Based on a True Story

When you spend a lot of time in the wonderful world of family enterprises, you hear all sorts of stories, many of them entertaining and sometimes even instructive.

This is a true story that I recently learned more details about, and thanks to the way the patriarch shared the details, it also includes a wonderful contrast that we can all learn from.

The setting is an annual awards evening for local family businesses, for which I had the privilege of acting as the MC.

I had also been part of the jury that evaluated the applications, interviewed the finalists, and selected the winning family.

Transition # 1 : From G1 to G2

Part of the celebration that evening involved viewing some fantastic videos that had been made this summer at the place of business of the three finalists, and included candid clips with every family member involved in each business.

So while we had learned a great deal from the applications and our evaluation interviews, there were some new nuggets of information that came out that evening.

Some of these came from the videos, while others were revealed during a fireside chat with one family member from each of the finalists.

It was during the video that the patriarch from the winning family shared that when his father, the business founder, brought him into the business decades ago, that whole transition lasted “about 15 minutes”.

Transition # 2 :  From G2 to G3 

So about a decade ago, when he began to think about the next generational transition, where he would be the one planning his exit rather than his entry, he was trying to think about the appropriate timeframe.

When some advisors told him that ideally such transitions happen over a ten-year period, he was dubious and could not imaging why it would ever take that long.

During his acceptance speech, he confessed that ten years was, in fact, a very appropriate amount of time to do things right.

It seems like both these transitions could actually be deemed “successful” though, so what’s there to learn here?

I’m glad you asked.

Short and Sweet – Yes, That CAN Work

Let’s start with why the first transition above actually worked, because there are a couple of key details one might miss.

The first one is that the founder had grown the business to the point where he was no longer able to handle it, and was beginning to feel overwhelmed and in need of help.

The second key is that once his son arrived and Dad recognized that he had greater ability to lead than his old man, Dad got out of his way.

This doesn’t typically happen, especially with business founders.  

I have a client in a similar situation and there’s another parallel between the situations that’s also worth mentioning.

The first generation built a relatively small business, so the next generation was taking over something that was actually quite simple.

In the case of the award winners and my client, the business is now way too big and complex to hand over quickly and easily.

Slow and Steady Wins More Races

Once the business achieves a certain size and complexity, there are a lot of things that need to be brought into consideration.

When you think about any large business out there, what are the chances that the best person to run it is actually a descendant of the founder?

So if you’ve decided that you’d like to have your offspring take over your business, eventually, then it’s usually better to give yourself a long runway.

Time moves pretty quickly, and it’s much better to be ready too early than too late.

There’s More Than One Transition

A big reason things take long is that you’re not simply handing someone the keys to the front door.

You need to transfer your know-how and knowledge, as well as your contacts.

The leadership that the new person in charge, or more likely the new people in charge, will require, does not shift very easily overnight.

You need to plan to transfer authority and responsibility as well, which are not as easy to do as you might think.

There’s likely some ownership that will be changing hands as well, and that alone will take some time and getting used to.

So if you have a choice, better plan for a ten-year transition, not 15 minutes.

Developing the Leadership to Find the Right Mix

Colleagues sometimes ask me what it’s like to write a weekly blog post, typically wondering how I constantly find topics to write about.

I normally note that I only write once a week, and I get ideas much more often, so it becomes more about sifting and sorting than dreaming up subjects.

Quite often, like this week, an idea hits me between the eyes and I cannot put it down, and then the tough work begins as I try to figure out how best to share it with readers.

I’ve gotta say, this one could go any number of directions, because it’s so foundational to my work.

Thinking Out Loud, In Writing

Selfishly, I write in order to force myself to clarify my thinking, and would do so even if I didn’t make my writing public.

It’s my version of “thinking out loud”, which I’m known to do, but I do it in writing. It’s kind of my personal journal, open for viewing.

So what was it that “hit me” this time, that I’m about to share?

I’m taking a series of online courses through Coursera, and there was a video in which a presenter uttered a sentence that made me immediately hit pause and rewind.

I’ll spare you the details of the courses, but note that they’re in the area of Positive Psychology, a recent interest of mine.

I don’t have the verbatim quote, but got the five key words.

      “…the right mixture of governance, culture, and leadership…”

Whoa, some of these words are right up my alley, but I’ve never heard them put that way before.

He’s Speaking My Language

Regular readers know how often I write about governance, despite the fact that that word has less than positive connotations for many people.

I also write about leadership often enough, or maybe not often enough, since it’s so important in so many places, especially in enterprising families.

Culture isn’t a word I use much, but it’s also key, and never far from the subject either, even if I don’t use that word.

So while those three words caught my ear, it was the ones right before them, “the right mixture” that got me thinking.

As I considered the idea, I couldn’t help coming to the conclusion that governance and culture fit together nicely as different ways that people work together, formal and informal, but leadership seemed to stick out a bit.

Mixing Governance and Culture

Governance is mostly about the formal structures, procedures, and mechanisms that are put in place to make sure that things run well, and that there are actual written ways that remind us all how we have agreed we will act together.

Culture is more about the informal “that’s how we do things around here” that are almost never written anywhere, yet they’re typically even more powerful in guiding actions than the written rules are.

Finding the right mixture of those two elements, the formal and the informal, is where a lot of the magic happens, and I use the word magic because it’s something that we usually can’t explain and perhaps don’t even try to comprehend.

The Right Mixture Needs to Be Found

But that “right mixture” does need to be found, and it will often happen with trial and error.

It will also vary from one family to another, as well as from one decade or generation to another within the same family, depending on where they are in their evolution of working together, and who the key players are.

But it’s not as if there’s a dial that we move to the left or right to adjust to the right setting, it just sort of evolves.

How and Where Does Leadership Fit?

Maybe that’s where leadership fits in, after all?

Who moves the dial towards a need for more formality, or towards more informal discussions, with the goal of moving the entire family system to a more appropriate equilibrium?

That work can only be done by those who take on that leadership role.

Lest you think that such leadership roles are assigned, or given based on age or seniority, let me remind you that this is not the case, and when leadership is set by this “default” setting, sub-optimal results normally follow.

Someone needs to step up to these roles, and take them.

Is that you?

A Shortcut for “In the Moment” Challenges

Most of what I write about each week focuses on issues on the far end of the spectrum of the “long-term vs short-term” continuum.

I’m referring to the loooooong term, in case that wasn’t clear.

I work in the intergenerational wealth transition space, which typically concentrates on years, decades, and lifetimes, not hours, minutes, and seconds.

However, just as each year contains many hours, each of us runs into challenges on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes a little “life hack” will come in handy.

So this week, for a change, I’m focusing on the other end of the continuum, the very short term.

“Oh Crap! Now What?”

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter was charged with organizing an event over a weekend, which involved a few dozen people coming together, indoors, for an inter-collegiate competition.

It happened to be a curling bonspiel, for the curious.

Thanks to COVID, all of last season had been wiped out, and this was the first tournament of the new season, so there was plenty of uncertainty. 

It was also the first time she’d been in charge of such an event.

When I spoke to her by phone on Friday evening, things were going fine.

Alas, I awoke Saturday to a text from her that read, “Please call me whenever you get the chance, thanks” and the time stamp was 7:09 AM. 

I also noticed that I had missed her recent call, because my ringer was off.

Daughter in Need = Dad as Hero?

If you have very independent young adult offspring like me, you learn to relish any opportunity to feel needed in their lives, so this could be a rare chance to play hero.

I called her right away, got a quick “I’ll call you back in ten”, and my mind went to work, wondering how best to be a “responsive, reliable, resource to her.

How I would frame all my experience and wisdom for her, I began to contemplate.

  • “What’s your ROLE here?”, I thought, would be a good place to start to help her clarify whatever the challenge was.
  • “What’s your GOAL, in that role?” would be a great next step to help her think through.
  • “What is actually within your CONTROL?”, I considered adding, lest she begin to worry about things over which she had none.

Proud Wise Dad, Ready to Serve!

Well, wouldn’t you know it, when she did call, I never got to share this wisdom, as the issue had already been settled.

One player had a close contact with someone who’d tested positive for COVID, so he needed to declare himself ineligible, and they were able to find a replacement. 

It turned out to be a very wet firecracker for Dad to help her out with.

But wait, I write a blog every week, and am constantly on the lookout for ideas to write about.

Now, how do I turn this into something that affects enterprising families, as I typically do?

The Meta Version!

Well, I imagine that many parents of your adults face similar challenges of how best to be useful to them, without over-functioning and jumping in to fix things for them.

Maybe I could apply this Role/Goal/Control hack to myself and see what happens. 

Here goes…

My role could be summarized as follows

  • Resource; thinking partner; coach.

My goal

  • Get her to a place where she feels confident that she can handle the situation; without being too directive; so that in the future she will readily reach out to me again

What can I control

  • My tone; my positivity; my brief words of encouragement to her.

Wrong Answers Only Version

Role: “Wise Dad” with all the answers.

Goal: Get her to listen to my wisdom.

Control: Well, this is where it falls apart, doesn’t it?

In reality, I’m not the one running this tournament, as much as I want it to be a success, I have no say in anything, and all I can really control is my interaction with her, which will likely only last a couple of minutes.

Take-Away Wisdom

While I wasn’t able to try out my life hack “in the wild”, I still like it and will keep it handy.

I hope others find it useful, especially those of you who over-estimate the sphere of your control.


Both Ways of Doing It Are Tough

It’s not often that I’ll write a blog on a brand new idea that just came to me, but this revelation I had last week was enough to put this subject at the top of my topic list.

I knew I needed to write this after I’d already shared the “A-Ha moment” on a call with someone so soon after the discovery.

The discovery, as I’ve labeled it, was nothing more than a brief phrase I read in a book (or maybe I heard it on an audiobook?).

The phrase, if I’m getting it verbatim, was, 



                                             changing the people 

                                                  is easier than 

                                            changing the people”.


Don’t worry if it doesn’t hit you right away, that can be expected. 

The important thing is to eventually get it and understand it, and I promise we’ll get into it, and especially look at it from the lens of people who work with their family members.

Changing People 1: Simple Method – Swap

So I’m making this one “No.1” because based on my understanding of the quote, this is the first option the speaker is alluding to.

The idea of getting rid of certain people and replacing them with new people is an option in many situations. 

The thinking goes that if you can’t change the way you are, then we are going to get rid of you and bring in someone who is a better fit.

Simple enough, on the surface, right?

But what about doing this in a family business, is it really that simple when you are contemplating firing a relative?

Yes, it is done sometimes, and sometimes the family even manages to get through it without too many hard feelings, but it’s always trickier than it would be if the person being changed out wasn’t part of the family.

Changing People 2: Complex Method – Convince

So let’s look at the other way of changing people, which I’ve decided to call “convince”.

I labelled this one “complex” because it can take on all sorts of angles and will vary in how each person who’s trying to convince another will go about the effort.

It’s also likely something that is not a “one shot deal” but much more of a process, involving a number of interactions over a longer period of time.

The other reason I call it complex is because no two people will do it the same way, and even if it “worked” with one person, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to make it work the same way with someone else.

When Do You Switch from One to the Other?

If we go back to the quote that’s driving this whole blog, there seems to be an inherent question under the surface, which I get from the first word, “sometimes”.

So, what are those times where you need to switch from convincing someone to swapping them out?

Presumably, you will try to convince first, second, and third, and maybe even a few dozen times, before coming to the conclusion that you need to go to the much more drastic plan of getting rid of someone and bringing in someone new.

Working with family members is great when things are going well, and when they’re not, well, it can really be awful.

Coming to the conclusion that someone absolutely needs to go is quite difficult, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Who Can You Really Truly Control?

Of course trying to convince people to change has its limits, because most people don’t like to be told what to do, and a lot of people resist change to begin with.

If you’re a regular reader you will be familiar with my thoughts on how futile it can be to even try to change others, because the only person we can actually really control is ourselves.

I know that I don’t like it when other people try to tell me I need to do something different or try to make me do something I don’t like doing.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here, either.

Sometimes we need to flip it around, look in the mirror, and see what changes we can make in ourselves, and see if we can’t end up with some positive changes in the others around us.

Family systems theory is pretty clear, if you change how you interact with the system, the system will change.

Another Hurdle in Moving to Democratic Decision-Making

As I continue meeting and working with more and more business families, I’m seeing similar issues come up in a lot of different places.

Every family situation is different, of course, but when you’re privileged to work with many of them, there’s always a benefit to using ideas you pick up from one family in service of another.

Many family businesses do well under the leadership of their one, singular, founder, only to experience some rough waters once the next generation takes over.

As I relate these types of stories to families and other folks interested in the subject, I’ve begun to develop certain ways of sharing what I’m seeing, and I’m always happy to work on how I phrase these nuggets of wisdom here in this blog.

From Autocratic to Democratic Rule

While I know that not all founder-led businesses are ruled by autocratic leaders, many are, at least in their early stages.

Even as such businesses evolve from the “one-man-show” to include many more leaders as they grow, there is still usually a pretty clear hierarchy that is either expressly enunciated or at least generally assumed, by everyone both inside and outside the business.

As a family business moves beyond the first generation (G1) to the next, (G2, G3…) that hierarchy can become more blurred and hence much less clear.

Titles like CEO and President are often helpful in keeping things pretty clear to those outside the business, solving a lot of the potential confusion.

Inside, though, where there are often a number of owners of the business, with many from the same generation of related family members (siblings and cousins), an assumed hierarchy often becomes an issue.

Quite often when more than one person owns a business, more democratic rule is expected.

Turning a Problem into a Solution

This question has tripped up its share of family firms and will likely continue to do so.

So how can a family enterprise overcome this challenge? It’s actually pretty simple, but let me remind you that just because something is simple to explain, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to do.

I’m currently reading a book about the coaching philosophy of John Wooden, the most successful college basketball coach in the history of the sport. Here is a salient quote from Coach Wooden that could be helpful:

                               “I am more interested in 

                                  finding the best way

                              than having my own way”

The key to this actually working is for everyone to adopt this attitude and not be attached to having things their way.

The good news is that you don’t have to give up ever having your way ever again, you only need to learn to do it from time to time. 

Once you learn that other people also have valid and valuable ideas that can be just as good as your own, and often even better, it becomes easier with time to let go of the need to always have things your way.

Make Sure You Do WHAT Is Right

As I’ve heard it said by some wise person who’s name I don’t recall, “WHAT is right, is more important than WHO is right”.

This brings up the importance of learning how to make decisions together, as a group of people, which doesn’t always come naturally to some.

The best advice I can give to any family who wants to work on this is “Practice, practice, practice”.

And then practice some more.

When I’m engaged by a family to work with their rising generation, the first thing I look for is an opportunity for them to work on things where they’ll need to make decisions together, so that they can begin to cultivate this vital ability.

Who Cares Who Gets the Credit

They usually discover that all of them together are much smarter than any of them alone.

As a sharp colleague reminded me recently, “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you stop caring about who is going to get the credit for it”.

Again, though, while this sounds simple, it’s rarely easy. 

It can be done, though, and those who try it are often surprised that once you get started and see some success, it gets easier with time and practice.

It doesn’t happen by itself and requires a lot of intention.

But isn’t that all part of good leadership?

It’s Never a “One and Done” Deal

The most important “new” ideas always take some time to sink in, so when family members start to think about an eventual transition of their business or wealth to the next generation, it’s normal for it to take a while to get everyone on board.

When we combine this idea with another important maxim of mine, i.e. “Family governance is the ultimate team sport”, it’s no wonder the metaphor of a marathon comes up when we discuss these topics.

I work hard to make sure that the content I create gets spread far and wide, because I think it ultimately makes a difference, if only to “one family at a time”.

I also do whatever possible to appear in whichever format I can, whether it be podcasts, webinars, or other speaking engagements, to augment the regular writing that I put out.

And sometimes things come back to me in interesting and useful ways, and we’ll now look at a recent such occurrence.

LinkedIn Keeps Us All Linked (In)

I’ll once again profess my love for LinkedIn as a platform for connecting people from around the globe who have common interests.

My social media team regularly posts my freshly-created content as well as a lot of “recycled” material, and because most of my stuff is “evergreen” it always strikes some readers as new.

In response to one recent such post, a woman from Asia shared some great feedback with me (Thanks MP!).

She noted that she had seen me on a webinar last summer for an firm based in Asia, and that had inspired her.

She then added that her father “is also slightly more open to the idea of governance after watching your interview a few months ago” in reference to something I did with a colleague from Africa.

She concluded her note with “It’s a work in progress” along with a smiley face emoji.  Wow. Allow me to try to break this all down.

Which Generation Takes the Lead?

The first worthwhile point I’ll share is that contrary to popular belief, it’s not always the leading generation that initiates important family discussions about the future, it’s often the rising generation, as it is in this case.

In fact, I much prefer to work with families when the younger folks are urging their senior generations to begin these key communications.

When the parents need to figure out how to share and engage with their offspring, the challenge is a bit different, and it can be more difficult to get everyone into it.

But when it’s a “bottom-up” scenario, where the younger ones are already quite interested, getting their parents to open up and start sharing also has its headwinds.

But either way, this doesn’t typically go very quickly.  And that’s OK too, in fact, that’s the best way to go about this.

Hurry to Start, So You Can Go Slow

As I prepared to write this blog, my social team happened to share a post that’s a simple quote of mine, and I think the timing was serendipitous.  

Here it is:


                         “There’s no rush, except … hurry up 

                 and get started so that you can then slow down 

                           and take your time to get it right


The road is long and part of life’s long journey, especially since those from each generation of the family are on different parts of the arcs of their lives.

You need a long overlap of time where you work together, gradually shifting roles and responsibilities from the leading generation downwards.

Patience, Flexibility, Progress

Let’s get back to the idea of a “work-in-progress”.

What we’re talking about here definitely qualifies as “work”, hence another maxim of mine, “things don’t just happen all by themselves”.

The other keyword in that phrase is “progress” and that’s what you need to focus on.  “Look for progress, NOT perfection”, as I also like to reiterate.

This of course also means that there’s a premium on patience, because there will be many occasions where things don’t feel like they’re going as quickly as they should, for one generation or the other. That’s to be expected.

Things won’t go in a straight line either, so you need to be flexible and sometimes you’ll need to take one step back in order to take two forward.

Start the marathon, and enjoy it together.

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.

Examples of Each Type Abound

Anyone who has spent any time in the family enterprise world has surely encountered a variety of different versions of sibling partnerships.

Sometimes sibling groups come together and end up working so well together that people are rightfully impressed by the way they can combine into what appears to be a “1 + 1 + 1 = 10” arrangement. That’s good, and maybe even great.

Other times, things might start off on the right foot, but after some time, and typically after the previous generation has fully exited, they may be lucky to find themselves staying even, i.e., where 1 + 1 + 1 = 3.  If you were expecting at least a 5, then 3 feels pretty bad.

And of course when you read about disaster family business stories on the front page of the newspaper (remember those things?) well then it’s often more of a case of (1 + 1 + 1) X 0 = 0, or maybe even a negative number, or downright ugly.

Avoid Ugly, Strive for Good

I don’t want to spend too much time on the ugly version, except maybe to say that before things get ugly, they usually go through some “bad” on the way.

I’d rather share some ideas on what you want to look for when things begin to turn bad, and encourage folks to cut their losses well before they get to ugly.

Let’s talk about some examples of good, and look at what families are doing right, and concentrate on the positive.

I was recently privileged to serve on a committee charged with determining the winners of a competition that some family businesses have entered to choose an annual award winner to be announced this fall.

The three finalists all shared certain characteristics that made me think of this topic, and I think there are definitely some lessons worth sharing.


From Autocratic to Democratic Leadership

Family business literature typically talks about G1 being a one-person show, that hopefully moves on to a sibling partnership in G2, on the way to becoming a G3 “cousin consortium”.

The three FamBiz we judged were all past G2 and yet they were each currently involved in transitioning to a group of their offspring for the first time, since each of the past generational transitions were of the “father-to-one-son” variety.

Perhaps one of the secrets to FamBiz longevity is to avoid passing the company down to more than one child or branch (?)

The biggest change that occurs when going from one leader to a few is that autocratic decisions no longer typically work as well, and are usually not deemed acceptable by the other sibling partners.

Learning how to “make decisions together” is something I talk about a lot when discussing the importance of family governance.


Family Governance? Not Again!

“Oh boy, here he goes again”, I can almost hear some of you thinking. 

But once again discussing the three finalist business families we looked at, they had all been working on their family governance for at least a few years now, and each of them had done so with the help of at least one outside expert brought in specifically for that task.

If you are hoping for a “good” sibling partnership, one key is to begin working on your family governance, so that it has a chance to evolve while both generations are still involved.

While each generation learns how to deal with the transitions involved in moving from one to the next, the siblings in the rising generation also learn how to work together effectively, or at least that’s what’s hoped for.


Avoiding Bad Before It Gets Ugly

The key to avoiding ugly is to be able to recognize a situation that has a likelihood of turning bad. 

Sometimes families recognize that certain siblings will not likely mix well in a business context, and so they transition to one of their offspring and find other ways to treat the others. That’s one way to avoid “bad”.

But once a sibling partnership exists, as soon as things start to get sticky, there’s still a chance to avoid “ugly”, but it almost always involves getting some outside help to allow the important conversations to happen in a productive way.

See Getting Legal Advice for your FamBiz vs. Lawyering Up for more on ways to react before things get too far out of hand.

Most Enterprising Families Want the Same Things

I love it when a positive blog topic lands in my lap out of the blue, especially when it falls on the heels of recent “negative” posts, like last week’s, Avoiding Adversarial Relationships in Your Enterprising Family.

When I say “out of the blue”, I mean that I was simply jotting down some notes during a discussion, and then had an “A-Ha!” moment where something hit me, and I knew I was onto something for an upcoming weekly missive.

The context was a course given as part of the FFI GEN program (Family Firm Institute – Global Education Network) for which I serve as one of the instructors. 

I was invited to join the faculty in 2019 and readily accepted, becoming part of the GEN 502 team, for the “Family Governance” course.

We All Learn from All of Us

Some of the things I love about FFI are the fact that it truly is global, with members in dozens of countries, from 6 continents, and the fact that there are so many experienced practitioners who are members, and we all learn from each other in every course.

Since GEN 502 is one of the more advanced courses, the students all have at least some real world experience, and so whatever they share with the group (whether in the online discussion board that the instructor monitors over the quarter, or in the capstone webinar) is for the benefit of everyone.

It was during one participant’s concluding thoughts during our webinar that I heard an innocent comment, but that I captured in a novel way.

Harmony, Unity, and Growth

She stated what every family wants, i.e.  “They all want family harmony, family unity, and growth of the business”. (Thanks, LM).

I jotted down, as a list, the following:






Ta-dah!  I could not argue with her premise, and, as she happened to put it, she gave me a “family hug” to write about.

Usually when a great blog idea comes to me during a discussion I’m involved in, I share it on the spot with the person who sparked it, thanking them for the idea, but this time the context did not lend itself to that, so I kept it to myself.

So in some ways I’ve been dying to share this even more.

OK, That’s What They Want. How Do They GET It?

Anyone who has spent time with people who lead business families will agree that just about every family has these same three wishes.

Let’s dispense with the “growth” part first, as it’s a bit different, since it typically revolves more around the business or the wealth, as opposed to harmony and unity which are more about the family.

Actually, the growth is ultimately about the family as well, because the family will also grow, even exponentially over coming generations, and deep down there’s a fear that if the business’ growth doesn’t keep pace, that will impact the family negatively at some point.

But even though growth is important, it can always be worked on by all the management and employees, while harmony and unity are a family concern.

So how do you ensure harmony and unity?

Family Governance to the Rescue

Given the fact that a course on family governance was the genesis of this post, you won’t be surprised that my answer also lies in how a family governs itself.

Family governance, in turn, is all about communicating and learning how to make decisions together

These things don’t always come naturally to families, and so they need to work on them, sooner rather than later, in order to work out the kinks.

The ways that families come together and meet to discuss important topics need to be co-created and developed over time, by the family.

