What Does It Take to Play a Key Role in a FamBiz?

A few weeks back in Hey, the Expert Is Here! (Uh Oh…) I hinted that this post would soon be coming, as its genesis stems from the same virtual study group call that gave rise to that blog.

That missive dealt with the difficulties advisors sometimes face when working with families, who look to us to have simple, expert solutions to their complex challenges.

This week we’ll look at how family members sometimes have expectations for roles in a family business that are not well aligned with the reality of the situation.

I’ll share some insightful ideas while suggesting ways to avoid those misalignments by having some important conversations from an early age.


The Robinson Family and the “Scholastic” Case 

Our study group occasionally uses a real life case as a basis for discussion, typically from a real family client of one of the members.

This time though, we took one from some recent headlines, involving the death of the CEO of Scholastic Corp., a book publishing giant responsible for some well-known series, including Harry Potter and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

When family business stories make headlines, it’s often for the wrong reasons, and this one does qualify, thanks to some of the decisions Richard Robinson made when writing his will, followed by his unexpected death, albeit at the age of 84.

The case supplied our group of “experts” with plenty of fodder for discussion. One of the members of the group (Ok, it was me!) couldn’t resist poking fun at one of the CEO’s sons, who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal story about the case.


Dressing Up as Clifford the Big Red Dog

The young man seemed to think he was in line for a position on the company’s Board of Directors, even though his most noteworthy contribution to date was having donned the Clifford costume for some promotional events.

That’s when someone suggested the headline I used for this post (thanks KH).  

No, he isn’t likely ready to join the Board.  But what made him think that he should be?

It’s hard to know for sure, but one thing was clear from the story, and that’s that very little communication about roles in the company of any sort ever took place between the CEO father and his sons.

He did communicate a great deal with his mistress who worked for him and who inherited most of his assets, though, which is what gave this story so much press attention.


Aligning Expectations and Preparation

I’ve written a lot on alignment and expectations, but very little specifically on preparation.

For rising generation family members who aspire to some role (or roles) in the family enterprise, preparation is a must.

It is not, however, as simple as one might believe.

In decades past, “go get an MBA” was a quick and simple way to prepare, and that’s still typically a valid step to be taken, depending on the desired and expected role.

Wise families now realize that there are important roles to be played not only in the business, but also in the family and ownership circles.


Preparation and Leadership – Who Can Do What

The whole question of preparation also drags along with it another key element, and that’s leadership.

That MBA may be the best way to prepare for a key role in running the business, as it has over the past few decades.

But other roles also require leaders, and preparing for such roles takes time and intention, and a recognition and acknowledgement that such roles are worth developing.

Leadership roles in the family clearly require different skills and abilities from those in the business.

Ownership roles are different still, although there are always overlaps.


Pushing AND Pulling Are Required

Regardless of what type of role you’re looking at, there needs to be action on both ends, i.e. pushing and pulling.

The rising generation needs to make the effort to push their way in, while the leading generation also needs to make the effort to pull them along.

Needless to say, this requires coordination, which means that communication needs to be clear and frequent.


It’s Never Too Early to Begin

So young Mr. Robinson, while removing the Clifford costume, could’ve asked his Dad about what roles might be available to him in the business some day.

And Dad also might’ve asked his son if he thought that some day he might want to play a larger role in the company.

It’s never too early to start.

A Necessary Evil Worth Getting Right

Working with enterprising families, there’s a lot at stake, because you’re trying to preserve the family’s wealth while also worrying about the quality of their relationships.

This work always entails some agreements that are put into writing and then signed by the parties, supposedly to make sure that all possible scenarios have been thought through, understood, and agreed to.

Preparing these agreements is done by well-trained and well-paid attorneys specialized in such matters, so everything should work out just fine most of the time, right?

If only it were that simple.

Formalized Governance Is VERY Important

I write about family governance a lot, but rarely about the formal written agreements that enterprising families typically put into place to formalize all the legal questions around both their business or wealth and its ownership.

