What Could Go Wrong?

Metaphors have always been one of my favourite ways to explain things, but sometimes, admittedly, I can twist things a bit too far.

I hope this won’t be one of those occasions; apologies in advance if it is.

So be forewarned that this is not actually a story about a young blonde girl who advises a family business (or a family of bears).


Insiders, Outsiders, Goldilocks?

The genesis of this post is actually an introduction I heard on TV about an upcoming guest on a show I happened to be watching.

It was an American show, and the guest was an Irishman who spends half his time in the USA, and half his time in Ireland.

The host proclaimed that this gives the man, 

   “The knowledge of an insider, and the perspective of an outsider”

Bang, there it was. I actually paused the TV, rewound, and made sure I had the quote right.


Finding the Right Balance

I instantly thought about situations where a family business, or more specifically, a business family, calls in someone from outside the family to work with them.

Of course that’s because this is exactly the kind of work I love to do, when I’m not writing about fairy tales.

Many families are loath to bring in anyone from the outside, preferring to keep everything in-house, within the family, for fear that outsiders cannot be trusted, or believing that nobody else could ever understand “our family”.

They’re wrong on both counts, and we’ll get to the reasons why, but for now, let’s look at this “insider / outsider” dynamic.

Perspective of an Outsider

We’ll start with the perspective piece, because this is truly the biggest reason to enlist the services of an outside family business consultant.

Any person who is not a part of the family is also not part of the “family system” as those who use a systems theory lens would say.

The family system is called that because of the interdependent nature of the relationships that the different members have on one another, thanks their many common goals, and to the way that they interact on a long-term, repetitive basis.

An outsider, especially one trained in this kind of work, can instantly offer that family system the benefit of their outsider’s perspective, precisely because of what they are able to see, thanks to the fact that they are not part of the system.

When I peer into my aquarium, I see that the fish are all swimming in the tank.  I’m pretty sure that the fish don’t see things the same way.


Knowledge of an Insider

Naturally the person who isn’t a part of the family won’t have the knowledge of an insider who’s been a part of the family their whole life.

But that doesn’t mean that, with time, they can’t come to know the individual members of the family, and how they work together, pretty well, all the while maintaining their outsider’s perspective, which is so valuable.

In fact, a good outsider knows the limits of how far inside they want to go, knowing that if they ever lose their outsider’s perspective, they suddenly become a less valuable resource to the family.

Special Case: In-Laws!

We’ll get back to this Insider / Outsider stuff next week in Part II, but we need to acknowledge a special category of people who happen to exist somewhere in most business families, and who somehow live long periods of their lives in this “twilight zone”, in between insiders and outsiders.

Often the in-laws try desperately to be included among the insiders of the family, with varying degrees of success.  Somehow many of them are never truly accepted as insiders, and sometimes for good reason.

It also occurs that the efforts made to become insiders can negate any outsider advantages they might have had to begin with!

In-laws each have their own reality to face, and some learn to live with the cards they’ve been dealt better than others. 


Looking Ahead

Next week, in Part II, we’ll look at what percentage of business families actually hire outside consultants, as well as things that outside advisors need to be aware of, as they are welcomed into the sacred world of a business family’s inside workings.

As Goldilocks taught us, not all situations are “just right”.

Every now and then, I hear an expression that hits me between the eyes, and I know I’ve got to think more about it, and eventually write about it here. Such was the case recently during one of the weekly Purposeful Planning Institute (PPI) webinars I like to attend.

And once again, the quote that became a take-away had little to do with the main subject at hand.

I decided to make the quote the title of this blog post. It comes from Dwight Eisenhower, whose term as US President ended before I was born, but based solely on that quote, I like Ike!


So Many Contrasts, So Little Time

When I think about the differences between the plans we make and the process of making those plans, especially when considering my favourite subjects (business families), so many possibilities come up.

I’ll probably have to cut this short before I cover them all, so let’s get right into it.

Regular readers may notice that this post will have me repeating things that I’ve said many times before in this space, and that’s usually a good thing.

Someone recently complimented me on the fact that things I told him verbally and facts in my book were consistent.  I’m still shaking my head as to why he seemed to think that was special.


The “Journey” Versus the “Destination”

One way to think about the planning process being more important than the end result is the old “the journey is more important than the destination” idea.

As I wrote in There Is No Destination last year, when you get right down to it, we only live in the present, so it literally is all journey.

In fact, too many people have it wrong and focus so much on completing the plan, thinking that having a completed plan will actually provide some magic power.

The value in taking the time to work with others to make plans, and the shared experience that creates, should not be underestimated.


Process versus Content

This segues nicely into the next way I want to look at the planning versus plans question.  The whole idea fits so perfectly with the “process versus content” contrast.

