“Know How” Vs. “Show How” in FamBiz Advice

One of the things I enjoy doing occasionally is revisit parts of my eclectic professional career and find subjects that can help me explain things in areas around my most recent incarnation as a family business advisor.

Exactly 20 years ago, I was studying Intellectual Property Law in New Hampshire (Franklin Pierce Law, now part of UNH). During a class on patents, the terms “know how” and “show how” were discussed.

The MIP (Master of Intellectual Property) program was aimed mostly at international students, many of whom came from Asia, to get a one-year intense dose of American IP Law. A classmate from Colombia, whose English was still not great, asked me to explain the difference between the two terms.

We were standing in the student lounge at the time, and there were some vending machines nearby. I always love the challenge of taking complex issues and finding ways to explain them in terms that everyone can understand.

So I started with Know How, and suggested to my friend that if he were thirsty, he should go to the machine, put some money in it, and press a button. He looked at me intently, and said, “Okay…(?)”

Then, I walked over to the machine with him, and said, “Show How: Put your dollar bill in this slot here, and make sure you flatten it out. Slide it in until the machine picks it up. Now, look at the choices and decide which drink you want. Press that button. See, this is where it comes out. Don’t open it yet, because it just dropped and might make a mess because it got shaken. Get your change out of this slot. Show How.”

He smiled and nodded. Mission accomplished. So what does this have to do with family business?

If you are looking for Know How on subjects surrounding family business, and more importantly business families, there is no shortage of it out there. Just ask my friend Google, and he will lead you to more content than you could read in your lifetime.

But just as you could look up and read millions of patents and still not be able to put the inventions into practice, most of the FamBiz content you find really would fall more into the Know How category.

I read stuff every day on the subject, much of it coming from my Twitter addiction, and there are plenty of great ideas for things that families should be doing to make sure their intended transitions from one generation to the next go smoothly.

My problem with so much of what I read is that I believe that very little of it will ever be acted upon.

This may or may not be the fault of the writer of the piece, but I often picture the reaction of someone like my father, or my father-in-law, both of whom started with almost nothing and built successful family businesses, and I simply can’t picture either of them ever putting the advice into practice.

The lack of action by many families has a couple of components to it, of course. Lack of time or urgency is usually one part, and so is insufficient belief in the worthiness of the expected benefits. I can’t help believe that not having enough “Show How” is a very big part of it.

If someone reads that having family meetings is important, they may think that it could be worthwhile, but then might get hung up on how to go about that. What is on the agenda, who gets invited, how often should we do them, how formal, what is the goal, how do we make “ground rules”, do we keep minutes, ah just forget it. Maybe next year…

Many ideas sound great when we hear them (or read them), but then we stumble when we try to implement them, because of some uncertainty in how it is supposed to all work.

There are people who can help show you how, but not nearly as many as there are out adding the vast store of know how out there. You just need to find them and reach out.








Procrastinating or Preparing?

Most weeks I write my blog post on Saturday, and sometimes even on Friday. I am just starting to write this post on Sunday, and the late NFL games are already on, so I am clearly behind schedule.

The title of this piece is “borrowed” from the name of a report that EY (Ernst & Young) just published, but I changed the order of the words.

It would be nice if I could honestly say that I put off writing this in order to really “feel” the procrastinating part, but that would be disingenuous on my part. I just plain did not feel inspired, and I had other things to take care of. I even went and visited my mother.

Why is it always so easy to put off doing important things? Well lots of times it’s because we are too busy doing things that seem more urgent. It really is an easy trap to fall into.

Hey, my Mom’s computer mouse died, and I am kind of her go-to tech guy, and she deserves to be able to use her computer whenever she wants to, so I had to go and install a new mouse for her, like, today.

Back to the EY report, which is called “Preparing or Procrastinating” and which is all about “How the world’s largest family businesses undertake successful successions”, as the secondary title says.

They surveyed over 500 of the largest family businesses in a total of over 20 countries and asked them how they handle the important task of succession. They worked with researchers from Kennesaw State University, who have a strong reputation in Family Business.

From their survey results, they have compiled a number of separate reports, and they are all available on their website. They have really been doing a nice job in this space with great content lately. I guess that with over 200,000 employees worldwide, it should not be unexpected that they put out high quality stuff.

