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.

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.

 

 

 

Getting Inside Family, Business, and Ownership

I’ve been a huge fan of the Three Circle Model (TCM) since I saw it for the first time. See: Three Circles + Seven Sectors = One A-Ha Moment. It is as useful today as ever, and continues to anchor much of the work that I do when interacting with business families.

I’ve seen many adaptations, some more useful than others, over the years.  It is quite simple, and because of that, it also lends itself to lots of possible uses.

I recently saw something that made me look at the three circles a bit differently, and that’s the basis of what I want to share this week.

The source of this idea is a local colleague and friend of mine who works mostly in French, allowing me to play language instructor or translator in this space once again

His way of looking at the challenges in the family, the business, and the ownership concentrates on the intergenerational transitions inherent in each of the circles, which in and of itself, was eye-opening to me.

 

Parents and Their Offspring, G-X and G-X+1

While the genius of the TCM is the simplicity with which it conveys the overlaps of the circles via a Venn diagram, it doesn’t do much for how to look at the generational transitions within each circle (not that it attempts to).

My colleague Michel Handfield, works mostly with family businesses where there’s a simple structure of a parent and one or more children involved, where they are all involved in both the family and in the business, and are also the current and future owners of the business.

So whereas the TCM is really good for more complex situations, because it outlines 7 different sectors where different people might fall, Handfield gets into the dynamics between the generations, but looks at them specifically as they exist in each of the three circles.

 

Mind Your P’s and E’s

I don’t shy away from ideas in different languages, and because I’m bilingual, I have access to things in both English and French as possible resources

By happenstance, Handfield has come up with an elegant model in French, which unfortunately loses some of its elegance in English, because of the way key words happen to translate. 

Have no fear, I’ll make sure the gist of it doesn’t get lost along the way.

Here are the three “P & E” relationships he’s identified:

 

                           Family:            Parent – Enfant 

                           Business:        Patron – Employé

                           Ownership:    Propriétaire – Futur propriétaire

 

So we have a Parent-Child relationship in the family, a Boss-Employee situation in the business, and an Owner-Future Owner scenario in the ownership circle.

No, it isn’t rocket science. But man is it powerful because of its simplicity.

 

Same People, Different Issues

The first important thing to note is that the people don’t change.  Actually, the people themselves do change, over time, of course, but we are always looking at the same people, no matter which of the circles we’re talking about.

In the simplest and probably most common version, it’s father and son, although there are now many more father-daughter combos than ever before, and also mother-son and mother-daughter. 

But no matter the genders or even the numbers, the relationships between the senior generation and the rising generation all fall under the Parent-Child, Boss-Employee, and Owner-Future Owner dynamic.

 

Different Hats, Different Rooms

There are a couple of analogies that people in this field go to when discussing the importance of recognizing which “hat” one is wearing (“Boss” hat versus “Dad” hat, for example) or which room the decision being discussed belongs (owner room versus management room). 

(For more on the Four Rooms Model, check out my podcast interview with Josh Baron)

Outside advisors can sometimes be most resourceful to business families when they simply point out these distinctions and get the family to see things more clearly.

But Handfield’s P & E model focuses on the dynamic within each circle as it applies in the three situations, which is why I like it.

When an advisor works with a parent-offspring pair, recognizing what’s going on between them and offering guidance is made easier when they can separate out those dynamics for the benefit of those living them.  

Being able to grasp which relationship dynamic is at play in any situation allows one to understand the context in which the people are operating much more easily, which is quite useful when you’re trying to offer them guidance.

Nice to Meet You; Let’s Start Working Together

Working with business families and their members is always interesting and rarely simple.

From the outside it looks relatively easy to get going with any family, but if you’ve ever been in a position to do this, you know how complex it all can be.

That’s what I want to look at this week, and I’ll contrast different terms that come from various professions and how they handle the beginnings of working relationships.

Bottom line, there is no simple standard way that these relationships work, although each practitioner will typically try to develop one or two ways that they prefer to construct such relationships.

 

Discovering What Makes a Family Tick

Upon being contacted by someone about working with a family, the fascinating work of finding out who’s who and how everyone relates to each other begins.

That work often continues for as long as the relationship exists, although much of it is “front loaded” and the learning curve at the outset is generally pretty steep.

