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Searching for the “Goldilocks Zone”

These weekly missives have been inspired by a variety of sparks over the years, and this one is sort of a “mish-mash” because it comes from a number of places.

I’ve long wanted to incorporate a great quote from a colleague into a blog, and I’ll finally do it in this post.

I love it when some social media interaction on one of my posts creates a new spark, and that’s also the case here.

And, when I speak with potential clients about situations that concern them, that also makes me want to share my ideas here too.

So let’s dive into the deep end and look at some liquidity issues for families (see what I did there?).


An Old LinkedIn Post Gets a “Yeah-But!”

My social media folks schedule regular posts from my accounts on LinkedIn and Twitter, which weave in both my new weekly posts along with plenty of “recycled” content from days gone by.

I continuously create regular content, which I enjoy, but if you only post and repost the same piece several times over and over each week, it may not be as well received as when you share more variety.

Recently, a post about liquidity from a few years ago sparked a comment that seemed to take an opposite view to one of the points I made. See Liquidity Events in a FamBiz – Pros & Cons.

They took issue with the fact that I suggested that it can make sense to not share too much liquidity right after a business is sold, for a variety of reasons.

The alternate viewpoint is also quite valid, of course, as there are cases where a family has plenty of wealth and yet most family members will wait years or even decades before they will see any direct benefit from it.


“It’s Great That We’re Wealthy, But…”

This made me recall that great quote from my friend and colleague Travis Harms, another guy who regularly creates great content for this field.

He shared with me the way one family member put it to him: 

                    “Yes, thanks, it’s great that we’re wealthy. 

                         But, can we also have some money?”

Bang! Drop the mic! What a great way to summarize the way so many rising generation family members feel.

Imagine living in a town where everyone knows that you are part of the family that owns an extra-large enterprise.

Everyone knows that you’re wealthy, and yet they look down on you because you appear “cheap” more often than not.

Little do they know, you may own a portion of a large asset base, but you’re still working your butt off each week just to pay the mortgage on your modest house.


An Apple a Day – And Then the Orchard!

That brings me to a family I recently heard about, where the parents were quite wealthy yet were successful in keeping secret the extent of their wealth from their sons.

One son was being modestly supported to a certain extent due to some personal difficulties, yet he would eventually stand to inherit way more than he could reasonably spend in his remaining lifetime.

As I thought about a metaphor for this, I landed on getting an apple a day from your parents, because they didn’t want to spoil you.

You ate that apple every day, kept the doctor away, and then after the parent’s funeral, you discovered that you now own an orchard!

All along, you knew they had a few apple trees in the backyard, and assumed that was the extent of it.


Lots of Planning, Lots of Sharing, Lots of Transparency

The “answers”, if there are any, to these situations are never simple.

However, when there is a lot of planning, a lot of sharing, and a lot of transparency around what the leading generation is hoping to accomplish with the decisions they make, things generally go better than when the opposite track is taken.

When there’s no planning, no sharing, and no transparency, it’s a recipe for disappointment, mistrust, confusion, and conflict.


Taking Advice Versus Co-Creation

Too often, such parents blindly rely on the advice of certain professionals whose viewpoint is conflicted by their desire to remain part of the picture in managing the wealth of the senior generation.

Once the offspring are mature enough to understand what will eventually be coming their way, I recommend they also become involved in co-creating their future as stewards of the family wealth.

My Favourite High School Subject Is Irrelevant Now

It’s amazing how fresh certain memories from over 40 years ago can seem when you allow yourself a trip down memory lane as you reflect back on your past.

The two main words that this week’s blog subject hang on, chemistry and geography, just happen to be two of the more memorable courses that I think about when I flash back to my days at St-Thomas High in the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Just a couple of weeks ago in Curiosity as the Antidote to Assumptions in Families I also harkened back to those days, but there I’d noted a favourite teacher, without referencing the subject he taught.

Back in those days, I was expecting to eventually succeed my father in the business he had founded, and so any idea that I might someday be advising other business families was far from my radar.


Looking Forward to Geography Class

There was something about geography class that I really gravitated towards, and I guess Mr. Dunning and his quirky style had a lot to do with it.

I really don’t recall anything specific that we learned, but the memories of my time in that class are mostly positive ones.

I suppose that having a person at the front of the room who has the right attitude helps a lot, and now that I am often the person who leads a group, I appreciate what goes into that.


Never Expecting to Need to Understand Chemistry

Chemistry class with Mr. Legros was less fun.. I recall only a couple of things about my time spent in those classes.