This report talks about some of the things that successful families are doing to make sure that the generational transfer of the business is done well.

They list four main things that their survey respondents had in common, the assumption being that if these big family businesses did these things, and succeeded in becoming big businesses, then a lot of smaller family companies could benefit from following in their footsteps and emulating them.

I won’t get into all four of their points, but want to highlight the first one: Clearly define who is responsible for succession.

This is my favourite because it is not that obvious. If you don’t think that succession is YOUR responsibility, then you really aren’t procrastinating, you’re just being ignorant or oblivious.

But succession doesn’t just happen by itself, and it is not an event, it is a process. And ideally a long process. And someone needs to make sure that the proper preparation takes place.

It turns out that Board of Directors, at 44%, came out on top in the survey, as far as succession responsibility is concerned. This was followed by “owners/family council” at 23%, and the CEO at 22%. “Other” was at 11%.

Now I know that just about every family business, no matter how big or small, has a CEO, even if they don’t use that title. But how many have a board of directors, or a family council? A lot fewer.

Preparing for succession, which I actually prefer to call “Continuity Planning”, is important, and it takes time. The longer you wait to start, the harder it is to pull off properly.

If you don’t have a board or a family council, and you are the majority owner, the person responsible for succession is probably the person you see in the mirror.

Oh, and you may be overdue to at least call your mother.

Click here for EY’s Preparing or Procrastinating

Évolution ou Révolution? À vous de choisir…

Étant né dans une famille entrepreneuriale, j’ai toujours eu un intérêt à suivre leurs différentes façons de faire. On peut y voir de très beaux exemples de pratiques qu’on voudrait utiliser comme modèle, et d’autres qu’on voudrait éviter à tout prix.

J’aimerais partager une façon de penser à ce sujet qui m’est venue à l’esprit dernièrement.

Dans n’importe quelle famille, au cours des années et des décennies, il existe une certaine évolution naturelle. On est né, nos parents prennent soin de nous, et éventuellement, nous avons nos propres enfants, et nous prenons soin d’eux.

En même temps, nos parents vieillissent, et ils bénéficient du fait qu’ils ont eu des enfants, qui deviennent une ressource pour eux, quand ils ont besoin d’aide. Les enfants finissent par prendre soin des parents.

J’espère que mes enfants seront là, disponibles et motivés pour me venir en aide quand j’en aurai le besoin.

On pourrait décrire cette situation comme une évolution. Les membres de la famille passent chacun par toutes les phases de la vie, de façon assez prévisible, dans la majorité des cas.

Mais là, arrêtons de parler de familles en général, et concentrons-nous sur les familles entrepreneuriales. Il y a beaucoup de différences entre ces familles et des familles dites “normales”, mais nous allons viser une caractéristique en particulier.

Je ne présume pas que toutes les familles qui sont menées par un entrepreneur qui a eu beaucoup de succès sont pareilles, puisqu’il existe beaucoup d’exceptions à la règle.

Mais trop souvent, les entrepreneurs qui ont bâti leur entreprise, et ainsi leur fortune, ont beaucoup de difficultés à laisser leur place à ceux qui suivent.

Ce n’est quand même pas trop surprenant. Ils ont réussi leur vie en se battant à tous les jours, très souvent face à du monde qui les doutait, et qui leur disait qu’ils ne réussiront pas. Malgré ces obstacles, ils ont quand même survécu, et même triomphé!

Éventuellement ils atteignent l’âge de 65, 70, 75, 80, et tout le monde se met à les questionner sur leur avenir, sans vraiment cacher leurs opinions, qui penchent sur l’idée de ralentir, passer le flambeau, jouer au golf, et voyager.

Ces gens ont passé leur vie à contredire ceux qui les questionnaient, pourquoi changeraient-ils maintenant?

Le plus gros problème revient au sujet que nous discutions tantôt, l’évolution. Nous avons constaté que l’évolution était plutôt naturelle.

Mais quand on essaye trop fort de combattre l’évolution naturelle, il y a quelque chose d’autre qui arrive. J’appelle ça la Révolution.

Pendant que l’entrepreneur atteint 65, 70, 75, etc., qu’est-ce qui se passe avec ses enfants? Ils arrivent à 35, 40, 45, 50, etc., mais la place qu’ils s’attendaient à prendre n’est toujours pas libérée. Au début, ils patientent, pensant que le “jour J” arrivera sans doute bientôt.

