It’s Never Too Late to Begin

While visiting relatives stateside recently, the matriarch of a local family enterprise passed away.

My cousin’s kids were childhood friends of several grandchildren of the recently departed, whose many businesses around town are part of the family’s widespread holdings and operations.

I hear similar stories frequently, including the unfortunate familiar refrain around how unprepared the family seemed to be.

Fortunately, it’s never too late to begin working on the family communication aspects of the larger family wealth continuity puzzle.

Starting Family Discussions Late – 5 Considerations

A Typical Well-Known Family Example

I’ll share some considerations I’d have if I were called into such a family at this stage, say, after Grandma’s funeral.

She was in her 80’s, one of two maternal figures in this family, the wife of one of two brothers who lead these businesses for decades. 

The business had been started by their father, i.e. “Generation 1” (G1).

The two G2 brothers produced 7 G3’s, many working in various businesses alongside some of their G4 offspring. 

The many G4’s are already giving birth to G5.

All over town, everyone knows this family and considers its members to be part of the “lucky sperm club”.

But most of them have no clue about what they own, what they can expect, or what comes next.

Many are probably hoping Grandma’s passing will be the catalyst to finally getting some answers.

  • Who Owns What?

One key question that will determine much of what ensues is “who owns what?”, from a legal standpoint.

My work is concentrated in the “family circle”, but it cannot be done in a vacuum, and the actual legal ownership of the assets is something I’d want to know before going too much further.

There’s a good chance that whatever documents and agreements are in place were done long ago and so this question, while simple on the surface, may not have a clear and ready answer.

  • Who Knows What?

I’ve already noted how this family has expanded over the decades, from what used to be one household, and then three, to where there are now a couple of dozen family units who are key stakeholders.

There’s a high likelihood that many family members heading those households are very much in the dark, and also craving some clarity of what lies ahead for them.

Often in these situations, some G3’s have more information than others, depending on their role and seniority.

This “information asymmetry” typically creates potential for mistrust and jealousy between family branches as things unfold.

The sooner everyone in G3 can be brought up to speed, the better chance of smooth sailing ahead.

  • Can They Work Together?

With many intertwined entities operating in this family enterprise’s sphere, questions about the potential for all family members to continue to operate together, rise to the top.

Keep in mind, these are siblings, cousins, and second-cousins, most of whom didn’t grow up in the same home, from several different family branches.

This is far from a “no-brainer”, and time needs to be taken to assess the compatibility question

A fact about this situation playing in their favour is that there are a number of business entities here, as opposed to one, monolithic company, so separating things could be simplified.

  • What’s Carved in Stone?

Back to the ownership question, is every detail carved in stone via structured entities (think trusts, etc.) or is there some flexibility around what can happen next?

Unfortunately, family members are often forced to be business partners with others with whom they’d never enter into such an arrangement, if they had a choice in the matter.

Flexibility around what can be changed is way better than rigidity in this case, but this needs to be looked at soon.

  • How Can I Best Help This Family?

There are surely already several professionals surrounding this family who are well placed to help clarify what’s next from a legal ownership perspective, based on the agreements mentioned above.

When there’s a complex web of families involved, it may be helpful to bring in someone who’s trained and comfortable dealing with the “family dynamics” angle too.

One outside expert alone won’t be able to untangle this alone, because of all the moving parts.

If the current professionals are overwhelmed, as they likely will be, they should bring in qualified outside resources to handle these human aspects of what lies ahead for this family.

We do exist!


It Can Go Either Way (And One Is Better)

In my work, I get to hear lots of stories about families and how they try to deal with preparing for the future together.

For the most part, the situations remain stable for long periods of time and it’s relatively simple to know what to expect going forward from one year to the next.

Sometimes, however, something unexpected hits the family, and it really throws them for a loop, which seriously upsets the equilibrium, and chaos ensues.

This week I want to talk about how some families are able to respond to such a catastrophe in a good way, while for others it can mark the end of positive relationships.

Examples Abound, Never Black and White

Everyone has heard of the various kinds of events that can occur, but today I’m sharing stories of a couple of families with whom I’ve had recent contact, either via my work or though acquaintances.

