How Are We Going to Make Decisions Together?

In this space we talk a lot about family governance, which I know is a term that turns some people off. In order to soften it, I typically follow up quite quickly to clarify what it means in practice.

The two major elements of governance are communications and decision-making. The way I normally phrase it is “How are you going to make decisions together?”

It’s normal for families to move from an autocratic decision-making style in one generation to a more democratic style in the next.

By far the best democratic style I know of, and what I always recommend families strive for, is consensus.

Last week I shared about the recent PPI RendeZoom, in What Colour Is Your Cape?

This week’s post was inspired by one very brief comment I noted from one of its breakout sessions, that gets to the heart of what consensus requires.


What You Can Learn When You Pay Attention

Conferences are a great chance to hear industry veterans share some of their wisdom with colleagues, and I got some of that from the PPI crowd as usual.

What I did not expect, however, was to hear a very useful synopsis of the two most fundamental ingredients of consensus, especially coming from the youngest person at the conference.

It was during the final set of breakout sessions, and I opted for the one dealing with teenage philanthropy, led by Sue Schwartzman. 

She brought along three members of the rising generation from families who’ve been part of her program over the years, including one current participant.

It was Friday afternoon and I was just glad to hear an interesting discussion, and that’s when I got my money quote.

 

               “Consensus Is All About Respect and Flexibility

 

“Wait; What?”  

Did I just hear the best summary of what consensus requires from someone born in this century? The short answer is “YES”.

Short and sweet, direct and clear. How come I’d never heard anyone say it this succinctly before?

I’ve written about consensus before, notably in Putting the Consent into Consensus Part I and Part II, way back in 2016.

But this young woman, who shared with us how working with a group of other teens to make decisions about which projects they would fund had really hit the nail on the head.

 

The Missing Link or Ingredient

These aspiring teenage philanthropists were part of a program where they got to learn not only about philanthropy, but also on some key life skills around collaboration, and what it takes to do it well.

So often when I’m called in to work with family members, it can take a while to figure out just where they need to make some changes in how they relate to each other when it comes to their decision-making.

Thanks to this latest “A-Ha Moment”, I now have a new, simple “diagnostic” question that I’ll ask myself: 

 

                      What’s missing here, respect, or flexibility?

 

Based on experience, respect is almost always something intra-family groups could use more of, but inflexibility isn’t usually far away, for at least one family member.

 

An Iterative Work-In-Progress

As I write these words, I cannot help but think about the fact that these two key elements feed off each other and can be very much related.

As my respect increases for the others with whom I’m working to come to important decisions, so is the flexibility I’m likely to feel comfortable according to their ideas.

Likewise, as I hear new ideas that I’m willing to consider, I’ll feel more flexible towards them, and I almost cannot help then also having more respect for those who initiated these ideas.

This can be a fortuitous circle that then continues to “spiral up”, and that would be a good thing for most families. 

The counterpoint is that continued inflexibility can decrease respect, and vice-versa, too, resulting in a downward spiral.

 

A New Handle On and Old Problem

After writing over 400 blogs, my threshold for something of value isn’t very high; I’m only looking for one new insight for my toolkit.

I’ve now noted a simple new way to think about how families communicate around their decision-making, centered on the presence (or absence) of respect and flexibility.

And it came from a precocious teenager, so it has the added benefit of giving me a story to tell when I share it.

That’s plenty for me, I hope it’s useful to you too!

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.

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.

Who Are the Decisions Really FOR?

This week we’re delving into something that will hopefully hit close to home for some readers because we’ll get into some deep areas that might feel uncomfortable for some.

Founders of successful businesses often come from humble beginnings, and thanks to some great achievements, they go on to build enterprises that far exceed their initial expectations.

Having played an instrumental role in creating what has now become a family enterprise, it’s natural for them to wish to continue to exert maximum influence on things, now and well into the future.

 

Figuring Out What Needs to Come Next

Hopefully at some point these leaders realize that it makes sense to shift their focus from continuing to build their enterprise, to pondering how they will create their legacy by passing down what they’ve worked so hard to create.

