Finding a Reason for Organized Family Discussions

Every week here I tackle a subject relating to families who either work together or own assets together. 

The main thrust typically involves the challenges these families face in organizing themselves in ways that increase the likelihood that they’ll be able to keep a great thing going right through the next generational transition of the family.

That often means I talk about the importance of having regular family meetings and beginning to institute some forms of family governance, which is often a tough swallow for some families.

For certain families, there’s kind of a nice “back door” to this that presents itself, and that’s family philanthropy.

A Subject That’s Long Overdue Here

I’m almost embarrassed that I’ve written so little about philanthropic activities in this space, because family enterprises are often quite generous, especially in their local communities.

When I got into this field, the ideas I had around philanthropy were quite simplistic, eg. Companies makes money, so they give some of it back, that seems logical.

It was only later, when I noted that some families had found it necessary to organize their activities on a more formal basis to actually implement everything required to properly execute their giving, that I realized the wonderful side effect this can have.

The Family Governance Angle

Regular readers recognize that we are now venturing into familiar territory, i.e. family governance.

I typically lament the fact that most families seem almost allergic to the idea of implementing any form of governance, and I fully understand their reluctance.

In my first book, SHIFT your Family Business, there’s even a chapter called “Governance, Ugh!”

So one day it finally clicked, philanthropy offers some families a wonderful onramp to this world, because family giving, done right, actually necessitates many of the steps required for other types of family enterprise governance.

Philanthropy Experts Abound

The professional circles in which I travel and connect also contain philanthropy experts on a regular basis, and it is amazing how much we have in common.

On the podcast that I often host for Family Enterprise Canada, Let’s Talk Family Enterprise, I once did an episode with a colleague, Dr. Sharilyn Hale, called How Philanthropy Can Support Both Family Governance and Legacy.

Yet it still never clicked that I needed to share this idea with my blog readers. Like I said, this is long overdue.

In the organisations I belong to, including the Family Firm Institute (FFI) and the Purposeful Planning Institute (PPI), I regularly interact with professionals who work with families to support their philanthropic activities.

I guess I’m starting to realize how much we have in common.

When There’s No Operating Business (Anymore?)

One way this situation suddenly appears is right after a liquidity event, when the family realizes that now that they no longer own and operate a business together, many things are different. 

See Huge Liquidity Events – Great News, Right?

Yes, they now have much more liquid wealth to handle and organize, but they’ve lost that common asset that they used to rally around and identify with, likely much more than they ever realized at the time.

How do you get a family excited about rallying around a pile of money?

Well, one answer, one that seems to be gaining in popularity, is very much centered around philanthropy.

It takes work and intention to do this well, especially if the family leaders have realized that doing this in a way that will last beyond their own lifetime, they will need to do this as a family, and not just by one or two people.

Building a Strong Foundation

Whether the specific vehicle(s) the family chooses to use include a family foundation or not, it will be important for every family to build a strong (figurative) foundation upon which they want to structure the family’s giving.

That important work includes defining the family’s values, which needs to be done pretty early on. Likewise, co-creating a vision and mission can also be important pillars that can help strengthen a coherent effort that all family members can get behind, and possibly also be involved in executing.

This will involve figuring out how they are going to communicate and make decisions together, as well as solve problems as they arise.

And as regular readers will recognize, I just laid out the key elements of family governance, right there in that last sentence.

Indeed, philanthropy offers many benefits for the family, not just for society!

A Road Well Travelled.

The idea of going to do your MBA in order to then come back and work in (and possibly lead) your family business has been around for a long time.

It has been repeated often with varying degrees of success over the past few decades, in many places, and probably in every industry, somewhere on the planet.

It can be the perfect next step to give an aspiring leader the extra tools, confidence, and respect from fellow employees that they’ll need to take that next step in moving up the ranks and eventually taking over.

And sometimes, well, not so much.

This week I want to look at 5 things that you should consider before taking that leap.


Learning and Growth, or Just the Letters, Please

Whenever anyone is making a big decision, like going back to school for an advanced degree in anything, I always encourage them to think the decision through, and especially make sure that they’re doing it for the right reason.

If all you really want are the letters “MBA” after your name, that probably won’t be enough to sustain you on your journey.

If, however, you are looking to learn and grow as a person and as a leader, then your chances of success, during your studies and long after, will rise markedly.