The “plan” is the finished product, the content, or the “deliverable”. 

It makes me think of what a consultant would produce, and that then conjures up the image of a report that then sits on a shelf, gathering dust, i.e. useless.

Compare that with what a process consultant, like a facilitator or coach would be involved in.  It’s the entire process of working with a group of people, who together co-create that plan.

More often than not, the activity of working together as a team becomes a more important result than the plan itself.


Outdated Before It’s Even Finished

Yet another way to think about the reason plans themselves are overrated is that they are often outdated before the final version is even completed.

When the focus is on completing a beautiful plan, there comes a time when the planning itself needs to end, so that the final report can be crafted.

But once the planning stops so that the report can be written, life goes on, and the final version of the report may already be out of date.

Maybe it would have been better to just continue the planning, to stay on top of the changes going on?


Active versus Passive

Next, the activity of planning is by its nature, “active”.  It’s something that people “do”. A plan is something stagnant and inanimate, it’s something that’s been “done”, and it’s now passive.

I like the way that “activity” meshes so well with “journey” and “process”, and the whole “co-creation experience”.



The unspoken element that I’ve had in mind now needs to be spoken.  A plan may well have been written by one person, perhaps a family leader or a hired consultant.

My bias, as I think I made clear in Family Governance: From Filaments to LED’s is that very little good can come out of one person’s ideas and work, if the work is supposed to be for the benefit of a group of people.

The people for whom the planning is being done, MUST be involved in it if it’s expected to work

So please keep on planning as a team, and forget about the final plan.

A typical blog post for me begins with some context about its genesis, and this one will be no different.

A few weeks back in NYC at the IFG Conference, it was at the lunch session, where we had signed up for table discussions with like-minded attendees.

I had pre-selected the table for “Family Enterprise Advising & Role of Consultants”.  I was one of the first to arrive at the table with my lunch, so I sat down at a nearly empty table that was about to fill up.


Interesting Neighbours

Within minutes, who should sit to my left but Dennis Jaffe, who had been assigned the role of discussion facilitator?

If you’re at all interested in the subjects that I write about and you don’t know Dennis Jaffe, he’s one of our true thought leaders, he’s worked with families around the world, and his writings are required reading.

A woman then sat to my right but realized that she was in the wrong place, and as soon as she got up to relocate, another woman I had not yet met took her place.


And Another Thought Leader

Someone welcomed her, saying “Hi Covie” and I quickly realized that I was now sitting next to Coventry Edwards-Pitt, whose books I have also read.

In fact, a few months back, she had sent me a signed and dedicated copy of her latest book, AGED Healthy Wealthy and Wise, for a client of mine, even though we had never met (it’s great to have friends in this business to hook you up!)

Many business cards were exchanged around the table and a lively discussion soon began.

Although we had all selected the same affinity table, it quickly became clear that we all worked with families in different ways.


Coaching Versus Facilitation

Someone noted that sometimes we need to tell clients things they don’t want to hear, and that on occasion, that can get you fired by the client.

Another person at our table who was an executive coach had some difficulty relating to this, and I think that had a lot to do with the fact that he works with individual clients, and he takes plenty of time to assess the coach-client fit before each engagement.

Facilitators, on the other hand, need to “please” everyone, because there are lots of people who might want to fire them.


Graduating Clients?

While we did not get into this that day, I’ve had interesting discussions with other colleagues around whether or not we “graduate” clients, i.e. work with them until they no longer need us, and can work out their family governance without us.

There are different views on this, but getting families to become self-sufficient is certainly a laudable goal for many of us.


Practitioners Spectrum

We all recognize that every family is different, and that they also change over time.  The same can be said of their advisors.

At last fall’s FFI Conference in London, I was part of a group of four colleagues who held a breakout session on what we dubbed the “Practitioners Spectrum” that looked at this in some detail.

We broke attendees into 6 groups, depending on how they normally saw their work with family clients.

We ran the gamut from Counselling and Mediation to Consulting and Facilitation, and then to Mentoring and Coaching.


Getting the Timing Right

And because families are always changing, timing is a constant issue.  Add in the fact that the work we do with families is best done when it is not urgent (not to be confused with unimportant!) people who work with enterprising families are often frustrated by delays that are out of our control.

We regularly need to compete for time with people who are very busy working in their businesses, putting out proverbial fires.



In the end, the match between a family business and their advisors can often come down to serendipity, which has long been one of my favourite concepts.

I’m reminded of a blog I wrote a few months back, Genetics, Luck, and Karma: Secrets to FamBiz Success because sometimes you just don’t know why certain things click.

But if you play your cards right, and recognize that what goes around, comes around, you will do alright.

Reminds me of another favourite saying:


“The harder I work, the luckier I get.”