See: Is your Continuity Planning “PAL” in Danger? for more on the fact that more wealth won’t guarantee a legacy.

The idea for this post comes from an interaction I accidentally had with a Zoom meeting participant a few weeks ago, that was then followed by the retirement announcement of a relatively young hockey player who spent a few seasons with my local team.

I’ll try to weave those stories into some useful and entertaining prose.

 

Can’t I Decide How to Leave this to my Kids?

So picture a webinar where both advisors to family businesses and members of business families are all participating, and where a case study is being shared.

The case involves a business where some of the offspring work in the business, while others do not, which is quite common.

The facilitators ask for comments, and some advisor from Montreal (guess who!) mentions that the son who is running the company may not love the fact that his siblings who aren’t employed by the company are set to inherit a share equal to his.

Soon afterwards, another participant jumps in and says that he wants to reply to my comment, saying “Can’t I decide who I want to leave my business to?”

Well, since the situation did not allow for me to respond to the man, here we are. Perhaps he will read this.

 

The Short Answer or the Longer Answer

Of course the man can decide to do whatever he wishes. But just because you can do something, that doesn’t mean you should.

I’m flashing back to the story about the rich old lady who bequeathed everything to her cat, or was that an urban legend?

When you own something, a company, a property, a stock portfolio, you have the right to decide who will own it after you die. People sign wills every day that lay out such directives.

But we’re talking about a family business here. Yes, it is quite simple to divide the ownership of the company by the number of offspring and leave each an equal share.

Perhaps it is too simple. It is certainly worth a bit more thought and ample discussion with the intended inheritors.

 

Hanging Up His Skates for the Sake of his Family

A week or so after that interaction on Zoom, I learned of the premature retirement of a hockey player who was forced to hang up his skates before he turned 30.

There are only so many concussions a brain can take before they affect one’s quality of life permanently.

“I’d play until I died”, he said, “If it were up to me”.

However, considering his wife and young children, he made the only reasonable choice that he could, for their sake.

 

More Wisdom at Half the Age

The business owner was certainly much older than the hockey player, but who is wiser?

The hockey player’s children are way too young for him to truly consult about his decision.  The business owner’s offspring are certainly old enough to warrant not only consideration, but also consultation, about important matters.

 

Me vs. Us vs. Them

When thinking about this subject, I believe there’s a certain progression at play.

We begin by thinking about ourselves first, i.e. “me”.

As we mature and our family comes into being, we shift into much more of an “us” mentality.

At some point, we need to become conscious of our own mortality, and then we need to shift again, with the ultimate unselfish shift, to thinking about “them”, in the eventual absence of “me”.

 

Post Script

I connected with the man on LinkedIn.

An email exchange followed.

A Zoom call was scheduled.

He cancelled the night before…

To be continued?

Plenty of Subtle Yet Important Differences

Working with members of business families often means crossing paths with other professionals who also advise their businesses along the way.  

One of the under-appreciated subtleties involved in such relationships comes when the person seeking the professional advice needs to also get personal advice, as opposed to simply seeking counsel for the good of the business.

These issues can get especially tricky when the professionals in question are attorneys, who have their own professional codes and standards regarding who their client really is.

These professionals are typically very aware of the differences and quite astute as to the ways that they need to be handled; it is often the clients themselves who sometimes blur the lines.

Let’s look at some of the situations where this can occur.


It Comes Down to “We” Versus “Me”

The simplest way to describe the different scenarios is to think about who needs the advice; is it the company or one of the people from the company.

Just to put a finer point on this, the vast majority of these cases involve the owners of the company, as opposed to those who are simply employees, although that can also certainly happen on occasion.

But when someone needs to clarify things from a legal perspective, it typically comes down to whether the advice is around how the company should do something, or what various owners’ rights are on a certain matter.

And those differences are rather stark, and need to be looked at not just on their merits, but also on the perception around how seeking that advice is seen by others.


Intra-Company Urinating Contests

There’s a huge difference between saying “I’m going to call our lawyer about…” and “I’m calling my lawyer!”

Is the person calling the lawyer “for me” or “for us”?

When things among co-owners of the same business become an “Us vs. Them” contest, watch out.

Let’s just look at a few types of situations I’ve been involved with in the past couple of years.

I had one coaching client, a woman from the second generation of a family, who now co-owned 1/3 of the company her father started, along with her two brothers.

When she expressed a reluctance to be alone in a room with one of them, I knew that this situation was beyond what coaching could help resolve, and I recommended that she engage a lawyer, for herself.


Dad and Brother Put On the Squeeze

More recently a man who was preparing to become a 50-50 owner, with his brother, of the company their father started, came to see me about helping them mediate some rough spots.

At our second meeting, I learned that both his brother and his father had recently done some things that gave me grave concern about their intentions.

I recommended that he “start looking for a lawyer”. 

As I explained to him, he needed to create a relationship with an attorney now, in advance, because it felt to me like he may, one day (perhaps soon) need to take some action, legally, vis-à-vis, his partners.

In both of these cases, I knew that the potential for me to have any impact was very limited, and I was better off stepping aside, and essentially saying “I’m outta here!”.


Mediation as a “Last Gasp Effort”

Another recent client family, involves a sibling group of four, who are now equal owners of what’s left of a business started decades ago by their late father.

With some siblings who worked most or all of their adult lives for the company and others who did so very intermittently, they’re now in a situation where the distrust outweighed the trust.

During my one-on-one meetings with each of them, every last one of them, at one point or another, mentioned that they were considering engaging their own lawyer.

In fact, it became clear to me that I was the last stop for them, and if things did not work out with me acting as their mediator, at least one of them would be hiring a lawyer.


In Case of Emergency, Break Glass

Being in a position where I feel like I’m almost a “last hope” comes with its challenges. 

But when the participants all know it too, and are aware of the stakes, they can become quite focused on working out a deal.

Because if one of them “lawyer’s up” the rest will need to as well.

Striving for the Right Kind of Ego in a FamBiz

It Can’t Be All About “Me”

When the inspiration for one of these weekly posts comes from an actual coaching session I had with a client from a family business, I really get excited.

Regular readers may recall that I have a penchant for mining for ideas in the land of translations between words in English and other languages, typically French.

So if you’re a fan of those, keep reading because that’s where we’re going this week.

It all began with a misunderstanding on my part, which I quickly realized, and then happily recovered from.

 

Young Rising Generation Leaders

I’ve been fortunate to recently become involved with some local organizations who offer programs to entrepreneurial families who are preparing for eventual intergenerational transitions.

The program I’m part of, as a freelancer, has me coaching some young rising generation family members who are expecting to take on leadership roles in both their business and their family, as the parents eventually hand over the reins in the coming years.

As I said this is local, and in Quebec that typically means that the work is done in French, which thankfully for me, n’est pas un problème.

My French is not 100% perfect, but I’m more than functionally fluent for the job, thanks to five decades of practice. (Merci École St-Rémi)

Management Versus Ownership

So there I was on a Zoom call with “Sandra”, the oldest of three siblings who are preparing to eventually succeed their father, the founder of the business.

Although she’s the oldest, she’s still in her early 20’s, and so they’re still obviously in the early innings of this eventual transition.

Because of her age relative to her siblings, and the position she holds thanks to her seniority working in the business, she’s poised to hold the eventual top role in the running of the company, at least as things stand today.

However, in terms of the ownership of the company, the assumption is that Dad will be looking to make his three offspring equal owners, with one third of the company each.

Take note of the word “equal” there, as it foreshadows where we’re heading.

 

Did I Hear That Right?

As I was trying to impress upon Sandra the difference between her management role and her ownership role, I pointed out that in the business a hierarchical situation is likely warranted, but the ownership reality is actually flat.

As she was replying that she recognized that they would all be “equal” in the ownership, she obviously used the French word, “égaux” (pronounced “AY-go”).

The problem was, in my head, I heard the word “égo”, which is pronounced exactly the same way. I think you can guess what that translates to in English.

So here I was, thinking that she was talking about her ego, rather than the fact that they were equals.

Bang!

 

Calling a Timeout

Wait, stop, sorry, back up!

I asked her to pause to allow me to explain and apologize and thank her for the blog topic.

How the heck could the word “ego”, which feels like it is all about “me”, the individual, be pronounced the same way as the plural for the word equal, which is all about us?

I hope you aren’t expecting me to give you an answer, because I don’t have one. If someone reading this does, perhaps a linguist, please let me know, and in the meantime, I’m just happy to have stumbled upon this.

It feels kind of like an oxy-moron to me.

 

Lessons for Families Working Together

The take-away for me is simply that sharing this story and the reality behind it creates an opportunity to put this subject on the table with family members.

The business can be organized as a hierarchy, the ownership is flat, and the family, well, the family is the family. We are right back to the Three-Circle Model again. (I can’t believe it’s been almost 8 years since I wrote that!)

So each circle has a different structure, and that’s how it usually goes.

That means that the people who are part of more than one circle need to recognize that it’s always important to consider whether they are discussing matters that have to do with the running of the business, or ownership issues, or family matters.

Those differences matter, and must be discussed and made clear. It will allow you to separate “ego” from “equals”.

A Family’s Most Important Project of All

Welcome to another edition of “Steve tries to take a bunch of ideas and spin them into something coherent and useful for enterprising families and those who work with them”.

It should be interesting as I try to weave together the fact that families are very interdependent, that recognizing this is a key to intergenerational success, and that proper guidance on the journey will be of enormous help to them along the way.

These thoughts have all been brewing in my head for a while, stimulated by various recent interactions, and now it’s time to share where I’ve arrived. Thanks for joining me again.

 

Coaching Every Family Member Is Ideal

My favourite gigs with families are the ones where I get to spend both one-on-one coaching time with each family member, and then also participate in their group meetings.

While I’ve noted that in some cases it’s possible for a family to make progress in situations where there’s only one family member who’s sufficiently motivated to seek outside coaching, my best engagements are those where I get to work with everyone, both individually and together.

While recently discussing some cool aspects of coaching in general with another coach colleague, we kicked around the importance of the coach exuding an attitude of “I’ve got your back” and “I’m here for you without any other agenda, unlike most other people in your life”.

You can imagine that this might be a difficult role to play when you work with many of those “other people in your life” as well, and you wouldn’t be wrong either.

 

Serving the Whole Family’s Interests

The keys to doing this well are quite simple, in fact, but please don’t ever forget that simple is not the same as easy.

The first key is for the coach to see themselves as a servant of the entire family, not simply the one who hired them, or the one who pays their bill, but the group as a whole.

And then there’s another key that goes with that, and that’s the fact the to truly serve the family, it’s much easier when that coach is not serving an institution whose logo is on their (the coach’s) business card.

Family members are interdependent, and coaching them on their family journey is a special role with a unique skillset.

In fact, it’s more than just coaching, it’s also a bit of facilitation and lots of guidance.

 

Guidance for the Journey, Not the Destination

The term guidance is one that has grown on me lately, as I’ve re-branded my services and now call myself a Family Legacy Guide.

Part of the appeal is that I want clients to realize the importance of the journey they are on together, as opposed to any particular destination they’re trying to reach.

This is bringing back memories of a piece I wrote in 2018, There Is No Destination, the title of which is the first part of an expression I had recently discovered then, which is completed by “It’s ALL Journey. All. Of. It.”

 

The Individual – Togetherness Dichotomy

When working with various family members I also need to keep in mind the “familiness continuum” that exists, and how each person sees that.

Every member of the family is trying to find the right balance between their own individuality and the togetherness of the group, and that’s also a moving target.

By alternating my interactions from 1-on-1 calls with each of them to meetings with the group, I can stay on top of how this balancing act is evolving.

