Someone Who Knows “How to Be” with a Family
This blog has been a long time coming.
When speaking with people about my back story, I often bring up my grandmother’s career suggestion to me, but I’m pretty sure I’ve only written about it here once, and that was almost five years ago.
See: Limits to your Sphere of Influence
Over the years, I’ve come across other connections between my work with families and that of the clergy, and most of them have been left in the recesses of my mind.
But a recent Zoom call with a new LinkedIn connection brought this to the forefront once again, so here goes.
“A Priest and a Rabbi Walk into a Family Meeting”
It wasn’t easy to find the proper title for this post, and the sub-head above that sounds like the set-up to a joke was near the top, but was a bit too long.
Let’s begin with my maternal grandmother, who lived with our family for much of my childhood, and what she saw in me.
Note that my career had been laid out for me from a young age by my father, who had started a business before I was born, and was waiting for a male heir, which he finally got on the third and final try.
Oma, for her part, told me a few times that she thought I should become a priest.
My response was to laugh this off as preposterous. Little did I know what lay ahead for me.
Using Trained, Neutral Outsiders for Support
As I began to work with families, concentrating on the “family circle” and facilitating discussions among various family members, I was constantly searching for ways to learn how to do this work better.
I recall seeing a video on the website of the then Business Families Foundation, featuring none other than John A. Davis, of Three-Circle Model fame, in which he shared the following:
“This is the work that used to be done by priests and rabbis”
I began to wonder if my grandmother had me pegged better than my Dad did!
The idea of having someone from outside the family, who could be neutral and who was trained in “how to be” even more than “what to do”, made lots of sense to me.
Learning Bowen Family Systems Theory
Long time readers know that I’ve been a student of Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory (BFST) for years, and I even wrote a book about that learning journey.
It was during the two years that I was part of the Postgraduate program at the Bowen Center at Georgetown that this clergy angle really hit me.
Those who study BFST come from a few different fields, notably social workers and therapists of various kinds.
The people like me, who mostly work with families around wealth transitions, made up well under 10 % of the students during my time there.
One of the larger subgroups comprised the many ministers, rabbis, chaplains and pastors of all sorts.
Perhaps my late grandmother had seen something in me after all…
The Power of LinkedIn (When Used Right)
I’ve sung the praises of LinkedIn for years, and while not perfect, it stands head and shoulders above every other social media platform for professional interactions and relationship building.
A young man who just entered this field reached out to connect with me recently, and I instantly accepted his request.
He’s a CPA, and just joined an accounting firm to work with their potential family office clients. This is unremarkable so far, but please hang on.
He shared a note with me mentioning that he used to be a church pastor, before becoming an accountant.
Hmmmm, I thought, isn’t that interesting.
Being “In the Room” During Anxious Times
We set up a Zoom call to satisfy my curiosity about his unusual career trajectory, and some of what he shared with me drives home an important point.
First off, kudos to the accounting firm for recognizing that this man has some useful traits and experience that will certainly come in handy.
My new friend related stories from earlier in his career, when he was a hospital chaplain, which clearly illustrates a point I’ve since shared with many people in discussion.
He talked about being called into a hospital room with a dying man surrounded by his family.
How to BE > What to DO
If you can be comfortable (and comforting!) in situations like that, I think you’ll do just fine running a family meeting.
Learning from Others from Around the World
Some people are lifelong learners and never stop searching for ways to improve what they do, and I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be one of these people.
I certainly consider myself to be among them.
I’ve just returned from one of the events I love to be a part of whenever possible, mostly because it’s a gathering of like-minded people who live and work in the family enterprise space as I do.
I’m talking about the Tenth Annual Schlesinger Global Family Enterprise Case Competition (SG-FECC) at the University of Vermont.
I’ll Be the Judge of That
I can’t believe that I first participated as a judge way back in 2014, but I wrote a blog about it, so I’ve got proof! See The World’s Only Family Business Case Competition
It’s an honour and a privilege to be invited back again and again, and the bonus for me is that it’s only an hour and a half away by car.
Contrast that with some of the other judges I spent time with over the past few days, who flew in from France, Gautemala, Arizona and Louisiana.
The 19 teams competing this year represented 12 different countries on 4 continents, which always impresses me.
Recall that this takes place in January, in Burlington Vermont.
Academics, Professionals, & FamBiz People
One of the coolest aspects of the event is that the judging panels are always composed of a mix of academics, practitioners like me, and real life people who are part of family businesses.
I love spending time with people who are part of this world but who play very different roles than I do, and that’s what makes this event so enriching for me.
After each team presents their recommendations based on the case facts, a Q & A period follows, which can often become a “make or break” moment for the team of students.
Thanks to the varied composition of the judging panels, the types of questions we fired at the teams were always focused on different aspects of each presentation.
Pent-Up Demand for Being Together in Person Again
As I noted in From Multi-Disciplinary Field to Interdisciplinary Ecosystem, there was also a warm buzz at the event thanks to the fact that we were all together once again.
This event, like many others, continued on despite Covid and the restrictions from being together over the past few years.
While everyone did their best to make those events as good as they could be while being done remotely, there really is no substitute for occupying the same room together.
At the same time, though, the past few years have shown us all just how much can still be accomplished via virtual get-togethers.
Family Businesses Are Common Around the World
With students, coaches and judges from around the world, we were reminded just how prevalent family businesses are, all around the world.
In fact, in some countries that we might label as emerging markets, they’re even more common than in North America.
Different countries means the cultures for FamBiz might have a different feel and flavour, but I love the fact that we can always learn from someone else’s situation.
A Worldwide Family Enterprise Community
The cases used on the days I judged featured family businesses that had already transitioned a couple of generations, and such examples can usually be used as a model for us to learn from.
The family business community continues to grow and solidify, with events like this and organizations like the Family Firm Institute creating opportunities for us all to come together and share what actually works for families.
Typically, small firms learn from larger ones, and new ones learn from older ones, but very much like mentoring it can also work the other way around.
The key is an open-minded attitude and a willingness to learn.
I appreciate all of this and my place in this great community, and every year when I leave this event I have great hope for the future.
The young people who compete at GS-FECC each year always impress me. I’m usually a bit jealous that all of this did not yet exist when I was in university.
Kudos to the whole UVM team!
And the Winners Are….
The team from Wilfrid-Laurier University took home the Undergraduate Division, while the University of Manitoba won the prize for the Graduate Division.
I hope to return for the 2024 edition, to see what else I can learn.
The Continuing Evolution of Our Professional Space
There’s nothing like a conference with peers, who come at our work with enterprising families from a variety of different professions, to stimulate reflection about the journey we’re all on.
When that conference (FFI Boston ’22) is the first big get-together in 3 years, it’s even more impactful.
And, when that conference has as its theme the future, it makes members of that community even more reflective and inspired.
Please join me as I continue to process all of what I took in, along with all the debriefing I’ve done with colleagues since then.
See Now What? After the Great Meeting
From Multi-Disciplinary to Interdisciplinary
Let’s begin with the insightful framing of an FFI Award that was shared by this year’s recipient. Jack Wofford received the annual FFI Interdisciplinary Award for 2022 at the FFI Fellows breakfast on Friday morning.
Wofford is an attorney who has a long history of acting as a mediator in all sorts of multi-party disputes, including many involving enterprising families.
During his acceptance speech, he made a point of stating that the name of the award is “interdisciplinary” which he contrasted with another, oft-used similar expression, “multi-disciplinary”.
Hmmm, I thought to myself, I’d never thought about this distinction before.
A Multi-Disciplinary Field, Requiring Interdisciplinary Effort
There is no denying that the people who serve family firms come from a multitude of different disciplines, this has been known and acknowledged for decades.
What is more recent is the understanding that in order to do this work well, and not just in our original silos, requires some effort to be able to work with people from disciplines different from one’s own.
Many professionals do not even really recognize this, and even among those who acknowledge it, my guess is that there are only a small minority who really do a good job of learning how to do it well.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that it merits its own award.
From Field to Ecosystem
The title of this post hit on two parts of the evolution of the professional space in which I and many readers endeavour, the part about the disciplines, as well as the issue of how we label the area in which we all work.
Let’s switch gears and take on the second question.
The A-Ha Moment for this came during an off-site dinner that I attended with what we called “Team Canada”, which was a wonderful opportunity for many of us Canucks to spend some time getting to know one another a bit better.
Without naming names, I was seated next to a friend and colleague who I happen to know was born about two and a half decades after I was. Across from him was a woman I know, who I also understood to be much younger than my late-50’s.
As it turns out, they had already compared notes and were born in the same year. I was suddenly quite jealous, but maybe not for the simple reasons you might guess.
Entering and Ecosystem, Not Just a Field
I had my calling to do this work relatively late, and so I’ve been trying to make up for lost time for a decade now.
I’m jealous of these two professionals not just because they are so much younger, but also because they both seem to have found work that really suits them and that they enjoy.
And, the field has continued to evolve, to the point where it is now so much more than a plain old field, it has become an ecosystem in its own right.
The opportunities for those entering this space are so much better defined and available now than they were even a decade ago.
The Family Enterprise Parallel Version
I always like to draw some sort of parallel to the situations involving business families in these posts, so let’s do that before we run out of room.
Any FamBiz going from the founder’s generation (G1) to the next, offers some complexity and opportunity, and things to work on.
But when you see a family where there are active members in G3, G4, and G5 (and so on) that’s when things really get interesting.
Just as the young professionals I spoke about have plenty of opportunities, I’m also jealous of the rising generation members of such families, because they have a much broader path of opportunities ahead of them too.
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.
A Big Question, Well Worth Considering
Given the number of family businesses out there, you’d think that the question in the title of this post is pretty common.
Unfortunately, it is not asked nearly as often as it should be, at least not out loud.
This is not to point fingers at those who never took the time to properly consider the question, because if I were doing that, the first person I’d need to point at is me!
I write about all sorts of topics relating to family enterprise here, and yet this one, which seems to involve a very important “go / no go” decision, isn’t one I’ve written a lot about.
Forced into the Family Business
I did write Forced into the Family Business back in 2018, and if this post interests you, you’ll likely want to read that one as well.
When I re-read it just now, this line jumped out at me:
“This assumes that both sides are getting what they need out of it.”
That’s worth thinking about in this context, because if it isn’t going to turn into a win-win situation over the short-, medium-, and long-term, then the answer should probably be a firm NO.
You don’t want to end up in a situation where you somehow get stuck in a place that you cannot get out of, and believe me, it happens, probably more often than you realize.
Some people in these positions even have difficulty admitting it to themselves when it occurs.
(If this resonates, check out the book, Trapped in the Family Business, by my friend Michael A. Klein, PsyD).
Things to Clarify Before You Enter
Because you don’t want to end up stuck, you need to make sure that you clarify a lot of matters up front, before you commit.
I’m going to assume here that we’re talking about someone who is at least in their mid-20’s and who has already begun their work career with a job elsewhere.
Otherwise, please go and re-read Forced into the Family Business, which clearly lays out my thoughts on going to work in your family business as your first job, right out of school.
None of this is rocket science of course, and if you think about this choice just like you would consider and ask questions about any other job you might want to pursue, with any other company or organization, you’re already off to a good start.
The biggest problems arise when people “leap before they look”.
Employees and Ownership
A key consideration that cannot be overlooked is whether the family company has already decided on whether being an owner of the business, now or in the future, is contingent upon working in the business full time.
Some companies are very firm on this and are well run because of it, and others sometimes end up in a situation where they wish they had imposed this rule. But it certainly isn’t pervasive, and is usually worth considering at some point for many families.
Responsibilities and Reporting
Among the key matters to clarify before joining the family business are what you will be responsible for (the “what”) as well as to whom you will be reporting (the “who”).
Make sure you discuss this in advance, and don’t just talk about your first job there, because presumably you will be there for a long time and handling different roles over time is almost surely part of the plan.
It’s also usually better for you to report to someone who is not related to you, inasmuch as that’s possible.
Is There Enough Room for Everyone?
Another question to consider is how many other family members are (or will be) also working there.
A situation that can arise is one where there are just too many family members involved and they start stepping on each others’ toes a lot.
Maybe it’s not a good idea to have “everyone” working together, even if you all get along well. Working together may change that, and not in a good way.
The Frog in the Boiling Water
Most people have heard the story about the frog who entered the pot when the water was cool and then couldn’t jump out when the water started boiling.
Most such frogs would probably look back and wish they’d asked a few more questions about the water temperature that they could expect going forward.
The time for asking questions and having deep discussions is before agreeing to work in your family business.
Business, Family, and Ownership Each Have Their Own “Clock”.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Three Circle Model since I first saw it almost a decade ago, and wrote about it almost instantly. See Three Circles + Seven Sectors = One A-Ha Moment.
It remains the simplest way to quickly get at so many of the issues that enterprising families face, in a way that just about everyone involved can quickly grasp.
That model from Tagiuri and Davis has been around for over 40 years now, and many people have commented on it, tried to modify it, added circles, changed the sizes of the circles, turned the circles into spheres, etc.
Rarely, however, have I seen much comment around the time elements that affect each of the three areas.
That will change today.
An Old-Fashioned Analog Clock Analogy.
Many of the posts I write here are inspired in one way or another by group discussions that I’ve been part of over Zoom, and this is yet another of those.
This one involved a number of local family business folks who have begun kicking around an idea to host an event next year to celebrate the community in some way.
The call included people from a local university, some practitioners who work with enterprising families (like me), and a few who run some pretty cool family enterprises, who I was happy to meet.
The discussion went all over the place and was all positive, and although I didn’t attend in order to find a blog topic….
When the academic on the call mentioned the Three Circle Model, my ears perked up, because I wasn’t expecting it to come up in this context.
And then he added the part about a clock, and the second hand, the minute hand, and the hour hand.
Flashback and Confusion, But No Time to Argue.
He shared that someone had pointed out to him that you could look at an old-fashioned clock and think of each of the circles as being represented by one of the sweeping hands.
I’m pretty sure I stopped listening at that point because my imagination had taken over.
I’m not even sure which hand he had assigned to which circle, but that’s probably moot here. I’ve got my own thoughts on that and I’m not sure they agreed with his, but in this context there was no time to argue either.
It also caused a flashback to a post I wrote about ownership and how that’s the circle that changes the least often, so for me it would have to be the one that gets the “hour hand”. See Clunky Ownership Syndrome in Family Business
What About the Seconds and Minutes?
So what about the second hand and the minute hand, to be assigned to the family and the business?
Well, more often than not, I’d be inclined to say that the business turns at a faster rate, especially when there’s an operating company with lots of employees working there, possibly for many hours every day, possibly even around the clock.
I’d say that the family circle would be best ascribed to the minute hand, because things change there more frequently than in the ownership, but there aren’t necessarily any noticeable changes happening on a frequent basis.
If you have a family genogram with everyone’s age on it, you could update it once a year and never be too far off.
Attention, Focus, and Intention.
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with anything, and if you are still left wanting, (and still reading this!) I’ll share my thoughts on the relevance of this.
Quite often, family members who also work in the business can become overly focused on the business, at the expense of the attention they pay to their family.
They follow that second hand around because it’s moving quickly, and in the time that the business went around the circle five times, the minute hand barely moved, so it’s easy to ignore.
Now extend this analogy to the ownership, and you can barely even notice that anything there needs to even be thought about.
Don’t Get Caught Watching the Clock.
It can be very seductive to pay attention to the fast-moving business circle and forget that the minutes and hours also continue to move along at their own, slower pace.
The other circles, most notably the family circle, also require attention, focus, and intention.
Don’t get seduced by the second hand.
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.
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.
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.
It’s Never Too Early nor Too Late – But….
This week we’re going to take a look at a common question that people in my line of work get, and dig a bit deeper into my standard answer, to try to test its limits.
It so happens that a couple of the client families with whom I’m presently working are showing signs of concern with the pace of our work together, which has brought this to the front burner for me.
I want to write something here that I can share with them, and at the same time make some broader points about how my engagements with a family can play out.
But first a flashback to a skit from an old Saturday Night Live episode that came to mind when I wrote the title above, which I immediately realized could be misconstrued.
“You Can’t Put Too Much Water in a Nuclear Reactor”.
That 1984 skit featured guest host Ed Asner (begins at 53:42) as a retiring boss at a nuclear plant, who gave the workers he left behind some advice that ended up causing confusion, from which much humour then ensued.
“Just remember, you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor” had some workers believing that you shouldn’t ever put too much water in, while others opted for the opposite interpretation, i.e. that it’s impossible to put in too much.
My “You can’t start too early” suffers from the same shortcoming, but my sub-head, “It’s never too early” clarifies my views.
Starting WHAT, Exactly?
It may help if I define what I’m referring to when I say “start”.
My work typically involves families who are trying to ensure that the wealth or business that they’ve created can be successfully transitioned to the next generation of their family.
Those efforts involve a number of legal and structural steps and procedures, of course, but those are always handled by other experts in those subjects, not by me.
My work is in the family circle, working the family dynamics and relationships aspect, which usually includes getting the family started with regular family meetings.
The work around these efforts, bringing the family members into these key discussions, is what I mean by “getting started”.
Try Not to Make a M.E.S.S.
I wrote about this back on 2017, in a post called Start Cleaning Up Your M.E.S.S. where “M.E.S.S.” was an acronym I had created to help readers remember four important aspects relating to getting started.
The “M” is for “Start Moving”, emphasizing that this is much more than just thinking about it or talking about it with one person, it’s about action.
The “E” is for “Start Early”, which is what we’re looking at today.
The two “S’s” are where it can get tricky for some, especially those who feel like they need to be in a hurry to get somewhere.
Some people just don’t do well with “Start Small” and “Start Slowly”, but they’re key for a number of reasons.
Why You Need to Start SMALL.
It’s important to start small because you don’t want to lose anyone along the way, and onboarding family members into such a process needs to be done carefully, because you really want to make sure that you will maximize their engagement.
Taking big steps would allow you to feel like you’re making big progress, of course, but if it means that some of the more skeptical family members aren’t ready to buy in, then big steps work against you.
Why You Need to Start SLOWLY.
Back in 2018, I wrote There Is No Destination, where I talked about the fact that life is more about the journey than the destination, and that’s an attitude I encourage parents to adopt.
Going slowly, and taking small steps, is important for the engagement question too, because again, you don’t want to lose anyone along the way.
You can really only go as fast as the group is willing to go, so erring on the slow side is what I always encourage.
There Is No Finish Line.
There’s actually no need for big steps or going fast when you consider that there is no finish line to this work.
We’re not trying to get to the last page of the book or tick off all the boxes on a checklist, we’re trying to make sure that family knows where they want to go and how they will work together.
That work never ends.