All posts by JoAnne Norton, Ed.D.

Shhhhhhh! We can’t talk about that!

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

“Shhhhhhh! We can’t talk about that! “You-know-who” will throw a hissy fit! We simply cannot bring that up—ever! For any reason!”

Have you heard this line of thinking in your family?

Unfortunately, the fear of an adult throwing a temper tantrum can keep family members from discussing important issues, and it can take a toll on relationships in the family and the business. The fear of what a histrionic family member might do can hold the rest of the family hostage, especially when it’s time to make difficult decisions.

Where does this fear come from? In the deep recesses at the back of the bottom of the skull, the oldest part of the human brain resides. For over 100 million years, the brainstem, or “lizard brain,” has kept human beings alive. This part of the brain is far from where our complex thinking takes place; it’s where the “fight or flight” impulse comes from. Though this part of the brain can save our lives by helping us sense real danger, it might cause us to panic unnecessarily. For example, when we know that a tough decision must be made, it’s the “lizard brain” that can make us fear that someone throwing a fit will lead to a “for sale” sign in front of the family business.

When we feel ourselves being hijacked by our “lizard brains,” we need to calm down and use the neocortex, the newer part of our brain, and ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What are the facts?
  • How do I know these are the facts?
  • What am I feeling?
  • Could my emotions be clouding my thinking?
  • How would I handle it if someone really does act out?
  • Would providing my family members with more facts help them deal with the situation with less emotion and more clear thinking?

If a highly charged emotional subject needs to be discussed, consider bringing in a professional who could facilitate the meeting with objectivity and neutrality. To calm yourself down, try focusing on the facts. Then take three deep breaths by inhaling while sticking your stomach out and then slowly exhaling all the air out of your lungs. Controlling your breathing can help you control your emotions and that old lizard brain. Focusing on the facts gives your new brain the chance to go to work because unrealistic fears can sabotage both the family and the business.


Bullying in the Family Business: What Should You Do About It?

JoAnne Norton

Your sister-in-law works in your family’s business right alongside of you and for some reason thinks she can do both her job and your job better than you can. You begin dreading the day as you drive to work knowing she’s probably already at the office ready to pounce on you yet again, criticizing and correcting you, surprisingly sarcastic for someone you once got along with so well. More than anything, it is her condescending tone of voice that makes you leave your family’s business each day feeling demeaned and demoralized. How do you make this bad behavior stop?

The titles of the best-selling books on the market would have you believe it is just a matter of having a conversation—a crucial one, a fierce one, or a difficult one. While all of the authors have excellent ideas and wise advice, the key word in all of the titles is conversations. You cannot keep putting up with bad behavior hoping your sister-in-law will magically change over night because that strategy simply guarantees more of the same bad behavior. You need to talk.

Bullying is detrimental to relationships in the business and in the family. Worse yet, it can have a serious impact on the family for generations. Children and grandchildren who witness disrespectful and hurtful putdowns learn: A) exactly how to behave this way, and B) it is okay to treat each other poorly. That’s why when these disrespectful dealings are going on, it is the business of the family to have a conversation about it.

To begin with, it must be made clear that all family members are required to speak to each other respectfully. Talking rudely and putting someone down are completely unacceptable behaviors. Bullying is counter-productive in a family culture and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

If a family member is feeling bullied, or if any family member witnesses bullying, it is time to have one of those conversations—a conversation that should take place with an objective outsider, maybe even a professional. The sooner the conversation is held, the less lasting damage will be done. But keep in mind that this is a critical conversation and one that should never be done by email or text. The preservation of your family is too precious not to be taken seriously.

For more information on how to deal with difficult issues, please join my colleague, Joe Schmieder, and me for our webinar on December 4 at 1:00PM EST when we’ll be talking about “The Ties That Bind: Facing Up to the Difficult, Sometimes Brutal, Family Business Issues.” For more information click here.


How Important is Your Vote?

JoAnne Norton

Very! Especially when it comes to elections that involve your family’s business. To be successful, family owners need to have good governance practices in place at least by the third generation. By that time, cousins own the business together, and decisions generally need to be made by a large number of people rather than a single owner or siblings.

Recently I was meeting with a family who were in the process of organizing their first Family Council. We talked about all of the exciting things the Council could do, such as creating the philosophy of family leadership in the business and drafting a family-employment policy.

A hand shot up at the back of the room, and a young woman asked: “But where does the Family Council get all of this power from? What if the Council does something the family does not agree with?” I explained that this power would come from all of the family members who were with us in the room that day. They would ultimately become the Family Assembly, which is usually composed of all of the members of the family. I told her it is generally the charge of the Family Council to draft the charter, but nothing could actually happen unless family members showed their support by voting.

Next, she asked who could vote? Would it be just the owners? Would spouses be included? How old would family members have to be in order to vote? I explained that the answers to these questions vary from family to family, but I assured her again the entire family would have the opportunity to vote on these issues. She looked greatly relieved.

Of all the voting family owners do, voting for family leaders is probably the most vital. Family Assemblies usually vote for Family Council members, and the Council members vote for who will lead them as their Chairman. That’s why when you have the opportunity to make this crucial leadership decision, please be sure to vote!


The Princess and the Peon

JoAnne Norton

“You just don’t know how hard it is to work with the princess,” the frustrated executive began as she anxiously played with her pearls. “She comes into work late, if at all, leaves early, and doesn’t abide by the rules. I am beside myself because her father sees her as the future leader of the company. Those of us who have to work with her just see her as a spoiled brat, and if she is chosen as the next leader, we’ll all walk.”

Because the executive was a well-respected, long-standing non-family leader in the company, I asked her if she had ever tried to approach “the princess” to discuss the situation with her diplomatically. “Yes!” she cried, “but it completely backfired. When I finally broached the subject, she responded by placing her hand on her hip and asking me condescendingly: ‘Do you know whose name is on the front door?’ With that, I was dismissed and shown the way out of her palatial office. I felt as if I were a peon, that I was just an irritant to her majesty, and yet I truly want what is best for her, her family, and the employees.”

Being the child of a successful entrepreneur is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, there are many opportunities not afforded most. On the other hand entrepreneurs can frequently be absent from family life. Blinded by guilt for not having been there enough when their children were growing up, entrepreneurs are sometimes motivated to try to make up for lost time with their adult children. Some entrepreneurs try to do this by bringing their children into the business.  When they do this without providing needed guidance or limits, the risk to the company is serious as princes and princesses of privilege can quickly destroy a family business that took a generation to build.

Loyal non-family executives can be pivotal in solving the “Princess Problem” by identifying the issue and encouraging the family to seek outside help.  Of course, this only works if they are ‘heard’ by all sides.  Parental love and guilt are powerful forces that can blind an otherwise rational person to the hard reality of their offspring’s limited skills or destructive attitude.

Generally what makes entrepreneurs so successful is their hard work and self-discipline. Good family business coaches use those entrepreneurial strengths to design a program that will be effective for both generations. The present generation of leadership will need to be more disciplined in their approach to their children, and the children will need to be more disciplined in their approach to work.  This can represent a significant shift in how both have operated for a long time, but it is essential for the survival of the business.

Jim Rohn once wrote, “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” Mature, well-meaning non-family leaders can make sure there are no regrets.

JoAnne Norton can be reached at or 714-273-9367.  Click here to read JoAnne’s biography.


A Tale of Two Sisters

JoAnne Norton

It was the best of times, and then it was the worst of times for the second-generation family owners of a flourishing gardening business. Sisters Amy and Bethany, members of the third generation, were bright, talented women who were active in the newly formed family council, though neither worked in the operation.

Amy served admirably as the first chairman of the seven-member family council composed of her sister Bethany, her uncle, her aunt, her brother, and two cousins. Amy seemed to be a born leader. She had done a lot of the research and initial legwork to get the family council started and launched.  Thanks to her efforts the family formed an active family council, and the family agreed that these were some of the best of times for them.
After Amy served her two-year term as chairman, her sister Bethany took over. Also bright and well organized, Bethany seemed like the perfect successor. After a year, though, the family council was not performing nearly as well as it had under Amy’s leadership. Council members weren’t showing up, meetings did not run as smoothly, and everyone noticed there was a real lack of camaraderie. Family members wondered if having good governance was really worth the time, effort, and expense.

The best of times and the worst of times boiled down to one significant difference: the leadership styles of Amy and Bethany. Amy understood the importance of building relationships, and Bethany did not. At the beginning of each month, Amy would look at her busy calendar and decide what day she was going to take her dad and her aunt to lunch. Since they were the owners of their family’s growing gardening business, she knew how important it was to stay close to them. She would also schedule calls to her siblings and cousins – making a point to find out what pressing issues she should have on the family council agenda so all topics could be addressed. She knew that staying in touch with the entire family and continuing to build those relationships was critical to the success of the family and the business.

Bethany had not realized the organizational and personal skills it took to make the council run smoothly. She was, however, smart enough to seek her sister’s advice. Amy explained to Bethany how imperative it is for family leaders to stay in close contact with everyone in their family system.. Amy said her strategy was to organize her calendar on the first day of each month because scheduling time for relationship building should always be done first. No one wanted to miss one of Amy’s meetings because the topics were always on target, and everyone was fully engaged.

Staying in contact with the members of the family council did not come easily to Bethany, but she became increasingly aware of how the little things she did to stay in touch paid big dividends in the cohesiveness of the council and the effectiveness of the family governance. Bethany learned from Amy that it is the investment of time that makes for the best of times when it comes to working successfully with your family.