The first was that I could never imagine any scenario where the subject I was being forced to learn would ever serve me later in life in any way whatsoever.

Four decades later, I’ve still not figured it out.

The other thing I recall was that our teacher would be speaking to the class while writing something on the blackboard, that was completely different from what he was saying.


The Geography Angle – Inspired by Jay Hughes

Some of you are wondering where I’m going with this, so here’s where I’ll throw the venerable Jay Hughes under the bus.

A few years ago at the RendezVous of the Purposeful Planning Institute, it was Hughes who was the first person to name the issue of distance pre-empting people from spending quality time together as an problem of “geography”.

He’d begun to have regular Zoom calls with certain colleagues and was fascinated by how little drop off in quality there is compared to being face-to-face.

This was before the pandemic, so it was actually kind of new to many of us in attendance.

I’ve since commented that what you lose in effectiveness when meeting virtually is more than made up for in efficiency.

The geography “problem” in getting together to meet with people has almost completely disappeared.


We All “Get” the Part About Chemistry – In Theory

When it comes to working with the members of an enterprising family, however, there is no way to work around for the question of “chemistry”.

We all know what I’m talking about, and it’s easy enough to understand. “Let’s meet and see what the chemistry is like.”

While the chemistry we studied in school could be used to predict what will happen when you combined two things, combining people together and knowing in advance what’ll happen is another matter.

As someone who often works with all the members of the same family, it’s crucial that I have “good chemistry” with every single one of them, or else I really won’t be able to do what I need to do for them and with them.


Chemistry Can Be Tricky in Practice

In practice, this can get very tricky at times, and I always need to tread carefully.

I need everyone to believe that I am there for them and that I get them, and I need to have their respect and earn their trust.

At the same time, they’re typically trying to get me to take their side in matters, so I need to walk a fine line because the person on the “other side” is also doing that. See Choosing Sides in a Family Business

I need to be wary of any sparks that might set the laboratory ablaze!


My New Stock Answer 

When people ask me if I work with families who aren’t located near me, my new stock answer is:

 “Of course, chemistry is much more important than geography”.

 

So Many Questions, So Little Time

As much as I enjoy speaking with people who are part of a family business, some of the discussions I have with colleagues who also work with such families are even more stimulating.

These can involve general topics that affect many families, or, on occasion, a specific family situation that one of us happens to be dealing with concerning a particular client family.

Some of the most energizing dialogues meander all over the place, from general to specific and back again.

This blog stems from some notes I jotted down after one such meeting a while back, with two friendly colleagues who happen to work for a multi-family office, where the subject matter bounced all over the place, much to my delight.

Needless to say, together we raised way more questions than we answered, but all were related to how families can get their needs served as they prepare for the future.


Handling a Family’s Concerns

The questions also rotated around what a family could do, should do, and would do, depending on a number of different factors.

For example, what should a family be concerned about, as they begin to prepare for an upcoming generational transition?

What could they do about things, assuming that they even properly comprehended what challenges they were actually going to be facing together?

What would they be ready to undertake as first steps to move in the right direction together as they begin to understand the importance of doing this work as a family?


Finding Resources and Getting Help

What kind of work could they be doing together, assuming they knew that some help was available to them?

When it comes to what a family should be doing, as advisors that’s really tough to assess up front, until we’ve done the work and spent enough time getting to know them, so that we can have some ideas to suggest to them.

Assuming that we have some ideas, we also need to consider what the family would be able to handle right now, so that we can get some small early wins and develop momentum with them.


Preparing for the Family’s Future

An interesting way to learn more about a family can involve asking them what they would like the future to look like for their family.  You can expect different answers from different family members, so you also need to decide whether you’re asking them as a group or one-on-one.

After that you might want to ask them what they think they could be doing to achieve that kind of future.  A follow-up to that one might be to ask what they think they should start with.

It’s one thing to have these kinds of conversations with people who are part of a business family, but it’s even more important to make sure that they are also having such discussions amongst themselves, as a family.


Encouraging Families to Have Dialogues

As much as you might think that most families regularly talk about things together, you’d be surprised how often you find out that the really important subjects just don’t seem to come up very often.

Family enterprises result in some complex relationships between people where the family and the business overlap, and maybe because people spend lots of time together, they assume that they know how the others feel.  See: Curiosity as the Antidote to Assumptions in Families

As advisors we can and should encourage families to have dialogues about important subjects that involve their futures together, but that might not be sufficient.

