All posts by Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Results from Bully Surveys

Last month we launched our initial ‘quick survey’ of Family Business Advisor (FBA) readers and our own FBCG advisors to get some feedback from our audience about their experience with the article’s topic.  Last month’s FBA newsletter touched on the difficult topic of bullying.  While we did not get many answers – the responses are of interest.

1) Just over half of our readers felt family-owned businesses encounter MORE bullying than publicly-traded companies – YET when we asked our advisors what percentage of their family business clients struggled with bullying issues, about 35% said none and a further 25% said 20% or less of their clients had bullying issues of which they were aware.  This suggests that perhaps readers who have struggled with this challenge in their own business might have been more inclined to participate.

2) When asked to identify ‘who’ was the bully most often in a family-owned business, there was a wide range of specific responses (sibling, parent, child, etc.), but most answers fell in categories of family members who were involved in the business.  This response pattern was true of readers and of advisors.  Likewise, when asked who the victim was – both sets of respondents indicated family members were most often the victims in these situations.  These answers suggest that a lot of the bullying in family businesses is intra-family bullying, putting the additional emotional load of family connection (on top of the power issues that are often involved in these situations) into the toxic soup of bullying.

3) If we consider who is doing the bullying and who is the victim of bullying in family business, it is not surprising to read many comments from readers telling us that in their situation: ‘the bullying was not fully handled,’ ‘that person is now in charge,’ ‘the behavior is being enabled by other family members…’.  These are disconcerting comments and give us a sense of how toxic it can be when there is bullying in a family business.

We deeply appreciate everyone’s participation in these ‘mini-surveys’ (only 3 or 4 questions, very fast to complete) and hope readers gain some additional insights alongside us as we seek to hear from readers about their lived experienced with these complex topics.  We hope many folks will take a couple of minutes to answer the survey related to this months’ article – and as always, if you are interested in learning more about how the Family Business Consulting Group, Inc. may be a resource to you and your family, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Gratefully, the Family Business Advisor


Holding Yourself Accountable is Key to Credibility

Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Accountability is a loaded idea in our culture and even more so in a family business – where notions of professional accountability and family ‘loyalty’ sometimes clash.  We want folks to be accountable for their choices, actions and results, but we also want to show empathy for each other’s struggles and limitations, and patience with young people who are starting out and finding their way.

While I understand the parental desire to give our children the benefit of the doubt, or let them off the hook for a transgression that we can minimize in our minds – we don’t do them any favors by taking the ‘easy’ way.  This pattern often starts early.  When a child comes home with a bad grade and tells you that it is because the teacher doesn’t like them, their classmate makes noises and this is distracting, or a kid moved their book so they couldn’t find it – it is natural and tempting to sympathize with your child and agree that the deck was stacked against them, therefore we don’t need to hold them accountable.

Unfortunately, when family members have never really been held to account for their choices, actions or results, they have a hard time recognizing their role or responsibility in any situation.  These are the family members always being derailed by things that are ‘outside their control,’ and when things go awry it is always someone else’s fault.  Someone else failed to get them the numbers they needed to do their job, their kids are sick, the boss didn’t explain the task well, whatever.

Any adult who cannot take basic responsibility rapidly loses all credibility.  In life there will always be hurdles and challenges to overcome.  The contrast is stark, there are folks who are ‘doers’ who consistently find a way to get results despite the challenges, and there are those who will only complain and want sympathy for their plight.  Pay attention – if you find that you spend a lot of time explaining to others why you couldn’t get something done – understand that eventually folks will simply count you out, they will decide in advance that you cannot get things done – and instead seek the input or work from folks who can.


Marriage Wisdom Applied Broadly

Stephanie Brun de Pontet

John Gottman is one of the foremost experts on marriage and he has been widely quoted on television, in books, in academic journals and other magazines.  While he offers extensive wisdom on marriage – below are a few themes or ideas he has often raised, that have currency for marriage and all close family relationships.

  1. Honor each other’s dreams – listen to one another with care and find ways to be supportive.
  2. Respect and affection are two of the most important ingredients in any lasting close personal relationships
  3. Find ways to say ‘yes’ to one another – not avoiding conflict, but actively seeking areas of agreement and articulating these to one another.
  4. Small gestures of connection and caring build trust.  It can be easy to start to take our closest relationships for granted, always make an effort to demonstrate your interest in the other person and their priorities.
  5. It is critically important to know how to make repairs to your relationships.  If there has been a disagreement – successful relationships are those that know how to rebuild after the storm…
  6. The ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ that spell doom for a marriage are also toxic elements to any close relationship.  These are: Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt.   If you find these regularly creeping into any of your family relationships, it is a sign of real challenges to that bond.  Note that Dr. Gottman suggests that contempt is the worst of these as it communicates disgust.

A family business partnership is often deeply influenced by the marriage partnership of the parents.  The marital partnership is the core building block of families and the way a couple navigates its marital bond will certainly have an impact on their children and their approach to partnerships more broadly, influencing generations to come.


3 Different Audiences for Family Business Education

Stephanie Brun de Pontet

In a previous article on family business education, Amy Schuman and I suggested one critical task in planning education is to ‘Clarify your Purpose’ – and an important related construct may be ‘Think about your Audience’.  While there are many possible ‘audiences’ – the following three have very different ‘learning goals’ – yet all are very important, and investing in these individuals’ education will serve the long-term health of the family and the business well:

1) Those who aspire to leadership roles in the business – Education programming to support this purpose should be done in close collaboration with your HR department, and should also seek input from other key leaders in the business who will provide important insight on the skills and experiences that aspiring managers and leaders of the company require.  This learning program may include encouraging family members to pursue certain kinds of academic credentials or hands-on experience elsewhere, it may include summer or other short-term projects or internship opportunities at the business, and it may include comprehensive career planning within the company.

2) The next generation of owners – We often find families benefit from setting up a ‘next generation’ group that engages in regular learning about the roles and responsibilities of ownership.  Before young adults even come into ownership it is helpful for them to gain basic knowledge of the business they will own, learn skills like reading financial statements, learn about topics like ‘taxes’ and ‘wills’ – two realities that will be far more complex for them than for their peers, and begin to understand the importance of stewardship, or the responsibilities that come with the good fortune of ownership.  Not only does this group have similar learning needs, they also need to learn to make decisions together, so the process of working and regularly meeting together to learn – can provide an important benefit of bonding this group in addition to getting them used to collaborating.

3) Those who marry into the family – Marrying into a business-owning family can be daunting and is sometimes fraught with emotional landmines.  Families in business together are often close-knit, have many traditions of togetherness, and have all been brought up with this company in their midst, so they may not see the business-focused things they do as atypical.  A new entrant to this family must gain acceptance – but will be at a serious disadvantage of not knowing the company as well, and may fear that if they ask questions some family members will accuse them of putting their nose where it doesn’t belong.  Therefore an education program is an important way of providing some basic knowledge of the company to these new family members, while also giving them insight into family traditions and shared values to help them feel accepted and well integrated.


Family Business: Inefficient or simply caring?

Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Sometimes you see two news items on the same day and they seem to really underscore the differing views that some may hold about family owned business…  In fact, I recently read about an article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph, which cited research from the London School of Economics in an article titled “Family-run firms are Britain’s weak economic link” The article pointed to research findings that suggest second and third generation family-run firms have weaker management than non-family firms.

However, the day I read that piece was also a day where President Obama was pointing to the example of some US businesses, such as Marvin Windows – a family business – that have stood the test of time by engaging in a practice of shared sacrifice in tough times.  Specifically, at Marvin when the economy took a nose-dive, the employees were happy to make concessions on pay and benefits AND the owners also made significant sacrifices on the dividend side – enabling a company that is heavily exposed to construction to weather this terrible recession.  This is not a new approach at this third & fourth generation family firm, in fact they have had almost no layoffs in over 100 years of history as they see the cost of losing skilled labor (to the business AND the community where they grew up & live today) as too steep a price to pay for a short-term boost to profits.

Is it possible that some family enterprises may look less aggressive – or may not otherwise fit some business-school models of hard-nosed decision-making because they are committed to their communities, and see decisions with an eye to the very long term?  While this approach may not always squeeze out every possible dime of profit from an enterprise – is it possible that society as a whole is a little bit better if we leave some of that on the table?


The importance of facing the music…

Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Being a parent is the hardest and most rewarding job I have ever held.  As any parent knows – there are no ‘owners manuals’ out there to guide you on the many decisions large and small you will be faced with as you raise your children.  You are essentially equipped with the values you were taught and your own ‘best judgment’ in the heat of any particular moment.  At a minimum, well-intentioned parents seek to love their children, feed, house and educate them, and protect them from harm.  While this list is benign enough – the truth is that last one can be tricky to navigate.  At what point is our role as protector essential (keeping our kids out of physical harm), and at what point is our desire to keep them from harm in the near term sometimes counter-productive in the long term?

