All posts by JoAnne Norton, Ed.D.

A New Year’s Resolution For Your Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Happy New Year!

About half of us will make New Year’s resolutions this year, and they will be related to diet and exercise—activities that make us healthier and will help us live longer. Consider that good succession planning for our family business does the same thing: keeps the family business healthier and alive much longer than if we don’t have one.

Recently a non-family executive of a flourishing family business that has been around for many generations posed this hypothetical question to me: “Wouldn’t it be great if both the older and the younger generations made it their New Year’s resolutions to do succession planning and to communicate what their plans are to each other as well as to those of us who work with them?” It was a novel approach—both generations working on their own plans before coming to the table to work on a succession plan together. What I really liked was the idea that both generations would be planning for the future, devising strategies for keeping the business alive and the family involved for another generation regardless of how the discussion starts. Of course I agreed it would be a wonderful resolution.

You could argue that if you wanted to start to do something you could do it at any time, not an arbitrary time like the first of the year. And yet as human beings, there seem to be things we are hardwired to do. We clear things out at the end of the year and start new things at the beginning of a new year. Why not use this natural rhythm, this excuse of the New Year if you will, to start doing what you know you need to do?

Have you and your family been talking about creating a succession plan, but you just don’t get around to it? Perhaps you’ve been discussing meeting for the purpose of ensuring that your family business lasts well into the next generation for years, but you haven’t even set up the first meeting. Having no plan for the future becomes the elephant in the room, the problem everyone is aware of but no one wants to talk about. Statesman John Foster Dulles once said: “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.” Is talking about the future of your family business the same problem you had last year?

If you haven’t begun serious conversations about plans for the next ten years as well as your wishes for the future of your family business, use the beginning of this new year as a good reason to set up a meeting with your family members soon. After all, you do not want to have the same problem again next year.


How to Have The Happiest Holidays In Your Family Business!

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

Having Happy Holidays!

This year I’ve been asked for tips on getting through holiday gatherings with family members when some of them are actively working in the business, some are owners who might not be particularly happy with profits this year, and some are family members who are neither in the business nor owners. Should discussion of the family business be considered off limits?

There are a couple of problems with talking about the family business at holiday family gatherings. First of all, many businesses have lots of jargon and expressions that other family members might not understand. One member of a highly successful multi-generational family told me that when she was with her family and they started talking business, it was like being in a foreign country with a language she didn’t speak or understand. So if you bring up a business concern you need to be aware that you might be starting a conversation that others can’t relate to.

Also, you have to think about the impact of the family business conversation on the children, especially since this has been such a tough year economically for most businesses. What you say this holiday season might make the next generation reluctant to consider joining the family business even decades later.

On the other hand, we have to recognize that it’s tough to completely leave the family business out of the conversation. In October my cousin Barb had our annual family reunion on a gorgeous fall day in Quincy, Illinois, and I had the opportunity to talk to my Uncle Merle who was a second-generation owner, along with my father and my Uncle Louis, of our family’s business. He was reminding me that when the three of them were in the family business they were only off one day a year together and that was Christmas. My uncle told me about one Christmas when they were standing around drinking eggnog and talking shop when my mother asked if there could be just one day a year when they wouldn’t talk about business.

Uncle Merle said that my dad patiently explained to Mom that the company was always top of mind, and that he and his brothers really loved talking about it so much he hoped she would understand. That’s why having empathy-the ability to understand and share the feelings of another-is one of the greatest gifts we can give to each other this year. If you are the one who wants to talk about business, think about the feelings of your other family members. If you are the one who would prefer to have a day without mentioning the business, consider the feelings of those who are always thinking about the business and enjoy talking about it.

Beginning with the end in mind, you want your time with your family to strengthen family relationships. The latest Price Waterhouse Coopers research released at the beginning of November confirms what I’ve found in my own work with family businesses, and that is: if the relationships in the family are healthy, the business is more likely to be healthy. Here’s to happy, healthy relationships throughout the holidays!


What Question Should Family Leaders Be Asking Their Followers?

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

As the leader of a family business, how can you learn what the major concerns of your followers are? What could you ask that would help you learn what your family owners really want the future to look like? What kind of question could you ask that would elicit responses that are open, honest, non-threatening and even creative?

David Cooperrider developed a systematic way of discovery he calls Appreciative Inquiry. Instead of using the conventional method of working with organizations, which is to ask diagnostic questions, such as “What’s wrong with this business?” Cooperrider focuses on what is working well.

The term Appreciative Inquiry comes from the word appreciate meaning valuing, prizing, or honoring, and the word inquire meaning discovery, search, or systematic exploration. Cooperrider also ascertains that the people inside the organization are the ones who really understand what needs to happen for it to be at its very best. In order to learn that, he simply asks: “If you had three wishes for the organization, what would they be?” This question is useful in all organizations, but I have found it to be particularly powerful in family businesses.

Last month I made a presentation at the Inland Press Association’s Family Owners & Next Generation Leadership Conference in Chicago about different leadership models for family businesses. The Inland Press Association is comprised of approximately 1200 newspapers that reach nearly 20 million U.S. homes. Many of those newspapers have been family owned and operated for several generations, and at least one is in its 6th generation of leadership. When these newspaper owners are gathered in one room there is an incredible energy created by their passion for what they do and a synergy that is as exciting as it is supportive.

From Appreciative Inquiry I asked the nearly forty family owners present: “If you had three wishes for your family business leaders—family as well as non-family—what would they be?” Their answers were most revealing.

This group had some philosophical wishes for their leaders because most of them see journalism as a true calling. Media Ethics authority, Kenneth Harwood writes: “Journalism, as a calling, asks for a moral dimension, professional skills, and professional aims. Similar to the biblical wedding feast, many are called, but few are chosen.”  The members of the Inland Press Association feel the awesome responsibility of being part of the American press, or “the watchdog of democracy.” In this group, where journalists are held to extremely high standards, those who lead journalists must be held to even higher standards. So it is not surprising that they wished their leaders would continue to make “journalistic endeavors” explaining, “Public trust can make a significant difference in our communities if we excel.”

The group also specifically wished their leaders would be “servant-leaders” in the style of Robert K. Greenleaf, who believed leaders should serve first and then lead. They also wished for their leaders to develop strong future servant-leaders, for their leaders to have confidence in the transition from one generation to the next, and to embrace change.

The family owners said they wished their leaders would establish a clear vision for the direction of the company. The wish most often made was that their leaders would communicate more. This group wanted to hear more from their leaders as well as for their leaders to hear more from them. They wanted to be listened to, and most importantly, to be heard.

One respected and revered leader of a major newspaper family, who was attending this conference with three generations of his family present, acknowledged that he had heard how many times better communication was wished for. He promised his family members in front of the entire group that he would be more forthcoming about what was on his mind as well as his plans for the future.

Once again I witnessed the power of the simple innocuous question: “If you had three wishes, what would they be?” Whether you are a family leader or a non-family leader, whether you are in the newspaper industry or the nutrition business, it might be time to ask that question and then to really listen.


Family Meetings Provide the Opportunity for a Happy Family and a Prosperous Business

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

Family meetings are fundamental to the health and happiness of family businesses. As family business consultants we are frequently invited to help families learn how to have productive family meetings as well as to assist in creating family councils. Other times we are asked to facilitate and educate these meetings for families who sincerely want their legacies to last.

Recently, members of a second-generation family business invited me to work with them. They are exceptionally passionate people who take great pride in their family and are passing on their tradition and legacy to their children. The reason they brought me in was because, as one of the brothers would later explain: “We are all chiefs of our own tribe, and we need to become one nation.” Although the family gathers frequently for holiday celebrations, they rarely get together to talk about their business. Over a period of two months we had a series of four meetings focusing on improving their communication skills, helping them understand the different ways they think, examining their different leadership styles, and exploring ways of resolving conflict.   

When we debriefed I asked each of them two questions: First, what has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about each other? One said she was amazed that they all think so differently. Another was surprised at how willing all of the family members are to work together, and still another said he was heartened at how much wisdom they all had and their ability to share it with each other.

Second, I asked: What has been the most significant thing you’ve learned? They said it is honoring everyone’s unique style of thinking, communicating, and leading. One sister said that by having these discussions concerning how they think, what had been invisible is now visible. Finally, one of the brothers said he learned to become more focused on the other person’s heart by really listening to what is being said.

Our work with this family continues, but it is obvious the family dynamics are beginning to improve in just two short months after four afternoon meetings. This is key according to the PricewaterhouseCoopers Family Business Survey just released. Based on interviews with over 1,600 families around the world, the survey is cleverly titled: Kin In The Game.

The results of the survey confirm what family business consultants have always known: family dynamics affect the success or failure of the family business. “If there’s unhealthy conflict between the family members, it will spill over into the way the business is managed and owned . . . Conversely, if relations with the family are healthy, the business is more likely to be healthy too” (page 5). Also according to PwC’s research, 71% of family businesses do not have any procedures for resolving conflict between family members (p. 33).  Of those families who do have some way of managing conflict, 52% use family agreements, 44% use family councils, and 37% use third-party mediation (p. 32).  

Investing time and money to improve relationships of family owners is a great investment in the future of the business. Creating a family council gives family owners the chance to manage conflict as well as to make family agreements. These meetings provide the perfect opportunity to have both a happy family and a prosperous business.