The Evolution Over a Decade

It was ten years ago, during the time I was completing the Family Enterprise Advisor program in 2013, that I first had my true calling to work in this fascinating field.

When I entered the program, I assumed that the key work to be done was all in the “business circle”, where family businesses have been traditionally well served by the existing fields of professionals who work with all sorts of businesses (family or otherwise).

As I learned about the Three Circle Model (and wrote about then in Three Circles + Seven Sectors = One A-Ha Moment) I quickly recognized not only that the “family circle” existed, but also the fact that it is typically as underserved as it is important.

I also realized that my natural abilities are best suited to serve the family relationship area, despite all my education until then having been geared towards business circle challenges.

Sharing My New Calling Back Then

As I tried to comprehend my newfound calling and what it would mean to finding the type of clients who actually have a need for be served in these areas, I found myself trying to explain the challenges that families face, which while related to the business circle, are actually quite distinct from them.

I recall someone mentioning that there was a lot of demand for such guidance for families, because of the prevalence of family enterprises in the economy.

I initially agreed with those who noted the demand for what I was speaking about, before eventually realizing that the word “demand” was poorly chosen to describe the reality of the situation.

I think what my friend was trying to point out was a huge need for help in these areas, which existed then and still does today.

The problem for people like me is that while the need is huge, the demand is actually quite low.

Turning Need into Demand

One of my overarching challenges for this past decade has been trying to find ways to turn that need that families have to find resources and guidance to overcome the challenges they face into demand for such services.

How does one turn a need into a demand?

I recall a story about IBM way back when, who came up with a computer so powerful that they expected would have little demand, because it was difficult to conceive of what anyone could use that much computing power for in those days.

I daresay that every person in the western world now probably has several devices they use daily that are more powerful than the machine they were talking about decades ago.

The Education Aspects

One aspect that certainly comes into play is education, and it can be looked at in a few different ways.

Of course one part is to make families aware of what they could be (and should be) working on to increase the odds of success in their favour, as they try to find the best path to transition their businesses and wealth to the next generation of their family.

Sharing examples of families who have been “early adopters” of some of these avant-garde methods, and thereby educating these families around what has worked elsewhere is a big part of that.

Instead of having professionals use scare tactics by pointing out well known failures, and thereby providing “solutions” that solve for some simple aspect of those failures, we’ve seen more modeling of what successful families have done.

The other major education angle lies in having professional experts trained to serve such families, based on those positive models of families who have done this well.

Growing the Supply

The supply of experts who serve families needing support in the family circle continues to grow, seemingly at a faster pace than ever, and that’s a good thing.

The need is still greater than the demand, but at least the supply is ramping up as more and more demand is being expressed.

As I wrote last year in From Multi-Disciplinary Field to Interdisciplinary Ecosystem in many ways I’m jealous of those now entering the space because of the progress we’ve all been making over the past decade.

Everything continues to evolve of course, and there is no finish line either.

Most families will need support and resources at some point on their journey, and the opportunity to accompany them on this complex ride can be very rewarding for many.

Useful Analogies for Working with Complex UHNW Families

During recent discussions with colleagues, many of whom who also work with complex families, I came up with an analogy that resonated with some of them.

So of course I now want to share it here as well, if only because writing about it forces me to think through the best ways to talk about the subject.

I’ve always been a huge fan of metaphors and analogies of all kinds, even though they’re never perfect.

I’ve written about sports analogies here a number of times, including The Rules of Baseball and Family Business, Where’s the Puck – Family Wealth Hockey Analogies, and Communication in Curling and in the Family.

Formula 1 Racing Is Up Next

This week we’re venturing a bit up-market, into the lofty world of Formula 1 auto racing, because that’s the analogy I recently concocted.

It so happens that the wealthy are often referred to as “The 1 %”, but that’s a total fluke here, and I didn’t even realize the coincidence of the number 1 until I set about coming up with a headline for this post.

For those who don’t follow auto racing, Formula 1 likes to view itself as the crème de la crème of the sport, with a worldwide audience and races on several continents.

Many of the automakers own parts of the teams and use them as kind of an R & D Laboratory to test the limits of technology.

The technical automotive improvements they develop at this top level of racing cars eventually make their way downstream to the cars sold to consumers.

