Category Archives: Family Meetings

Level the Playing Field: Bring All Voices into Meetings

Anne Hargrave
Anne Hargrave

Have you ever walked out of a meeting thinking that it went very well, only to learn later that many in the group were frustrated and discouraged?

Or, have you worked hard to formulate your thoughts for a meeting and then just couldn’t find an opportunity to voice them?

The differences between extroverts and introverts in planning and decision making processes have a direct impact on how people feel about their roles, their ability to contribute and, ultimately, the success of the endeavor.

Adam Grant of Wharton, Dave Hofmann of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Francesca Gino of Harvard conducted a study within 57 locations of a pizza chain to determine the impact on profitability of extroverted leadership when the employees were passive versus proactive.

They found that extroverted leadership was linked to significantly higher profits when employees were passive, but significantly lower profits with employees who were proactive.  In Gino’s Harvard Business Review article about the study, she notes that in stores with passive employees, those led by extroverts achieved 16% higher profits than those led by introverts.  However, in stores with proactive employees, those led by extroverts achieved 14% lower profits. The results suggest that introverts can use their talents more effectively with proactive team members because they are more open to those who champion new visions, promote better strategies and introduce changes.

Understanding and managing the dynamic in a group is essential to being able to have effective discussions. Extroverts have a tendency towards group interaction, talking to think and sharing ideas openly — they gather their energy from the group. Introverts don’t like to be interrupted, often prefer quieter environments and need to think before taking action or speaking. They gather their energy with quiet time, reflection and focus on topics of importance to them.

Structuring family business meetings to take into consideration the differences between introverts and extroverts levels the playing field, and provides a platform for everyone to be heard.

As a new client recently said, “We are listening to each other better, but we need to quiet the talkers so that they can hear the other great ideas!”

What can you put into place to encourage everyone to have a voice?

Here are a few ideas that have worked for other families:

  • Learn about each other’s personal style. Take an assessment like the Myers Briggs and learn about how people gather information, make decisions, gain energy and deal with the outside world.
  • Provide the materials for a meeting well in advance of the meeting.
  • Agree to read meeting materials in advance. Consider providing a “pre-meeting” time on the agenda for those who have a tendency to do it at the last minute.
  • Identify specific questions in an agenda for those who need time to reflect and collect their thoughts.
  • Offer an opportunity for meeting participants to ask questions in advance of the meeting to obtain clarity on a proposal.
  • Open the meeting by asking each person in the room to answer a question, setting a time limit for the answer. Use the opportunity to get to know each other better, share insights and practice listening to each other.
  • Have the group leader or facilitator actively create an opportunity for each person to speak, while encouraging the louder voices to enjoy the listening process.
  • Break into small groups, even twosomes, to bring out the thinking of those who may be less apt to speak up in a group scenario.
  • Offer opportunities for participants to write down their thoughts and have the facilitator read them out anonymously.
  • Have each person speak directly to the facilitator, not each other, if the topic has a lot of emotion attached to it. Invite others to ask a question of the speaker, but direct it to the facilitator.
  • Take breaks frequently to allow time for those who need to gather their energy and process ideas.
  • Focus on creating a valuable discourse, dig deep into insights and allow for thoughtful debate.

Let us know if these ideas work for you and what you have tried to bring everyone into the room effectively!

Rules of Communication in Family Meetings

Dana Telford
Dana Telford

I’m mechanically disinclined.  My dad recognized this early in my life.  But he wanted me to at least understand the basics of a few mechanical functions.  This inspired him to create a simple, memorable, four-word description of how a combustible engine works: pump, squeeze, pop and blow.  Let me elaborate to (literally) the full extent of my abilities.  Fuel is pumped into a cylinder.  A piston squeezes the fuel, increasing pressure.  A spark plug pops and ignites the compressed fuel.  The explosion blows the piston up and blows the exhaust out.  The energy created by the explosion is converted into power.

Family businesses are like combustible engines.  Family members and non-family employees provide the talent and skills that make up the fuel.  Goals, objectives and compensation models create pressure to succeed.  Personalities and individual work styles create the sparks that can easily turn into explosions.  Governance (a la family meetings, policies and processes) is the exhaust system that regulates the pressure inside the engine and generates the power.

Consider this: Without an exhaust system, a combustible engine is a bomb.  And with too little pressure and too much exhaust, a combustible engine is nothing more than a lit flame — it doesn’t generate power.  I would argue that without effective governance mechanisms, family meetings will suffer one of the same two fates — either an explosion of emotion and frustration or not enough energy to accomplish goals and make progress.

In my experience, good governance begins and ends with effective communication. Family meetings rely on it to manage tensions that exist between family members.  One way to make progress toward excellent communication is to create rules together.

A couple in the southeastern USA had a family construction business and 10 children.  The business and family grew and grew until the couple decided it was time to pass the business to the next generation.  To facilitate the process, they hired me.  As I interviewed family members and started to understand their strengths and weaknesses, they told me about their most recent family meeting.  At a crucial point, when the family was asked to make an important decision, the eldest son became angry, yelling profanities and cursing his parents and siblings.  He stormed out of the conference room door, slamming it behind him and leaving the family stunned and shaken.  “We were so shocked by his behavior that none of us wanted to have another family meeting any time soon,” one sister said.

In spite of this episode, we invited the brother to attend our family business workshop.  At the beginning of the meeting we turned our attention to creating rules of communication.  “How can we make sure we are listening and being heard? How can we make sure these meetings are productive?” I asked.  The responses were thoughtful and honest and included suggestions such as:

  • No interruptions
  • Be honest but respectful
  • Seek first to understand
  • Everyone has a responsibility
  • Set an agenda and stick to it
  • Set time limits set for topics and debate
  • Anyone can call a time out
  • All are equal
  • Everyone is included
  • The rules rule
  • Notes will be kept by the secretary

But the subject of the emotional outburst of the eldest brother had been fearfully ignored.  Finally, a brave brother-in-law raised his hand and suggested: “Nobody leaves without approval.”  We each held our breath but the eldest brother nodded in agreement.  The rules were approved unanimously.

Two months later, we met to review the first draft of a family constitution that would serve as the foundation of the family’s governance system.  The entire family was in attendance.  At the beginning of the meeting, we reviewed the rules of communication and each raised a hand to signal that they agreed to follow the rules during family meetings.  The meeting went very well until early in the afternoon. The topic was family compensation. Unexpectedly, a sister stood up and announced that she was tired of the meeting and hearing about her siblings “living in la la land” while she had to “struggle through every day.” She headed for the door (which, luckily, was on the other side of a large room) while the family watched her in frustrated silence.

Who came to the rescue?  None other than the brave brother-in-law, brandishing the Rules of Communication as his sword of Level Headed Truth.  “Jane,” he said quietly but firmly, “we all agreed to the Rules of Communication and we agreed that the rules rule.  Please, for the sake of your family and for this process, stay here and work with us.  We need and want your help.”  Jane stopped and scowled at him before sitting down in a vacant chair near the door, purse and car keys in hand.  She stayed put for the rest of the meeting, only to bolt out the door the instant it ended.  Two of her sisters were able to catch up to see what was bothering her.  It turned out that she and her husband were in the middle of a significant financial challenge that was causing her great stress.

Rules of communication, when created through an inclusive process and agreed to by all decision makers, can save a family meeting from falling apart and becoming a wasted, frustrating use of time and energy.  They create an expectation of professionalism in an otherwise emotion-filled gathering.  Without them, the frustrated, brave brother- in-law had probably said “Jane, sit down! You’ve always been a drama queen!” or something insensitive and hurtful.  Do your family a favor: If you already have rules of communication, dust them off and review them prior to your next family meeting.  If you don’t have them, set aside a half hour in your next meeting and create them.  As a result, your meetings will be more productive and respectful and the time spent together will be more rewarding.

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.

Past, present and future focus in meetings

Chris Eckrich
Chris Eckrich

Spending our lives in business or family meetings is a huge commitment of time and energy.  In order to make those meetings most effective, we do best when we pay particular attention to the degree of past, present and future focus in meeting time.

In board meetings, often a pattern of focus on past performance develops into an expectation of what board meetings should be. At some point, the board begins getting frustrated that too much time is being spent on last quarter and not enough attention is being given to issues facing the company in the present, or future. This tension can bubble up and cause the board to question its meeting practices. Usually this results in movement towards a stronger and more robust board meeting process, with greater focus on responding to today and planning for tomorrow

Shareholder groups often experience this same pattern: the shareholder meeting consists mainly of a review of what has happened in the past. This may continue for a few years, but at some point as the shareholders begin to get anxious about the future. They begin to ask where they are going as a group, and how the entity or the assets they own will help them achieve their goals. Just as in boards, a process of meeting renewal frequently results in a shift of focus to primarily present concerns and future direction.