While there are certainly times when a parent needs to ‘go to bat’ for their child the powerful instinct to protect our young can get in the way of their healthy development at times.  Think of the parent who is still closely monitoring the homework routine of their 10th grader.   If that child never learns how to organize work independently nor take the consequences for a failure to ‘get it done’ – they are going to be in for a rude awakening in the real world where folks have to be accountable and responsible on their own.   These are often also the parents who ‘fix things’ for their kids, if the child gets into trouble the parent tends to swoop in and make the problem go away.

This pattern can really be a problem in a family business context.  For one ting, it can be perpetuated longer if a parent seeks to protect their child from poor feedback, real responsibility or accountability even into their adult roles at the business.  The results are almost always poor for the adult child (the interference of a parent on behalf of an adult child rarely makes that child look competent or reliable), can have negative consequences in the business (e.g., if non-family employees get frustrated that this family member is never held accountable and they are left cleaning up the mess), and can create strife in the family or result in a family pulling itself into stronger ‘branch’ thinking if siblings start to intercede on behalf of their kids in ways that are inappropriate.

While it is important to remember that we are family and that shared love and support should guide thinking and decision making – if a parent never allows their child to ‘face the music’ of accountability, they will fail to learn some critical life lessons.  Failure and set backs, while never fun, are essential life lessons that build resilience, competence and real confidence, as the person has to dust themselves off and try again.  While it can be hard to push our babies out of the nest and watch them fall to the ground – they will never learn to fly on their own, and really blossom into their full potential, if as parents we don’t allow them to experience the set-backs and failures that are a part of life.


What is a “Stakeholder”?

Stephanie Brun de Pontet

In our education article Amy Schuman and I used the word ‘stakeholder’ to talk about the broad group of people who should have a role to play in the education process in a family business.  While we use this word often in our work with clients, I realize that many people are not always sure what is meant by the word ‘stakeholder.’  Simply put, I would say it is any individual who may have a ‘stake’ or an ‘interest’ in the business and the family.  While some companies may have additional stakeholder groups that are central for them, typically stakeholders fall into four broad categories:

1) Family members
2) Shareholders 
3) Employees
4) Broader business community (creditors, suppliers, customers, community) 

Of course, within each group there are sub-groups that come with some nuance.  For example, are family members treated differently if they are ‘blood descendants’ v. those who marry in?  Within the group of employees – there are employees who are in leadership roles and those who are ‘worker bees’ – and they may see choices or decisions quite differently from one another, and also differently from folks who are not working in the business at all.  While this is complex, in a family business you often have the additional complexity of individuals who fall into more than one stakeholder group at the same time – you have a working family member for example.

This complexity is important to bear in mind as different stakeholder groups may sometimes see issues differently.  As a result, it is important to consult with all relevant stakeholder groups on core issues, or at least take the time to deeply consider the impact of a given decision or priority for all the stakeholder groups affected.  Education is only one example where this is appropriate – we tend to encourage transparency and open communication on issues as much as possible with families in business.  While it is certainly true that you can’t please all of the people all of the time – if you are genuinely considering the concerns and perspective of all your stakeholder groups, and engaging as broad a cross-section of stakeholders as appropriate often, you will certainly minimize your risk of ‘toxic conflict.’  In most cases people mostly want to feel ‘heard’ – if you can demonstrate that you understand the concerns and priorities of all the stakeholders of your family business, you are well ahead of the pack!


Ethics & Integrity

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

I am a member of the Vistage organization and I recently responded to a question posted by a fellow member on a discussion board there and I thought I would share my thoughts here as well.  The question was: Are ethics and integrity in the business community a thing of the past?  My response was as follows:

While family owned businesses don’t often get good press, in my experience they are among the most ethical businesses out there for a number of reasons. First, they have a true long-term view: they make investments and decisions based on the impact over generations, not just a quarter’s worth of financial results. Second, they are often deeply involved in their communities – feel a sense of real human connection to their employees and the town in which they and their company ‘grew up’ – as a result, they often give back through serious philanthropy, community service efforts, and invest in education and skill building of their teams. Third, there is the ‘name is on the door effect’ – when your family’s reputation is directly connected to a business – that puts an additional level of focus on ethical questions. The Smuckers family business is a great example of this & they embed this idea in their slogan: “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good…” 

While clearly not every family controlled business reflects a strong ethical compass (and regrettably it is the poor behavior of a few that is most often reflected in the media) – I find a tremendous number of family owned enterprises operate their companies with the very best ethics – which contributes to why they are so key to our economy.