Over the years Mercedes, Ferrari, BMW, Nissan, Renault, Ford, Honda and Porsche have been doing this. Likewise, in the US, Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet have done similar things on the NASCAR circuit.

Family Governance Models to Follow

I recently attended the annual NYC conference of the Institute for Family Governance where some of this really hit home.

Attendees heard from members of several families about how their governance systems were put into place and how they have evolved over the generations.

We heard from families that are into their 5th, 6th, and even 7th generations, including a few that now have several hundred family owners.

None of them got to where they are today easily, and they were all supported by outside professionals over the decades.

These are rare families at the very top of the complexity pyramid, and often also from the highest echelons of wealth.

This is the “Formula 1” equivalent I’m trying to point out.

What About the Other 99%?

As someone who is involved in several professional communities who serve families, I’ve heard many people lament the fact that we typically speak about the work that gets done and discussed always seems to involve the wealthiest families. See Meta Views on Sharing with Peers and Families.

They recognize that the need for this work on family dynamics and developing the rising generation exists at all levels of wealth and even in the smallest of family businesses. I can’t argue against that.

What I always try to stress is that this ecosystem is still in its infancy, and for now, most of the ideas we are learning to integrate into these complex wealthy families are still emerging, and that the good news is what we learn here can, should, and will eventually trickle down to simpler and smaller families.

The Pit Crew Metaphor

Happily, there’s a related metaphor that I can share that will help drive my point home, and that’s the idea of the interdisciplinary pit crew that every race team has to prepare the car for each race, and also handle the periodic pit stops during the main event.

The aforementioned professionals who serve families come from a variety of fields that each have their own view of what family clients need, and when they work together, all seeing the same big picture, they can be even more effective all while being more efficient.

If you’ve ever watched any auto racing on TV, you’ve surely been impressed by what you see when a car comes in for a pit stop and a bunch of guys all jump in and change all the tires, top up the gas tank, make whatever other adjustments, and then get the car back on the racetrack in a few seconds.

Imagine professionals who work well together to serve families operating with such seamless interaction, and you can begin to see what’s possible in our ecosystem.

That’s the model we should be following.

Learning by Sharing, and Sharing our Learnings

Ever since I had my calling to work with families facing the challenges of transitioning their business to the next generation, I’ve found a wonderful kinship with others who work at guiding families towards this same goal.

The ecosystem surrounding such families continues to evolve and mature, as professionals from various fields of origin continue to find themselves in situations where collaborating together is an essential ingredient for getting the best results for the families who engage us.

Various peer groups have sprung up over the years, and as someone who’s been working mostly solo, I find it hard to resist joining them, so that I can continue to learn and share what I’ve been learning.

Having just returned from the annual in-person gathering of one such group, this topic is fresh and top-of-mind for me, and I want to share some of the perspectives I came home with.

A Wicked Case of “Groucho Marx Syndrome”

I was invited to join this particular group just before the pandemic, and even though most of its members have a certain professional status that I lack, I feel like my contributions are welcomed.

When I set aside my “why would I want to be part of a group that would have me as a member?” I can actually appreciate all that we bring to each other as a group of like-minded peers.

During a quick discussion with a small group a one point, someone mentioned the “container” that we provide for each other to pour our shared experiences into.

Another added that we understand ourselves better in relation to the group as we do this.

As individuals who often find themselves as the only non-family person in a room during the toughest parts of our job, this work can be lonely at times, and sharing with others who’ve experienced the same thing is cathartic and allows for personal and professional growth.

A More Recent Example

My involvement with a different organisation has me in the middle of launching another peer group, this one involving members who serve families from a variety of different professions of origin.

It will be interesting to see how this one evolves, and what we will each get out of the experience.

It’s always best to approach such situations with an open mind and an attitude of abundance, as opposed to arriving with a closed mind and a scarcity view of the world.

Thankfully those folks typically self-select out of such opportunities.

What About the META Part?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the work that goes into the organisation, launch, and maintenance of such groups (and make no mistake, it does take work) is how everything we learn in these efforts is applicable to so much of what we do with the families we serve.

The things we do to successfully engage with and learn from peers is almost perfectly transferable to the work that families require assistance with.

As peers who share with each other, we learn about ways that families can and should share.

As we co-create ways that we are going to govern our groups, we learn about ways that we can guide families as they develop their family governance policies.

As we share leadership in our groups, we learn about how to make co-leadership and co-creation work well in the families we serve.

As we facilitate our sessions with each other, we learn what makes some methods work better than others, and we practice new ways of being with each other, which helps us when we do so with families.

The Constant Challenges of Engagement and Alignment

All such peer groups face similar challenges, from their launch, through their evolution and into their maintenance stages. Eventually, things typically stagnate at some point, and a fresh look and new focus with some changes in leadership is often required.

Again, there are strong parallels to the work we do with families.

As I wrote back in 2020 in Family Engagement and Family Alignment – Chicken and Egg families need to constantly work on keeping all family members engaged, and working on their “alignment” is frequently required.

Likewise, when there are challenges keeping them aligned, working on their engagement is helpful.

From now on whenever anyone asks me why I choose to get involved in so many of these peer groups, I’ll just refer them to this post.


It Gets Dangerous When People Won’t Disembark

When going about one’s business in society, there are some unwritten rules that people follow that ensure the smooth and safe flow of people.

Some of these are based on laws that are written and enforced, but many are simply based on custom.

Driving a car is largely based on laws, with a few customs sprinkled in, and these are usually formally taught to those who wish to be licensed to drive.

How we walk through airports, shopping malls, and other public spaces is usually way less formal, and is something we learn from our parents, who are concerned for our safety and try to teach us how to function in society.

One such basic practice is to always get off an escalator when you get to the top (or bottom), and not to step backwards just to stay on.

Stretching the Metaphor for All It’s Worth

I may have used more words than necessary to set up my metaphor, but I’m glad that I was able to incorporate the part about how such customs of behaviour in society are typically taught to us from a young age by other family members.

In my work with intergenerational families, it’s always interesting to note how the proverbial apples don’t fall very far from the tree.

Yet there are some things that the leading generation sometimes does that don’t serve the family well, which are then learned by their successors, much to the dismay of the generation that then has to follow them.

Failing to disembark from the escalator, and not getting out of the way of those who are behind you, is a problem that we see far too often.

It’s not safe for anyone, and the repercussions are far-reaching.

Examples Abound – Let’s Look as Some

A couple of months back, in Starting Family Discussions Late – 5 Considerations I shared a real-life story about a large family in the town where I was visiting relatives.

The matriarch had recently passed away, which brought with it a hope that some of the uncertainty facing the rising generations might soon be clarified.

What I didn’t get very deep into then, and what I hope to address here, is the follow-on effects that such lack of clarity can have on the subsequent generations of these families.

When those in their 80’s and 90’s still haven’t ended their ride on the proverbial escalator, those behind them in their 60’s aren’t able to begin to make their own plans, which then stifles the ability of their offspring to figure out where they fit into things.

You now end up with people in the prime of their lives and careers, in their 30’s and 40’s, who are unable to make key decisions around whether or not they have a future in the family enterprise.

A Recent Extreme Tale

I recently made a presentation about legacy planning to an industry group in the center of the universe (Canadian readers all know I’m referring to Toronto).

During the Q & A, an attendee shared their story, which I will now relate here, while disguising some facts for privacy.

The G1 founder is in his late 90’s and still very much in charge of all major decisions, including many day-to-day ones.

Unfortunately, the G2 heir apparent passed away recently, reinforcing the founder’s perceived need to stick around even longer.

The G3 person who attended my session, who’s trying to run the company with a sibling (and both see things very differently, by the way) now has to deal with a meddling founder grandfather, a mother who suddenly holds a large ownership share despite never having been involved in the business, and a sibling equal.

When this person’s offspring, who are hitting their prime working years, ask their parent to try to paint a picture of their future in this family enterprise, how can they do anything but shrug their shoulders and say, “we’ll see…”?

Moving from a “Me Focus” to a “We Focus”

I’m often too indirect in my writing referring to the importance of “having important discussions”.

I now want to highlight that talk is insufficient, and that action has to occur.

A key action that needs to happen is for senior family leaders to get off the damn escalator.

They need to move from focusing on ME to doing what’s best for WE.

Hopefully some will recognize themselves and act.

