All posts by JoAnne Norton, Ed.D.

Family is More than the Sum of its Parts

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Aristotle said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” a quote often used to describe families who own businesses.

Recently, a member of an extremely successful family business was thinking about the different inequalities in her family, now in its 4th generation of leadership. She explained that some family members had more money, others more education, and still others more creativity. I asked if I could share her eloquent and poetic description of her family’s circumstances if I respected her privacy by not revealing her name. She agreed that I could quote the following:

“For various reasons I’ve been contemplating the center of rose windows (stained glass works of art). The center is the still-point, the point of reference from which new ideas develop and their stories are told. If our family is a kind of rose window, our still-point would be shared values, and our unique voice. While our individual stories come with their own sizes, shapes and colors, all come with the potential to reflect beauty. And the rose window’s exquisite and ultimate grandeur may only be glimpsed when viewed as a whole, every part adding it’s particular glow/value to the still-point in the center. Even so, our values as a whole allow us to flourish, our shared values flow out from their center and we forget which pieces, by virtue of their size or shape, were ever considered ‘unequal.’ It is this we need to learn, or to remember.”

North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral, Chartres, France, c-1235 photo- © Guillaume Piolle / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
North Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral, Chartres, France, c-1235 photo- © Guillaume Piolle / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like the famous rose window at the Cathedral in Chartres, France, this family is more than the sum of its parts. Over the last decade, her family has carefully preserved their stories by writing their history, saving precious photos, making educational videos and listening to members of the third generation tell exciting tales at their reunions. They share great pride in their family’s many achievements and much laughter at some of the things that didn’t pan out so well. Family values and often-told stories give them a collective voice, and even more importantly, their shared values make the inequalities insignificant.

Keeping Promises

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

On a long cross-country flight, I sat next to a woman who was involved in her family’s business and she shared her family’s fascinating story. Working with a consultant, her family had put a lot of time and effort into creating a family constitution as well as policies, procedures, and protocols. She and her husband, his sister and her husband, as well as the eight cousins—who would all one day be owners—got along famously and had great fun designing the documents.

Then sadness crossed her face as she confided, “As wonderful as our agreements were, and you should have seen the celebration we had when they were ratified, the documents were never taken seriously by the senior generation. The new policies were ignored, and the rest of us felt betrayed. We had spent so much time and money on the process, and now my husband doesn’t speak to his sister, and my children no longer get along with their cousins.”

As the plane descended through the clouds the woman said, “When you work with families like mine, please tell them how important it is to honor the agreements they create. It just takes one little snag to unravel the whole thing.” I assured her it wasn’t too late to fix the situation, and I urged her to reconnect with her family business consultant.  I told her she might want to suggest a meeting with the senior generation to discuss how best to handle the breach of trust that had taken place. Her family could also take a second look at the documents to be certain they weren’t too constricting, but most importantly, they needed to start communicating again.

As we walked toward the terminal together, she said she would take my advice if I would take hers: she would call her consultant if I would remind families to keep their promises to each other.  When we write family agreements, we have to be sure they are promises we can keep, so if promises have been broken, we need to keep the channels of communication open.

Handling Inevitable Conflict in Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Even though conflict is 100% predictable, completely unavoidable, and decidedly uncomfortable, many family owners avoid having disagreements at all costs. They don’t realize that smiling sweetly and yet again swallowing bitter bile only causes resentments to grow and unresolved issues to fester. Putting issues on the back burner causes emotion to boil over—probably at the most inopportune time.

An old axiom to remember is: “Choose your battles wisely.” Ask yourself if the conflict is a big deal in the first place and really needs to be addressed. It helps to remember Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.” Screaming and yelling when you have a conflict with a family member is guaranteed to make a bad situation worse. Wait until you have calmed down or maybe even slept on it before broaching a sticky subject in your family business.

If the shoe is on the other foot, and your sibling is screaming at you, heed the advice of famed psychologist, Murray Bowen, who recommends in Family Systems Theory: “Don’t attack; don’t defend; don’t go silent; just remain neutral.” Bowen taught that screaming only escalates the fighting, but not saying anything at all could worsen the situation too.

If your cousin begins to lose her cool, agree to talk about the issue later when both of you are not in the heat of the moment. You will have a much better opportunity for successful resolution when you have two calm, composed people who are honestly and openly sharing their concerns. Carefully listening and paraphrasing back to each other what has been heard can be most productive.

