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.