One involves a business family that suffered a significant and sudden loss of their financial wealth, and who are now trying to come to terms with their new reality.

The other is about a family whose patriarch passed away relatively recently, at far too young an age, and the subsequent effects of the hole in his family that this left, including the straining of relationships that used to be strong.

I want to share some ideas on how both families can hopefully realize how important their attitude will be in how things play out for them.

In short, as I teased in the title, they can either come together and become stronger for each other, or else they can point fingers, give up, and split apart.

Regular readers know which side I come down on.


Different Kinds of Grief, On Varying Schedules

Naturally, there’s an element of grief involved in recovering from any kind of disaster that results in a significant loss. And, as we’ve all heard, everyone processes grief in their own way, and on their own schedule.

The types of grief in the two family examples are quite different, as the loss of a person and the loss of financial wealth are not comparable.

But there are possibly more things they have in common than one may realize, especially when a family is left grieving together.

This is where some of the ideas around attitude come in.


Responding to Family Catastrophe – Come Together or Drift Apart

Additional Strength and Resources

When speaking with such families in these circumstances I like to offer a perspective that they might not be seeing, where each person can serve a useful purpose to their other family members by providing strength when another is feeling weak.

Because they each process their grief differently, hopefully at least one of them can be strong for the others when needed, and then the others can reciprocate when things are in reverse.

Regular readers know of my dislike for the word “help”, as in “let me help you”, so that’s not exactly what I’m getting at.

I like to look at it from the viewpoint of being a resource for others, the difference being who approaches whom.

I’m not offering to “help” you per se, but I am offering myself as a resource to you, when you decide you want to avail yourself to that.


Picking Each Other Up 

Without this becoming a dissertation on the stages of grief, once shock and denial are in the past, then anger, bargaining and depression are likely areas where one family member can help pick up another from time to time, and the burden can be distributed.

The alternative, which is always sad to see, is when these stages lead to family members dragging each other down instead.

An attitude of “this hurt me more than it hurt you” is easy enough to understand, but it’s difficult to see how that’s helpful to anyone.

Responding to Family Catastrophe – Come Together or Drift Apart

Taking the Time to Make the Time for Each Other

My hope for families trying to come out on the other side of tragedy is that they can learn to take the time to make the time for each other.

Simply being there for one another, even if not much is said, can be so much more important than most people realize.

Yes, misery does love company, but one person with a positive attitude can make a huge difference.

Strength in numbers is possible for families, especially when working through the grief of a catastrophe.

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.

I’m writing this blog on US Thanksgiving weekend, and it strikes me that one of the things I’m most thankful for is this weekly project of mine, which has forced me to keep my antennae up, so that I can share fresh thoughts every seven days.

I began this habit in 2012 and while many of the early posts have been dropped as my website moved from one place to the next, this process has been nothing but beneficial for me.

I can selfishly say that even if nobody ever read a single one of these posts, I know that simply writing them has been a useful exercise for me, because it has been essential to the way I integrate everything that I’m learning, reading, and thinking about.

It’s also nice to be my own editor and publisher, giving me free reign over all subjects and how I present them.



Just One Word as Inspiration

As I’ve done at times in the past, today I’m writing a post that was inspired by one word.

Well, actually, it’s a pair of related words, and it’s the juxtaposition of the two words that created the A-Ha moment that became the spark for this blog.

Those words are:

Disintegrate and Integrate

A few weeks ago I was on a long drive, listening to an audiobook to make sure that I stayed awake, and there it was.

I’m not even sure which book it was anymore, and I don’t know if it was the way the author wrote it or simply the way the reader pronounced the words, but I was struck.



Cartoonish Disintegration

Something about the word “disintegrate” that had never ever registered in my head was the fact that it is the opposite of the word “integrate”.


I had always had a mental image of disintegration that probably came from watching cartoons.  Picture someone with a ray gun, pointing it at an enemy and pulling the trigger, and they’re reduced to a pile of dust.

If you wanted to put them back together, presumably you’d need to integrate them, or maybe re-intergrate them (?)


Family Wealth Disintegration

I typically write about family business and family wealth, and the issues that come with transitions from one generation of a family to the next.

One of the biggest concerns of the Now Generation is always that the Next Generation will not be able to grow or maintain the wealth sufficiently, and that the wealth will eventually disintegrate.

They may not use those words, but that’s a common thread that runs through just about every family whose concern is wealth continuity.

Their top concern may lie in the lack of ability of rising generation family members, it may be that the family is growing faster than the wealth, it could be a stagnating business, entitlement or family discord.



The Opposite of Disintegration

Back in 2014 I wrote Solid Wealth vs. Liquid Wealth, where I talked about wealth that was “locked in” to an operating business and contrasted that to a post-liquidity event and the challenges around managing liquid wealth.

While I still like that analogy, I think that disintegration vs integration can give us a bit more to sink our teeth into.


If we’re worried about disintegration, why don’t we 

consider ways that we can use integration to counter it?


A boat in the water

FOR the Family, BY the Family

A favourite saying of mine is “FOR the Family, BY the Family”.  Let me explain the context of that.

If a family is going to have any chance of having their wealth continue for generations, then they can substantially increase their odds of success by involving as many family members as possible in the plans for how that is going to happen.

In short, the family members need to be integrated into the planning.  That means having conversations with them, which includes more listening than talking.



Co-Creation Makes Better Plans

I’m not saying that this path is easier than simply dictating all the terms and conditions to them.  I’m saying it has better odds of succeeding.

You cannot expect that this process will all happen quickly or without any bumps along the way either, that’s also true.

But how important is this to your family, after all?

If you fail to integrate those for whom you are planning into the exercise of that planning, you can expect the wealth to disintegrate.


While in Philadelphia with my teenage son this past summer, we visited the Franklin Institute and checked out some of their great science exhibits. They have a huge variety of things to see, as well as some live demos scheduled throughout each day.

I always make sure that we come up with some kind of a plan to see the most important stuff in some kind of a coherent fashion, and the last demo we saw really stuck with me.

It was about the changing nature of water through a range of temperatures, from ice to water, and then from water to steam. The guy doing the demo was the same man we had seen earlier in the day showing kids some cool stuff involving liquid nitrogen, and we both enjoyed his way of getting the little kids into it, and garnering a lot of laughs along the way.

I can’t say that either of us actualy learned anything new, but for some reason an important analogy popped into my head. As usual for me, the only way to do it justice is to write a blog about it.

Of course the ice-to-water-to-steam concept also applies to many other forms of matter, but I started thinking about how it applies to wealth, and more specifically family business wealth.

An established business, that is profitable and well run, represents a form of wealth that most people consider solid. When a family owns such a business, they often try to find the best way to pass this solid wealth on to future generations, as they see the value and potential permanence of the wealth that it holds.

Passing a business from one generation is often quite tricky, as the statistics surely bear out, but the stories of those that succeed are an inspiration to those who are attempting a similar feat.

In many cases, and for many reasons, passing the wealth down in the solid form of a business is not possible or practical. In many of these instances, the business is sold off to others instead, in what is often dubbed a “liquidity event”. How convenient for my analogy, that the wealth has gone from solid to liquid.

Liquid wealth has its own pros and cons, of course. The biggest advantage is the flexibility that it affords its owners, especially as far as diversification and asset allocation are concerned. Sounds great, so what are the cons?

My simplest reply is that the business, much like real estate, is viewed as solid, especially by the expected heirs, who expect to benefit from the profits, income and/or dividends it throws off, but very few members of the next generation ever consider the idea of selling pieces off in order to get their hands on the wealth.

Going back to the ice-water-steam analogy, here is how I think most of the senior generation members view this situation.

A business is solid, like a block of ice. If you can keep it in the freezer, it will last a long time, and it can even just sit there in a block, on a shelf. And you can even lock the freezer. Once it is liquid, you don’t have to keep it in the freezer anymore, and you can use it for more things.

But, it is also easy to spill, and you need some kind of a container to keep it in. And you need to beware of thirsty people coming by and asking for a sip. The related problem is that it is now subject to evaporation, one step closer to steam, and much more difficult to control.

The generation that is currently in control understands how easily it can disappear, and they struggle with how they can be sure that some of the wealth will be available to their grandchildren and future generations.

Keeping a family together around a business is one thing, keeping them together around money is much harder.