It’s during the group meetings that I notice issues that I can then take up with them individually.

 

Interdependence and Moving Targets

Most families underestimate their level of interdependence, as well as the importance that learning how to work as an interdependent system will have on their ability to transition their business or wealth to the rising generation of their family.

A few months ago in Planning your Family’s Declaration of Interdependence we looked at the fact that there needs to be a realisation that they are in fact all dependent on each other, in all directions, in order to make true progress.

The family is on a long journey that they are all on together, and so having someone come along with them, at certain strategic stages, can make all the difference in the world.

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!

If it Ain’t Broke, Break It?

One place I turn for information and inspiration in my professional world is LinkedIn.  I find so much useful content and plenty of blog ideas there every week.

I’ve also “met” some great new colleagues there over the years, many of whom I’ve yet to actually meet in person, but most of whom I have met over Zoom.

Recently I saw a video by a local family business leader who, along with his daughter, shared some ways they were adapting to the reality of this pandemic-stricken world.

One of the take-away messages they shared was around the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi, resulting in an A-Ha moment for me, and the impetus for this post.

 

There It Is, Again

The Kintsugi angle was already on my radar, but due to sloppy note-taking on my part, I don’t recall where I was first exposed to it.

When I saw that video, I quickly made a note this time, to properly contextualize my blog about it. I also took it as a sign that this post was now due to be created.

Regular readers may recall that I’ve been inspired by something from Japan before, having shared Ikigai: A “Four-Circle Model” of Human Capital in 2019.

So what is Kintsugi?

You’ve likely seen some version of it before without realizing that it’s a style of art, from Japan, where a pot, dish, or bowl is broken into pieces and then reassembled.

The art is in the way it’s put back together, with glue-like substances, enhanced with gold or some other “fancy” elements.

The result is a reassembled piece, which is now more beautiful and special than the original.

 

And the Family Business Angle Is…?

Of course there’s also a resilience angle here, which is quite topical thanks to the lingering pandemic.

Almost everyone has faced, or continues to face, some sort of breakdown, and it’s important to normalize that.

Additionally, we need to realize that after a challenge, it is possible to emerge stronger and more beautiful than before.

There are also some other business family angles I’ve thought of that could fit into the Kintsugi metaphor.

Some may seem to be a stretch, and that’s OK too; I’ll just use a bit more of that “golden glue” on those to make them work.

 

Family Members Aren’t All Equal

We all know that family members are not equal, as each person has their own strengths and desires, making each one’s contributions unique.

There are often some who experience challenges in life, which may be completely involuntary or for which they are mostly to blame.

Regardless, they remain members of the family, even if they might be slightly “broken”.

One of the strengths of some business families is that they have an uncanny ability to help those “broken” family members, and even put them back together and make them stronger, finding ways to make them contributing members of the group.

 

Family Narrative with All the Warts

Another place where I think Kintsugi might apply is in the family narrative.

Story-telling seems to be all the rage now, and creating and sharing the “family narrative” has become a valuable exercise for many families.

It’s crucial to share the failures and recoveries, not just the successes, when sharing the story of the family’s path to their current status.

For more on this, please have a listen to this podcast I recently hosted. The Family Business Myth and the Hero’s Journey

 

The FamBiz Wind-Down or Wind-Up

I’ve got one more possible business family Kintsugi metaphor to share, and it involves situations where the family business that created the wealth is no longer part of the picture.

When a family business is sold, and there’s a “liquidity event”, the family can sometimes struggle to define reasons for them to stay together to continue to manage their wealth and assets.

I’m picturing the business as the pot or vase that was broken, and the family’s work to create ways and reasons to stay together as the gluing things back together in a stronger and more beautiful way.

 

Kintsugi as a Team Sport?

I used the word “create” above, and perhaps I should have used “co-create” instead.

Business family continuity is truly a team sport, and it must involve a number of people if there is any chance of it “sticking” on an intergenerational basis.

The more people involved in piecing it together, the better it will work, and look. It truly is an art.