Category Archives: Family Meetings

Finding satisfaction in life . . . lessons for a family business?

Deb Houden
Deb Houden

Recently, I read a short article that highlighted the findings of The Harvard Study of Adult Development (formerly known as the Harvard Longitudinal Study, and the Harvard Grant Study, but most widely known as the Grant Study).  This research followed a group of men for over 75 years to more fully understand what led to (potentially) healthy lives.  Oodles of research has been done on child development, but not so much on adult development (beyond leadership training). The study’s aim was to understand in a deeper way what led to happiness, satisfaction, and contentment. 

George Vaillant, one of the directors of the study, argued the most important discovery was that warm intimate relationships were the strongest predictor of satisfaction in life. A person could have a successful career, make a lot of money, have good physical health, but without the strong connection with other individuals, there was not happiness. The one thing that made the difference was connection.

  • Have family meetings that bring together siblings and cousins and celebrate what is unique about each member
  • Mix and match larger groups to foster connections with other branches so the next generation has an opportunity to develop their own relationships
  • Include in-laws
  • