All posts by Amy M. Schuman

Lessons from Loss

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

My father, Harry Louis Schuman, passed away earlier this month. He was over 90 years old and in decent but declining health. Even at the end of his life as his circumstances became quite limited – no more driving, diminished mobility, many medical challenges – whenever asked how he was doing, his answer was always an enthusiastic: “Fantastic!”

Grandpa Harry Louis Schuman 2

All 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren came to Chicago for the funeral, at very short notice, from near and far (including Berlin, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Normal and Chicago, IL). Family, friends, colleagues and neighbors gathered for hours (actually, we gathered for seven days, the traditional shiva period of Jewish mourning), sharing stories and remembrances.

My dad speaking at the Palmer House with the Mayor of Chicago Richard J. Daley (left). He worked as an electrical contractor in the family business and became president when my grandpa retired.

Many useful lessons were embedded in the memories that people shared.  Humbly, I offer just three that stand out from this sad but grateful time. What did people most remember about their time with my father?

  1. His discipline and commitment: One example: my dad attended 6:30 AM religious services every Thursday morning, often waking us kids in the dark to take us along and treating us to a chocolate donut afterwards before dropping us off at school. It was tough to get going so early in the morning, but provided a direct experience of what commitment to a community really means. True commitment means stretching outside what’s cozy and comfortable, and discipline requires it be done on a regular basis.
  1. His non-judgmental presence: Many folks revealed that they had confided their troubles and challenges to my dad, privately, and he never violated their confidence. They described how he listened without judging, often without giving advice, just offering his presence and support. I have vivid memories of my dad pulling me aside as a child, sensing when something important was bothering me and offering me a chance to talk it through with him without him flooding me with instructions and advice. He trusted my ability to work out my own answer.
  1. His goofy fun loving playfulness: My dad loved to leave extemporaneous, singing, voicemail messages that most of the grandkids still have saved on their phones. He gathered all the grandkids for an annual pilgrimage to Popeye’s chicken, in honor of the fried chicken from his Memphis hometown. No Parents Allowed. (See picture below, circa 2009 or so. Unfortunately my dad is not in this picture, but my stepmom can be seen at the end of the table.)  My dad personally decorated the envelopes of birthday checks with multicolored exclamation marks and hearts — making the envelope as much a treasure as the birthday check inside.


This is just a bit of what we all heard, and learned about Harry Louis Schuman. Nothing brand new, or flashy, or even surprising. However, all of the modest, daily, steady, dependable and generous actions taken by my father throughout his lifetime added up to a mighty and far reaching inspiration, one that is alive and well in all of us who now aspire to make his example our own.    Heart

Age and Appreciation

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

I turned 60 this summer. I feel as energized, curious and active as ever. But, I do notice a few significant differences.

A source of great pleasure is spending time with family. Sitting on the floor and trading monosyllables (mostly ‘Ga!’ and ‘Da!’) with my 9-month old granddaughter is one of my greatest joys.  If I had a choice between seeing a prize-winning movie, hearing an award-winning orchestra, eating a gourmet meal or feeding strained peas to the baby, I would take the latter without batting an eyelash.  Quite different from when, as a young parent, I longed to get out of the kitchen and away from the babytalk and mashed vegetables.

Professionally, a source of great pleasure is sharing observations and insights with colleagues.  Collaborating as part of a team in support of client success is much more satisfying than being a heroic (and more limited) solo practitioner, even if it takes more time and some patience. I recently co-authored a book on Human Resources in the Family Business (coming from Palgrave McMillan in November) with Wendy Sage-Hayward and David Ransburg, two of my FBCG colleagues. Learning and creating together took a bit more time, but it was fun to tussle, disagree, and thus synthesize new insights together.

And, it’s not like I’ve stopped exploring. My late-in-life interest in mindfulness has taken me to retreats in Germany, France, New York and California, and introduced me to a wonderful variety of practitioners from around the world.

I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s wonderful book, Being Mortal. He talks about the changes that come with age — how people tend to focus more on what’s known and familiar, as vs. seeking new experiences and acquaintances. How people enjoy slowing down, doing less, going deeper rather than wider. He points to research that links this  —  not to aging, or decrepitude  —  but to a sense that the time ahead can be short, and that every moment is precious.

These pleasures, of course, are available to us regardless of age. We don’t have to wait for age 60 to appreciate our loved ones or our teammates.

We can take a moment to appreciate their presence at every age.

One More Time: Tradition and Change

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

The Everlane clothing catalog arrived in our mailbox last week — not because my husband or I are customers, but because it’s a favorite of my 28-year-old son, Benjamin. Its offerings are very limited: beautifully made, affordable, pure cotton or cashmere clothing. They carry a small number of items such as t-shirts, hoodies, sweaters and skinny pants that are largely available only in black, white and grey.  (And in sizes much too small for me to order for myself.)