JoAnne Norton can be reached at or 714-273-9367.  Click here to read JoAnne’s biography.


Improving Communication in Family Businesses

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

There’s never been a time in history when we’ve been able to send messages faster. In an age when what you are thinking can be written down, sent via email, and read by another person in a nanosecond, you would think that communication in family businesses would be improving. At a time when we are dishing about our dislikes, likes, political views, greatest aspirations and favorite inspiration on Facebook, or Twitter you would think that family members who work together every day would be in touch, online, and in sync, but you would be wrong.

Frequently family members who work together are so busy tending to business and dealing with the day-to-day operations, they don’t take the time to share what they are thinking, and more importantly, they don’t make the opportunity to listen. In the absence of good frequent communication people’s minds automatically fill in the blanks. A mother working with a busy daughter, who constantly talks shop, could assume there is a problem where none exists. A son, who works with a strong silent father, could assume that everything is splendid when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. In both situations neither the mother-daughter team nor the father-son team is dealing in reality, and that is dangerous for any family but particularly a family who owns a business together.

How do you improve communication? Communication is from the Latin word communicare meaning “to share,” so spending time together away from the office sharing with each other what is most important is the easy and obvious answer. Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to get away from a thriving business to talk about anything but business, especially when the business is brand new or when we’re going through tough economic times like we are now. When communication decreases, anxiety increases, and relationships begin to suffer, which causes family businesses to slowly die on the vine. Stephen Covey once said: “The deepest need of the human soul is to be understood.” To be understood we must speak, and we must be heard. It’s time to make a date with a family member to go to lunch, to take a walk, or to take a trip with the express intention of sharing what’s going on and understanding each other. It’s good for the business and great for the family.


Inspiring Entrepreneurship in Family Business

By JoAnne Norton, Ed.D.

The early morning sunlight warmed the meeting room where the forty-five members of a large fourth-generation family business gathered on the last day of their family’s retreat three years ago. The room had a panoramic view of a pristine lake nestled among fir-tree covered mountains—a vista that easily inspired long-term visions and harmonious values.

Through a series of visioning activities the family members had confirmed that they wished their family business would last for many more generations. They were, however, faced with the challenge that their wealth was invested in mostly mature industries. After a discussion of where they were then and where they needed to be in the future, the family members divided themselves into special interest groups based on how best to achieve their vision. One group, composed of members of the third and fourth generations, determined it was crucial to find new sources of revenue for the future. To that end, they formed a special “Entrepreneurship Committee.”

Over the last several years the group has been exploring ways to grow and nurture entrepreneurs in the family in order to expand their wealth thereby ensuring that they can continue as an enterprising family. At next summer’s family retreat several of the successful entrepreneurs in the family have been asked to share stories of how they started their own businesses, what their biggest challenges and biggest rewards are, what has worked and what hasn’t. In addition, members of the fifth generation, who are high school and college age, will have the opportunity to work on an entrepreneurial project together, coached by some of the entrepreneurs in the fourth generation.

What’s so exciting about this family’s hard work to inspire and educate budding entrepreneurs in their family, is that recently released research indicates they are definitely on the right path to being a long-lasting family enterprise. In December of 2011, the results of the Family Firm Institute/Goodman Study on Longevity in Family Firms were released. Robert Nason, Thomas Zellweger, and Matttias wrote “From Longevity of Firms to Transgenerational Entrepreneurship of Families: Introducing Family Entrepreneurial Orientation,” which appeared in the Family Business Review (XX(X) 1-20). The researchers found that the key wealth creation vehicle is not the firm but the family.  Nason says families should focus on the sustainability of wealth, not on the longevity of a particular operating entity, and one of the things Nason recommends is emphasizing the founder’s entrepreneurial spirit.

If you are in a family business, what kinds of things are you and your family doing to encourage entrepreneurship? Please share your stories with us on this blog.


Define Your Job

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

In the April Family Business Advisor (See April FBA) I wrote about the critical questions famous psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen suggested answering to “define a self:” Who are you? What do you believe? What do you want to do? Then on this blog I wrote about how families could also use the answers to these questions to help build their brands for their businesses. There is yet another important use of these questions for family owners: defining your job.

Bowen used to urge people: “Define your job until you can do it.” For those of us who work in family businesses either as family members or as non-family executives, our job descriptions can be nebulous to say the least. Many times we aren’t sure who or how many people we are actually reporting to. Sometimes they are not even clear about exactly what it is they want us to do.

