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Overdue 4-D Connections at FEC Symposium

So Refreshing after Years of 2-D

Far be it for me to declare an end to the Covid pandemic, but it sure feels like we’ve entered back into the land of face-to-face connections with colleagues and clients, both new and old.

I’ve just spent a few great days in Vancouver at the Family Enterprise Canada (FEC) Symposium, and I’m more energized than I’ve been in a long time.

The reasons for my positivity are varied, but mostly stem from so much pent up demand within me and others to actually spend time with other like-minded people, in each others’ physical company.

I can’t tell you how many times I shared face-to-face conversations with familiar people who I had only ever seen on Zoom, in two dimensions (2-D).

I even got so tired of my own joke about this, “So nice to see you in 3-D” that I decided I needed to go a dimension further, but you’ll need to stick around to the end for that punchline.

 

Let Me Count the Ways

FEC brings together two major constituencies, members of enterprising families, and advisors to such families who’ve completed FEC’s family enterprise advisor (FEA) designation. There are now over 400 FEA designates, and our numbers at this sold-out Symposium were well into triple digits.

I got reacquainted with several colleagues whose hands I’d already shaken in years past, and also to finally size up some people I’ve known for a while but whose height I’d been unable to assess thus far.

Not that that’s crucial, but more than one person told me that I’m taller than they expected from our online encounters, where Zoom is the great height equalizer.

I even had a chance to meet a former client in attendance, who brought me up to speed on their family’s progress since I last saw them a few years back.

I also slipped out of the hotel briefly to meet with a current BC-based coaching client who happened to be in Vancouver at the same time.

Thanks to CC who alerted me to his presence and for inviting me to their work meeting; it was so cool to see a group of advisors in the same room together working to develop solutions for a complex family situation.

 

Fun Being Back Up Onstage

By far the key element of my time there that created the most lasting memories was the fact that I had been recruited to co-MC the event over the two main days.

Getting mic’ed up and going up onto the stage to introduce all the wonderful session facilitators was an honour and a pleasure.

Getting to know my co-host, Keita Demming, and developing the rapport required to pull that off relatively seamlessly is a testament to his flexibility in dealing with my “Costello” to his “Abbott”.

The kind feedback I received from so many people, friends and strangers alike, will keep me pumped for months to come.

Something about being in a room full of family business types makes me feel like I’m in my element and that I’ve found “my people”.

 

True and Authentic Sharing of Experiences

The format of Symposium included a few breakout sessions where the family members and advisors went to separate sessions, but the majority of the time was spent together in plenary sessions.

There was lots of magic in those, because of they way they’d been ingeniously set up, which was quite well received.

The main room sessions were mostly panels moderated by seasoned family business advisors, where the panelists came from family enterprises.

The result was so much valuable sharing of true, lived family business experiences, which benefits both family attendees and the many FEA’s in the room.

 

So, What About that “4th” Dimension?

Alright, so what did I mean earlier when I teased about the fourth dimension? Well, so many of the people I’ve met working in this field during the past decade are more than just colleagues, they have become true friends.

And like many friends, when I see them for the first time in a while, hugs are exchanged.

It’s tough to replicate a hug in an online meeting.

Thanks to Covid, we now need to make sure a hug is welcome, and most were.

I’m looking forward to more 4-D encounters later this year, at the PPI Rendez-Vous in Denver in July, and FFI in Boston in October.

We All Know What Happens When We Assume

For me it was Mr. McGee, a High School teacher, who first shared the dangers of making assumptions. I cannot recall the context of this lesson from circa 1980, but I distinctly remember him writing the word “ASSUME” on the chalkboard.

He then said, “You know what happens when you assume?”

The class waited for the punchline. He then drew two short vertical lines, before and after the “U”, leaving three distinct words:

A  S  S   U  ]   M  E

“You make an ASS out of U and ME

That was over 40 years ago and it’s still with me, so let’s just say the message stuck.


And We Are ALL Guilty of It

I’m pretty sure most readers will have heard some version of this tale somewhere along the way, and if not, feel free to borrow the one from Mr. McGee.

And, not surprisingly, all of us are also certainly guilty of making assumptions, because, well, you can’t not make them sometimes!

But what if there were an antidote that we could dream up that could help us minimize those occasions where we risk making an ass out of each other, especially with important people in our lives, like our family members?

Well I’ve got good news, there is one. And we all have some of it in us, and we can improve with practice.

My title has already given it away, but for those of you who already got lost in my prose (and I don’t want to assume that you recall the title of this blog) it’s curiosity.


A Coaching Webinar as Source

The idea for this post came a while back when I was watching a webinar about coaching, and presenter said, “The greatest resistance to curiosity is assumptions”.

I jotted that down because I felt like there was some juice to be squeezed from it.

But as I thought about it from many family business contexts with which I am familiar, I decided to turn it around and focus on the assumptions that too many people make about family members.

