acronym I had created to help readers remember four important aspects relating to getting started.

The “M” is for “Start Moving”, emphasizing that this is much more than just thinking about it or talking about it with one person, it’s about action.

The “E” is for “Start Early”, which is what we’re looking at today.

The two “S’s” are where it can get tricky for some, especially those who feel like they need to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

Some people just don’t do well with “Start Small” and “Start Slowly”, but they’re key for a number of reasons.

 

Why You Need to Start SMALL.

It’s important to start small because you don’t want to lose anyone along the way, and onboarding family members into such a process needs to be done carefully, because you really want to make sure that you will maximize their engagement.

Taking big steps would allow you to feel like you’re making big progress, of course, but if it means that some of the more skeptical family members aren’t ready to buy in, then big steps work against you.

 

Why You Need to Start SLOWLY.

Back in 2018, I wrote There Is No Destination, where I talked about the fact that life is more about the journey than the destination, and that’s an attitude I encourage parents to adopt.

Going slowly, and taking small steps, is important for the engagement question too, because again, you don’t want to lose anyone along the way.

You can really only go as fast as the group is willing to go, so erring on the slow side is what I always encourage.

 

There Is No Finish Line.

There’s actually no need for big steps or going fast when you consider that there is no finish line to this work.

We’re not trying to get to the last page of the book or tick off all the boxes on a checklist, we’re trying to make sure that family knows where they want to go and how they will work together.

That work never ends.

Human Insights from a Family of Geese.

When people ask me about my favourite place to be, and I want to be really specific, I mention sitting on my kayak, on the Chockpish River behind my cottage in New Brunswick.

I’ve written posts about my time here over the years, notably Stuck in the Mud? Don’t Wait for “MayDay” about an incident that has stayed with me for a long time, as well as From Upstream to Downstream in the FamBiz in which I raised some wealth transition lessons from a natural phenomenon.

But today I’m writing this post after a fresh experience that I had early on a Monday morning as I paddled along and came upon a family of geese.

Most of my blog writing occurs on Fridays and Saturdays each week, so for me to be working on next week’s post this early, you know that something resonated with me.


Just Minding My Own Business.

I woke up early and decided that the combination of the weather, the tides, and a light calendar of Zoom calls offered me an opportunity to get out there an explore the river just after sunrise.

It was a rare trip already when I met an oncoming canoe in the first 10 minutes, and I jokingly mentioned to the couple and their dog that I didn’t expect so much traffic.

Little did I know at the time that I was foreshadowing lots of honking!

Onward I went, minding my own business, when I approached what shall henceforth be called “Goose Island” heading south.


Mother Goose Shows Wisdom – Father Goose, Not So Much.

A family of Canada Geese were all on this small island, and one of the adults, who I assumed was Mom, saw me coming from afar and began heading to the far side of the island and into the water.

She was eyeing me the whole time, and seven of her brood slowly got up and followed her into the water, heading away from me, the oncoming perceived threat.

Nicely done, mama goose, I thought.

Then a moment later, I notice another adult, Father Goose, I assumed, who saw me a bit later, and who had three of their youngsters in his charge.

I had hoped that he would lead them away from me as well, but if that would’ve happened, there would’ve been no goosebumps nor story to tell.


Honk, Honk, Honk, He Bellows.

Father goose, with his three offspring, Tom, Dick, and Harriet, all enter the water on the side of the island where I’m trying to simply glide past them so as not to cause any unnecessary fear.

The incessant honking has now begun, as father goose is likely trying to scare me and also alert the mother of their goslings that there’s a danger in their midst.

They continue swimming south, trying to outrace me, and the honking gets more aggressive.

I’m trying to speed past them to put any fear at rest, but instead I’m seen as more of a threat as I accelerate.

I try widening my distance, but the narrowness of the river prevents me from doing so.

At one point, Dad even starts flying to get further ahead of me.

And then, suddenly, something changed.


The Rising Generation to the Rescue.

I looked down at my leg and noticed goosebumps, and was struck by the irony that they were caused by a goose, which I guess gives me a story to share if ever I’m on Jeopardy.

Suddenly one of the goslings, likely Harriet, decided to do a 180, and began swimming northbound, you know, the other way!

Her brothers did the same, I was finally past them, and Dad finally gave me a final honk, which sounded to me a bit like “honk off!”


Some Morals from this Story.

Aside from the fact that the gender attributions I made are mere guesswork, and that the whole affair didn’t last any more than a couple of minutes, I do have some take-aways.

Parents don’t always make the best decisions for their families.

What is perceived as a threat is not always a threat, and I was riled up by this too, as I did not want to get goosed!

Sometimes a well-timed move by one family member can end up benefitting the whole family, and often that member is part of the rising generation.

Later, as I passed Goose Island on my return, they all just watched me intently, with nary a honk. Phew!

They Both Begin with “Uni”, but Are Very Different

Over the past decade since I’ve been sharing my thinking here, a number of subjects have obviously been repeated several times.

Having defined my “turf” loosely as discussing the challenges that families face when trying to transition their wealth to subsequent generations, there are only so many general categories one can write about, especially if you’ve committed to churning out something new 52 times each year.

So as I embarked on this week’s post, I looked back to see how often I’ve written about the idea of “family unity”.

Well, let’s just say that I was surprised at how infrequently I’ve written about this subject.


Clues from the “Family HUG” Post?

I distinctly remembered one post from 2021 where “unity” was a key word, as it played the key role in the acronym I’d coined, providing the vowel in “HUG”.