Why does Conflict Make your Brain Go @#%%@@?

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Most of us don’t like conflict.  This is reasonable – most of us have had conflicts in the past that damaged an important relationship, led to hurt feelings, anger, frustration – basically, negative emotions & negative outcomes.  In addition, many of us feel like we are at our ‘worst’ in conflict – we are not able think well (brain fog) so our reasoning is not as strong as we are used to, we feel blood rushing through our body in weird ways, and we may feel like we are ‘out of control’ – in short, the whole experience is physically unpleasant too. 

As a result, it seems reasonable that many people go out of their way to avoid conflict: conflict equals bad feelings and possible danger, I am a rational person, I don’t want any of that – I will avoid the conflict.  This is particularly true in the context of family business where conflict avoidance is a very common phenomenon.  In fact, we often point out to families that their conflict avoidance is unsurprising because their closest personal relationships, professional identity and fulfillment, and source of financial security are all tied together – really, who wants to rock that boat?!

Yet, while we don’t like conflict – we all know disagreements are natural, differing points of view can lead to richer decisions, and avoidance does not lead to solutions.  So while full avoidance is rarely the answer, the challenge is learning how to disagree with others in a way that does not degenerate into unhealthy conflict.  Given the emotional load of a family business this can be hard.   When it feels like there is a lot on the line, the most primitive (reptilian) part of your brain typically takes over: the famed ‘fight or flight’ response.  This system assumes you are facing an existential threat (think wild Tiger) and will flood your brain and your major muscles with clear signals that you need to either stand and fight or run for the hills – two rational options when faced with a Tiger.  

However, when it is a family conflict that is leading to this response, we would suggest that neither fleeing the room nor engaging in fisticuffs is probably a great solution.  What you do need to do is to find a way to re-engage with your rational mind.  While this can be easier said than done, the first step is often to recognize when you are responding in a ‘fight or flight’ manner.  When your primitive brain has taken over you are really no longer capable of rational thought, you are not likely listening, and you are also likely not doing a good job of making your point either.  If you become aware that your reptilian brain is now in charge it may be a good idea to seek a ‘time out’ from the discussion to give everyone a chance to cool down and return to rational brain work.  Be clear with one another that this is not avoidance – set a time to return to the discussion, but give yourselves a chance to cool off as needed, to ensure that when you get back together, it is to collaborate on a solution – rather than expend your energies trying to bash one another and prove why you are ‘right’ and they are ‘wrong.’

For more ideas on managing family conflict, please join the webinar my colleague David Lansky is running on this very topic on September 21stClick here for more information on the Effective Strategies for Avoiding and Managing Family Conflict webinar.


Does Murdoch give family business a bad name?

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

While I have to admit to not following the current scandal of the Murdoch Family and their businesses very closely, as an advisor to families in business I am sad to see this story, in part because of the very negative impression the public is left with about families who own and operate substantial businesses. 

Clearly the “News of the World” case is a very big story and the Murdoch family has a lot to answer for – so it is entirely appropriate that the media take a large interest; and a relief to see the Murdoch family held to account.  What pains me in addition to the ‘wrong doing’ in this case – is the resulting ‘broad brush’ negative image the public is left with about families that own and operate businesses.  Here are two recent newspaper article titles & short quotes that illustrate my point:

News Corp: A family business.  “Murdoch is protected from angry investors by an obscenely nepotistic shareholding structure…” (Guardian in the UK)

Scandal Splinters a Family business. “I and others doubt that the charms of a global media enterprise being run as a corner grocery store will continue…” (New York Times)

It may well be that the overlap of family and business had a role to play in the Murdoch situation, but it is a shame that these significant headlines are never counterbalanced with an equally captivating positive story of how a family business invests heavily in its local hospital, provides scholarships for the handicapped children of their employees, or makes deep cuts in their dividends to avoid layoffs.  These are real examples of ‘good corporate citizenship’ I have seen with family business clients in just the past two months.

While there will always be individuals we may admire, and some we may vilify in the world of family business; in my experience, families in business do a lot of good in the world – but they often do it quietly, and that rarely makes any kind of headline. 

We’d love to hear your stories of family owned businesses ‘doing good’ – whatever that good might be, just as a reminder that there is a lot more to family business than what we typically see portrayed in the news.