But please be honest with yourself during this reflection.


Is This the Missing Link?

Even if you do realize that you need some more learning and growth in order to increase your chances of success, is the MBA route truly what’s missing for you to advance to where you want to get?

In many cases the answer is still YES, but there are lots of other educational opportunities that may be more suitable to you, depending on what strengths and education you already have, what industry you are in, and what type of role you hope to grow into.


What Role Likely Awaits You?

And that brings us to the role you are looking to occupy. 

Since we are looking very long term here, you need to think about not only the next role you hope to grow into, but also any subsequent ones.

You may see roles that interest you now, and it may seem clear that they seem tailor-made for you (and you may be right).

But please, before making a big decision like going back to school, make sure that you have a number of discussions with other family members who are above you in the business hierarchy before you make any commitments.


Podunk State Vs. Harvard/Stanford/Wharton

Assuming you’ve thought through it all, discussed it with all important stakeholders, and are ready to take the leap. You need to figure out where to set your sights.

There’s a huge variability in the quality of the programs out there, their cost, their ease of qualifying, and time commitment and distance.

Assuming that you could qualify everywhere and cost is no object, it may well be worth reaching for the top schools for a better quality experience, as well as interacting with a higher level of other students.

That may not be realistic in most cases, so a detailed evaluation of schools and programs is worth the effort, which in this day and age is so much easier than it was decades ago, thanks to the web and Google.

There are even a number of schools that have specific offerings for those coming from family businesses, which didn’t exist when I was beginning this journey in the ‘80’s.


Build Your Network Too

I alluded to this above when noting the “higher level of other students” but no matter where you might end up, do not neglect the opportunity to create a network, not just of friends but of future colleagues on whom you can lean when you will need them.

Schools that emphasize family business education may be preferable for just that reason, as you are more likely to meet and get close to others whose career situation will better resemble yours, and with whom continued contact may be mutually beneficial.


Aren’t MBA’s “a Dime a Dozen”?

Doing my MBA was a rewarding experience for me, even though we sold our family business soon after my return.

These days, there are many MBA’s out there, and the experience can still offer a lot.

But think it through before committing.

Holding the Power of the Process

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to the center of the universe, which every fellow Canadian will recognize means Toronto.

During the 48 hours I spent there, I had occasion to catch up with some folks I’ve known for years, as well as meet some people with whom I’d only recently exchanged a couple of emails.

The return to the world of face-to-face conversations is refreshing, and five meetings over two days allowed me to speak with people about the work I do and how I approach it a number of times.

These conversations had me rehashing a story I’ve shared many times when speaking with people, but have yet to write about here.

That changes today.

Facilitation Is NOT About the Content

Let me share that story now to set up my point.

Years ago I was in the board room with a family for the first time, and about an hour into things the matriarch stood up and began using very colourful language to berate her nephews and sons.

As she began to put on her coat and gather her things as she stormed out, I suddenly felt that all the eyes were on me.

The specific words that this woman had used with me weeks earlier, about wanting me to “referee” their family meeting, were coming more into focus right then.

That was when I needed to summon all of my strength to just sit there and watch, silently.

It has become my real life, lived experience of “don’t just do something, sit there”.

Hat Tip for the Inspiration

That type of occasion, where not doing something is what’s best, is very rare when presiding over a meeting.

The idea to write a blog about this came from a LinkedIn post by a colleague a couple of months ago.

Dr. Stacey Feiner shared a story about a meeting she was in where things suddenly got heated and everyone stared at her.

She had the perfect one-liner that got everyone back to reality and eased the tension, allowing for productive work to continue.

Going back to my story above, that meeting also continued, minus one person, for many hours of useful discussion, and in which my referee’s whistle remained in my pocket.

Reading the Room and Holding the Space

Not everyone is suited for this type of role, because there’s a weird power dynamic that you need to deal with.

In some ways, it seems like the person presiding over the meeting has a lot of power, because they’re guiding all of the process.

However, assuming that they are there because a process person is needed, then they actually don’t have any power at all, and are really there to allow all the other people to be as powerful as they can be.

This entails lots of observation, reading the room, especially the emotional field, and really holding the space for productive discussions to take place.

Intergenerational Discussions Fraught with Emotions

Let’s also not forget that I’m talking about meetings that involve family members, often from more than one generation.

We’re talking about the crossroads of family and business, with a lot at stake, and some power dynamics that can make things tricky in a hurry.

There are always plenty of important subjects to discuss in any business, even more so in a family enterprise.

But having those discussions go well and be productive is not always easy.

While I didn’t necessarily like the idea of being seen as the “referee” of the meeting, sometimes that’s what’s necessary.

I did referee hockey for a few seasons decades ago, and also umpired baseball games for a number of years too.

Little did I know then that these activities would give me some much needed experience that I could call upon in my 50’s.

Learning How to Be Together

When family members also work together, they sometimes fall into communication patterns that don’t work very well, especially for members of the rising generation, who may have difficulty being seen as responsible and mature enough for their roles.

In cases like these, they almost have to learn a new and more appropriate way to “be together”, in a way that works for everyone.

And never forget the saying that you know a game was well refereed when it’s over and nobody even remembers the ref’s name!

A Country Song Sparks a Blog – Again!

Whenever I get an idea for a blog post that allows me to link back to things I’ve written about here in the past, it gives me an extra incentive to try to pull all the pieces together somehow.

Of course, a decade of writing weekly gives me lots to look back on, and sometimes posts I thought were recent turn out to be much older than I recalled.

So a few weeks ago, when I heard a country song on the radio that sparked this week’s missive, I was amazed to discover that it’s been over 6 years since I’ve been inspired that way.

Back in 2016, it was Humble and Kind, which I had heard while driving to a family business function in Atlantic Canada. When that song came on again during my drive back, that sealed it, since so many of the FamBiz folks I’d met were both humble and kind.

Inspirational Simplicity.

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a big fan of country music, but I have to admit that most of the lyrics are quite simple, and I find that inspirational for a number of reasons.

As someone who regularly tackles subjects that are quite complex, I am constantly trying to write about my ideas in ways that are easy to understand.

When you can already sing along to a song the very first time you hear it, you know that the writer has done something well.

When I wrote Blame it on Cinderella back in 2013, the lyrics of that country song had painted such a vivid picture in my head that I needed to write about the feelings it evoked.

Another Long Drive, Lots of Switching Radio Stations.

So here I was in July 2022, killing time between a conference in Denver and running a family meeting in Denver, with a handful of days in between.

I decided to rent a car and managed to cross another 4 states of my list to visit (48 now, only missing North Dakota and Alaska).

Over those few days, I tuned into lots of different radio stations, and I was not surprised that many of them played country music.

I lost count of how many times I heard Dierks Bentley ask the rhetorical “What Was I Thinking?”, from that 2003 tune.

I’m pretty sure that I’m one of the few listeners who immediately thought about Bowen Family Systems Theory every time I heard it.

Being Driven by One’s Feelings.

The song is about a fellow who ends up in some interesting situations, that make him ask himself the question, “What was I thinking?” each time.

The understanding is that he was clearly NOT thinking, because a thinking person presumably would never have allowed himself to get into all those situations.

In fact, in the line just before that question, he says “I know what I was feeling”.

Murray Bowen came up with his Family Systems Theory (BFST) starting in the late 1950’s and continued to work on it until his death in 1990.

When I began working with business families about a decade ago, I kept hearing about BFST and how it was a great tool to try to master if you are planning to work with families.

One of the most basic concepts in BFST is “Differentiation of Self”, where the idea is to become better at following your thinking rather than your feelings.

Family Situations Evoke Strong Feelings.

When looking for family leadership among members of any generation, you will often discover varying levels of differentiation, where some members are guided by thinking and others are more driven by feelings.

Dr. Bowen would encourage any family to put more faith in those who use their thinking brain more.

He also supports the idea of consciously trying to work on oneself to try to act less based on our feelings, and more on our thinking.

He talks a lot about the subject of anxiety, and the ability to function well even in anxious situations, where it’s clear that being able to remain calm and keep a clear head are hallmarks of the emotional maturity required to be successful.

Families with lots of drama can be extra tricky. 

Great family leadership is essential.

Interdependent Wealth.

If you’re interested in BFST and how I use it when working with families, please pick up a copy of Interdependent Wealth on Amazon.

