Puppies and Babies vs. Doomsday

Jennifer Pendergast

In our work as family business consultants, we are often approached by a member of a family business who recognizes a need in their family to accomplish some work together.  It could be a specific need, such as the need to develop a family employment policy, or a broader need, like the need to begin planning for a generational transition.  Regardless of the scope, it is often the case that all members of the family have not recognized the need for this work.  The family member who sees the need is then put in a position of figuring out how to convince other family members of its importance.

When confronted with this challenge, I try to help the family member by sharing two approaches.  The puppies and babies approach is the soft-sell. Have you ever stopped to think about how many companies use puppies and babies to sell their products – anything from toilet paper to tires?  What does this have to do with family business work?  Well, the puppy and baby equivalent in family business is the family legacy.  Appealing to the family’s desire to leave something behind, to ensure there is a solid future for the next generation or to honor the legacy of the founders is an approach that may convince other family members of the value of working together to ensure these objectives are achieved.  By creating rules, policies or decision making structures, you are making an investment in your future as a family.

The Doomsday approach is more intuitive.  If you don’t do this work together, unhappy family members may want to sell their shares, family infighting may get in the way of making good business decisions, qualified family members may choose to work elsewhere or unqualified members may lead the business.   In a worst case scenario, you could end up on the cover of the local paper in a legal battle.

The approach you take to selling your family on doing the important work it needs to do to ensure long-term success will depend upon your family dynamics and culture.  Some families react to carrots, some to sticks.  Only you know what will work best for your family.

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