All posts by Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Does Distance Makes the Heart Grow Differently?

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Stephanie Brun de Pontet

While some of my clients have their extended family all in one community, that is more the exception than the rule.  Our North American culture is very mobile and it is common that young adults find professional or other opportunities that will take them away from “home” and may lead them to put down roots in new cities and states.

This leads to a few common challenges for enterprising families. First, family members who grow up in the home community of the family’s business are raised with the visibility of being affiliated with the owning family in a way that is less central to the experience of those growing up elsewhere.  This can be a burden if it leads to a lot of negative attention (e.g, if the company has layoffs that affect your neighbors) or if it casts you in a stereotypical and narrow role: “Oh, he’s from THAT family.”  Family members who grow up away from this limelight may not always appreciate the extent to which this facet of the family can dominate one’s broader community and growing up experience.

Another difference is that family members who grow up in the home community are more likely to have parents working in the business, which can also impact their sense of connection. I have seen cases where this leads the next generation to feel a deeper connection to the business because they know executives, attend company holiday events, regularly visit the offices, etc.; and others where they feel less connected because in their mind: “that is what mom does” and is inherently something from which they want a little distance.

Of course, the impact of growing up elsewhere can also lead to feelings of distance or closeness. I have observed that if the initial generation that moved away has a negative attitude about the enterprise, their kids are likely to grow up disinterested and detached.  On the other hand, if the parent’s generation feels connected to the legacy and engaged as owners, their kids often grow up deeply curious and eager to learn as much as they can about the business.

Finally, the other place where family geography can lead to different perspectives is around the family and business’s shared philanthropy.  While most family members understand that a significant proportion of family giving may be anchored in the community where the business is situated, those who grow up elsewhere often want the opportunity to also expand the reach of these efforts into their own communities. Getting a family aligned on how and where they want to make a difference certainly gets more complicated with expanded geography.

While you should not assume family members who grow up elsewhere are inherently less connected to the business – you do need to proactively engage them as committed stakeholders.  Strengthen lines of communication, nurture their interest and curiosity, proactively look for ways for them to interact with the business or business leaders, help them appreciate the challenges and joys that come from living and working in the home community, and expand your sense of what the family’s “communities” are and mean. These efforts help all stakeholders feel as strong a connection as they can to the legacy of the past and the vision going forward.

Finding Balance and Joy in the “Busy” that is Life

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Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Busy seems to be the stock response to “How are you?” these days.

We all struggle at times to balance competing demands for our attention from family, work, community,and other commitments. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the frantic pace and lose sight of how fortunate we are to actually have so much going on in our lives.

  • Yes, children can be self-centered, create disorder, and put huge demands on our time… and they bring humor, new experiences and growth to our lives.
  • Yes, work requires long hours, difficult collaborations, and travel or other personal life sacrifices… and enables us to interact with other driven people, stretches us to learn new skills, and in a family business – allows us to know our family members more deeply than most.
  • Yes, community engagement can be frustrating, inefficient and hard to get initiatives sustained…. and they permit us to make an impact, change lives for the better and get to work with people who share our values.

The truth is, there is little in life that is really worth doing or deeply rewarding that does not require sacrifice and effort.  While we all need to make sure we carve out some quiet time and opportunities to take care of ourselves among all the responsibilities we shoulder, the truth is we are tremendously privileged to have these responsibilities. It means we are fully functioning grown ups, it means there are people who believe we make valuable contributions to important goals, it means we have love and joy in our lives….

The next time you are feeling stressed by your over-committed calendar, take a minute to smile about the richness of your life that is in fact evidenced by all you have going on.

What does “family” mean to you? (Part 3)

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Brun de Pontet

Part 1: Defining family
Part 2: Investing in family
Part 3: Evolving family

As the saying goes, “change is the only constant.” While our family may well be a source of stability for us, families and the individuals within them regularly change. Though many of these adjustments will strengthen and enrich our families, in the short-term we often experience these changes as unsettling.

Marriage, births, divorce, death, family blending, adoption, etc. – all shift the landscape of the family. How do holiday traditions change once grandma dies? Are your aunt’s new adult step-children included in the annual family photo? How does your relationship to your brother change once he gets married and how do you build a meaningful connection with his wife? Similarly, how do you develop a relationship with your mom’s boyfriend – what are the rules? What feels comfortable?