Admittedly a Little Bit Counter-Intuitive

In last week’s blog I talked about the latest super-spreader event that I attended in 2022, and enough time has passed that I can safely confirm that I emerged unscathed once again.

I did leave the latest RendezVous of the Purposeful Planning Institute with lots of good stuff, of course, as has been the case each time I’ve attended since 2014.

There was a small nugget in the opening keynote presentation that made me jot down one single word, and I’ve been reflecting on its importance ever since.

That word was “direction”, and even though I can’t recall the exact context in which it was shared, it resonated with me, and so now I need to share some of my thoughts about that.


Fundamental Human Connection

The theme for this year’s conference was “The Fundamentals of Human Connection”, and our opening keynote was wonderfully delivered by Akasha Saunders, from Cultivating Leadership.

When he noted the importance of direction it hit me like a lightning bolt, as if it were the missing link to a number of disparate ideas in my head.

I write about families who face the challenges of transitioning their wealth or their business from one generation to the next, which is never simple or easy work.

When I’m engaged by a family as a resource to them to guide them on that journey, they often ask me lots of questions about the destination we are trying to get to.

I don’t like to get into “destination” type talk, preferring to focus on the “journey” instead.

The idea of focusing on “direction” appeals to me, probably because it’s even simpler than the journey, and is in fact a small subset of it.


But Doesn’t the Destination Give You the Direction?

I wrote about this 4 years ago in There IS No Destination which was inspired by a great quote I’d read: 

                                          There Is No Destination.

                                                It’s ALL Journey.

                                                    All. Of. It. 

That remains one of my favourite posts, and now I’m please to be able to revisit it and add the importance of direction.

Just because it’s a journey, that doesn’t mean it needs to be random.

You have a general idea of where you want to go, and that helps you and your family to point yourself in the right direction.


In a Hurry to Get to the End

I recently ran a first in-person family meeting with a family I’ve been working with remotely in 1-on-1 calls over the past 6 months, and as we wound up our successful time together, we ended with a look ahead at what could be the next logical step on our journey together.

Some of the family members seemed in more of a hurry than others, as the idea of tackling formal governance appealed to them.

I discouraged them from trying to “jump ahead” too quickly, and we decided together that working on defining the family’s shared values made more sense.

I explained my penchant for attaching the adjective “evolving” to the term “governance”, and they agreed that this sounded prudent.

See The Evolution of Family Governance, among other posts.


Shared Values Help Provide Direction

Uncovering a family’s shared values provides a great foundation, and that helps inform the logical direction that the family members need to take.

Getting everyone pointed in the same direction, and then starting to slowly move the proverbial train down the track is how I like to explain it.

Are you heading west, or south? 

You don’t have to know exactly where you are trying to go to begin to overcome the inertia that keeps too many families stuck in neutral.

Sticking with the train metaphor, there are lots of places where a train can deviate from straight ahead and take on a new direction.

The flexibility component of not simply looking rigidly ahead to a specific destination should not be understated.


Engagement and Alignment – Redux

In Family Engagement and Family Alignment – Chicken and Egg we looked at these two key elements and how interdependent they are.

We can now add direction, and perhaps even momentum, as key areas for families to focus upon, as they work to overcome the many challenges involved in successful intergenerational wealth transitions.

Most families have a good general idea of what it could/should look like, but that doesn’t mean that the exact destination is known or even achievable.

Simply making sure you have the direction right is something worth thinking about from time to time

Coming Down from a Rocky Mountain High

Over the years since I’ve been sharing my thoughts in this space on a weekly basis, there is one particular source of inspiration upon which I have drawn far more ideas than any other.

Regular readers can likely guess that I’m referring to the Purposeful Planning Institute, whose members long ago became my “tribe”.

I first attended PPI’s annual RendezVous in Denver in 2014, where it became evident for me that this community was unlike any other group of professionals I’d ever encountered. (I’ve yet to come across anything else even close to it since either.)

Having just completed our first in-person RendezVous since 2019, I’m coming down from my Rocky Mountain high and will share my experience.

Highest Membership Numbers Yet

I should explain my role with this group a bit further before I expound upon the “humble brag” that I’ve already set up here.

I’ve been serving on the Wisdom Expedition for RendezVous for 5 years now, including the past two years as its leader. 

Wisdom, along with its sister expedition, Experience, both sit below the Vision Expedition, which is responsible for each annual RendezVous gathering. 

The result is that the organisation benefits from a leadership group numbering a couple dozen committed believers, and that breadth has always been a hallmark of PPI’s success.

So when John A. Warnick, PPI’s founder and our fearless leader, shared that PPI’s membership is now over 450 people, there were many people in the room who beamed with pride, as this is the highest number since PPI’s initial RendezVous in 2011.

Pent Up Demand for Connection

Reconvening with one’s tribe is always great because although we’ve remained connected virtually in the interim, this is a group of “huggers” and many were long overdue.

And, at the same time, there were so many new faces this year too, and that bodes well for the future.

Our theme was well selected, “The Fundamentals of Human Connection” and I’m quite sure we won’t stray too far from that in the future either, as it is what sets the PPI community apart.

What we all have in common is a desire to better serve the families we work for, and doing so requires that we go deeper, and connect not just with our heads but also with our hearts and souls.

A Community and Its Members

Between sessions over the three days, there are lots of long breaks built in, during which relationships can be built and or rekindled.

By the final day, I kept returning to the same comments in my discussions: 

The whole of our community is greater than the sum of its parts, for sure, AND, so many of those parts are really fantastic to begin with.

As I often remark, the way we think about our professional community also happens to have many parallels to the work we all do with families.

Not all families realize how important it is for them to work on developing all of the human capital they have at their disposal in their family.

As we have the privilege to work with such families, part of what we often need to do is to nudge them in this direction, and encourage them to consider every family member and their individual development, and not simply be satisfied that the family remains wealthy or that their business continues to succeed.

A Few Highlights for Good Measure

Following RendezVous each year I typically blog about some of the highlights, but I didn’t leave myself much room this time.

From our opening keynote from Akasha to the closing salvo from David York, there were many other great moments in between.

The Dream Building session featuring Amanda, Cathy and Marlis was off the charts, the FRED Talks that I was honoured to introduce were all home runs, and the two Purposeful Connections speeches were wonderfully touching.

I was looking forward to finally meeting my friend Cindy Radu in person, but thanks to a late Covid diagnosis, she was forced to submit hers on video, and she blew everyone away nonetheless.

I always go to RendezVous to refill my proverbial “pitcher”, from which I pour for the other 51 weeks of the year.

As usual, the many firehoses that were present made it overflow and I left all wet, and very fulfilled.

See you again next year.

Figuring Out Who Belongs Where

Working with families who are in the early stages of trying to establish some governance, there are always many areas of uncertainty involved, and some doubts about just how to proceed.

Often families expect that the steps and answers will be simple and easy to follow, but that’s rarely the case in my experience.

And that’s actually a good thing, because every family is different, and you can’t just look at a similar family who are a decade ahead of you and assume you can copy them and save ten years of work.

Of course there are likely plenty of experts who will try to tell you that it’s doable and charge you a hefty price for the shortcut, and some of you will buy into the mirage, unfortunately.

Regular Family Meetings Come in Many Forms

One good place for me to begin sharing my views on this subject is to look at a couple of the most basic kinds of meetings and structures that many families use to form key parts of their family governance: the family assembly, and the family council.

Regular readers will recognize my penchant for wordplay, and the title of this post definitely went there, as I found a way to (cleverly?) combine both of those into my headline, and ended up with more than I bargained for.

While a “family assembly” is a popular term for what many families create, the “some assembly required” does double duty in underscoring how much work is typically required when a family goes down the road to creating their governance structures and procedures, which must evolve slowly over time to actually have a high probability of success over the long haul.

From a Large Group to a Small One?

But not every family evolves in the same direction, as I will now discuss.

Sometimes a family will begin by having a large gathering, where everyone who’s related is invited to spend some time together, often like a reunion, and where the festivities might last longer than one day.

If those are the characteristics, then I would put that under the heading of a family assembly.

This is usually the largest and most inclusive group of people invited to get together, and includes many possible stakeholders, including in-laws, and many who will never work in or own any part of the family enterprise.

At some point down the road, such a family may decide to convene an smaller, more select group of family members who can then make some decisions for the family.

From a Small Group to a Large One?

Other times a small group is the starting point, where a select few, carefully chosen family members come together and begin to make some important decisions that affect the family and how its members interact with the family’s enterprise(s).