Rather than looking at “resistance to curiosity”, I want to concentrate on using curiosity to overcome the many problems that come from not having enough curious conversations.


It Comes Down to Attitude

My guess is that senior generation family members are typically guilty of this a bit more often, but I’m sure it happens in every generation.

It typically stems from an attitude of believing you know things you just never bothered to verify.

“Of course the kids will want to work in the family business” comes to mind for me, personally.  In my case it also came along with a healthy dose of not leaving me any choice.

My Dad knew what was best for me, or so he surely believed. Of course his plans for me also happened to be what he thought was best for him.

He could have been much more curious about what I wanted, but he never allowed himself to go there, just in case he’d learn something he didn’t really want to know.


Someone from Outside the Family as a Spark

So how might one go about sparking the kind of curiosity that I’m talking about here?

When the group of people is always exactly the same, it’s easy to get into a rut, and there isn’t much room for curiosity.

But what happens when an outsider shows up with the group, and that person is curious and begins to ask questions to satisfy their curiosity?

This could be just the right way for some new subjects and ideas to land on the table for consideration.

There are many things I should have pushed back on with my Dad, but I did not, for all kinds of reasons, many of which are more clear to me now than they were decades ago.

Could a well-placed and well-meaning outsider have helped spark certain discussions that could have been started, so that I could shine a spotlight on some of the many assumptions he had made about me?


Recognizing That Something’s Amiss

Sometimes you know that something is amiss and if you take the time to ask what you’re assuming, you’ll likely be onto something.

If you can then get curious and actually ask questions so that you can learn, you’ll be going in the right direction.

“Nose In, Fingers Out” for Family Business

Today’s topic is one that I’ve been thinking about for a while, ever since I first saw it mentioned back in 2017.

If you Google “nose in, fingers out”, you’ll see that it has been used by a number of people, attesting to its usefulness in creating a mental image that most people can quickly grasp.

I need to give a hat tip to Larry Putterman for putting it on my radar screen first.

 

 

It’s All About Boundaries

A topic that arises often in business families is that of “boundaries”, and there are many reasons for that, and anyone who has ever worked with, or in, a family business knows what I’m talking about.

But while the “nose in, fingers out” idea is about boundaries, it is also a subtle way to discuss how boundary lines are not all necessarily a solid concrete wall, but perhaps just some steel slats.

Boundaries are important, but we need to think about, and talk about, what the boundaries are supposed to accomplish, if we are going to establish the optimal boundaries for our situation.

 

Boundaries

From CEO to Chairman

The area that Putterman specializes in is Boards of Directors, and in the family business context what he is most often referring to relates to a person who has decided to scale back their involvement as part of a transition.

The former leader of the operations of the business, likely the CEO, has decided to pass on the reins of the operations, but to stay involved in a lesser capacity, and not disappear altogether, at least not yet.

There are different ways to take these kinds of steps gradually, of course.  My father brought in a non-family President and stepped into the Chairman role, but kept the CEO title for himself for a while.

Quite often the biggest step is the one where the CEO mantle is relinquished, and only the Chairmanship is retained.

 

 

How Much Is Out, How Much Is In?

In a family business, an outgoing leader will (hopefully) get to the point where, for many reasons, it makes more sense to scale back their involvement, moving from day-to-day operations to more of an oversight role.

These kinds of transitions happen all the time.

But sometimes they work out well, and other times, well, they just create problems.

This is where the “nose in, fingers out” idea comes in.

 

 

What Is Permissable?

The devil, as they say, is always in the details.

The nose and the eyes go together, so you are allowed to look around and sniff around as much as you like.

As you would expect in an oversight role, continuing to observe whatever is going on in the company is allowed and even required.

Below the nose is the mouth, of course, and this is usually the first place that problems begin to arise.

 

 

The Mouth Can Be a Finger (?)

If the nose and eyes go together, does that mean the mouth does too?

Probably not.

Once you step back from the day-to-day to oversight, what you say to people, at least those who are involved in the daily operations, needs to be weighed very carefully.

Problems and confusion arise quite quickly when the old boss walks around and tells “his people” what to do.

In fact, it is at this point where the mouth has become tantamount to a finger.

 

 

Encouragement Yes, Direction No

When the ex-leader talks to the employees, care must be taken to limit their words to encouragement and not direction.

When they are in a board setting or discussing things with others involved in oversight only, then the mouth is once again an agent of the eyes.

 

Road directions in a desert

 

What About Other Family Members?

 

There is another area where the nose in, fingers out situation comes up in family business that I’d also like to touch on here.

It’s the one where family members who do not work in the business interact with others, often siblings, who do.

There are boundary issues here as well, as those who don’t work there have an information disadvantage that they usually need to overcome.

Sometimes their questions seem a little too much like fingers in, rather than just noses.

For those being questioned, the best defence for this is to try to be as transparent as possible, and to get out in front of any questions.

If you satisfy their noses, they will be less tempted to poke their fingers in.