Most families struggle initially to welcome new individuals into their tribe. We worry “outsiders” will not appreciate our values, norms and traditions and will disrupt the sense of unity in the family. For business-owning families, this risk to family alignment can feel particularly threatening.  Yet every system needs renewal and a family needs a new generation for continuity. The infusion of “new blood” almost always strengthens the system, bringing skills, ideas and traditions that add richness for all in the family.

In addition to adjusting to new players, each person within a family is always evolving by virtue of life experiences. How is your cousin different now that he has been working as a teacher for the past five years? How has your brother changed since he became a father?  How has your aunt changed since she retired from her day-to-day leadership in the business? How has your sister changed since her scare with cancer?

Yet, because we all play a “role” in our family system (smart one, accommodating one – or, in the business setting: the leader, complainer, micro-manager…), our closest family may struggle to see the change in us, just as we may resist recognizing the changes in them. Our reasonable assumption that we know our family members and our comfort in the constancy and connection to our past they represent, often blinds us to the ways they have changed or evolved. While this is understandable, it can create enormous emotional distance between family members who feel increasingly as though their family “doesn’t get them.” This can be a terribly isolating experience and represents a far greater threat to family unity than any new family member every will.

It takes a great deal of effort to see past the role you want your parent or sibling to continue to play and experience them for who they really are today. Yet it is essential to make this effort to bridge the distance that time so often creates. Question your assumptions and seek to proactively see and understand the changes in your family members’ lives. At the same time, approach newer family members with an open heart and mind, seeking to appreciate all that they can bring to your family. These attitudes will enable you to have more authentic and rewarding family relationships – something we would all hold as a key life priority.

What does “family” mean to you? (Part 2)

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Brun de Pontet

Part 1: Defining family
Part 2: Investing in family

As I indicated in my post earlier this week, Jay Hughes’ notion of the “family of affinity” has long struck a chord for me as a great definition of “family” writ large.  Over the years, I have developed a truly extraordinary family of affinity – some friendships originating in childhood or college, others forged through extensive shared experiences in adulthood, all sustained through effort and commitment on my part and theirs.

Though this circle of friends deeply enrich my life, the older I get, the more I strive to invest as intentionally in the more “traditional” aspects of my family system (parents, children, partner, cousins, siblings) as I do with my closest friends.  For many of us, the family with whom we have more formal or biological ties can sometimes be the part of our family circle we take for granted.  The truth is our sister will always be our sister, so we may not put in the same effort to stay truly connected.

The expression: “you choose your friends, but not your family” implies that family is an accident of fate so not something over which you have much control. But what if we turned that expression on its head? What if we did choose our family? Or at least acknowledge that we choose how we relate to our family as adults and give consideration to whether or not we are relating to them the way we want. Are we being as authentic with our parents and siblings as we are with our friends? Are we investing the effort in these relationships with the same kind of intention and simple time commitment?

Family members who work together may have more opportunities to spend time and “stay current” with one another, yet business responsibilities sometimes crowd out the family relationship.  I have heard many clients say that they don’t really socialize with family because they spend “enough” time together at the business.  While that may be true as a measure of time, interacting professionally is a different way of relating than simply being a family and sharing the nurturing and loving bonds that ideally come with those relationships.

Do you feel you truly know your siblings, parents, cousins or adult children as well as you would like?  If you cannot point to three substantive ways they are different today than they were 10 years ago, you might not know them as deeply as you could.  Also, do you feel they know your hopes, dreams and fears – do they see how you have evolved over time?  If not, what could you do to remedy this lack of understanding?

The simple truth is all relationships need to be nurtured.  As you prepare for Thanksgiving, take a moment to reflect on how you are investing in your family relationships and challenge yourself to go deeper with your “kinfolk.”

What does “family” mean to you?  (Part 1)

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Brun de Pontet

Part 1: Defining family

A friend recently asked me this question and it caused me to reflect. Many of us identify family as our “top priority” and we strive to live up to that principle in our personal lives or in the complex balance of our family business collaborations.  Yet, how do we define “family” today and what do we expect or want from family?

If we think about family as society’s core building block, we can understand it serves many important roles.  Your family should be a “safe harbor,” a place where you can be yourself, where you find and offer love, security and acceptance. Family is anchoring as it represents your past and roots, yet it should also be a place where you grow and foster growth in others, accepting and celebrating change. Family is your closest personal relationships, your most profound commitments, your tie to the broader community, a reminder you are not alone in this big universe…

While most people’s families include traditional “players” such as parents, children, siblings, cousins, etc., many of us also count a broader range of close others as part of our core family, what Jay Hughes describes as your “family of affinity.” Jay’s concept relates to the intimate circle of friends and associates you develop over your lifetime – people with whom you have shared key portions of life’s journey, who know and understand one another deeply, support each other through heartaches, and celebrate triumphs.  Bonds with this group are built through many shared experiences, laughter, stories, traditions, and mutual support. They may not be “kin” by blood, but they are an essential part of your “tribe” – and for some whose traditional family is not well equipped to provide them with safe harbor and understanding, this family of affinity is their truest anchor.