They may begin to make some major strategic decisions that start to form the building blocks of the family’s governance.

This approach is one I would label a family council.

At some point, this group might decide that a much larger meeting would be useful to share information and educate a larger group of family stakeholders, and they might decide to hold such a gathering, which may then become something that also reoccurs on a regular basis.

Neither Is Necessarily Better or Worse 

Last week in Looking Forward Together as an Enterprising Family, I ended by noting that the most important idea is to get into the habit of having regularly scheduled family meetings.

I did not get into whether those meetings might be an annual family assembly or a quarterly family council meeting, because either one might make the most sense for any particular family at any point in time.

All of this, no matter which direction it goes, requires some leadership and intentionality.

Writing about this has just sparked my memory of a favourite quote of mine, which I have yet to share in a blog post, so here goes.

From Arthur Ashe

Arthur Ashe was an American tennis player who faced plenty of adversity. Here are his wise words:

                        “Start where you are. 

                         Use what you have. 

                         Do what you can.”

I love the simplicity of those words, and they apply quite nicely to any family beginning their family governance journey.

They can also come in handy in a variety of other life situations, so make sure they’re never far away whenever you need them!

Are We All Looking Forward to the Same Thing?

Recently while dealing with a family where some of the members kept wanting to rehash events from the past, it became nearly impossible for me to get them to concentrate on leaving old squabbles behind and instead try to focus on looking forward instead.

That got me thinking about how simple this can sound, yet still be hard to get people to buy into.

There are of course many reasons to look backwards on occasion, but if you drive your car while staring at the rear view mirror, you will run into trouble (or something else) relatively quickly.

So this week, I want to share some of my thoughts about the whole idea of looking forward as a family.


Setting the Past Aside – At Least for Now

I’m not suggesting that families never think about or talk about the past.

There are plenty of times and occasions and reasons to do that, but if you spend too much time there, when you really should instead be trying to work productively towards some common desired future, those looks backward too often end up usurping all of the positive energy you’ll need to make progress.

There are times when you need to agree to set the past aside, at least for now.

I wrote about this many years ago in There is No “Rewind” Button.


“As a Family” Changes Over Time

As we turn our focus to looking forward “as a family” I guess the first musing I have is that the idea of looking forward as a group of people can get a bit tricky, because each member of the group has their own pair of eyes with which they do their own looking.

So the group, the family in this case, needs to do some work to try to establish a common future towards which they are all looking.

This is important work that I think many families should undertake because the results will usually be useful in making sure that everyone understands where they are trying to go together, so all of their efforts can be aimed in the same direction.

Okay, so let’s say the family does that today and they all agree, are they then set for life? I assume you recognize a rhetorical question when I ask it.

Of course that common vision of where the family is looking to go needs to be revisited often, as each person’s view will also differ a bit over time as the family advances.


By Generation, By Individual

One way to try to tease out the variety of viewpoints is to look separately at members of the same generation, who at least are progressing through their life stages on a similar timeframe.

When the rising generation in a family enterprise is in their 30’s and 40’s, most of them will have at least some common views that will differ from their parents’, who are likely in their 50’s and 60’s.

However, fast forward a couple of decades, and those rising gen members will now likely view certain things in a way similar to how their parents saw things not that long ago.

And of course, each of the individuals in each generation will have their own unique things that they are looking forward to as well.


Re-Calibrating the Vision – It’s a Process

As any family sets out towards a future together, the simple passage of time, along with daily, weekly, and monthly events and happenings all combine to change where they are now.

Hopefully they will be closer to where they were planning to go, but things don’t always move forward as planned, nor do they always move in a straight line.

Figuring out if you are all still looking forward to the same thing requires frequent re-calibrating of that vision.


Looking Forward Together Regularly – Family Forums

Some regular readers may already see where I’m headed, and that’s to make sure that you don’t just have occasional, ad-hoc meetings as a family.

You need to develop a habit of having regularly scheduled meetings as a family, as noted in Live from the Forum – Successful Transitions.

Families who get together regularly (often quarterly or annually) can easily take stock of where they are, how they got there, and where they’re trying to go next.

Refocusing together also re-energizes everyone.

There’s always something to look forward to, and figuring it out together, over and over again, will help you all get there.