More Here Than Meets the Eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who Is My Client” – A Really Good Question

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

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

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

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

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


Plenty of Groundwork Needs to Be Done

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

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

See Nose In, Fingers Out for Family Business

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

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

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

Values and Vision Work, or Mediation

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

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

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

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

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


The Family As a System

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

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

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

Yet another challenge to overcome.

Frequency of Interventions Varies Over Time

The time lapse between a blog idea and my eventually writing about it is usually a matter of weeks, typically somewhere between 2 and 6.

This week, I’m writing about an idea that’s been sitting in my “blog ideas” email folder for almost two years.

It just finally feels like it’s time to share my thoughts on this.

In my work, what I do with the “Smith” family is never a good predictor of what working with the “Jones” family will be like.

Likewise, the circumstances, timing, approach, and cadence of the work with the Brown family will be very different from what occurs with the Johnsons.


Some Patterns Are Common Though

The fact that the families and their situations are never the same doesn’t mean that there aren’t some patterns that develop.

In the same way that I work with very different families, my chiropractor works with all sorts of patients, and no two are the same for her either.

There’s an informative poster on the wall of one of her treatment rooms that does a nice job of explaining three different stages of care that chiropractors generally deliver.

The poster is in French, and I was worried about how I’d translate some of the specifics, but thankfully my friend Mr. Google helped me out and found a site with the same information in English.

Ever since I first had the idea to write about this, I’ve understood that there’s something useful here for those of us who work with families on the challenges of transitioning their business and wealth to the next generation.

How Serious Is It Now? How Often Do I Need to See You?

Over the years that I’ve been seeing Dr. B., the cadence of my visits has varied greatly, depending on what has ailed me.

Initially, it was sciatica, which probably fell under the heading of “Initial Intensive Care”, which is often the first stage and the one that made me make an appointment.

In my work, this might be analogous to some family conflict that has reared its head, and is too hard to ignore anymore.

Families who reach out for an external resource at such times usually need some version of lots of “intensive care”, if only to make them realize that they need to work through the issue, and likely won’t be successful on their own.

The chiro version of this looks at “pain & symptom management”, whereas my equivalent is something along the lines of clarifying interests and trying to find common ground, while providing a safe space and calm presence.

Rehabilitative and Corrective Care

The second stage of chiropractic care is labeled “rehabilitative/corrective care”.

Visits during such treatments are usually spaced out further, but still quite regular. At this point, we’re not going in twice in the same week, but we may have a number of visits, once a week or every two weeks for a certain period of time.

Working with families, this stage is probably the sweet spot, where you start to make progress with a family group.

You’re also possibly not dealing with a real “pain point”, and more likely building in some of the elements of family mission and vision, and laying the groundwork for family governance.

The chiropractic work here looks at “improved function”, which may be something as simple as having better and more productive regular meetings with family members, where the family’s relationship to the business is discussed.

The Holy Grail of Maintenance Mode

I’m happiest when I leave the chiropractor’s office with my next appointment set for a month later.

That means I’ve arrived at the maintenance stage, and I’m usually feeling as good physically as I have in a while.

The chiro world calls this “wellness/elective care”, which is mostly preventative and consists of minor adjustments before little things get worse.

In my work, this can be where a family “graduates” from requiring regular services from me, and an occasional check in is all that’s really required.

The Limits of this Analogy

There is of course no perfect analogy, but I think about this from time to time, especially early on with a new family.

It takes a certain amount of time just to figure out what the family truly needs, because often they don’t have a very good handle on this themselves yet either.

Hopefully I’ll have just the right touch for them.

Equally Important for Advisors and for Families

Working with enterprising families as I do, I find myself interacting with individuals as well as with groups of people.

Early on in these relationships, it’s always interesting to try to ascertain who’ll get along well with the other members of the family when we’re all together.

While compatibility in working together is never enough to guarantee success, (see Sibling Compatibility Is Not Sufficient) it sure is helpful and preferable to situations where folks don’t get along.

When working with other professionals as part of a multi-disciplinary team of advisors, the ability to work well together is also paramount.

We’ll look at both of these subjects this week.

Examples from Plants and Pets

Regular readers know that my inspirations for these posts are varied, and this week is no exception.

If you’ve been on a Zoom call with me from my office recently, you may have noticed a couple of new plants that I added to my background.

