Even If It Hurts

Last week, in The 3 R’s: Finding a “Responsive Reliable Resource”, while writing about people who are “Reliable”, I stumbled upon an idea that I promised to revisit in a future blog.

As I put it then, As I write these words, I’m realizing that there’s a whole other blog that I’ll need to write, to expound upon this question”.

So expound I will.


Hurting Me, Hurting You

The key point at the root of my “eureka” moment came from this sentence:

“I want to be able to rely on someone to tell me the truth,

even if it hurts me, AND, even if it hurts them.”

These are two completely separate points, yet I’ve never seen them addressed together. That’s what made it so compelling for me to look at this again this week.


Tell Me the Truth, I Can Take It

One of the biggest problems that people at the top always face, no matter what kind of organisation they’re in, is having people tell them things that they “don’t want to hear”.

The CEO of a company will not always hear the truth from their underlings, not because those people are liars, but because most people have an aversion to telling their boss things that are not pleasant to relate.

The interesting part about this is that more often than not, they actually DO want to hear those things.

In fact, good leaders don’t want to be surrounded by “Yes-Men”.


How Long Will It Hurt? 

The reality is that hearing the truth, if it’s something that you really do need to know and you really cannot see yourself, only hurts for a very short time.

Strong leaders realize that they’re not in a popularity contest, and that sometimes you need to hear things that hurt.

In order to make progress, a reality check is often needed, and folks at the top actually need to have MORE people who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is.

It’s great if you have people upon whom you can rely to play that role.


Despite My Self-Interest

That was one side of the “hurting” question, now let’s get to the even trickier part.

The “even if it hurts them” aspect can best be summed up in one word, “self-interest”. Not sure if a compound word really counts as one word, but I’ll use my “editorial license” to make it so here.

If you aren’t familiar with the “Trust Equation” or the “Trust Quotient”, I suggest you visit this site:

TrustedAdvisor.com  so that you don’t just think I’m making this stuff up.

The denominator of the Trust Equation is “Self-Orientation” as they put it. “Self-interest” and “self-orientation” may not be identical twins, but they are most definitely close siblings.


Not Placing Blame

Business families are served by a variety of professionals from different industries, including legal, accounting, insurance, investment management and banking to name a few of the major ones.

Every person naturally brings their own perspective to the family’s situation, and that perspective is naturally rooted in their professional training, background and orientation.

It’s next to impossible for a banker to look at your family business from any other perspective than that of a banker, and likewise difficult for your attorney to look at things from a viewpoint other than that of your legal counsel.

I believe these things to be true in general in just about every profession, even though there are exceptions in all of them.


So What?

Well, if you’re looking for “reliable resources” you can count on, you really have to understand that getting 100% unbiased advice, especially if it might go against their own interest, will almost never happen.

And I’m not saying that any of your advisors are unethical or crooked in any way. They very likely believe that everything that they suggest to you is actually best for you.


What Are You Paying Them For?

Unfortunately for leaders of business families, most of the professionals upon whom they rely are paid for certain products and services that these people sell them.

Those who truly have their client’s interest as their top concern and only interest, are few and far between.

There aren’t many people who play that role but if you can find one, keep them!

Finding a reliable person you pay only for their counsel can be done.

Combining Strategy and Structure for Families

I got an email a few weeks ago, inviting me to an upcoming Family Office conference, and the wording of the subject line caught my eye.

Now that my thinking on the issue has gelled in my head, I’ll try to turn it into a useful blog post. Here goes.


Strategy AND Structure

Let’s begin with the email subject line, so that you’ll get the context:

“Essential structures & strategies from leading families”

The event itself was billed as a “Family Office and Investment Conference”, but the tease in the subject line had succeeded in intriguing me to believe that they might be talking about topics that are much more up my alley (i.e. family issues)

When it comes time to plan the transition of a family’s wealth from one generation to the next, a lot of effort is usually put into finding the best way to structure things.

There are many different ways to accomplish the goal of transitioning the ownership of assets from the current owners to the future ones, and the choice of which way to go will often be driven by the family’s advisors, who each have their particular favourite techniques and structures.

The family client relies on advice from these trusted experts, who are believed to know what they are doing, and strictly speaking, they usually do.

So what’s my issue with this? I’m glad you asked.


The “What” Shouldn’t Come First

A family faced with this scenario is really only going to do this once per generation, and few families are experts in knowing exactly what they want, or even knowing what’s possible.

The tactical experts who advise them are just that, “tactical”, they specialize in the “what”, and when a client shows up looking for help, the expert will almost always go back to the “tried and true”.

But what if they’re pulling an old structure off the shelf that they used before for another client whose situation was completely different?

Too few advisors will take the time necessary to explore the “why” questions with their client families, and to think in terms of the overall family strategy, in order to make sure that “what” they are proposing actually makes the most sense.


“Why” Should Precede “What”

It’s really useful for the family to have the important planning discussions amongst themselves to plan strategy before engaging the outside structure experts.

As I wrote back in March, in “We Treat Them All Equally – (That’s Good, Right?)”, these discussions are not necessarily done quickly or easily, but they sure are important and worthwhile.

You may be curious as to my selection of the image I chose to accompany this post, perhaps wondering “what’s with all the different tents”? Each of them is a structure, and they are all different, some of them markedly so.


Are We All In This Together?

In “Going Far, Go Together” I wrote about families that are planning to stay together for the long term.

What I didn’t stress at the time was the actual question that the family needs to clarify beforehand, i.e. does the next generation of the family WANT to stay tied together, and continue to work together as a shared ownership group.

Too often there is a presumption that the answer to this question is YES, and when that happens you can end up with siblings who are forced into partnership with each other.

If such a scenario is going to turn into a disaster because of the family dynamics, wouldn’t it be better to figure that out in advance, and not go down that road?


Strategy Before Structure

At the risk of harping on this too much, I’ll say it again. Before you decide on the best structures to hold the family assets for the next generation, the family needs to sort out the questions of who is on board.

It can be very tempting to choose a complex solution proposed by a tax expert who shows you to the penny how much tax you can save by going with their suggested methods, but if that solution means the next generation will be stuck in the wrong kind of tent for their trip, what was the point?

A huge tent built for the desert may not be what most of the family needs. Work out the strategy first.


The old “Hercules” animated TV show from my youth featured a centaur named Newt, who had the annoying habit of saying everything twice.

He even sang a song, “I’m glad, I’m glad, to have, to have, a friend, a friend, like Hercules, like Hercules”. The title of this post is NOT a homage to him.

It’s actually a question with two parts, which could be rephrased as “who gets to decide who the decision makers will be”. Saying it out loud with the proper inflection makes the point better than any way I could write it.

Last week in part 1 (Who Gets to Decide?), we talked about family systems and collective decision-making and how important leadership and alignment are to family governance.

Kicking it Up a Notch 

I promised a follow-up in which we looked at the question from a higher level. So here goes.

There are different levels of decisions that need to be made in any business. Even the lowest level employees have some decisions to make, and we need to train them and then hope that they make good decisions on day-to-day issues.

At higher levels, decisions like who to hire, or promote, come into play, and at even higher levels there are major purchases, and strategic business decisions that are made less frequently, but that have much more importance.

The Case in Family Businesses

As a family business grows and ages, different family members can become involved in business decisions, as their abilites and responsibilities grow.

But as long as we’re only looking at the decisions made in the business circle, this is all pretty mundane stuff.

Things get much more interesting in the ownership circle and in the family circle, and of course in the areas where they overlap.

Generational Groups

As a single founder gives way to a group of siblings, the dynamics change completely. When it gets to cousins and different branches, it gets even more hairy.

Day-to-Day operating decisions of the company are understandably usually left to those who manage the business. What about bigger questions?

Major Decisions

The stickiest decisions usually center around power and money, and when family members are working through these things, discussions can be heated.

Sometimes it helps to identify which group should be making the decision before going too far. If it is strictly an ownership issue, then the owners of the business or shared assets should be involved. If it is a family issue, then it’s the family.

Each group, or system, is comprised of certain people, and ideally each should have its own governance procedures and systems. Even when the two groups comprise exactly the same people, it’s important to consider this.

But governance doesn’t just fall from the sky.

Off the Shelf?

If you think you can just get your lawyer to draft something for you, well, good luck with that. The likelihood of it being adequate, fair, useable and acceptable to all is pretty low.

Governance systems need to be developed by the group of people they are going to serve in order to have the greatest chance of success.

The Business Circle

For the business, top management and or a board is usually sufficient, but even then, the more you get the people involved who are affected by the decisions, the more likely they will be followed.

The Ownership Circle

A shareholders agreement is a pretty standard name for the document that governs this circle, but the agreements themselves are never “standard”.

Getting everyone to hammer out a document that they all believe fairly represents their relationship is a huge task, but well worth the effort.

Ask any lawyer who drafts these how often they remain unsigned, though, and you will understand how difficult this can be.

The Family Circle

The long-term legacy of the business rests with the family more than the business. The family’s governance is unfortunately usually left for last.

Getting a bunch of people with the same last name together and having them figure this stuff out on their own will almost never happen.

Bringing in someone from the outside is the first step to making progress in this area. Do that and start early, small and slowly, and it can be done.

It takes one family member to drive this, along with an outside expert, and it can be done.

We Treat Them All Equally – (That’s Good, Right?)

Someone recently asked where I stand on whether or not parents should treat all their children equally. I definitely have some strong feelings on the subject, but before answering, I decided to check my 200-plus blogs to see what I had already written on the subject.

I was surprised and disappointed to note that I haven’t really treated this subject adequately in this space, so I decided to change that here and now.


For Simplicity’s Sake

Now I am NOT “anti-equality” by any means, and for simple and straightforward situations, it’s clearly the way to go.

However, most families I deal with are neither simple, nor straightforward, and on top of that the sheer size of their assets makes everything more complex.

While simplicity is good, when it’s possible, in complex situations, oversimplifying can cause unintended consequences. I daresay that many parents who blindly insist on equal treatment are just being lazy.


Ownership and Management

A major complicating factor that often arises in such families is the distinction between ownership of assets and their management. This is especially true where there is an operating business that constitutes the bulk of the family’s wealth.

The simplest illustration is a family with three children, only one of them working in the business, but ownership given to the three equally. The one managing the business will be in a difficult position, unless they have very understanding siblings (and in-laws!).

Running a business can be challenging enough without having to answer to co-owners whose knowledge about it, attachment to it, and efforts towards it do not match that of the person tasked with managing it.


Equitable Division

Rather than simply cutting the pie into equal pieces, I encourage families to shoot for an equitable solution. Synonyms for equitable include “fair”, “even-handed” and “egalitarian”.

You see, sometimes “equal” is not fair, when you look past the simplistic solution of just making everyone identical equal partners.

Parents who leave operating businesses to their children too often do not stop to think about the fact that they are forcing their kids to become business partners, and anyone who has ever had a business partner knows that a good partnership agreement is an absolute necessity. And even then…

Unfortunately, the idea that “Well, as partners, they will be forced to get along!” will backfire much more often than it will succeed, and is NOT a recommended strategy, ever. And it does still happen, unfortunately.


Transparency Versus Secrecy

Assuming you actually get the fact that a simple, equal division can often be sub-optimal, then what should you look to do instead?

The possibilities are as limitless as your imagination. But better still, how about including the stakeholders in a discussion and also benefitting from all their imaginations?

In fact, if all the siblings who’ll end up owning the assets together after their parents are gone are involved, and they knowingly agree to an equal split, after considering and discussing alternative scenarios, then equal actually is good.

If everything is decided in an open, fair, well-thought-out manner, with each person comfortable that they understand exactly what they are getting themselves into, then who can argue with that?


Worthwhile Discussions

Are these discussions quick and easy to have? Usually, NO.

Are they important and worthwhile to have? An unqualified YES.

Simplicity is good, but not if it is just the result of laziness and a lack of courage to have the discussions that are required.

Adult conversations between family members from different generations can be difficult, especially when so much is at stake. But what’s the alternative?


Keep Your Fingers Crossed

Many families have ended up deciding to ignore this type of advice, simply divided everything up equally, and let the chips fall where they may. “Well, that’ll be their problem, they’ll figure it out” is an interesting attitude.

If you really believe that they’ll “figure it out”, then you’re also probably the type who could have the necessary conversations, and you should.

If you say that, and are secretly keeping your fingers crossed that it’ll all work out, then you’re actually likely fooling yourself.

Good luck with that. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


P.S.: What About Salaries?

If you’re paying all your kids the same salary, for vastly different job responsibilities, that’s a great place to start fixing things.
















Family businesses come to life in different ways, but their ownership structure usually starts out pretty simple. With the coming of age of the next generation of family members, things inevitably get more complex.

Preparing the rising generation to work in the business is a subject that gets talked about quite a bit. Preparing them to be good owners is also something that we are beginning to hear more about as well. All of this is good news.

But my subject today is based on a real life case, brought to my attention by a colleague. I asked her for permission to address it in this space, because I have not seen much written on it, and it can be pretty tricky.

Unfortunately there isn’t necessarily an easy solution, but then again, in the arena of family business, there rarely is.


The Case of the XYZ Family

My colleague and I are members of a “study group” of a dozen or so members of FFI, we come from a handful of countries, and it is always interesting to note the cultural flavour that comes with the stories we share.

The XYZ family is based in another country on another continent. X and Y are brothers, and they own their business 50/50. So far it’s pretty simple. Oh, one more important point, X is a silent partner, and Y runs the business.

I don’t know for sure but will assume that there is no shareholders agreement in place, likely because of the standard, “hey, we’re family, we trust each other, we will work it out” attitude.


Arrival of the Next Gen

The business continues along without issue, and the brothers start families of their own.   Y, the active brother, has a son and a daughter. X, the silent brother, eventually also has a daughter.

Just to add a bit more complicating “spice” to the story, Y’s son, Z, ends up going to work in the business along with his Dad, Y. X remains silent. Everything is fine, right? Well, for now, seemingly, yes.


Projecting the Future

So if you are Z, the son working in the business, what might concern you, long term? What issue keeps you up at night, to the point that you would raise it with your friendly neighbourhood family business consultant?

If you guessed “ownership”, give yourself a gold star.

The young man has likely already witnessed some of the difficulties that his father has had in running the business while being responsive to a silent partner, uncle X.

When he projects to the future, he sees a situation where he is the only family member working in the business, but his “silent partners” could be his sister, and his cousin.

If ownership follows the standard equal distribution among children that is the default in their country, he foresees himself owning 25% of the shares, and having to answer to his 25% owner sister, and their 50% owner cousin.


Sustainability in Question

When something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

Just to make sure we see the difficulty here let’s add another layer. Let’s say Z has five kids, and his sister and cousin only have one child each. And let’s say only one of his kids joins the company and runs it, along with his silent relative partners.

How would it be to own 5% of a company and run it for relatives who own the following shares:

Owner-Manager:        5%

Siblings:                        5%   /   5%    /   5%   /   5%

Cousin:                       25%

Second-Cousin:        50%


Thanks, but No Thanks!

Talk about a thankless job. Family businesses CAN last many generations, but those that do are the exceptions, not the rule.

We often look for whom to blame when they don’t last, yet sometimes just the way they are structured and the simple math of family division make it nearly impossible to make this work.


So Do We Give Up?


We look ahead and foresee the potential issue, and talk about ways to resolve it. The brother owners need to realize that this can’t work long term, and figure out their next steps.

Assuming that Y can buy out his brother’s 50%, that would resolve a big chunk of it, for now, anyway.

They might even use a formula that Z will be able to follow to eventually buy out his sister down the road.

Bring it up, talk it out, resolve it before it kills the business.




Sibling Rivalry is a subject that has been around forever, yet despite that, it has somehow not been one that I have tackled in this space over the four-plus years I have been writing this blog.

Following my post “5 Things you Need to Know: Family Inheritance” from November, I have decided to return to that format and devote this week’s installment to Sibling Rivalry.

If you have suggestions for other topics that you would like to see me address here in this same format, please let me know, I love reader feedback and input, as well as a challenge. My idea is to have the “5 Things you Need to Know” become a semi-regular feature.

Without further ado, here are my…


5 Things to Know: Sibling Rivalry

  1. It’s “Built In”

Where there are siblings, there is potential for rivalry. Mom and Dad will usually try to minimize it, but truth be told, as soon as the second child is born, the rivalry is on.

In fact, depending on the age of the older sibling, the rivalry can begin as soon as they learn that Mommy is going to be delivering a new bundle of joy, that will undoubtedly compete with them for love and attention.

So if it is built in, the best we can do is to try to be aware of it, and understand what is going on so that we, as parents, can best deal with its fallout. Pretending that it doesn’t exist in OUR family is not very helpful.


  1. It brings out the WORST in people

If we think about sports rivalries involving our favourite team, we can often recall events that took place during games where opponents did things that are memorable for the wrong reasons.

There is an added layer of intensity when rivals meet, and sometimes people do things that they would never dream of doing in a similar circumstance but with different particpants.

For siblings who have been in competition with each other for many years, most of their interactions can be positive for years on end, but one never knows when something that has been festering beneath the surface will finally blow up.


  1. It brings out the BEST in people

Rivalries are usually based on some sort of competition, but what is actually at stake can vary greatly from sports trophies to love, power, and money.

But isn’t competition good? Actually, in many if not most cases, yes. And it is when the competition is healthy that it can do just that.

The trick is to get the conditions right for the competition, and hence the rivalry, to be “healthy”. All or nothing situations, fight-to-the-death scenarios, one-winner/many-loser set-ups are unnecessarily rivalrous.

Healthy competition is often set up as a Win-Win situation, in finding ways to make the proverbial pie bigger, in creating ways for each participant to excel in their own way, and having everyone contribute to the common good.


  1. Blame the parents!

In the previous point, I used words like “conditions”, “situations”, “scenarios”, and “set ups”, which relate to the context within which siblings can be exposed to rivalry with each other.

Who creates the context in which the family lives, if not the parents? When parents create conditions for rivalries to bring out the worst in their children, the parents should bear their share of the blame.

Sometimes it is done subconsciously, and other times because they think that they are doing what is best, but in truth, many unhealthy rivalries can be traced directly back to the parents.


  1. DON’T blame the parents!

Wait, what? Didn’t I just say the opposite? Well, yes, but just because the root of the rivalry can be blamed on the parents, that doesn’t mean that100% of it rests with them.

When the offspring become adults themselves, at some point they must assume responsibility for themselves and cannot forever blame Mommy and Daddy for “loving Johnny more”.

Where you are today is the result of everything that has happened to you in your life thus far, including the way your parents and siblings interacted with you.

Where you go from here depends on what you do starting today.

Sibling rivalries are all around us and are not necessarily bad or good.

If you are involved in one as a sibling or parent, what can you do to help make it “less bad”, or “more good”?


Family Inheritance

While few people actually relish thinking about the details of the inheritance they will leave their family when they die, most do spend at least some time wondering how to make sure that things will go well among their heirs.

We’ve all heard of families where relationships were harmed, sometimes beyond repair, as the result of how this important question was dealt with. If you do not want to be one of THOSE families, please read on.

Also note that these are five things everyone should know and understand, but that doesn’t make them an exhaustive list of important considerations, or even a “top 5 list” for every family situation. This blog should never substitute for legal advice for your unique family situation.


  1. Big or Small, the same issues arise

You don’t have to have a net worth in the gazillions to be affected by the potential negative fallout from poor decisions in this area.

Siblings have been known to never speak to each other again as the result of parental decisions that were made that surprised everyone, even in cases where the inheritance barely covered the cost of the funeral.

Rule 1: Don’t assume that there isn’t enough to worry about


  1. A WILL is Key

It should go without saying that every adult needs a will. Unfortunately, statistics show that many do not.

Many people who don’t likely assume that they have plenty of time to take care of it, you know, “later”. There are cemetaries full of people who guessed wrong on the question of exactly when they were going to die.

You need a will, and it really should be current. A good rule of thumb is to review it every five years.

Rule 2: Make sure you have a legal will, no excuses!


  1. A Will is NOT Enough

Now if you have your will in place and are thinking you are in the clear, well, sorry, we still have (at least) 3 more items here!

You have decided to leave certain assets to certain people in a certain way, and it’s all written up legally in a will. Here is the important question: do the people who will inherit your assets KNOW what they will be inheriting?

At least some form of basic communication is absolutely essential. If you haven’t already done so, please make sure that everyone understands what is going to happen. If you can let them all know together, at the same time, even better.

Letting them assume, and having different people understand different versions of it is a sure recipe for trouble.

Rule 3: Your heirs should know what is coming


  1. “Pre-Mediation” Can Make Sense

When a dispute goes into mediation, parties are brought together, and along with a neutral third party, they examine everyone’s interests and work towards a satisfactory conclusion.

The idea of pre-mediating is to put the scenario on the table with the parties before it actually comes into play.

The main point is that if you leave things to your heirs in the way you planned, AND that will cause problems after you are gone, why would you not want to re-adjust while you still can?

If this idea scares you, then that is a sign that yours is actually precisely the kind of situation that could most benefit from this.

Rule 4: Play out the details while you still can


5 “Surprise” is NOT a Good Thing 

I have heard Tom Deans (author of Willing Wisdom) speak several times. He describes the sound that many lawyers tell him they’ve heard from at least one surprised heir at the reading of many a will.

It is difficult to convey in writing, but imagine a gasp with an audible “aaargh” or “euhhhh”.

That surprised sound from any of your heirs is NOT what you should be going for.

Rule 5: Let your family grieve and celebrate your life, not shake their heads in disbelief.


If you know someone who should be thinking about these questions but may have been avoiding them, please feel free to forward this to them. You will both be glad you did.


Foreign language study concept background - stack of dictionaries isolated on white background

Having grown up in Montreal, a bilingual city, has been a wonderful boon to me. But the daily exposure I have had to both French and English has some benefits that many local friends take for granted.

Starting first grade, my Dad had decided to send me to French school, for my own good, but mostly because he wanted me to be well prepared to take the reins of the business that he was building.

In my 20’s, I took a vacation to Mexico and felt really ignorant because I did not understand the language, so when I got back, I headed to the YMCA for Spanish courses.

Facility with language learning is not something everyone has to the same degree, but having exposure early in life certainly helps one have the confidence needed to learn a new language when needed.

So what does this have to do with family legacy, you ask? Let the analogies begin.

Dealing with your family legacy requires getting used to some new language, or at least some new vocabulary and new ways of expressing yourself, to develop common understanding.

Just like learning a new language, you don’t just decide to learn Spanish one day and become fluent the next.

These days there are new methods like Rosetta Stone that take advantage of technology and a better understanding of how people learn languages best, but let’s just break it down into some simple levels.

For many, reading a new language is the easiest way to begin to understand, because you can take your time and look at each word. Hearing people speak the words and understanding them in real time is more difficult.

To speak and be understood is again another level, and writing something coherent in an unfamiliar language is not advisable until you are much further along.

My point is that there is a progression through different levels, a need to move up gradually to develop a vocabulary, a comfort level, and the confidence to speak and use the new language.

In a family trying to preserve its legacy, to transition from one generation to the next, many important questions arise, like:

  • Who does the work
  • Who undertakes the leadership
  • Who keeps things on track

When families fall apart, it is almost always because somehow things fell through the cracks or people did not get along and agree. Often, nobody really ever understood and bought into the plans in the first place.

For the members of the rising generation to buy in, there are some things that are almost indispensable to have in place, to one degree or another.

The siblings (or cousins) need to share at least some level of financial fluency. Like a language, nobody just decides to learn it and gets there really quickly. But if a group of people is expected to work together on a big project, it helps if they all have a basic level of understanding of the subject being discussed.

But if basic financial fluency was all that was required, that could be remedied easily enough, assuming a willingness to learn.

The harder part is learning how to work together. The family interaction part is where so many plans go off track. Once again, a phased leaning process can help.

Let’s look at what makes people progress faster when learning a new language:

  • A teacher who knows the language AND how to teach it
  • Lots of opportunities to practice
  • The ability to give and accept feedback
  • A helpful, “can do” attitude of those learning together
  • A safe environment so nobody is afraid to make a mistake

Preserving a family legacy for future generations is no easy task, but if the people you are counting on to make sure it happens all speak the same language, it sure helps. If they helped each other learn it together, even better.

People can learn to work together, but first they must all be aware of just why it is so important for them to do so. Some basic family harmony is required, and unfortunately, it doesn’t usually happen all by itself.





Quoting African proverbs has not been a habit of mine, but whenever I come across something that makes me sit up and think, you know I will soon be writing about it here.

I don’t know where or when this first came across my radar screen, but that’s not important. The key is that it’s worth thinking about and sharing, and as usual I will add my views on the family business angles that I think are worth keeping in mind.

Without further ado, here is the proverb:

If you want to go fast, go alone.

If you want to far, go together.

What jumps out at me is that before you “go”, you need to think about your priorities so that you plan your “trip” the right way.

Family businesses, almost by definition, are about “together” and “far”, not so much about “alone” and “fast”.

But here is where things get interesting. Many, if not most, successful businesses were started by one motivated, hard-working, driven person, whose determination was the key to creating a business that was then capable of bringing in others, often including many family members.

Over time, of course, that founder gets older, and plans need to be made to transition the business to the next generation.

Not only are the skills required to continue the business very different from the ones needed to create it, technology changes over those decades often mean that the business needs to redefine itself to continue being successful in the future.

Now if that founder is lucky enough to have just one child, AND that child has exactly the right attributes necessary to keep the business in a sweet spot for another generation, great. But how realistic is that?