In my family, we have a wonderful expression: “No matter how thin the pancake, there are always two sides.” Sometimes the solution is serendipitously obvious when each person is heard and feels understood. Family relationships are some of the most precious sources of happiness in our lives, so learning to deal with conflict constructively and confidently is worth the time and effort.

Family Governance: Who Needs It? (Part 2)

JoAnne Norton

Will, a young member of the third generation of owners of a highly profitable family business, told me his family business had recently been sold.  His family members had been so wrapped up in dealing with the financial elements of the transaction there had been no discussion and very little thought given to the future of the family.

Will invited me to meet with his family, and I began by asking thought-provoking questions. “Are your family members going to split up the proceeds from the sale and all go your separate ways, or do you all want to leave a lasting legacy? Do you still have common goals? Are there wishes you share for the future? Dreams you want to dare together? And what about the logistics? Will each family branch want their own wealth advisor, or could there be an advantage of keeping your money together? Will you want to use a family office? Establish a family philanthropy? Provide wealth education for the next generation together? Will you want to meet with your immediate family — as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins — regularly to have fun and to come together for the common good? How will you make decisions together in the future?”

Will and his family had not thought about most of these issues before. At our meeting, there was a lot of discussion, some tears, and thankfully a great deal of laughter as they discussed the answers to these important questions. Plans were made and committees were created to explore the family’s new vision.

After the meeting, Will shook my hand and looked into my eyes. “I had no idea our family would still need a family business advisor after we sold the business. This isn’t the end of our family business, it’s Act II for our family.” More importantly, he said he was fired up about finally working with his family to create a vision, mission and values and having the opportunity to truly make the world a better place.

Good governance makes worthy goals easier and more enjoyable for families who want to work together successfully whether they are in or out of the family business.

Family Governance: Who Needs It? (Part 1)

JoAnne Norton

After giving a presentation on laying the foundation for family-business governance, an energetic young man came bounding towards me from the back of the room as I was stepping off the stage. Taking my hand in both of his, he smiled as he said: “Where were you when we needed you?” I laughed, and responded: “I don’t know; where were you when you needed me?”

The young man’s name was Will, and he said his family had always meant to do all the things I had just spoken about: have regular family meetings, create a vision, decide on a mission, explore their values, but they had just never gotten around to it. Their family business had been all consuming. Then one day about a year ago, a large competitor had made his father, his uncle and all of his siblings and cousins an offer they couldn’t refuse. So now there was no need to have those crucial conversations that can be so energizing, enlightening, and exciting when family business owners discuss vision, mission, and values. Since there would be no more decisions to make or conflicts to resolve, there would be no need for family governance. “That ship has sailed,” he sighed.

Actually, that ship hasn’t even left the dock yet.

Many families who have earned or inherited significant wealth together often want to continue their affiliation. In some cases it’s because, even after the primary business has been sold, they continue to hold real estate or other investments together. In other situations, family members have developed great trust and admiration for each other, and they believe it is advantageous to keep their family and their wealth together. Sometimes they accomplish this by establishing a family office, and at other times a strong matriarch or patriarch might take the lead. For whatever reason, many families choose to work together to leave a lasting legacy and to ensure their wealth lasts for many more generations.

Families who want to successfully work together need the same things family businesses do: a clear vision, an inspirational mission, and shared values. They need policies and procedures and well-defined expectations. At The Family Business Consulting Group, we are experts in family governance regardless of whether there is still a family business or not. Will and I discussed this concept, and we set up a time to discuss the direction his family was going because families who sell their businesses still need good governance.

Should I Stay, Or Should I Go?

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

My nearly ninety-seven year old mother-in-law has an intriguing quote displayed prominently on her refrigerator at her home in Calgary. “One of life’s most important decisions is when to begin middle age,” it reads. My husband’s young-at-heart mother often reminds me on our evening phone calls that we’re only as young as we feel.

Today we can work as long as we want to, especially if we are blessed with good health, a clear mind, and our own business. But how long should we? That’s one of the many questions members of the senior generation sometimes ponder in the middle of the night and sometimes discuss with their spouses in the middle of the day.

Would the business be better off with or without me, they wonder. Do I continue to add value? Are my ideas still relevant? What if I raise the subject of my retirement and then change my mind about leaving?  How do I deal with the pain in my heart as I consider letting go of something so dear?