It isn’t exactly natural though, so many families get expert help, from people who have already played similar roles for other families.

Nothing Important Happens by Itself!

Of course no two families are the same, and so you can’t just use a cookie cutter and copy another family’s governance either.

Such trusted outsiders do exist, and the good ones will play whatever role the situation requires, from project manager to quarterback, from implementer to consigliere, and from facilitator to mediator.

But it will take time and effort, from many members of the family too, because nothing important happens by itself.

Hopefully, you’ll also end up with plenty of hugs too!

Green and Yellow Are OK; Red? Lookout!

Having recently been involved as an advisor and mediator with some families where the relationships could hardly be described as harmonious, this week I want to talk about how important it is to try to keep such situations under control, and not allow them to boil over.

I’ve written about aspects of this before, so there will be a few links to previous posts along the way.

In 2017, with Yellow Light Family – Proceed with Caution we looked at the “family dynamics axis” of a model that places families in a particular zone based on traffic lights, with which most people can readily identify.

Green light families are great to work with; when the light turns yellow, there are a few more challenges that many advisors with some experience can often help families overcome, but when the light turns red, all bets are off and many advisors prefer to head for the hills.


Kissing Your Proverbial Sister for Real

A couple of years later, in Kissing your Sister – Playing for a Tie in FamBiz, I shared this quote from a slide I’d seen during a presentation on Family Governance:

                         A General Family Business Precept:


                       In a Family, if you play to Win, you Lose;

                       In a Family, if you play to Lose, you Lose;

                       In a Family, if you play to Tie, you Win


                        Richard Goldwater, MD; Boston, MA


I found that so perfectly appropriate for most family enterprise situations that I just had to share it.


A few weeks ago, I wrote Getting Legal Advice for your FamBiz vs. Lawyering Up.  In that post, I shared learnings from some recent work I was in the middle of, where I saw my role and my goal as keeping the siblings from instituting any legal proceedings against each other.


FWIW, up until now, I’ve been successful.  But things still feel more “adversarial” than I’d like.



Letting Things Cool Down

For some reason the word “adversarial” came to mind recently as I pondered how to approach this blog.

As I sometimes do, let’s see what comes up when I Google the word:

          “involving people opposing or disagreeing with each other”

Hmmm, I was really only considering the “opposing” part, and not the simpler “disagreeing” aspect.

When people work together, disagreements often come up, it’s only natural, and we need to learn to be able to work through them.

One expression around this that I love has to do with learning to “disagree without being disagreeable”, and that’s something I’m often called on to do when working with family members.


When Opposing Viewpoints Create Opponents

Situations that cause more opposing viewpoints often revolve around a Zero-Sum game, where everything one person gains is at the expense of someone else.

The greenlight families noted above typically involve businesses where things are already going well and they are expected to keep going and even improve.  

When you’re making a bigger proverbial pie, the fight over who gets which slice takes a back seat.

Whenever a family limits its view to what’s already there, and there’s no plan on increasing what’s available for all to share, the chances of adversaries taking up sides increases.

Can you find ways to make it about more than what everyone can already see?  Sometimes you need to expand what you are looking to accomplish and consider some intangibles instead.


Many Kinds of Wealth and Capital

This brings us to some of my other favourite topics, examining what wealth and capital really are.

Too many families, and their professional advisors, seem to believe that financial wealth is by far the most important consideration for every family.

While the financial wealth is certainly not something to ignore, families who also work on their social capital and human capital actually have a better chance of success with all forms of capital.

Earlier in my career, I was managing financial wealth on a daily basis, with one eye on my computer screen and the other on CNBC. (No, I don’t miss those days.)

One market guru, whose name I’ve forgotten, used to talk about the two kinds of capital: financial and emotional. He was reminding his fans not to overspend their emotional capital, because it is a limited resource.

Families fighting over money end up wasting lots of time and energy dealing with negative situations, to the point of exhaustion or breakdowns. It’s just not healthy.


Were They Always Adversaries?

If family members are currently adversaries, I like to ask if they were always this way, or if there was a time in their lives when they were more cooperative and working towards common goals.

What changed?  Can they go back?  

Burying the hatchet can be good for the soul. I encourage it.