I used to laugh when people who do this work would tell me that they start off by drawing a genogram or family diagram, but I don’t laugh anymore.

I find myself doing that very early on, because once you get the hang of it, you can’t go back to just taking notes ever again.

The process that many call “discovery” starts from the very first call or email, and for some it is a key step that they actually outline as part of their process, that begins after they’ve come to a formal agreement to work together.

 

The Contracting Stage

The formal agreement between the advisor and the family can be quite simple or very complex.

Whether it ends up being several pages long and executed with a signature or if it is more informal and mostly verbal, it does make sense to spend some time upfront in order to properly set expectations.

The Family Enterprise Advisor program (FEA) I completed years ago, where I had my calling to this work, spends a good deal of time on making sure those who complete the program truly understand how important the contracting stage is.

The program also encourages advisors to collaborate with other professionals in service of families, and much emphasis is placed on the contracting that is required between such advisor parties.

As things change during the relationship, it will often be necessary to revisit the question and get into re-contracting too.

 

Designing the Alliance

Where FEA’s talk about contracting, coaches who trained with CTI like I did talk about “designing the alliance” instead.

I like that language because it gets at a couple of very important aspects that might otherwise go unnoticed.

The idea of “design” speaks to the fact that it isn’t always the same, and there’s a need and desire to customize the relationship between the coach and client.

The “alliance” part is all about the fact that while there are two parties, and the coach and client become true allies and work together for the good of the client.

The client is not alone, and they are also expected to be quite active during the coaching process, in fact, they will be the ones who do most of the work.

 

One Person or the Whole Family

My favourite part of all of this is that when I got into this business of serving families, I always imagined only working with families as a group.

Much of the work I do is of course still done with entire families, but thanks to some of what I learned during my Bowen Family Systems Theory studies, I realized that one can make great strides for the whole family even when working with just one family leader.

The discovery is very different when you only hear about people and never meet them, but a relatively clear picture does emerge, albeit from a subjective view of the individual client.

In all cases it is important to get these relationships off on the right foot, and that means asking a lot of open ended questions and then doing a lot of listening.

Coaching one person or facilitating for a whole family require different but related skills. It’s fascinating work and if you are naturally curious about people it can be lots of fun too.

Knowing “What to Do” Isn’t Enough

This week’s subject deals with some issues faced by every business, but we’ll be looking at their particular effect in family enterprises.

In addition, there’s an angle to this question that applies very much to advisors who serve business families and their members.  

In fact, the inspiration for this post comes from something directed specifically at those of us who serve families in this space.

Let’s see how far we can get in connecting all these elements.


Personal Connection to Stories About This

When I began planning to write about “knowledge vs. skills”, for some reason I flashed back to my Dad, and I want to share two very different ways this was really relevant in his life.

Dad was trained as an apprentice in Austria before immigrating to Canada in the 1950’s. He had not realized what an advantage that European training in “how to do” his work for the steel fabrication industry would give him a leg up when he got here.

There was a skills shortage in those post-war years in North America. Many knew what needed to be done, but we didn’t have enough skilled hands to do the work.

Much later in Dad’s life, he’d often make sure we took the time to distinguish the “what to do” from the “how to do it”. 

“Let’s figure out ‘what to do’ first, then we can figure out ‘how to do it’”.


Onboarding the Rising Generation Family Members

In lots of family businesses, the first generation who founded the business need to have the skill to pull off the important work to get the company off the ground.

A generation later, the questions of how and where to integrate the next generation into a company typically arise.  Naturally, there’s always more than one “right” way to do things in any particular situation.

Many families struggle, though, with whether or not to start their offspring “on the ground floor”, like working in the factory, or whether they can just saunter into an office job, because they were educated, and therefore arrive armed with lots of knowledge.

Some really interesting challenges can arise when one sibling ends up with skills useful to the operation and another is better educated and has lots of knowledge and they’re expected to get along well together and complement each other for the good of the business.

It’s great when it works, but fraught with negative consequences when they don’t get along.


What About Those Who Advise FamBiz?

A couple of weeks ago in When Being Wealthy Doesn’t Equal Having Money, I mentioned the work of someone I look up to in this space, Dr. Jim Grubman, and I’m going back to his well and wealth of experience in the field of serving enterprising families again here.