The next generation grapples with its own set of challenges. How long can they afford to carry someone who they perceive is no longer pulling their weight? How do they bring up the topic of a parent’s retirement without sounding ungrateful or uncaring? How do they ignore the gnawing in their gut as resentment grows and the silence between the generations becomes deafening?

The good news is that we’re living longer, we’re staying healthier, and we’re looking better than at any other time in history. So we must now wrestle with the question of when or even if to begin a new chapter away from work—a better chapter than our parents and grandparents have ever had the opportunity to write. This is new stuff for both generations, and we’re short on role models, experience, and theories.

Barbara Walters was still working at age 84, but could we? Should we? In a family business both generations need to have candid discussions periodically at both the family and the board levels regarding retirement. The decision about when a parent should move on drastically depends on the industry as well as the desires of both generations for the future.

Sometimes these conversations are already taking place, not with family members in the senior generation who are mulling over what they might do next, but among frustrated future owners. Whether they are thinking about grandparenting, golfing, starting a charity, or beginning to play Chopsticks it is crucial for parents to share their plans, so their adult children can make theirs. Both generations will be much more open to this discussion if it is approached with patience, appreciation, and love.

What’s The Best Way To Say Goodbye?

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Barbara Walters was one of my earliest childhood heroes. I remember watching her on our first black-and-white television set very early in the mornings, the only woman in a large cast of men. I cheered when she became the first female anchor on an evening news program, though ultimately that did not turn out well for her, and I was absolutely delighted when she created “The View” featuring strong, articulate, funny women.

Like millions of viewers, I’ve watched her retirement process over a number of years as she slowly cut back the number of hours she worked and the programs she did. Last week, I saw her final regular appearance on “The View,” which featured much fanfare as everyone from heads of state to international celebrities paid homage to Walters, who has changed our world in so many significant ways.

Saying goodbye and thank you to people who have had a profound affect on us is crucial for them and for us because the impact has ramifications on those who are leaving as well as those who are left. Nowhere is this as important as in a family business. When the family leader of a family business retires there most likely will not be appearances from celebrities nor buildings named in their honor, but it is vital that they have a proper send off.

When I began studying Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory at the Georgetown Family Center in the late 90s, psychologist Dr. Polly Caskie presented research suggesting that the future health of the retiring leader and the family itself was dependent on the celebration at the end of the career. For that reason, Polly said there should be presentations made from representatives of three specific groups: the business, the community, and the family. Leaders, like all of us, needed to know that their lives mattered, that their many sacrifices had been worth it, that they had made the world a better place, and that their family, especially the spouse and children, appreciated them. She hypothesized that the time, energy, and expense would be more than worth it to the future health and happiness of the retiree.

What reminded me of Polly’s sage advice after so many years was something Barbara Walters said on Friday, May 16th, on “Good Morning America.” She commented that she had remained dry-eyed as she had listened to all of the accolades from state heads and stars until she had received a message from her daughter, Jackie, who had written the night before:  “I just wanted to say I was thinking of you tonight. Tomorrow is a special day. You have impacted this world as very few can. This is a transition towards a new journey. I love you and wanted you to know how proud I am of you.” That’s when Barbara said she finally cried.

At the end of the day, no matter how big our business is, how many lives we’ve touched, how much we’ve changed the world, it is the love of our family that matters most. That’s why it is so important to say goodbye and thank you at the right time at the right place in the right way.

Keeping the Brain from Going into Temper-Tantrum Mode When It’s Time To Change the Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

“You need to change” must be one of the ugliest, most unwelcome sentences in any language. Neuroscientists David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz have a good explanation why. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), along with brain wave analysis technology, they can actually see neural connections in the brain for the first time ever. Rock and Schwartz contend that when we tell another person or groups of people what to do, such as change, the human brain automatically pushes back like a two-year old child. One reason for this is homeostasis—all organisms naturally move toward equilibrium and away from change. According to Rock and Schwartz, “Brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create novel connections.”

It seems that when people come up with their own solutions to problems their brains release neurotransmitters such as adrenalin. So not only do our brains scream “No!” like a typical two-year old when told what to do, but they also follow up with another familiar toddler line, “I do it by myself!”