As humans are inherently communal, this sense of connection and being understood is among the most precious experiences we can have with one another, and an enormous benefit of family, no matter how defined.  When we work with our family every day, we can lose sight of this broader purpose and role they play in our lives.

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, set aside the big and small challenges of your shared responsibilities for a moment, reflect on the full range of your “family,” and share your gratitude with each of them for the richness they bring to your life.

The Power of Mistakes

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Nobody likes to make mistakes – but avoiding mistakes at all costs may be a big mistake…

First, everyone will make mistakes – you cannot realistically avoid this. 

Living in a bubble, making no decisions and generally staying away from life will still lead to countless errors of missed opportunities.  Don’t forget – there are mistakes of ‘commission’ (things you should not have done) like accidently insulting a key supplier, or making an error in your financial analysis – these you can avoid by taking no actions and making no choices.  Yet, there are also mistakes of omission (things you should have done, but failed to do) like not returning the call from your brother because he is difficult, or not following up on a sales lead  – and living on the sidelines trying to avoid any responsibility will lead to those mistakes every time.

Second, most successful businesses are built on a trail of mistakes. 

By that I mean most entrepreneurs failed many times before arriving at their current success.  It is not that entrepreneurs are wild risk takers – rather they do not see risk in the same way others do, and they are very skilled at learning from their mistakes.  In order to break new ground, truly innovate and bring a new product or service to market, the entrepreneur has to be willing to engage in a lot of experimentation, trial and error, and mistakes. The best advice I have heard on entrepreneurial mistakes is to ‘fail fast’ – that is, commit to a path or idea – be willing to make a big mistake, but then know quickly when to pull the plug, learn from the mistake and make the needed adjustments to try again.

Third, mistakes will help you uncover your path and full potential.

If, like many people, you are not clear about your path in life, trying a range of paths and ideas will help you to uncover first what you don’t want to be doing (the mistakes) which will help inform your understanding of what you should be doing.  If you are unwilling to try new things for fear of failing or making mistakes, you will never have the opportunity to discover what truly energizes you.  Note that even if you are clear on the path to success you want to follow, you cannot really reach your potential without making mistakes as you take the hard turns on that path.  If you never make a mistake – it isn’t that you are particularly gifted, it is rather more likely that you are on the path of least resistance and not taking the risks you need to reach your full potential.

These quick reminders of the value of mistakes can be important for families in business together because once a family and business have experienced great success and stability – it can be hard to remember the journey of failure and mistakes that lead to this outcome, and easy to fall into the trap of playing defense and striving only ‘not to fail.’  Both the business and family members need to continue to be willing to make mistakes to grow, evolve, and find their full potential.

There are many paths to greatness – the challenge is finding yours…

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Over the years of my work with business-owning families I have had the privilege of collaborating with many successful individuals, whom I greatly admire.

  • There is the founder with an idealistic spirit, exceptional sales ability and sharp business instincts, whose greatest sense of accomplishment comes from never having laid off any employees – even in times of hardship.  Though he is the sole owner of his business, he seeks input, truly listens and builds consensus with others.
  • There is the hard-driving leader who has built a business on the strength of her work ethic and determination to ‘do the job right.’  While she drives all around her hard – all are clear that she drives herself the hardest.  Demanding and ambitious, she also mentors and develops all who come into her circle and devotes a tremendous amount of energy to her church and family.
  • There is the next generation young adult who always struggled in school yet persists to complete a degree, while working full time to learn business and develop more ‘practical skills.’  Not content to simply ‘fulfill the obligations’ of the family employment policy – he has worked for several years in a related business, developing industry contacts as well as knowledge he plans to bring back when he does eventually join his family’s business.
  • There is the second-generation leader whose intelligence and quiet resolve have allowed the business he owns with his brother to flourish where competitors have struggled.  Though revered in his industry he shares the limelight and all ownership decisions with his brother, and has comfortably transitioned out of the leadership role.