In a sense this post will serve only as a tease to further writing about the recently formed Ultra High Net Worth Institute, and their work, where I know Jim was involved in the creation of their new model, The Ten Domains of Family Wealth.

I first became aware of the UHNW Institute last year, and when I saw that they had created this new model to help understand all the important areas that wealthy families need to consider, I was hooked.


Great Knowledge, Yes.  Skills Also Required.

One of the points Grubman makes is that while knowledge is great, it is not sufficient, for those who wish to truly serve families well.

Many people know that families need to work on their governance and have family meetings, but knowing that doesn’t automatically make one the best person for a family to hire to help them with such matters.

And when merely knowledgeable people act as if they are also skilled, bad things can occur. Skills matter.

It’s More Art than Science

This blog idea has been simmering in my “future posts” folder for a while now, and it finally stuck its hand up and said “now!”

It’s based on  a great book that I read during the winter, called The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters, by Priya Parker.

The book is a great resource for anyone who is occasionally charge with organizing any kind of get-together involving people, for whatever reason they might have to be in one place together.

Of course most get-togethers do involve people, unless you spend a lot of time at the local dog park. The issue is that many gatherings seem to forget the importance of the people attending.

Now that such gatherings are once again becoming possible, with much of the pandemic hopefully behind us, this is topical again.


Family Gatherings Are a Particular Subset

While the ideas in the book can be applied to all sorts of gatherings, I read it with a particular interest in family gatherings, because I sometimes work with families who are just getting used to having regular family meetings, and some of the details can be pretty important.

The organizing of such events typically falls onto the shoulders of one or two people, and most families can readily point to the “usual suspects” who play that role in their clan.

Such “family champions” or “CEO’s” (Chief Emotional Officers) would do well to pick up the book to get some ideas and tips that they’ll find useful.

Even experienced gatherers will get something out of it, if only for a better understanding of why they’ve already been successful.


Parallels to Other Areas of My “Family” Work

Aside from wanting to plug Parker’s book, there’s a bigger reason why I wanted to write this particular post.  Regular readers know my penchant for metaphors and analogies so that’s naturally at play here.

It has to do with the experts whose advice is typically sought when one begins to make important plans, and what those experts focus on.

The best way to set this up is with a direct quote from the book:

          “Because so much gathering advice comes from 

            experts in food and decor rather than from facilitators

           that advice almost invariably focuses on preparing 

           things instead of preparing people.”

Preparing things instead of people….


Focusing on What, When, and Where

There are plenty of people who can help you find a great place for a gathering, and they all have a calendar on which they can see if your date will work, and they’ve likely held similar events to yours too, so you can count on their advice to make yours great, right?

Likewise, when planning for the future of your business and wealth, and how they will affect your family, there are also plenty of experts who have done similar work for other families, and can tell you exactly how you should set things up legally and financially.  

And guess what; if you follow their plan, you’ll save your family lots of money in taxes!  Because that’s what’s really most important.

Not!


Let’s Think About the WHO (Or Is It Whom?)

You may see me coming from a mile away, but just in case, let me suggest that the people, those members of the rising generation of your family, may be an important factor to consider here.

And, it probably makes sense to actually speak with them, and perhaps even involve them, before, during, and after you make such important decisions and plans.

Here’s another quote from The Art of Gathering:

       “This advice makes the pregame window about physical 

         setup rather than human initiation, about the 

         gathering space and not what it holds: people.”

What the gathering place holds: People.  Hmmm.


Preparing the Heirs for the Assets, Not the Other Way Around

One way to make sure that you’re preparing the people for their future roles in managing and stewarding the family’s wealth is to gather often and discuss these exact subjects, in regular family meetings.

These meetings don’t just happen by themselves, they need to be planned and coordinated, and you need to make sure that you make some progress towards the goal.

That goal is to make sure that everyone understands what will be expected of them, while also figuring out how they’re going to make decisions together when their turn comes.

Yes, the work the experts do to prepare the assets for the heirs is important, but it’s definitely not sufficient.

Collaborating for Co-Creation as the Goal

Working with members of a family and trying to keep them engaged and aligned towards common goals can be both challenging and rewarding at the same time.

While many family situations can already seem complex on the surface, when you go just a little bit deeper, they often seem even more complicated.