However, the headline on page one jumped out and grabbed me:

Everlane Catalog

This very young, web-based, nontraditional company is obsessed with the same question that keeps 100-year-old private firms up at night. “How can we honor the need for both tradition and change?”

The answer they come up with is the exact same as many of my clients: “Know your story.”

Be as clear as possible about the underlying purpose, value and vision of your endeavor. Make sure that any innovation is unequivocally aligned with your fundamental guiding principles. Bold, fresh actions never before taken by an organization can be perfectly in line with the historical vision. And Everlane appears to be a wonderful example.

How can you apply this insight to your own tradition/change challenges?

Increase Efficiency by Slowing Down

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

Here’s an appealing headline, from the Harvard Business Review “Daily Stat” on May 7, 2015:

Taking Time to Reflect Makes People More Productive
“Trainees at a business-process-outsourcing company in India increased their performance by an average of 22.8% over the course of a month by spending the last 15 minutes of each day reflecting on and writing about lessons they had learned, Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina write on HBR.org. Reflection prompts people to be more aware of their progress and gives them confidence to accomplish tasks and goals, the researchers say.”

My colleague, Deb Houden, recently shared this nugget with our group, knowing that we often engage our clients in thoughtful reflection as part of our consulting process.

For example, as a facilitator I regularly end meetings by asking participants to reflect on the time we spent together. Typical reflection questions might include the following:

“As you leave our meeting, what will you take with you and how will you apply it?”

“When you think about our meeting, what stands out?”

“Take a minute to reflect on the time we just spent together: Write down one word or phrase that captures a valuable nugget or insight. We’ll go around the table and briefly share before closing.”

Reflection doesn’t happen only at the end of meetings. If energy droops in the middle of the morning or late in the afternoon, you can take a short diversion from the planned agenda. Go around the table with a reflection question to focus and energize the proceedings, for example:

“What’s one of your unique skills or talents? How can you bring more of that to this meeting?”

“Think about leaving this room at the end of our meeting. What is the most important thing for us to accomplish? What action can you take — immediately — to help make it happen?”

It can be uncomfortable to ask a group to stop for reflection. I often have to weather some rolled eyeballs or other resistance. However, the discomfort is worth it! Meetings are invariably more productive, focused and enjoyable after even a very brief reflection break.

Have courage. Take the risk. Take steps to balance out the bias towards energetic forward motion. Use reflection as a tool to slow things down in order to  ultimately be even more effective.

If you are already trying this approach, let us know how it’s going!

Using the paradox model to unstick a stuck situation

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

Recently, I presented to a very engaged, thoughtful and curious group of family businesses and their advisors at the High Center for Family Business at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.  They quickly grasped the importance of managing paradoxes for both/and outcomes. But they kept pushing me to explain more specifically how they might apply these concepts, so I told them I’d use this week’s blog to explore some practical applications of the paradox insight.  (Additional examples can be found in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the series “Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox.” )

Let’s take a very common paradox in family business: Harvest and invest.

Many business owners — especially founders — believe that every earned dollar should be invested back in the business.  Funds deployed within the enterprise outperform every other possible investment. Investing dollars in any other way appears foolish, almost crazy.  Keeping all the eggs in one, closely controlled basket is the only approach that makes sense. Besides, it is often argued, individual family members have plenty of funds and rarely have a real need for more money.

However many folks — especially in G2 or G3 — disagree. They believe that a harvest event, i.e. a dividend or distribution, is essential to give them some measure of independence and self-determination. They recognize that their financial return on investment may be smaller outside the family enterprise, but they value other, non-financial returns. For example, the opportunity to move some eggs into a variety of baskets and diversify their assets, or to engage in a project all their own.

Why is it so hard for the investors to see the advantages of an appropriate harvest? Can an appreciation of paradox help them see that harvesting is not a threat to investment, in fact it generates support for investment? Paradoxically, a modest harvest to owners is probably the most powerful force for building support for future investment which will be necessary for creating future harvests.

And what about the harvesters? They must appreciate the importance of expressing support for investment as the source of their past, present and future distributions. The classic need to “protect the goose that lays the golden egg” must be made crystal clear to those who are tempted to overemphasize the benefits of harvests.

How do you unstick a situation where folks are tussling over two desirable approaches? Paradoxically, start by helping each side embrace, support and even advocate the position of the other side.  It is part of how the paradox works: Expressing staunch support for your “complementary opposite” actually creates stronger conditions for the implementation of your preferred approach. In the same way, any action you take in support of your less preferred option will help create more stability and trust in the larger system.