As I researched this purchase of greenery, I learned that some plants are marketed as “safe for pets”, which wasn’t something I had ever even thought about before.

I’ve been a dog and cat owner for many years, and we have several plants around our house, and this just never came up for us.

But I guess for some people, having plants that won’t poison their best friends is something that they need to worry about.

It seems that some plants are not compatible with pets.

Fighting Like Cats and Dogs

The dogs and cats we’ve had over the decades have, thankfully, also co-existed quite well, as those in the photos I found to accompany this post seemingly do.

The old saying about “fighting like cats and dogs” certainly has some merit, but again, it’s not universal, just like having plants and pets sharing space isn’t necessarily dangerous for either.

Since we’ve been without a dog for a few years now, I occasionally check out some websites for rescue dogs in our area.

See: Honouring FamBiz System Exits

I don’t recall ever noticing so many of the descriptions that mention restrictions like “not good with children”, “not good with cats”, and even “not good with other dogs”.

Then again, there’s a reason why these dogs are once again looking for a home.

But note that compatibility is something to consider, because if you don’t, then there’s a high likelihood of future regret.

Family Members Working Together

This “high likelihood of future regret” is something that gets overlooked in continuity planning for families.

Too often, parents make ill-considered decisions about who will own what after they die, and siblings end up being partners, even though it was always clear that they were less than ideally compatible.

When I work with families I always try to make sure that we try to ascertain this compatibility question early on.

If it’s already clear that the rising generation would be heading for a future clash down the road, why not look for alternative ways to structure things to minimize this risk?

My default is that family harmony should not be sacrificed for the sake of the business or the family wealth.

Multi-Disciplinary Teams for Interdisciplinary Work

When someone is part of the family, it’s not easy to “just get rid of them”, and that’s what makes this work so interesting.

When it comes to working with other professionals in service of a family, though, there is, thankfully, much more flexibility.

Of course when these advisors all work for the same organization, they may still get stuck in some less-than-perfectly-compatible situations.

But by and large, it’s much more possible to invoke a personal “No A-Holes Rule” as I’ve tried to do. This is one of the benefits of my independent status.

Putting Together a Project Team

The Family Enterprise Advisor program I completed 10 years ago (where I had my calling) includes a project phase where all enrollees are put into interdisciplinary teams to work together with a real family.

This capstone assignment, coming under the heading of Knowledge Integration and Application, is the biggest benefit to that program.

I was able to invite myself to see some of the group presentations of the latest cohort recently, and was reminded of how important that project is in providing participants the “real life” opportunity to live this compatibility experiment.

I imagine that some teammates will work together again, and others won’t!

Someone Who Knows “How to Be” with a Family

This blog has been a long time coming.

When speaking with people about my back story, I often bring up my grandmother’s career suggestion to me, but I’m pretty sure I’ve only written about it here once, and that was almost five years ago.

See: Limits to your Sphere of Influence

Over the years, I’ve come across other connections between my work with families and that of the clergy, and most of them have been left in the recesses of my mind.

But a recent Zoom call with a new LinkedIn connection brought this to the forefront once again, so here goes.

“A Priest and a Rabbi Walk into a Family Meeting”

It wasn’t easy to find the proper title for this post, and the sub-head above that sounds like the set-up to a joke was near the top, but was a bit too long.

Let’s begin with my maternal grandmother, who lived with our family for much of my childhood, and what she saw in me.

Note that my career had been laid out for me from a young age by my father, who had started a business before I was born, and was waiting for a male heir, which he finally got on the third and final try.

Oma, for her part, told me a few times that she thought I should become a priest.

My response was to laugh this off as preposterous. Little did I know what lay ahead for me.

On Clergy and Family Meetings

Using Trained, Neutral Outsiders for Support

As I began to work with families, concentrating on the “family circle” and facilitating discussions among various family members, I was constantly searching for ways to learn how to do this work better.

I recall seeing a video on the website of the then Business Families Foundation, featuring none other than John A. Davis, of Three-Circle   Model fame, in which he shared the following:

        “This is the work that used to be done by priests and rabbis”

I began to wonder if my grandmother had me pegged better than my Dad did!

The idea of having someone from outside the family, who could be neutral and who was trained in “how to be” even more than “what to do”, made lots of sense to me.