The governance I usually work on with families involves their family relationships, and is thus typically much more informal.

Of course all three of these circles are interrelated and so the manner in which they’re governed cannot be looked at independently, but rather interdependently.

There’s More to Governance than Written Agreements

Although my specialty is governance of the family, I do get involved in how the written agreements relating to the business and its ownership get put together and signed by the family members, when appropriate.

My role, and my goal, is to make sure that the affected family members fully understand what they’re signing, so they know what they’re agreeing to.

Those agreements are necessary, so it makes sense to try to get them right, lest they be deficient when they’re actually needed in the future.

Ideally the relationships of the parties will be so positive that they’ll never need to rely on those documents, and they can simply gather dust. 

And that would be a good thing, in my view.

Do You Want Them to Just Gather Dust?

This subject came up recently while working with a family; the patriarch mentioned that he didn’t want to have an agreement that just gathered dust.

He was coming at this from the other side, and from there I could understand what he was getting at.

It gave me a chance to clarify this question with them all (in addition to giving me another blog topic).

In short, agreements that gather dust are neither good nor bad in and of themselves, they are good or bad depending on the contexts of what they were designed to do, and whether or not the circumstances ever require the family members to blow the dust off them.

Gathering Dust – BAD Version

Some lawyers note that a majority of the agreements they draft never even get signed, because the parties can never actually agree to all the terms.

So when an unsigned version sits for a while, the chances grow that it will only continue to gather dust because the longer it takes, the less likely it is that the parties will finally agree.

Perhaps these should be considered a work-in-progress and some time should be spent finding ways to modify them so that the parties will agree and sign… but that’s a lot of work!

Gathering Dust – GOOD Version

In contrast, as I explained to the patriarch of that family I mentioned, I firmly believe that the goal should actually be to have agreements in place that do nothing but gather dust.

What’s the key difference in my version?

One of my favourite words that has come into my lexicon since I began working in this area is “co-creation”.

The best family governance is the co-created kind; period, full stop.

But what about when we’re talking about documents drafted by those aforementioned attorneys?

Well, they wrote them, but they wrote them for you, the family.

Making Them Your Own

So you all need to “make them your own”, which means that there’s some work involved by the family members to read and understand what’s written and to agree together on how they will use these documents.

You actually want them to gather dust and never be needed, so you need to figure out how you’re going to work together, with the goal of not ever needing to resort to blowing the dust off of what you paid those lawyers to write.

That takes time and effort, and often some outside help, and it’s all well worth it in the end.

Bring on the dust.


It’s Never Sufficient, But Always Welcome

Writing a weekly blog comes with its challenges, but thanks to the many groups of people with whom I interact, I never seem to be at a loss for topics.

Some of my favourite occurrences are those where something comes up in one discussion, and that triggers something else from a few days earlier, only to be supplemented with something else later.

This kind of serendipity seems to be following me around lately, so I’m just going to run with it.

And so it was with the idea of “hope” and how its fits in in so many places.

Facilitation and Positive Psychology

It’s been over three years now since I completed the five courses that form part of the ORSC (Organisational and Relationship System Coaching) program, but thankfully our cohort does sometimes stay in touch (thanks MK).

As we commiserated recently over the difficulties some have had due to the pandemic, one colleague brought up a methodology they’d found and were enjoying that’s centered around hope.

That got me flashing back to one of the courses we’d done together where an instructor shared her “Two MAJOR Points” for facilitators who use the ORSC method.

The two keys for her were as follows:

  •                    Revealing the System to Itself
  •                    Staying Positive

I trust that readers will easily understand why I choose to equate “staying positive” with “hope”.

Indeed, anyone who facilitates discussions or activities with a group of people would do well to remain positive and hopeful, because failing that, your leadership can spiral downhill quickly.

(Note to self: cover “revealing the system to itself” in another post, soon)


My VIA Character Strengths “A-Ha” Moment

As we spoke about hope, at first I recalled the old expression that “Hope is NOT a Strategy”, which I first heard long ago, when I was focused on buying stocks low and selling them high.

It was pointed out to me that in order to cut your losses, you needed to have a plan to exit a position that happened to go south, because simply buying and holding, and “hoping” did not work very well as noted in the above maxim, so you needed to have some other strategy to deal with such situations.

But then I glanced down at my desk where I came across the printout of my most recent VIA Character Strengths survey, which I had done as part of the recent RendeZoom conference. See “What Color Is Your Cape?”

Wouldn’t you know it, right up in the No.4 spot of my personalized report was “Hope”.

So while hope is not a strategy, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a strength. And when you add it to the positivity that facilitators need to bring, this was starting to feel real to me.


Flashing Back Again

After the call with my ORSC colleagues, I thought back to the RendeZoom conference, which included a lot of occasions to work in small breakout groups within many of the sessions.

In one of those that had followed our keynote on positive psychology and the importance of focusing on strengths, I had shared with a few attendees that one of my strengths was hope, and I gave a recent, specific example of where it had helped me.

I related a recent mediation that I had led for a sibling group, which we finally completed with success.

I shared that one more than one occasion, one or two of the siblings were not feeling very confident that a resolution could be reached.

Despite the negative views, I forged on, sometimes reminding them that I remained “hopeful, if not confident” that we could come to something that they could all agree to. And we did.


“You’re Probably Right”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t use this opportunity to share one of my favourite expressions that I’ve loved since I first heard it decades ago.


                                        “Whether you think you CAN, 

                                              Or you think you CAN’T, 

                                                You’re probably right”


When working with families, especially those who are wading through some tough issues, providing hope and positivity will almost always be welcome, and even necessary.

There’s likely already enough negativity to work through, so as a resource being brought into a system from the outside, the least we can do is bring the hope for a positive resolution for the family.

I think I can, and I’m probably right.

Selected Notes from FFI’s 2019 Conference in Miami

I’ve just completed an intense few days in Miami with some fantastic colleagues and friends.  The Family Firm Institute puts on an annual conference every October, and once again I’m so glad I made the trip.

I don’t typically take many notes at such events, but I do jot down little tidbits to use as blog material going forward.  

My blog calendar going out to late December is already full, so I’ll just share some random take-aways that I noted over the past 3 days.


Money In Motion

I spent some time with friend and colleague Kirby Rosplock, who mentioned on more than one occasion that there’s “more money in motion right now than ever before”.

I thought that was a nice way to expand on the old “largest wealth transfer in history” that some of us are getting tired of hearing, while also adding in the aspect of the moves being made by firms and professionals who are forever positioning and re-positioning themselves to benefit from said transfer.


Emotional “Investment” and Emotional “Ownership”

When people talk about family businesses, as they do constantly at FFI, the subject of “emotions” is never far away.  I heard a couple of expressions containing the word “emotional” in similar but different ways, and as usual, that caught my eye.

In one session, the presenters spoke about the difference between “real” (i.e. legal) ownership of a business, and family members who (simply) have “emotional ownership” by virtue of being family members.  These folks are often dubbed “stakeholders”.

That was not necessarily a new term for me, but then in a later session, I noted the phrase “emotional investment” being used to talk about rising generation family members, and whether they were ready to make the required efforts to take leadership roles in the business.

“Are they willing to make the emotional investment?” was how it was put.  It was much more about energy and effort than money.


Getting Value Out of Values

Peter Englisch of PwC made some interesting points around family values and how they can be important to a family business.

Values alone aren’t enough, he noted.  Here’s the money quote:

     “You only get value from the values if they’re communicated!”

It’s great to work out what the key values are in the family, but then the effort must be continued to communicate those values, both internally to employees, and then externally, to customers.


Hire Slow, Fire Fast

There was another great nugget from that session that I thought was worth sharing, and it has to do with finding key employees who share the family’s values.

Family businesses should Hire Slow, and, when required, Fire Fast.

There’s a tendency to do the opposite, especially with tight labour markets we’re seeing today.  But for family businesses, you need to make sure that candidates share the values of the family, and that can take time.

Likewise, if you discover that someone does not share certain key values, you need to hasten their exit, immediately.


Inspiration = Breathe!

I attended a session on Spirituality in Family Business Advising, given be friends Natalie McVeigh and Mette Ballari.  There were plenty of fellow meditators in the full house crowd, and it was inspiring.

In fact, as regular readers know, I love to point out interesting language facts, and I’m almost ashamed to admit that I did not see this one before myself.

Natalie noted that the word “inspiration” that we are all familiar with, actually means “breathe”.

In French, “la respiration” is made up of two parts, the breathing in “l’inspiration” and breathing out, “l’expiration”.

There are a few places we could go with that, but we’re out of race track for this week.


NYC in October 2020

I am already looking forward to coming together with this exceptional group of friends and colleagues from around the globe next year.

We will be doing it in the Big Apple, New York City, from October 28-30, 2020, right in the heart of things, in Times Square.


What I’ve shared here is less than 10% of what I got out of attending, and I’m still digesting much of it.

Advising family businesses in still very much a niche field.  As such, in order to bring together a large group of like-minded colleagues, a global group is needed.

Nobody does that better that FFI.

Today we’re going to look at a couple of subjects that have been brewing in my head for a while.

I’m going to combine some elements of vocabulary and evolution, which may sound a little more arcane than what I have in mind.  So let’s get going.



Family Business: Been Around Forever

We all recognize that family business has been around since the beginning of mankind.

Centuries ago, out of necessity, the family used to be even more of a “unit”.

As economies developed, they also became an “economic unit”, as it was natural for families and tribes to work together for their own advancement.



Business Families: More Recent

More recently, as society has evolved and as economies have advanced and matured, we’ve seen more and more “business families” emerge.

There often comes a time when the people leading a family business actually make a shift to thinking of themselves as more of a “business family” than simply a family business.

There are a couple of elements at play here:

  • Prioritizing the family over the business
  • Working ON the family, instead of IN the business

This shift usually comes only after certain success has been attained in the business that allows its leaders the luxury of time to make this shift.  (Many never make it this far.)

Lots of family businesses remain a family business forever, and of course still serve a great purpose for their members and for society.

See my 2014 book: SHIFT your Family Business: Stop working IN your Family Business, Start working ON your Business Family



Enter the Family Enterprise

Once a family achieves a certain amount of success with their business, all sorts of possibilities open up.

From growing the original business into more geographic locations, to vertical or horizontal integration, to developing completely new lines of business, the combinations and permutations are literally infinite.

The common thread is often a family, for whom all this wealth is being created.

When a family is involved in more than just its original business, the term “family enterprise” is often the one that describes them best.

This can also be the result of a liquidity event, where a major business is sold, and the proceeds are reinvested into other ventures.

It can be very important for a family to get to a point where they can view any of their businesses as simply another asset that the family owns.


Cartoon showing people standing on coins

Enterprising Families

We’re getting into vocabulary and semantics a bit, but there’s a good reason.

Finding the right label for something is often a key to getting members of a group to develop a common understanding of who they are, what they are doing, and where they are going.

I mentioned off the top that we’d be looking at evolution as well.  Let me expand on that now.

Just as a family can go from concentrating on one business during it’s family business stage, and then “evolve” into more of a business family, there can be a similar evolution to the enterprising stage.

These “stages” of evolution often take decades, and can coincide with generational transitions as well.

A recent edition of the FFI Practitioner highlighted a couple of case examples you may be interested in.



Family Firm Institute – Business or Wealth Focus?

In the same way that any family may evolve from one stage to the next, the organizations of professionals who serve enterprising families have also evolved.

The Family Firm Institute began over 30 years ago, and in the beginning their target was essentially family businesses.