Many family businesses do this instinctively with great success. Now that you’ve heard these ideas, give them a try — they work! Let us know what happens.


My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see www.polaritypartnerships.com for more on polarities and paradox. 

Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox (Part 3)

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we have talked about the need for “both/and” responses to paradox. Easy to say, but how to put into practice?

Let’s take a fictional example based on actual situations. Bizco is a 35 year old real estate company, growing and profitable, moving from G1 to G2. From the beginning, mom and dad, along with their son and daughter, have set a goal of building BOTH a strong family AND a strong business. And, they have succeeded!

How? They started early!  While the children were young, the family actively participated together in volunteer activities and travelled together, building strong relationships and open communication. The parents spoke openly with their children about the growing business, its contribution to the community, and the values that guided the business’ growth and decision-making.  Although the parents encouraged the siblings to consider a career in the family business, they were clear that employment would be based on qualifications and skills, not family status. At the same time, they encouraged the siblings to explore their individual interests and passions with no pressure or requirement to come work in the family firm. The parents also demonstrated through their actions the power of a strong, mutually supportive family.

As the siblings entered college, the sister participated in the business’ summer internship and began to develop an affinity to real estate. Brother was more interested in animal medicine and found summer employment in a local vet’s office.

These different interests reached their logical conclusion, and the decision to employ the sister but not the brother in the family business came logically and without drama. The brother pursued his interest in veterinary medicine, but remained an active and supportive family member to his sister and parents. They continued to travel and volunteer together, now including in-laws and grandchildren. Employment of one sibling and not the other had no negative impact on the family, which continued on its supportive and loving way. And, since ownership of the business will pass to both siblings, they have begun meeting as owners to learn and plan for the future.

The family’s emphasis on family AND business started very early. As the years went on, the two were proven to be compatible — not in conflict.

We have looked at the most fundamental — although not simple — paradox for family businesses and gained insight into the importance of starting early and being consistent in supporting a “both/and” approach. Please share your questions and experiences with us!


My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see www.polaritypartnerships.com for more on polarities and paradox. 

Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox (Part 2)

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

To read the first post in this series, click here.

Which to choose: Family first or business first?

Those who recognize the presence of a paradox would say: “Yes, both!” However, many families feel compelled to make a choice.

Let’s look at one case where this paradox was not managed well. The fictional Smith family often worried about the family interfering with the business, and over the years, set out to pursue business-first decision making. A merit-based employment policy required family members to work outside the company for five years and earn their MBA before applying for employment at Smithco. Family members were expected to be more qualified than non-family applicants, and could only apply to the company when an open, existing position matched their skills and experience.

On the five-person Board, two slots were designated for family directors. To qualify for consideration, the family member had to have at least 10 years of demonstrated success in a top business leadership role and at least five years of experience on a Board of Directors in a related field. No family meetings or family council was felt to be needed.

Now entering its fourth generation of family ownership, only one G3 family member was working in the business and she was nearing retirement. No G4s had expressed interest in the business because most were pursuing careers in other fields and other cities. The two current G3 family directors were nearing their retirement age, and serious doubts existed as to whether any G4s would qualify as Directors.

The current owners of Smithco, while proud of the non-family management and directors that had been so important to its continued success, were quite disconnected from the business they owned. Outside of dividends, they experienced no benefits from their family ownership and knew very little about the business. Because of these factors, a committee of the board has begun exploring sale of the business.

A sale is not necessarily a negative outcome, but if the goal of the family was to remain a family business, balancing their business-first approaches with some attention to family-first actions might have led to a different outcome. Family-first actions such as educational family meetings for family owners not working in the business, tours of facilities or summer internships for younger family members could have yielded vastly different results.

The Smith family worried that unqualified family influence on the family business would bring about its destruction. Paradoxically, keeping family away from their business may well have created the very conditions they most feared.

Taking one side of a paradox to the exclusion of the other, always leads to suboptimal results. In our next post, we look at a positive example of managing the “Business First/Family First” paradox.


My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see www.polaritypartnerships.com for more on polarities and paradox. 

Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox (Part 1)

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

A paradox is a special kind of problem that has no solution. Paradoxes can only be managed, they can’t be solved.* Family businesses — like all systems — wrestle with tough challenges that, upon closer examination, prove to be “complementary opposites” or paradoxes. Some examples:

  • Family AND Business
  • Harvest AND Invest
  • Tradition AND Change

The wisest response to these paradoxes is to find ways to value and pursue BOTH values, even though it may appear  —  and feel  —  impossible.

Paradoxes are made up of two desirable values that appear to be in conflict but, in fact, are complementary. Choosing one to the exclusion of the other will yield predictable difficulties, but finding ways to pursue BOTH will yield superior outcomes, stronger relationships and more effective communication.