Often what families really need is someone to guide such discussions so that they feel like a safe space for everyone to share, which is not always the case.


Moving Away from Should to Could and Would

Often families who are looking for advice will ask what should we do.

Even when we have some good ideas, it’s better not to jump in with an answer right away, as noted above, because we really need to get to know them first.

Helping them see what they could achieve and become together can go a long way.  But there’s usually lots of work involved in hitting their full potential, so it’s best to also share with them everything that would be involved in getting there.

What we want to avoid is having any of our family clients someday having regrets about what they woulda, coulda or shoulda done.

 

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.

Aren’t the Three Rules “Communicate, communicate, communicate”?

This week I want to touch on one of the sacred cows of the family business space, and that’s the constant harping on the fact that improving communication is THE number one step that families need to work on.

Regular readers know that I fully acknowledge that most family enterprises are quite complex, and therefore the way that they communicate with each other can almost always be improved for the benefit of all.

This remains true, and almost surely will for as long as families choose to work together or share the ownership of assets as a group.

So I’m not planning on throwing communication “under the bus”, but I do want to shine a light on the way some people treat the subject, and simultaneously ignore a much less popular aspect of what it takes for relationships to be at their best.


So What Is It That’s Underrated?

Before I get to the underrated element, I need to give a shout out and a tip of the hat to the man who put this on my radar a couple of months back.

I discovered the Vermont Center for Family Studies almost a decade ago, when I was trying to figure out why people who work with business families should go through the trouble of learning about Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST).

At the time, the head of VCFS, Erik Thompson, just happened to be launching a training program for people curious about BFST, so I jumped at the opportunity to dive into the Bowen pool.

I soon discovered that this pool doesn’t have a shallow end, which I suppose is a good thing, since I did dive in.

So perhaps you think that understanding family systems is underrated, vis-à-vis communication, and I guess you’d be partly correct, but that’s way deeper than where I’m going.


Making Relationships Work Better

Families who continue to work together from one generation to the next need to constantly work on their relationships, because those relationships are crucial to being able to continue to make decisions together for the benefit of the family group.

Good communication will of course contribute to such relationships, but there’s a lot more to it than simply more and clearer communication.

Thompson now holds regular free online events on Zoom where he shares ideas that come from his BFST training that he now uses with his leadership coaching clients.

It was during one of these recent calls that he said the magic words that inspired this post:

       “Communication is Overrated.  Self-Regulation is Underrated!”

Okay, so any regular reader will know that at this point I jotted those words down with a huge smile on my face, knowing that I had just landed myself a blog topic.


There Are Two Parties in Any Communication

Whenever there’s any communication, there are (at least) two parties, one who’s attempting to deliver the communication, and someone else, who’s the intended recipient.

On which end do you suppose the self-regulation comes into focus?

This is a bit of a trick question, I’ll admit.

Your first inclination might be to consider the receiver of the communication, and the importance of not overreacting to what was said (or written). And that makes plenty of sense.

But, and this is where Thompson was actually pointing, too often it is the people who are delivering the communication who could benefit from working on their self-regulation.


Communication as a Weapon

He then related a scenario that came from the “couple’s therapy” realm that some may be familiar with.

Two spouses are encouraged to work on the ways that they communicate. One dives in head first and begins reading up and studying and taking communication courses, so as to be better armed for the task.

However, lacking the requisite self-regulation, they now use this “one-up” position to lord this over their partner.

I’m communicating properly, you’re not!”

Can you see how the communication “silver bullet” clearly missed the mark?

Can you imagine a similar scenario with family members who work together?


It’s Never as Simple as It Appears

This is yet another example where “how you are” (i.e. being) is more important that “what you do” (i.e. doing).

Self-regulation is the “being” part, while communication is the “doing” part.

Yes, continue to work on how you “do” communicate.

And, also focus on how you regulate yourself when you’re doing it.

Some New Ways to Look at Conflict in Families

Anyone who’s ever been involved in a family enterprise knows that the potential for conflict is never far away. 

Those of us who work in an advisory capacity for such families have seen every sort of denial and attempt to pretend that “our family is different”, yet those are actually quite rare.

There isn’t necessarily anything new under the sun for me to share here, but I did come across a couple of new angles on this question recently, and I thought they were worth writing about, if only to spur more discussion on the topic.


A Recent FFI Session on Conflict

The Family Firm Institute hosted a recent half-day webinar on the subject of conflict, and since two friends and colleagues of mine were among those presenting, I thought I’d check it out.

They did a nice job of covering the territory and the feedback was great. My take-away tidbit, though, came from a comment from another experienced practitioner in one of the break-out rooms.

She’s someone who not only works with business families, but has also lived the family business experience, having followed her father into this work.

She recalled a quote of his, which was the initial inspiration for this post:

           “We don’t run from conflict. We dance with conflict”

“Ooooh, I like that”, I thought, as I jotted it down. “This will turn into a blog post”.  (Thanks KSM)

Something Good from Social Media

The second different angle that came my way followed in short order, when I wasn’t expecting it, from social media.

I love LinkedIn and have found many treasures there, initiated plenty of relationships there, and swear that there’s nothing else like it for business.

But my go-to “regular” social media is Twitter, which I use mostly for news, sports, and politics, because I’m a bit of a junkie for those subjects.

But every once in a while, I get a great nugget there too, and this was once such case.

I follow Dan Rockwell, a.k.a. LeadershipFreak, and he shared a tweet about conflict that included this magic line:

                         “Conflict Is a Leadership Opportunity”

If you go to stevelegler.com and use the “search” function and type in “conflict”, you’ll find blogs, videos, podcasts, etc. that discuss conflict in various ways.

But I’ve never, ever, heard it put this way, and it struck me.


One Plus One Equals Five

So now we have a couple of elements to work with, and you may already see where I’m going.

We’re talking about dancing and leadership, and when people dance together, ideally, in most cases, someone takes the lead, and it helps when their partner is a good follower.

This metaphor actually has some legs, and the feet at the end of them are wearing their dancing shoes!

And we haven’t even brought in the dance teacher yet, who, if they’re any good at their job, will always play the appropriate level and speed of music so the dancers can succeed.


Willing Partners as a Starting Point

In order for any family to deal with their conflict, they need to acknowledge that it exists, and then someone needs to have the courage to take the lead and put it on the table and insist that it’s high time that the family face it and manage it.

Notice I did not say “make it go away”, because that’s usually not a very realistic expectation and can be a bridge too far.

It’s rare for conflict to completely disappear, but acknowledging it can usually allow people to discuss it in ways that they can learn to make some changes in order to be able to manage it.


Or Maybe You Need the Teacher First

It’s great when the participants are ready to discuss the conflict and try to dance with it by themselves, but sometimes there’s an unwillingness to engage from someone, usually caused by a fear of making things worse.

In such cases, it can help if you find yourself a “dance instructor”, who can then convince the other party that you can learn how to dance with conflict together.

Or even if the parties aren’t all ready for the dance lessons, the motivated party might begin searching for someone who can hopefully lead them to some agreement down the road. 

There are opportunities for leadership whenever there’s conflict. Who will step up in your family?

It’s not often that I go out on a limb right off the top of these posts, but I suppose coming out against the importance of efficiency could certainly qualify as going against the tide when talking about business.

Of course I don’t typically deal in true business subjects, since my preferred domain is that of family business, where my emphasis is on the family aspects.

Getting things done quickly and efficiently seems like a laudable goal of course, with some notable exceptions.

The main exceptions I’d like to note here are those where you need to bring in the entire wisdom of a group of people, and where it’s important for everyone to feel heard.

Such situations abound in the family circle part of family enterprises, or, said better, enterprising families.


When Finishing Faster Isn’t the Key

I’ve dealt with certain examples of this before, notably in Going FAR? Go TOGETHER, which deals with a scenario involving a group of siblings in the rising generation of their family, preparing to eventually take on leadership roles, both in the business and in the family.

In recent months I’ve been involved in two group processes where I’ve truly embraced the idea of throwing efficiency and speed out the window, with positive results (so far).

The first example took place in a professional organisation I’ve been involved with as a volunteer for the past few years, as part of a committee charged with an important role in putting on our annual conference event.

The second example is ongoing, and has me playing a facilitation and mediation role with a sibling group who share ownership of some legacy assets together.

 

Professional Development “Live Case” Opportunity

In the first case, my role had recently changed from simply being a member of the committee to now leading it. I had the benefit of following in the footsteps of someone who had done a great job before me, but that also gave me big shoes to fill.

There are always challenges in putting on an annual event in the summer but having to make most of the planning decisions months ahead of time, and these are only magnified by the pandemic’s uncertainty as to what will even be possible regarding large groups six months out.

So we definitely had a number of considerations, lots of moving parts, and a general lack of clarity around much of the information we needed to base our decisions upon.

We also on-boarded three new volunteers to the committee, and the admin person from the organisation was also new, and had never been part of our annual event.