In the intervening decades, they have also concerned themselves much more with family enterprises as a whole, including the world simply defined as “family wealth”.



Designations and Certifications

FFI now offers certifications in Family Business Advising and in Family Wealth Advising.

In Canada, FEX, through its FEA program, offers the designation “Family Enterprise Advisor”.  Thanks to their “later mover advantage”, they were able to use the more holistic term “family enterprise”, which became more current in this century.

The common thread through all of these is the existence of a family with enough wealth and complexity to worry about.


Different Labels, Similar Issues

Families evolve from one decade and generation to the next, and the industry that serves continues to get more sophisticated.

Working together, we are trying to get better results for families everywhere.

And those who can figure out the family dynamics usually make out best.




Back in September in From Family Business to Family Office, I finished up by noting that I’d be writing about the family office space more frequently going forward.

I diligently followed that up four weeks later with another post on the topic, Family Office: “WHAT” vs. “HOW.  But that was more than two months ago, so this is slightly overdue.

Coincidentally, I just came across an article from a recent issue of The Economist on the subject, which I found interesting, called: How the 0.001% invest.



An Investment Vehicle

An important angle of that story is evident from their secondary title:

“The family offices through which the world’s

wealthiest 0.001% invest are a new force in

global finance that few have heard of”

The story makes the point that some of the giant family offices from around the world are making waves in the financial markets like never before, which is causing them to be talked about even more.

I typically don’t talk about the “0.001%” very much, on the assumption that they are already quite well served, and because they constitute a tiny fraction of people who could ever use my services.


Where is the Family?

I typically write about things that actually concern the families themselves, even though most people care only about their money.

The number of people who would bend over backwards to cater to the “super-rich” to manage their wealth is huge.

The number of people like me who want to be a resource to those families as they manage the family aspects of their intergenerational wealth transitions is comparatively tiny.

So it’s up to me to ask the question, then, “Where is the family in the family office?”



Family Members as Clients

Well if the story from the Economist is any indication, nobody really talks much about the family members themselves, preferring to concentrate on the family’s wealth, and ways to increase it.

This also happens to be where most of the professionals make their money, by helping the family office make money.

The members of the family, for whom all of this work is ostensibly being done, are rarely mentioned.  They are, though, the “clients” of the family office.

Because every family office is unique to the family it serves, it is hard to know how many of them actually have deeper levels of family involvement in the work the family office does.


 Meeting room for family

Values, Goals, Mission, Vision

Because many family offices come about as the result of liquidity events in family businesses, many of the same issues are often found there.  Some are simpler than those in an operating business, while others are more complex.

See: Huge Liquidity Events – Great News, Right?

Hopefully, the family office is not simply making investments based on maximizing returns, if those investments would go against the values of the family.

Ideally, the goals of the family would also be taken into consideration too, not to mention the family’s mission and vision.

This, of course, pre-supposes that the family has worked together to define their values and agree on the goals, mission and vision of the family.

I’d guess that very few family offices are currently benefitting from that kind of guidance from family clients who’ve done that important work.



Family Office as a Catalyst

Regular readers know that I like to harp on the importance of having someone “with a different last name” around the table at meetings.

It’s important for family meetings to run well, and so having a facilitator who is not a family member is the best way to go.

Someone from the family office could be well placed to handle such a role.



Multi-Family Office Opportunity

For large single-family offices (SFO) there’s really no excuse for not doing the important work of involving the family and preparing the rising generation.

For multi-family offices, (MFO) the idea of offering assistance with family meetings is an opportunity to differentiate their services from those who are strictly investment managers for high-end clients.



Check Before you Sign

This is not a new idea, of course.  Many firms tout their assistance with family matters on their websites and in their pitches to potential family clients.

There is, however, a huge variation in the service levels that different firms out there can offer their clients in this area, so if part of the reason you are looking into an MFO is for help with family dynamics, be sure to ask LOTS of questions first!