What’s the difference between a paradox and a problem? A problem can be solved, decided, put to bed. For example: Should I hire my daughter, yes or no? Should I invest this year’s profits into the business rather than paying a dividend, yes or no? Should we introduce a new product this year, yes or no? These problems may be difficult, but once decided and solved, we move on.

In contrast, a paradox can’t be solved, it can’t be put to bed. With the paradox of “Family and Business,” which would you choose? Which side of “Harvest and Invest” is superior? Which value would you select for “Tradition and Change?”

Hopefully, your choice in all of these examples is: “Yes, both!” The key to paradox management is recognizing that choosing one, to the exclusion of the other, will bring predictable problems. As you recognize the paradox, you know the necessity is to support both.

What paradoxes do you encounter in your family firm? How do you find the both/and solution?

Recognizing the presence of a paradox is the first step. Managing the paradox with skill is the next step and we’ll examine that more closely in the next post.

“We need a new way of thinking about our problems and our futures. My suggestion is the management of paradox, in that paradox can only be ‘managed’ in the sense of coping with…Paradox I now see to be inevitable, endemic and perpetual. The more turbulent the times, the more complex the world, the more paradoxes there are. We can, and should, reduce the starkness of some of the contradictions, minimize the inconsistencies, understand the puzzles in the paradoxes, but we cannot make them disappear, or solve them completely, or escape from them. Paradoxes are like the weather, something to be lived with, not solved, the worst aspects mitigated, the best enjoyed and used as clues to the way forward. Paradox has to be accepted, coped with and made sense of, in life, work and in the community and among nations.”

Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox, 1994


My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see www.polaritypartnerships.com for more on polarities and paradox. 

Shareholder director selection as a two-step process

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

In selecting a relatively small number (3 – 5) of family directors from among a relatively large (25 +) shareholder group, a two-step process can be very effective.

Step 1: Identify family members who are qualified to serve as directors.

Step 2: Select from among the qualified family members.

Although this process  appears straightforward, it’s far from simple.

It can be challenging to agree upon a list of qualifications for family directors. To what extent will those qualifications be different from the non-family directors? Who decides the qualifications? And, even more difficult, who makes the judgment as to which family members meet the qualifications, and which fall short?

Once the desired qualifications have been established and qualified family members identified, how is the selection made? Are there term limits to ensure that a variety of qualified family members have the opportunity to serve? Is any consideration made to other factors besides qualifications, i.e. family branch, generation, geography? Is there a regular and robust board evaluation process to keep the focus on performance of directors?

Although best practices call for qualifications to be the determining factor in director selection, be they family or non-family directors, most families find it difficult (if not impossible) to ignore branch and share percentages when selecting directors. An ideal approach can be to acknowledge the desire for branch/share percentage representation, while agreeing that any seated director must meet the established qualifications. Happily, with larger shareholder groups containing experienced and able members, this is often easy to achieve.

In the sibling stage, it is common that all (or nearly all) interested siblings are able to serve as directors. In the cousin stage, this dynamic changes radically. Not all interested family members will automatically have the opportunity to serve as directors, as their parents did. Resolving this issue is one of the most difficult tasks facing the cousin consortium.

Many successful families in the cousin stage have solved this sticky problem by following a variation on the two-step process described above. They find that it answers many of the tough questions quite well. Dear readers, do you have experience – or wisdom – or tough questions – to share in this regard?

For more information, our book Building a Successful Family Business Board by Jennifer Pendergast, Stephanie Brun de Pontet, and John L. Ward can be an invaluable resource.

The World Cup as Metaphor

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

The brightest oranges, whitest whites, deepest navy blues, sun-ray yellows: each World Cup game brings a different color combination to the field but that is just the surface excitement. Are the players tall, long-legged, loping and passing the ball in graceful arcs from toe to toe, using the entire length and breadth of the field? Or are they short and compact, firing the ball in focused staccato bursts shaped like tight triangles that keep mostly to the field just in front of the goal? Does the team wait until the final 5 minutes to unleash the full power of their athleticism, or do they hit the goal, hard, in the first 60 seconds of play? Who flips and flops on the field after the appearance of a foul, and who springs up for more play after being flung to the ground or elbowed in the face? Who lingers to clasp their opponent’s hand, to speak with them face to face, trading jerseys, and who falls to the ground, on their knees, in tears, in private pain?

The World Cup may be one sport, with one objective, but week after week it has served up a rich feast of group dynamics and individual drama. Innumerable variations were played on the themes of strategy and opportunism, physical power and mental command, supremacy and surrender and ultimately, victory.

Many paths to success. A lesson to inspire us all.