Rock and Schwartz suggest that their research provides a scientific basis for leaders to ask questions and let people come up with their own solutions rather than telling them what to do. Asking good questions to modify behavior goes back thousands of years; Socrates candidly admitted, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

One way to facilitate change on a large scale, according to Drs. Rock and Schwartz, is to have some kind of event that allows people to have the opportunity to think for themselves. They site the work of Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University’s Institute for Neuroscience and others who have found sudden bursts of gamma waves in the brain right before people have moments of insight. This means a new set of connections is being made, which makes it easier to overcome the brain’s resistance to change. The researchers claim the best thing leaders can do when dealing with the challenge of change is to help their followers focus on solutions instead of problems and to let the followers create their own solutions.

In a business, when we pay people to work for us, it seems to be fair game to tell them what to do and that they have to change when it is necessary for improving business or the bottom line. If employees refuse, everyone understands the ultimate dire consequences—an escorted trip out the front door. But when change needs to occur in a family enterprise, especially when family members are also owners, it is vital that the family members spend time together considering the situation, asking the right questions, and discovering the answers together. Heeding the warning of the neuroscientists, if we simply tell family members what to do, or that they need to change for any reason, their brains are likely to go into temper-tantrum mode, and that’s not good for the family or for the business.

Neuroscience and Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Almost everyone remembers a time in childhood when they felt left out—the party they weren’t invited to, the snub by someone who was supposed to be a friend, the time they weren’t rewarded for a job well done, especially when others were being recognized. Even as you read these words you might still feel the sting of something that made you feel shunned or ostracized a long time ago. Now, thanks to neuroscience, we know why this pain was so severe and why you still remember.

Social neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles are studying what goes on in the brain to help leaders understand how their actions affect their followers. These researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) along with other sophisticated equipment, and the results have important implications for leaders of family businesses. One of the most pertinent studies for family business owners was conducted by Dr. Naomi Eisenberger, a social neuroscience researcher at UCLA, who studied what happens in the brain when people feel rejected. Her research indicates that when we feel excluded our brains have the same reaction they would to physical pain.

Dr. David Rock, the president of the Neuro Leadership Institute, writes Eisenbergers’ research illustrates “people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work . . . experience it as a neural impulse as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.” Rock claims many studies show the brain responds to social needs the same way as it does for survival.

Family leaders must be aware of the unintended consequences of accidentally excluding a family member. Perhaps you thought Aunt Alice was drastically overreacting because she didn’t receive the information she thought she should have been given. When her face turned beet red and she began screaming at you just before she angrily stormed out of the room, she wasn’t being overly sensitive. Her brain was telling her you had just hit her over the head with a baseball bat, and she was responding accordingly!

Family leaders who understand how strong the brain’s reaction is to being excluded, betrayed, or unrecognized can be more sensitive. There are steps they can take such as:

  1. Making certain all family members are invited to family meetings and gatherings;
  2. Seeing that pertinent financial information is accessible to everyone;
  3. Establishing family policies so all family owners are given the same opportunities in the business;
  4. Creating a Code of Conduct giving all family owners the chance to talk about how they expect to be treated and what is important to them;
  5. Recognizing the hard work of family leaders as well as business leaders; and
  6. Showing appreciation to family members and employees.

“Trust Me”

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

These are two of the most compelling words in the English language. As human beings we have an innate urge to trust one another because we know instinctively we need each other for survival. Establishing and maintaining trust is the basis for all relationships in the family and in the business, and what takes a life time to build can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. It is critical to trust and to be trustworthy in your family’s business.

A betrayal of trust can do as much damage to a business as a bad economy, and it can be even more catastrophic to a family. But beware: mistrust can be caused by miscommunication. For example, a CEO we’ll call John might tell his sister Jane one thing and then turn around and tell his sister Jennifer something totally different. If Jane and Jennifer get together and discover that John has told each of them differing stories, then they might find themselves wondering if they can really trust John any more.

Fortunately, if this family has regular meetings, the sisters in our story would be able to ask John face-to face why he had given them different answers. John could then show them that between the time he talked to Jane and when he talked to Jennifer a couple of days later the facts themselves had actually changed. John could explain he had been completely truthful to both of them.

Family meetings provide the opportunity for communication. Good communication requires the courage to ask questions—tough questions that can clarify situations and manage misunderstandings. Owners have the right to know what is going on in their company, and it is up to family members to build an enduring trust based on transparency and a history of fair dealing. So the next time someone says, “Trust me,” answer them with, “Talk to me.”