See The “Family HUG” We’re All Looking For

That piece stemmed from a comment by a colleague during a webinar I was leading for the FFI course I teach on family governance (GEN 502, for the curious).

Lisa had mentioned that all families want the same three things: “Harmony, Unity, and Growth”, and as I noted them I was struck by the word “HUG” that they formed, and made that the genesis of the post.

But why haven’t I written about unity more often?

Could it be that it is so much of a “given”, because every family wants it, so it’s not worth discussing? 

I’m pretty sure that’s a part of it.


Is Uniformity Part of the Equation?

There are lots of “sub-plots” in any story of family unity, and one of the big ones, whether or not it’s actually recognized and spoken about, is the concept of uniformity.

Simply put, to what extent do we all need to be the same, in order for us to remain together.

This idea comes from the work of a friend and colleague, Nike Anani, and is mentioned in her book Lifetime to Legacy, which I recommend, as it had me nodding my head all the way through as I recently read it.

She suggests that differing views on how much uniformity is desired by different members of any family are worth exploring and discussing.

These are my own views on her writing about this, but they’re what resonated with me, my take-aways, and continue to evolve as I think about this subject.


Finding the Right Balance Between “Me and “We”

A common scenario sees the leading generation wanting more uniformity, with members of the rising generation preferring less.

When facilitating family conversations around this idea, words like “unity” and “uniformity” are never mentioned, but they’re always in everyone’s subconscious.

Sometimes when everyone is thinking about something but not speaking about it, that becomes an opportunity for a skilled outsider to broach the subject.

A sub-text here often includes a certain desire and expectation that the rising generation follow their elders and adopt the ways of their parents, because, well, they’ve been successful so far!

Meanwhile, their offspring have often grown up in a very different world, see things very differently, and have their own views, ambitions, and priorities.

These differing views are always at the root of challenges to be overcome, and the sweet spot typically lies somewhere in the middle of those views.

The ideal situation is one where the family finds the right balance between the “We” and all of the “Me’s”.


Diversity Is the Key to Maximizing Human Capital

A subject that I do write about a lot is human capital, and the idea that every family would do well to consider each of their family members as useful contributors to the family wealth and mission.

If all of those people are the same, i.e. too uniform, you will not be able to get as far together, because you will have a lot of redundancies.

Diversity is an asset and should be sought, promoted, and celebrated, as it allows the family more options and avenues that they can pursue together over coming generations.

Unity gets tougher as a family grows in numbers, it’s basic math when you get right down to it.

Families need to find ways for everyone to play a part in achieving the right level of unity, and uniformity is never part of the solution.

In fact, trying to force too much of it is often part of the problem!

Thoughts on Who Leans In and Who Leans Out

Most of the posts I write here weekly are based on ideas that have been simmering in my head for a few weeks or even months before I write about them for public consumption.

Every once in a while, like this week, they stem from an urge to quickly try to process a confluence of many recent ideas, before the potential magic they may contain begins to dissipate.

Leadership of families is often top of mind, but this week some conversations that included the ideas of “leaning in” and “leaning out” added to the mix, and so here we are.

Let’s see how I can tie something coherent together that is both useful and entertaining.


The First Family Meeting Is the Hardest

I should first set some important context though, because I recently had the privilege of working with a family for a number of months in preparation for their first in-person family forum.

When these go well, as this one did, there’s a magic that happens in the room, as the family comes together to discuss important topics as a group for the first time, and they typically begin to discover what’s possible for them going forward.

Too many families know that they should be discussing these things, but because they’re not sure how to start, or they fear that they’ll accidentally kick a hornet’s nest, they put these discussions off for “yet another year”.

So I was coming off a high, where I’d been with some people who had a new sense of possibilities for their future.


Yet Another PPI Call Inspires Me

As has occurred many times over the years, attending the weekly PPI Tuesday call was an additional source of inspiration.

The subject that week was women and philanthropy, and the guest mentioned that women need to learn to “lean in” to get more involved.

My friend Amanda, who was hosting the call and knew that I was in attendance asked if I had any comments, and of course I did (!)

They opened my line and I highlighted the concept of leaning in, and the fact that sometimes others, who have been leaning in, need to start to learn to “lean out”, so that others can play a more prominent role.

This applies to both women and men in philanthropy discussions, as well as to the Rising Generation and the Incumbents in families who are hoping to transition from one generation of leadership to the next.


How About the Outside Professional Advisors?

Part of the magic in a family forum comes from the fact that participants begin to realize that sharing of leadership is both welcome and required over the long term.

But the idea of leaning in and out is not just limited to the family members. 

As the outside facilitator of the meeting (and the only non-family person in the room), I also need to be aware of my own presence in the room, and to try to make sure I allow the family system to manage itself.

I may begin each part of the meeting by taking some leadership in teeing up a discussion or activity, but then I absolutely must lean back and let things happen organically, and only step back in as necessary.

If I try too hard to make everything work in a way that seems perfect, because I’m worried about looking good, I’m no longer properly serving the family.

My goal is to get the family members to lean in and put in the work required to build the connection and understanding with each other.


Sharing Leadership as a Family

The goal for many families is for their wealth to transition successfully from one generation to the next, and because that typically involves more people in subsequent generations, it’s important for everyone to learn to make decisions together in as democratic a way as possible.

Having all of the leadership and decisions concentrated in the hands of one person or a very small group can be a recipe for trouble.

There are usually more aspects of the family that require some leadership than they realize, and because everyone has different strengths, it makes sense to share roles among as large a group as possible.

And the parents first need to learn to lean back, and then the offspring need to lean in.