While it is easy drop into routines and use templates that can be repeated from meeting to meeting, engagement will typically be higher when the board, shareholder group, or even a family group (for those of you hold family meetings) ask the question: “What is our ideal balance of focusing on past performance and history, present situations and pressing conditions, and future direction and strategic intent?”

Might vulnerability help you crack the code to deeper engagement?

hargrave_100x150
Anne Hargrave

A non-family CEO remarked recently that his level of connection with G2 and G3 family enterprise owners had “vastly improved because (he) decided to be vulnerable.”  

He had always stuck to the task at hand in discussions with family members in their one-on-one meetings but felt something significant was missing.  There was a resistance to open, authentic conversation which he suspected would be essential in order to have important, and distinctly different, conversations needed with each owner.  

The CEO, with encouragement and guidance from a coach, looked for ways to connect with each family member – ways that he could say “me too” and share difficult experiences. Over time, he came to know their hopes, dreams and fears and found that being authentic wasn’t as hard as he had anticipated.  

As he connected more deeply with each person, he gained insights on how to broach difficult conversations around their interaction with the family enterprise. 

Research has shown that embracing our own vulnerabilities helps us be more open and accepting of others. Dr. Brené Brown, a University of Houston researcher, contends that “our imperfections are what connect us to each other and to our humanity.  Our vulnerabilities are not weaknesses; they are powerful reminders to keep our hearts and minds open to the reality that we are all in this together.”  From: I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power”

When family enterprise executives and owners connect with each other authentically, they are able to develop deeper, meaningful and independent relationships, laying a platform for thoughtful decision-making. 

What change might you create by being more authentic with those around you?  

Communication and family: What “should” we be doing?

Deb Houden
Deb Houden

In my last post, I talked about the importance of each generation defining what it needs in order to be an effective group for the family and the business. The operative forum was a family meeting. Family meetings can be tricky. I was facilitating a particularly tense family meeting recently when the patriarch asked me why these meeting were so hard when at the office, they just meet and go forward? He said, “We don’t seem to have as many problems with work relationships as with our family ones.” I asked him how often he talked with his employees. He said, “Every day. We have our meetings, or our visits, solve our problems as move on.”

As family members, we have a certain expectation that since we are family, we should be able to have these meetings, we should be able to talk to each other, we should be able to come to the table and work things out. A wise person once said the family should adopt the policy, “Quit shoulding on me.” The point is that the patriarch failed to accurately compare the amount and type of communication he had with his employees to how much and what type he was having with his family.

We assume as family members that communication should be easy, and when it isn’t, we can’t communicate with “them”. Families need to build capacity in their communication efforts as much as they do with their employees. Many times employers/employees have a filter on their communication before they proceed. How often do we do that with family members? How often do we filter what we say in a way that is constructive? How often do we listen to family members in quite the same way as we listen to employers/employees? How often do we search for a clear understanding of what the other family member said and what they meant?

Case in point, a large family was compiling some ground rules for future meetings. The very first rule the youngest brother said was “Don’t make it personal.” I immediately thought he meant let’s keep business issues business and family issues family. I didn’t think much more until a sister said, “Well, it’s all personal!” I thought, that’s not what he meant, but let it sit. We continued to go around the table, and finally got back to the youngest brother. I asked him to explain what he meant by “Don’t make it personal.” He said as family members, we all know the soft spot that each member has that we can poke at and it hurts. Don’t make your statements so they poke at the underbelly of each other just to hurt. Turns out I was completely wrong about what he meant. We all were but didn’t really understand until we came back around and asked.

Families would be well served to work on their communication with each other. They need to build their capacity! Keep it frequent, keep it constructive, keep on trying to understand, keep it gentle when needed and keep it from poking at the underbelly of the other. And then keep on — it’s never done! Keep building and getting better.

Defining what’s right for your generation

Deb Houden
Deb Houden

“We’re doing it that way because that is what Dad wanted. And for as long as he is alive, that’s how we’re going to do it. It was Dad’s dream, he built it, he gave it to us, and that’s what’s important. We have to honor Dad.”

The statement silenced the rest of the siblings who were trying to have a discussion around the development of a shareholders agreement. The agreement was a “last man standing” contract where upon the death of the shareholder, their shares were retired and the remaining owners had a larger stake in the company. The sibling group of eight were in their 50s and 60s, and contemplating their own future. Some of the siblings worked in the company but most did not. One of the siblings had been diagnosed with a chronic illness that had the potential to shorten her life, and she wanted to understand the consequences of her ownership for her children. She understood the children were to receive the financial gain for the sale of the stock back to the company, but one of her children also worked for the company and hoped to become part owner one day.

While there were many facets to the discussion, I stopped the conversation and asked all of the siblings to step back a bit. Why would their dad want the agreement to read like that? What would be the purpose of formulating such an agreement? The fourth child answered, “Because he wanted the decision making to be consolidated so no one who was running the company would have to ask anyone else for permission to do something.”

I asked the remaining siblings if that was true. They all nodded in agreement. I proceeded to ask why their dad would have felt so strongly about consolidating decision making. Then another sibling told me the story of their dad, his father and his uncles. It was a story of destructive work habits and entitlement that strapped the company and angered the siblings’ father. He eventually bought everyone out and turned the company around. Their father had a very compelling reason to have the shareholders agreement written in the way that it was. However, it was now time for the siblings to come together to decide what was right for them as a group and their families going forward.

Each generation must navigate their own waters. Each generation must decide what is right for them, and what to pass forward. Each generation must face the tension of what is right for their nuclear family, and what is best for the whole and come together to negotiate a decision. And the successful negotiation can only happen through communication.

Often as consultants we are asked to speak or write on best practices. We are asked to give advice on what works best. The problem with those answers is that in order to be a best practice we must answer, “It depends.” The best answer is that each group must come together to review, to communicate, and to decide together a path that moves the family and the business forward in a constructive way. What is best for one family enterprise may not be the best for another.

I was reminded of this the past week when I listened to a webinar on the next generation and how they need to individuate and differentiate from the family. They need to become their own person and understand their own identity, their own strengths and weaknesses. When they can stand on their own, make their own decisions in a healthy way, these children become an adult who can bring a lot of positives to the family and the business, regardless if they work there or not. It is the same with each generation of a family business. They must understand where they came from, appreciate the hard work of the older generation, but decide what their own strengths and weaknesses are, what they need to do for each other as a whole in order to put their own stamp on the family and the business.

The next time you are in a family meeting, work in individual generations to decide:

  • What are our strengths as a group?
  • What is a potential area that could make us unravel?
  • What do we want our generation to be known for?
  • What happens if we do nothing?

Honor your past and hope for the future, but don’t forget to make (as a group) your own impact on the family business.

Family Retreats

Bernie Kliska
Bernie Kliska

A family retreat should be a time to align values and educate each other, while at the same time have some fun. It is usually held in an informal setting where family members can bond and exchange ideas and information.

To handle the flood of material, questions, complaints and accolades, it would be advisable to have a facilitator to help guide the family with their interaction.

What may seem like a good idea at the time, can fall flat or even become an occasion for family flare-ups. So what makes for a good family retreat?

  • Develop a Defined Outcome: It is valuable to have realistic and clearly defined goals and outcomes. The agenda should be distributed to everyone in advance and based on input from the entire family.
  • Be Thoroughly Prepared: There should be no surprises. The single largest cause for why family retreats do not succeed is because of not being prepared. If for example, one person is a “trouble maker,” that should be anticipated in advance. If a family has a hard time sitting for an extended period of time, that has to be factored into the design of the retreat.
  • Bring Solid Content: This is an opportunity to gain family cohesion around certain viewpoints and strategies. This is also a time for families to learn something about themselves as individuals, as well as collectively as a family.
  • Ensure Effective Process: Often family leaders focus on the end result and underestimate the importance of the process involved in the discussions. The process should be fair, open and engaging to ensure full participation from everyone. While content is critical, it is often the process that causes problems and derails communication.

If properly planned, the family retreat should be an opportunity to prevent confusion, dissension and conflict. Having sincere and candid communication will only benefit the family, as well as the business.

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.