It can take a lot of work, or labor, to make progress, and this week we’re going to look at a couple of take-offs from the “labor” aspect to help us see some ideas in new ways.

 

Things Don’t Just Happen by Themselves

Regular readers may have noticed that I like to harp on the fact that important things do not simply occur, they take effort and intention

Now, if you wanted to summarize “effort and intention” in one word, you could do worse than arriving at the word “work”.

We’re back in the land of “labor” again, which happens to be a key root word of the verb “collaborate”, where the “co” brings in the concept of working together with at least one other person.

When talking about the challenges of working with members of a family for the common good of that family, collaboration is typically at the top of my list of good ideas to help surmount such challenges.

Allow me to elaborate on this.

 

Wait, There’s “Labor” Again!

Yes, indeed, I snuck in another word with “labor” smack dab in the middle of it again; seems like work is never far away.

In fact, the similarities in the words “elaborate” and “collaborate” are what launched me into this blog idea in the first place. 

And, as has occurred in the past, a meditation recording is at the root of this idea.

I’m not sure if my hearing is going, but while listening to a session one morning, the speaker said “elaborate” and for some reason “collaborate” bounced around my head before I realized that that wasn’t the word I’d heard.

 

The Verb Versus the Adjective

Now my mind started jumping around (this is NOT how an ideal meditation session goes) and I ruminated about the verb elaborate (“elabo-RATE”) versus the adjective (“elabo-RUT”).

But it eventually calmed down again and I got to wondering how these words, elaborate and collaborate, might be useful in examining how families can do a better job of making sure that they’re engaged and aligned around how to best transition their business, or their wealth, from one generation to the next.

The fact that they both have “labor” as their root, and that I harp on the fact that this requires work, had me thinking I might be on to something.

 

What About the “E” Versus the “Co”

Let’s look at the difference the prefixes make, maybe that can give us some clues. 

Elaborate can be both a transitive or intransitive verb, and explaining that is beyond my pay grade and a perfect chance to remind readers that my elementary schooling was all in French.

But Merriam-Webster gives the following definitions:

  • To expand something in detail
  • To work out in detail
  • To produce by labor

I like the way that “work” and “labor” both show up, and I’ll come back to the inclusion of “expand” later too.

Collaborate, on the other hand, is all about:

  • To work jointly with others or together
  • To cooperate with….

 

Co-Creating, Elaborately

So because it is important that decisions affecting a family’s wealth transition be made while including those family members, a spirit of collaboration makes plenty of sense.

That is sometimes easier said than done, though. But how about adding in an element of elaboration to it?

Allow me to elaborate on that, so I can model this a bit.

If you ask for someone’s ideas and opinions, don’t just stop them or interrupt them after a few words.  Ask them to continue, to elaborate and expand for you, so that you can truly understand not just what they are saying, but also why. Hear them out.

 

Everyone’s Ideas    >    Anyone’s Ideas

When collaboration results in co-creation, you will discover that everyone’s ideas are better than anyone’s ideas.

And a key to doing that properly is to take the time to actually hear and understand those ideas, from everyone, by asking them to elaborate on them.

You may even discover some simple solutions, that aren’t necessarily very elaborate!

Getting Vertical: From the Iceberg to the Balcony

Finding New Angles and Perspectives

A couple of weeks ago in The Value of Symmetry in Enterprising Families, we were looking at things on a relatively horizontal plane.

This week, I want to take a 90 degree turn and move us to the vertical axis, and see what we can gain by changing the angle and seeing what we can learn when we look at things from a new perspective.

Once again, this is a post inspired by a discussion with colleagues, who were together over a group Zoom call, all trying to learn to serve our family enterprise clients even better.

It’s amazing how often sessions like these get me thinking about ideas in new and useful ways, and I’m glad to have this outlet for them. 

Writing these weekly blogs forces me to think about them in ways that I can explain easily, which often comes in handy later.

 

Iceberg, Straight Ahead!

It’s easy to think of an iceberg as a potential villain.  I’m not going there, but instead to another visual analogy.

I think everyone’s familiar with the part about the visible portion of the iceberg, above the water line, being only about 10% of the entire mass of the entire block.

One colleague in that aforementioned call brought up the idea of having to dive deep into the water to look at a family’s issues from various depths, to try to identify the real root of certain presenting problems.

Of course the things on the surface are easier to see, but then again if everyone could see and agree on all the problems, there would be a lot less work for people like me!

 

The Old Standard “30,000 foot” view

So one way to get vertical is to do a deep dive, but what about the other direction, up?

Many people talk about the view from 30,000 feet, and that can also give you a very different perspective that can be useful in a lot of ways.

As someone who has studied family systems theory, I’m a big fan of the idea of looking at things from outside the system, because it is often so much easier to understand what’s going on when you are not stuck in the middle of it.

It’s a key reason that bringing in an independent outsider can be such a benefit to so many families.

 

The Balcony Is High Enough

But you don’t need to get into a plane or helicopter to begin to get some of the benefit from the new perspective that an overhead view can provide.

In fact, that’s where the balcony comes in.

If you really went way up into the sky, you wouldn’t be able to hear what people are saying or notice the facial reactions of the people anymore, and these are key to understanding what’s going on.

A balcony is just high enough to allow you to see things differently while remaining close enough to stay in touch with the emotional field in the family group.

 

Horizontal Views Are Often Obstructed

There are naturally limits to any analogy, but I think this one still has some juice left in it.  When you’re all on the same horizontal plane, your view of each other is often obstructed

There’s a reason why round tables work better for many kinds of meetings than rectangular ones.

When a family invites someone like me to work with them, one of the things that they get, in addition to my unbiased independence, is the advantage of different perspectives.

So whether I am trying to dig deeper and look under the surface, or going up to the balcony to see how things look from up there, it’s all about trying to get the family to better understand and clarify what’s going one.

 

Shining a Light on What I See

Of course sometimes when I travel to a different plane and notice something new, it can be an interesting task to figure out what to do next.

Most often I try to shine a light on what I’ve seen and share it with the family, if only to verify what I think I’ve found.

But that isn’t always the right thing to do; sometimes I need to process what I’ve seen before sharing.

Either way though, getting vertical by going deep or going up can both be valuable ways to gather important information to help a family move forward.

Subtle Changes Make a Huge Difference

The ideas for these posts come from all over the place and from people who hail from many different locations

It shouldn’t be a surprise that in the past year or so, a bunch of them have come from webinars or other virtual settings.

This one comes from a webinar hosted by someone I never met, but whose two guests are both friends of mine, even though I’ve only actually met one of them in person.

It was yet another instance where upon hearing a certain sentence, I immediately jotted it down so that I could properly recall it for use as inspiration here.


Not an African Proverb

One of my favourite posts here over the years, which I also recorded as a video, was If You Want to Go Fast, Go Alone; If You Want to Go Far, Go Together.

The lengthy title there is also an African proverb, which served as my inspiration. This week my inspiration comes from Africa once again, but it was from a story told by Nike Anani, a friend I’ve yet to meet in person, from Nigeria.

Nike was a webinar guest, along with Mitzi Perdue, who I have met, and she was relating an early experience of hers as a member of her family business.

Nike had recently returned home to join the business, after working in the corporate world in the UK.  Her return to a smaller, less professional work environment required some adjustment.

 

Questioning Everything

As she put it, soon after arriving, she began “Questioning everything”.  She elaborated, making it clear that her attitude in those early days was less than ideal, and she was not simply asking questions.

While noticing the self-awareness required to recognize this in retrospect, I also made sure to capture the spirit she was conveying about her feeling of superiority based on her corporate experience, and how she was dismayed by how things were being done in the FamBiz.

With the benefit of some hindsight and added maturity, she now realizes how important it is to ask questions, grounded in genuine curiosity, rather than “questioning” how everything was being done.

 

Different Kinds of Questions

Courtroom drama fans and politics junkies are familiar with many techniques of asking questions that are really more about getting their point across.

When thinking about this I also flash back to days when my own kids were much younger and also employed dubious questioning techniques of each other.

I distinctly recall exchanges including, “What? I was only asking a question!”, to which I’d reply “Yes, I know, but ‘why do you always have to be such an A-hole’ is also ‘Just a question’ too”.

I suppose that in many ways that was in fact a rhetorical question on my part, but I digress.

 

Better Questions Require an Absence of Judgement

I’m pretty sure that if pressed, Nike would admit that most of her “questioning” in those early days was also accompanied by a whole lot of prejudgement, where she had already assumed that she knew better than the person to whom she was addressing her comments.