More often, there is not one child, but several children, and even if they all have valuable skills to contribute to the success of the company, what are the chances that they will all be in agreement about what to do, who does what, and of course the biggie, who gets to decide?

So here we are. We may have decided WHAT we want, i.e., we want to go together. We also know why, because we have decided that we want to go far. Okay, on the surface, most people are still nodding in agreement. But this is where it gets tricky.

HOW do we do it?

The devil, as always, is in the details. And the details around the “how” have derailed many a well-meaning family’s plans. So, what do we do?

Let’s go back to Africa, where our proverb came from. If we were planning a long trek through the desert or jungle as a family, what are some of the things that we would need to do before leaving?

And just for fun and some added realism, the parents aren’t coming along on this trip, it’ll be just the siblings. We need to be sure that they can survive as a group without their parents, because, well you know the part about parents usually dying before their kids, right?

If those siblings came to me for advice before their trip, I would recommend they figure out a few things before setting out. Among the most important questions are these:

  • How are we going to make decisions together?
  • How are we going to communicate effectively?
  • How are we going to solve problems together?

Notice the word “together” appears in two of those, and is implied in the other.

Now Mom and Dad could sit them down and dictate the answers to those questions, and that may be helpful. Or it may not be.

Ideally the answers come from the sibling group. Do I mean that the oldest child will dictate them? Um, no, probably not much better than the answers coming from the parents, maybe worse.

These details should ideally be worked on together, as a group. What we are looking for is co-developing them, and building consensus along the way.

Can they do this by themselves? Maybe, but likely not.

How about bringing in a skilled outside facilitator?

Great idea!

If you do that, your odds go up astronomically.


This is a magical time of year, and this week was chock full of great experiences for me. I want to share my thoughts on one particular morning that had me in a new role, and how the things I learned might be useful for people in business families.

For the past 6 years now, I have been volunteering semi-regularly at a non-profit organisation in one of the poorer parts of Montreal.

So on Thursday, as I was helping prepare the food boxes for the arrival of about 150 people, I was pulled aside and asked if I was free to come in on Saturday morning. Someone had just called and said they couldn’t make it, and now they were scrambling to find just the right person to fill in.

As a caucasian man, I can honestly say that I don’t think that I have been a victim of racial profiling before, and maybe it had more to do with “body type” than race, but I was pretty sure that I had not been selected at random to come in to play the role of the guy in the red suit who lived at the North Pole.

Well I can belt out a deep “Ho Ho Ho” with the best of them, so this would be fun, right, and how hard could it be?

I came in around 8:30 on Saturday, and I was lead upstairs and given a box containing an eclectic mix of red pants, white beards, one boot, some red tops and hats, and a big black belt. It took some mixing and matching, a bit of creativity and scotch tape, but I managed to pull everything together.

But then a few families began arriving and some of the kids were looking at me, walking around in these red pants, gathering up my things, and I quickly realized that I needed to get “backstage”, lest I ruin the surprise.

So I retreated to a back room, got all dressed up, found a mirror so I could check myself out, and waited. And waited some more. There were some logistical details to work out and volunteers to get organised so that the giving of the gifts to the children would flow properly.

Normally, this kind of stuff is right up my alley, and I would have jumped right in and been one of the people figuring out how to process the hundreds of people who were scheduled to show up over the course of the next 6 hours. But I was dressed up as Mr. Claus, waiting backstage.

The visual of Santa getting it all organised and instructing people on what their roles should be just didn’t work, so I would just have to wait, watch, and hope for the best. When everything was finally ready, I made my entrance and sat on a nice little couch.

The families went up, one-by-one, and received age-appropriate and gender appropriate gifts, and then had the option of a photo op with Santa. The mix of reactions from the little ones was quite interesting, from the crying and screaming of some, to the warm tender hugs from others.

I asked the kids if they always listened to their parents, were nice to their siblings, and if they always did their homework, while avoiding asking them what they wanted for Christmas, since that was completely beyond my control, and I did not want any part of setting up unrealistic expectations.

Here is the family business take-away: Try out a new role, one that might be outside your comfort zone. Watch how others react to your new role, it is amazing what you can learn just by observing, not only about others, but about yourself.

If you are the one who is normally “in control”, try muting that for a change and see what happens, who steps up, how things go. I am not suggesting scrapping family traditions, but letting them evolve.

Family communication and leadership takes many forms, and we can all do a little bit better. Channel your inner Santa, and enjoy your family time over the holidays.