Learning Bowen Family Systems Theory

Long time readers know that I’ve been a student of Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory (BFST) for years, and I even wrote a book about that learning journey.

See Interdependent Wealth

It was during the two years that I was part of the Postgraduate program at the Bowen Center at Georgetown that this clergy angle really hit me.

Those who study BFST come from a few different fields, notably social workers and therapists of various kinds.

The people like me, who mostly work with families around wealth transitions, made up well under 10 % of the students during my time there.

One of the larger subgroups comprised the many ministers, rabbis, chaplains and pastors of all sorts.

Perhaps my late grandmother had seen something in me after all…

The Power of LinkedIn (When Used Right)

I’ve sung the praises of LinkedIn for years, and while not perfect, it stands head and shoulders above every other social media platform for professional interactions and relationship building.

A young man who just entered this field reached out to connect with me recently, and I instantly accepted his request.

He’s a CPA, and just joined an accounting firm to work with their potential family office clients. This is unremarkable so far, but please hang on.

He shared a note with me mentioning that he used to be a church pastor, before becoming an accountant.

Hmmmm, I thought, isn’t that interesting.

On Clergy and Family Meetings

Being “In the Room” During Anxious Times

We set up a Zoom call to satisfy my curiosity about his unusual career trajectory, and some of what he shared with me drives home an important point.

First off, kudos to the accounting firm for recognizing that this man has some useful traits and experience that will certainly come in handy.

My new friend related stories from earlier in his career, when he was a hospital chaplain, which clearly illustrates a point I’ve since shared with many people in discussion.

He talked about being called into a hospital room with a dying man surrounded by his family.

How to BE > What to DO

If you can be comfortable (and comforting!) in situations like that, I think you’ll do just fine running a family meeting.

The Many ‘Ships of Working with Family

Lots of Ways to Look at Managing Assets Together

The inspirations for these weekly missives come from a variety of sources, because writing 52 blogs every year necessitates a wide universe of catalysts.

Some members of my family have accused me of having an “addiction” to Twitter, and I suppose that sometimes it might seem that way, although I believe it’s very much under control (spoken like a true addict, I acknowledge).

And so you might have already guessed that Twitter is the source for the idea behind this week’s post.

Hat tip to Ryan Foland, who tweeted out a post a few month’s back that caught my attention, which stated “PartnerSHIPS are delicate, navigate wisely”, along with a cartoonish image of a captain at the wheel of a boat.

I emailed his tweet to myself, adding “relationships and leadership” to cement the idea for this piece, and put it into my “blog ideas” folder.

Since my “beat” is families who own and manage assets together, I want to explore those “ships” along with a couple of others I since added to the pile.



The simplest one to start with is ownership, since it is the fact that people actually own something together sits at the root of the challenges that they face, as well as the opportunities.

It’s much simpler when you own something all by yourself, since you alone can make every necessary decision without even informing anyone else.

The families I work with all own things together, or there is a strong intention for them to co-own assets together in the future.

It’s this “co-ownership” that holds most of the challenges.


That co-ownership brings us to the next ship, which is the partnership. Every partnership has its own advantages and disadvantages, of course, and being a partner in anything with family members just adds to the excitement, for lack of a better word.

When I speak about the work I do, I often make an analogy to leverage used in investing; if you borrow money so that you can make a larger investment, you can make more money, provided of course that you do make money. If you lose money, you also lose more money.

Being in any partnership with family members is wonderful when things go well, but when they go poorly, there’s more a stake to lose as well.



In order for any ownership partnership to go well, some form of strong leadership is also required.

I used the term “some form” on purpose there, to highlight the fact that leadership doesn’t always look the same, especially in the case of families.

As a family goes from the first generation (G1) to the second (G2), there’s typically a shift from an autocratic style to something more democratic. 

Ideally, there’s strong leadership of the business aspects, keeping that area strong, as well as some strong leaders of the family as well.

Those roles often reside in the same person in G1, but by G2, and certainly if they get to G3, more than one person will play key leadership roles, even if they’re not “official”.

See The Unsung Role of Family Champions



One type of leadership attitude and style that’s sometimes adopted is stewardship. Definitions of stewardship include words like “supervising” and “taking care of” something, and often include adjectives like “responsible” and “careful”.

There are worse attitudes a family can take, and stewardship continues to be a style to which many families aspire. 

It does have its drawbacks as well though, such as how it can leave rising generation family members unfulfilled and can see family assets dissipate over time.

See Striving for the “All and Nothing” Inheritance


I saved relationship for last because I think of this one a bit differently. This one sort of serves as the foundation for all of the others in my mind, because if relationships between family members start to go sour, all of the other “ships” suffer as a result.

Relationships are precious and need to be tended to consciously, because their quality affects everything else the family does together.

Communication is so important and I always lean towards more communication than less, because a vacuum of communication typically causes more issues and harms more relationships than when there’s plenty of it.

All these SHIPS are delicate, so please navigate wisely!

Words from Another Language Can Illuminate Ideas

Over the years since I’ve been sharing my thoughts in this space, there’ve been occasions when I’ve used translations from other languages (mostly French) to make a point.

We’re going back there again this week, because a certain word that I learned in my childhood, while attending primary school in French, just keeps coming up in different ways, and one of those ways actually relates to the work that I do with families.

The word is “bricolage”, which was something we typically did on Friday afternoons as part of the “arts plastiques” component of our curriculum.

For the first five decades of my life, that was what that word meant to me, but then suddenly, sometime in the past few years, I heard it used in English.  Hunh?

A Whole New Meaning for “Arts and Crafts”

If someone had asked me to explain bricolage, my quick answer would’ve been “arts and crafts”, because that still makes the most sense to me, as a translation of that childhood activity.

But now it means a whole bunch of other things too. My good friend Mr. Google helped me uncover a few:

  • Bricolage is a term used in several disciplines, among them the visual arts, to refer to the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things 
  • Bricolage is the skill of using whatever is at hand and recombining them to create something new.
  • Bricolage is defined as “making do by applying combinations of the resources at hand to new problems and opportunities.”

(Bold as per originals; italics added)

Switching Over to Doing Improv

Last year in Doing Improv While Developing Family Governance I noted that the idea of “improvising” your family governance when translated from French could be confusing, as some of it runs counter to the way I typically suggest families handle it.

My idea is to kind of “make it up as you go” and as you need to, but that you should definitely NOT try to do it on your own.

And so it is with a bricolage approach to creating family governance. The family members need to do the work, but not by themselves.

Family Members Must Get Their Hands Dirty

Any agreements, guidelines, or documents that a family creates to define the way they’re going to govern the members of the family, must be co-created by the family members themselves

Assuming, of course, that you want them to abide by them.

This work cannot be delegated and still be expected to be worth the paper it’s printed on.

It can, though, be cobbled together as needed, incrementally, over time.

Kind of like an arts and crafts, or do-it-yourself project, like doing bricolage. Only the do-it-yourself part doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) done by yourself.

You should engage someone independent, from the outside, to guide the process.

A Bricolage Guide or Assistant’s Roles

If you think about what this person would do, their roles would include the following:


This hired guide is tasked with organizing the work that needs to be done, which includes staying in contact with family members on a regular basis, both one-on-one and in groups.

Keeping the momentum going is a big part of the role, and adjusting the cadence to the speed of the family members is not as easy as it might seem.


While there’s a leadership component to the role, it is not always “solo leadership”, but often requires teaming up with at least one family member, who co-leads and plays a key role as well, rallying the family members in ways the outsider cannot.

See Sustaining Family Ownership Through Generations

Motivate / Coach:

Another key part of the job is to motivate and coach each of the family members to be as involved as necessary and to find their rightful place in the process. 

Treating each person as an individual is an art in itself, and gaining everyone’s trust takes time and effort.

Draft / Circulate Drafts:

When a family takes on this work of defining how they are going to be together, it usually makes sense to write things down, and creating some form of “Family Charter”. 

Getting agreement on wording is not always easy or linear. 

Some of my colleagues do the drafting of the documents, while others prefer to play a role in circulating the drafts and making sure everyone provides input.

There’s no wrong way to do it; keeping things moving forward is the key.

Clean Up the Mess:

Every bricolage project gets messy at times, and part of the role includes cleaning up messes along the way.

Ideally most of the big ones will be prevented by having someone from outside the family play this role too.

And don’t forget, the process is even more important than the finished product. Because it’s never truly finished.