Malheureusement pour eux, ils risquent d’attendre beaucoup plus longtemps qu’ils le souhaitaient, ce qui sème les graines de la révolution.

Il n’y a pas de solution miracle à ce phénomène, mais j’aimerais vous donner un peu d’espoir.

D’abord sachez que dans la grande majorité des familles, les parents décèdent avant leurs enfants, donc la nature est toujours de votre bord, si vous êtes parmi ceux et celles qui commencent à manquer de patience.

Mais sans farce, j’ai quelques conseils qui vous seront peut-être utiles.

D’habitude, la confrontation ne fonctionne pas très bien, mais le silence non plus. Des conversations, ouvertes, honnêtes, et qui mettent les cartes sur la table, sont de rigueur. Mais quand on pousse trop fort, trop vite, on risque de provoquer de la résistance.

Le respect et la patience sont aussi importants. Certains disent que ceux qui ne veulent pas partir ont peur de perdre leur identité et leur raison d’être. Aidez-leur à surmonter ces défis, réconfortez-les de toutes les manières possibles, mais soyez prêt à recevoir des objections tout au long du trajet.

Ces options sont préférables à la révolution, mais parfois la menace d’une révolution est quand même nécessaire. Mais avant d’y arriver, pensez peut-être à rentrer une personne externe, pour faciliter les discussions. Vous en connaissez sûrement au moins une.


Getting Brothers on the Same Page

This week, I was approached by a colleague about a pair of brothers, who are operating a business together, who are approaching a crossroads. My colleague asked me for some input on what kinds of issues they would be facing, and how he might offer to assist them.

(This made me flash back to a blog from April 2014, about another pair of brothers who worked together).

He didn’t give me too much to go on, and I’m not even sure how much information he had himself, so I will have to fill in some of the blanks with my own assumptions. This is fine because anything I offer here cannot be prescriptive, nor should it be overly directed to the specific facts of their case.

So here is a scenario, including my assumed facts:

Two brothers, in their late 50’s, co-own their company, which they have grown over the past 30 years or so. Both have children, but they are too young to take over right now. “Frank” has a vision of somehow keeping the business in the family, while “Sam” just wants to sell.

As usual, I have many more questions to ask before being able to supply any useful answers. Here are a few that come to mind immediately:

Are these paths mutually exclusive?

Not necessarily. If Frank has an interest in staying on and eventually bringing his kids into the business, there are certainly ways that this can be done. If Sam wants out, they would need to come to a negotiated agreement on the sale price, including the terms and conditions, which would allow Frank to buy his brother out.

Frank would need to be sure that the leadership and management roles that Sam had assumed would be covered off by someone, and they would need to come up with a financing arrangement that would allow Frank to purchase Sam’s shares over time so as not to put the company at risk.

–  Can the business be run by a non-family member?

If Frank is not the type to run the business by himself and if it will be a number of years before his kids would be ready to assume key roles, the option of hiring professional outside management can also be an interesting idea.

Not all family businesses pass directly from parent to child; often some trusted managers assume top roles for a number of years while the next generation completes their years of preparation to take over the top job.

–  Has an outside buyer been identified?

If an outside purchaser has been identified, a sale of the business, whereby both brothers actually cash out, could be a blessing in disguise. Sam can close the book and move on, and Frank would be free to do as he saw fit with his proceeds.

–  Could Frank help his kid(s) run another business?

Some parents love running a business and long for a relationship with their children in which they can pass on that love to their offspring. But many times the particular business of the parents is not in a field that captures the imagination of their kids.

How about taking the proceeds and finding a business opportunity in a field that the children are attracted to, and helping them start their own business in that area?

–  Where should the brothers begin?

Ideally, Frank and Sam can discuss all of these options before going too far down the road with any particular option.

–  Beware the advisor who only carries a hammer!

Too often, guys like Frank and Sam are not sure where to turn, and they take the first piece of advice that comes their way if it sounds plausible. Remember the saying about a man who only has a hammer, who looks at everything as if it is a nail?

Business advisors, most of whom specialize in one particular area, are also prone to this type of reflexive advice. For big decisions like these, taking the time to look at ALL of the options makes the most sense.