The best questions, as she now realizes, are founded in true curiosity, and in fact include a complete absence of judgement.

Here I’m addressing not only “prejudgement”, but also any judgement when one hears the answer.  See Judgement, Not Judgement.

One of the first big takeaways from my coaching training is that “listening without judgement” is the first thing you need to practice and train yourself to do to be successful.

 

The Family Governance Angle

As we move to wrap this up, I want to look at this topic from the other angle, i.e. the ones who are on the receiving end of the questions, or the questioning, as the case may be.

Most families have what I call an “information asymmetry”, where there are certain members who are in the know and who control much of the day-to-day activity, and others who act as “interested bystanders” much of the time.

The “bystanders” will often have questions, and the insiders do typically “owe” them answers, in many respects.

Insofar as the insiders are able to provide coherent answers, they will also minimize and forestall the potential for questioning from these other stakeholders.

If the attitude of “how dare you question me” is replaced by one resembling “of course you can ask”, that is a recipe for more harmonious relationships going forward.

No question about it!

Class Assignment

(This week’s post is the slightly edited text of a class presentation that I made this week at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where I just completed my first year in their Post-Graduate Training Program.)

 

According to what it says on my business card, I’m a “Family Legacy Advisor”.

My beliefs, which I’ll share with you today, are very much about how I see that work, and how I’m becoming inextricably tied to it.

More and more, it’s becoming who I am, and not simply what I do.

Here are three of my foundational beliefs:

  • I believe that Family Harmony holds the Key to a Family’s Legacy
  • I believe it’s always worth making the effort to improve family harmony
  • I believe working on family harmony is a lot of work, and, it all starts with working on self

 

How did I get to this point? 

I had my calling 4 years ago, doing the course work in a program called Family Enterprise Advisor

There, we learned the three-circle model, Business, Family, and Ownership, with each circle representing a system.

It dawned on me that for the first 4-plus decades of my life, I’d been led to believe that the Business circle was the only one that mattered.

As my studies progressed, I soon began to understand that the Family circle was more important, and it was often neglected, and that I was naturally more attuned to the important work that often needs to be done in the family circle.

So, I began working on myself, with coaching training, mediation courses, and facilitation programs, including an entire suite of courses in a program called Third Party Neutral.

And of course I began training in Bowen Family SystemsTheory.

 

How has my Bowen work contributed?

Well, starting with two years in Vermont, in their program, and this year here in DC, my Bowen Theory work has helped me in a number of ways.

It has:

  • Sharpened my focus on the effort involved
  • Emphasized the work on self,
  • And continuously reminded me that this work is a never-ending pursuit

 

Challenges

My calling came along with a desire to “help” people and families to deal with issues that I myself had dealt with in my family.

My mistakes, my parents’ mistakes, and the ones that I discovered when I married into another business family, were all there as experience that I wanted to transfer into wisdom to be shared.

But as WE all understand, telling people what they should do doesn’t work so well, so transforming myself into someone who “does Bowen” was an idea that I thought would be useful.

 

Bowen Family Systems Theory

I’ve since discovered that you can’t just “do” Bowen, you actually have to sort of “be” Bowen. Not Dr. Bowen, but maybe be a “Bowenite”.

Learning a new way to “be” so that you can lead people, and model behavior for people, takes time, practice, and effort.

One huge challenge that I’m just now starting to comprehend is the difference between HELPING people and being a RESOURCE for people.

The difference sounds subtle, but it’s actually quite stark.

You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped, and trying to help them is quite often counter-productive.

 

Moving Forward

My way forward is to become a resource to people who want to improve their family harmony, and in order for me to “be” that resource, I need to continue to make the effort to understand myself.

My Bowen training has helped me understand many things in a new and improved way, and I feel like I’m miles ahead of where I was just a few short years ago.

But, my understanding of self, and my work on differentiation, feels like it has so much further to go.

 

Understanding Self and Others

As I understand myself better, I understand others better as well.

These efforts are worth it, for me, for my family, and for whichever families seek me out as a resource for their own work on harmony, as part of their desire to preserve their legacy.

And so I added one more belief:

I believe that I can actually help more families by acting as a resource to them, instead of trying to help them.