Faced with this dilemma myself as a non-family executive for a large fourth-generation family business, I knew I needed to heed Bowen’s advice and “define a self.” So with the help of a coach, I thought of all of the things 65 family shareholders might think I should do in my role. Next I formatted these tasks into a survey, and I asked the adult family shareholders how important each item was to them on a scale of 1 to 7 with 7 being of the utmost importance. I asked about everything from taking notes at Family Council meetings to being a role model for the fourth generation. I sent the survey to the shareholders who were more than happy to tell me what they thought I should be doing! I made a list of the top 20 things they identified as being the most important, and I created an evaluation for myself that I sent to them annually with a note asking them: “How am I doing?” just like Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York used to do.

Not surprisingly I improved every year because I was getting the crucial feedback I needed to be able to define my job until I could do it and do it well. Have you answered for yourself yet: Who am I? What do I believe? What am I going to do?  The more clarity you have around the answers to these questions, the more successful you and your family business will be.


Branding Your Family Business

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

Your brand is the promise you make to your customers. Every family business has a brand. Some family owners carefully design their brands with the help of branding experts. Some family business owners are so busy running their businesses they don’t take the time to carefully build their brand. At the end of the day, however, your brand is the impression your customers have of your family business based on their past experience with you as well as what they hear their friends say about you. Consider the following story.

For three generations one family’s concrete business had the reputation for building the smoothest driveways in town, and that’s why they had been so successful and so profitable for nearly 100 years. The brand promise made to customers was for the most part an unspoken one, but it was certainly understood in their hometown.

When the brothers took the business over from their father things did not go well between them. They had major disagreements about exactly what their brand promise was as well as how that promise should be kept, and their communication became limited to the occasional insults screamed across the room or over the telephone.

One night, the older brother went by to check on a driveway that had been poured by his younger brother earlier in the day. To his horror, the older brother detected tiny cracks in the foundation as it was drying because the job had not been done right. He went to the door of the customer who had been delighted with the way the driveway looked. But the older brother had to explain that even though it looked good now, there were tiny cracks that would soon grow bigger over time, and that since his family’s name would be forever written in that concrete, he wanted the smoothest and the best driveway possible.

The older brother believed his family’s name was his bond, and he didn’t want any cracks in the foundation of the driveway or his family’s reputation. So at midnight, under the light of a nearly full moon and a heavy-duty flashlight, he tore out the driveway with a pickaxe so it could be re-poured the next day. He knew, however, that the most difficult work would be with his younger brother because things had to change drastically, or they would no longer be able to work together. That’s when he decided to call in a family business consultant.

When the consultant met with the two brothers he asked them three simple questions: 1) Who are you? 2) What do you believe?  3) What are you going to do? The answers to these questions are essential to building the brand of a family business, but they did not come from an expert in branding. They came from Family Systems Theory started by psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen. 

After a day’s discussion the brothers were able to answer the first question by agreeing that they were third-generation owners who were very proud of the legacy begun by their grandfather and continued by their own father. In answer to the second, they said they believed their family’s tradition in the concrete business was well worth continuing for more generations to come. Finally, they decided that what they wanted to do was to work together to have the best concrete business in town. And there it was—the brand promise—the best concrete business in town.

Murray Bowen believed that when we have a clear understanding of who we are, what we believe, and what we want to do, we are better “defined,” which is vital for both psychological and physical health. Correspondingly, when family owners can come together and answer these questions they are not only defining themselves but also deciding what they want their brand promise to be. Of course building a brand doesn’t stop there. Next the owners must communicate that brand promise to their employees who must all buy into it. Then comes the most important part: all of the owners and all of the employees must keep that promise.

Read JoAnne’s article from the April Family Business Advisor, Click Here


Ancient Wisdom for Today

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

“What’s the most important thing I need to know to be successful in my family’s business?” asked the young MBA student with his soft Southern accent. This question after I had just been interviewed by his professor for over an hour in a family business class! We had covered everything from family councils to family constitutions, from family unity to family politics, from having strong family values to having inspirational family vision statements, and now he wanted to know the most important thing.

Sharing the ancient secret of the Oracle at Delphi, I whispered to him: “Know thyself.” While it is crucial to have the best governance possible in a family business, I explained to this serious student, there are many ways of learning why you are the way you are, why you do the things you do, and how your communication style differs from the communication styles of others. The more you know about yourself, the better you will be able communicate.

If you are in a family business you need to ask yourself, how does your birth order affect your personality? What can you learn about yourself from taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? What is your Enneagram type, and what does it say about you? Then once you’ve learned about yourself, learn as much as you can about the personalities and communication preferences of your family members, especially those who are in the family business with you.

Good communication is critical to the success of your family’s business, and understanding each other’s personality types makes communication easier. When you’ve invested time and energy to know yourself and your family, those little misunderstandings that have the potential to grow into big problems never materialize. Then there is no cause for resentment, retaliation, or retribution. So go on a journey of self-discovery—and take your family with you!