 

Learning About How to Be with the Group

There was plenty of pressure on us to come to some final decisions but I resisted the temptation to push for some closure on some items that I knew could and should wait.

It was way more important to make sure we took the time to consider all our options, evaluate a number of ideas, and take advantage of the wisdom of all the members of the committee.

As the head of the group, an important part of my role was to set the right tone and pace for our deliberations. 

Weighing many interdependent considerations and allowing everyone to share their inputs was more important than the somewhat arbitrary deadlines that could have distracted us.

 

Getting a Family to Take Their Time

The practice I got from working with that group set me up nicely for a new client situation where I’ve used some of those lessons to good effect.

This sibling group is getting used to some new realities and are learning to work under a more democratic decision-making framework than they were used to.

That kind of adjustment takes time, not only in terms of minutes and hours spent together, but in the days and weeks that are needed for new realities and understandings to sink in to each person’s thinking.

When you combine that with a severe “information asymmetry” between insiders who’ve always played key roles, and those who have spent their lives on the outside looking in, it’s key to set a pace that allows everyone not only to be a part of the process, but to feel like they’re part of the process, on relatively equal footing.

 

That methodology isn’t the most efficient, but wasn’t it the tortoise who won the race?

This week’s blog is one of the occasional instances where I leave an open spot on my blog calendar because of an event that I’m attending, and I allow something from my participation to inspire me in real-time.

The event in question this time is the Global Family Enterprise Case Competition at the University of Vermont (UVM). I just returned from my trip there, where I was pleased and proud to serve as the lead judge on one of the four judging panels on day 1 of the competition.  

This was my fifth time as a judge, and every year I come away impressed with the caliber of the students; not only the competitors, but also the dozens of UVM volunteers who run the event, under the watchful eye of Pramodita (Dita) Sharma, who remains the heart and soul of the event, as she has since she created it.

 

Friendly Competition, Global Participants

If there was an “A-Ha Moment” that arose for me this time, it certainly was not the global nature of the competition, and, by extension, the family business world.  I’ve commented before in some of my posts relating to my membership in the Family Firm Institute (FFI) that the FamBiz community is truly global in nature.

What really struck me on this visit was the friendly nature of the competition between teams.

The dinner after day 1 of the competition involves each team (3 student participants plus 1 coach) going to the front of the room and taking the microphone and introducing themselves in a fun and creative way.  Think of it as a gigantic icebreaker exercise.

It is very friendly in nature, and it is also competitive.

In fact, the entire event truly brings together both friendliness AND competition.

 

Neither One Alone Would Suffice

What I realized was that neither one of these traits (competitiveness and friendliness) would be enough in and of themselves.  Imagine if it was all friendliness and nobody really cared who won. Or, the reverse, if it turned into a dog-eat-dog fight to the finish.

But then I also started to think about the parallels this competition has with a real family business.  Bear with me here for a minute.

If you’re part of a family business and it’s all friendliness, all the time, that might be nice, but how long will it last, if you aren’t competitive enough? And I mean competitive as a business, but also internally with colleagues.

Likewise, if it’s all about competition and people aren’t even friendly with each other, what’s the point? Isn’t life too short for that?

 

The Pentland Case

The case that was used on day 1 was centered on Pentland, a UK business that was preparing the transition from the second generation of the Rubin family to the third.

It was written after Pentland had received an award for the being the best family business in Europe a few years ago, so it clearly wasn’t one of those typical business school cases where there are all kinds of obvious problems.

The setting for the case was a Friday evening family dinner where various family members had recently returned from visiting different branches of the family company, and they were about to embark on some key discussions about where the family was going to go from here.

 

Finding the Right Friendly / Competitive Balance

The key to this and many family business situations is finding the right balance between the friendly family dinner and the business meeting aspects of the important discussions that also need to happen.

Some families have difficulty with this balance, where every family dinner becomes a business meeting, much to the dismay of those around the table who aren’t involved and don’t wish to be part of any such meetings.

 

Coaches and Judges Mingle…. After Work

Personally, I also needed to work on balancing my serious role as a judge with some friendly after dinner discussions with some of the dedicated coaches.

I’m pleased to say that everyone got along very well and professionally, and my own network of family business contacts continues to expand..

I hope to return again as a judge next year.

 

And the Winners Are:

The winning schools at FECC 2020 were:

Undergraduate Division: Wilfrid Laurier University – Canada

Graduate Division: Universidad Francisco Marroquin – Panama

Congratulations to all those involved, participants and organizers.