The point of these stories is to highlight that there is no one path to success in a family business, or anywhere else for that matter.  Sometimes we spend too much energy looking for ‘the formula’ for success – when in truth the search should be for your personal path.  For the most part, when people arrive at success it is because they have a vision of where they want to go with their potential, and then put one foot in front of the other towards that goal.  Make sure you are on the right path, because if you aren’t – no matter what you accomplish, you will not have achieved success for yourself.

Does Constant Communication Break Down Human Communication?

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Our highly wired culture encourages us to constantly be ‘in touch’ and communicating through texts, Twitter, phone calls, emails, Facebook, Linked In, you name it…   It seems we are forever posting or checking updates, sending or responding to texts or emails, essentially constantly in the act of communicating – at least electronically.

But sometimes all this electronic communication crowds out in-person communication.  I have seen countless face-to-face meetings interrupted by a phone call or a text; it is increasingly difficult to enforce the ‘no electronics’ rule at meetings; and I have even witnessed family meals with clients where family members are texting each other at the table (rather than speaking)!  I sometimes wonder if we raising a generation of people who will be increasingly uncomfortable with direct human interaction.

In addition, the constant interruption of electronics also challenges people’s ability to focus and work on projects in an uninterrupted manner.  As the norm in many business (and social) settings is that folks will respond to a received communication almost instantly, there is pressure to always check and respond to email, texts, etc.  This effectively prevents individuals from having uninterrupted time for complex discussions or quiet work.

While I would never advocate eliminating electronic modes of communication (I am email-dependent), I do think families need to insist on some ‘electronics off’ time – both in the business and in the family.   At your next family meeting you might put electronic communication on the agenda and have a frank discussion about how it is helping and harming the family and the business, and consider some policies to manage it intentionally.

Decisions, Decisions….

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

As we watch decision-makers around the world struggle with the difficult choices and trade-offs of how to respond to the crisis in Syria – I am reminded again that leadership is very, very hard.

When you lead a business, a family or any organization you often have to make decisions without all the facts you want to have, knowing there will be some ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as a consequence of your choice, and as a result, there will always be some who disagree with your decision.

In a family business, leaders may particularly struggle to make the hard choices because they worry about unintended consequences and the collateral damage in some of their closest relationships.  The overlap of family and business can make it very hard to remain objective, when objectivity is so very important.

If you aspire to leadership roles in your family’s business, make sure you are up to the task of making the hard choices.  Remember that when important issues are involved, there are very few ‘black and white’ answers – and it is tough to be the one who has to make the call.

Two Interesting Family Business Lessons from the Holy Land…

Stephanie Brun de Pontet


Did you know that it is a Muslim family that holds the key to one of the most sacred churches in Christianity?  Further, did you know that they have been fulfilling the obligation of opening and closing this church every day for centuries:

The Nuseibeh family was first made custodians of the key when Caliph Umar Ibn Khattab first conquered Jerusalem in 638AD. The only gap in the family tradition was during the 88 years of Crusader rule in the 12th century, which ended in 1187 when Saladin recaptured Jerusalem and promised Richard the Lionheart that he would restore the Nuseibehs as the custodians of the key.

As the current generation prepares to pass this important responsibility on to his son, they represent two important lessons for all families in business.  First, sometimes the ‘best choice’ to take over an important responsibility is an individual or group that is deeply trusted and seen as free of any ‘agenda.’

His ancestors were chosen for their long service and ability to navigate the sometimes violent rivalries between the various Christian sects represented in the church. “I am the custodian of the key of the Holy Sepulchre,” said Mr Nuseibeh, 62, as worshippers made their way up the Via Dolorosa through Jerusalem’s Old City to mark Good Friday. “I see these people and I feel how important the task is, how good it is that my family has held the tradition all these years. I am proud that my family will continue to hold this honour.”

Second, teaching the value of the legacy of stewardship is incredibly powerful.  While pride is important, communicating some reverence for the responsibility and the benefits one is hopefully able to confer to others (for business owners through creating good jobs, delivering an excellent product, etc.).  As the son gets ready to assume his father’s role, he states:

This year, Mr Nuseibeh will pass the responsibility as key holder over to his son, 30-year-old Obedya Nuseibeh who works by day as a hairdresser in Jerusalem.After the Easter festival he will begin to take over responsibility for his father’s gate-keeping, arriving at the Church at 4am to open the doors, and at 8pm to lock them shut. “I’m nervous I won’t do it correctly at first, there is a lot of ritual to remember. But I’ve been watching my father do this for years, and I think I know it very well,” said Obedya. “My father advised me to stay neutral, to remember this is an important, historic role.”

Food for thought for all of us.

Full article can be read at: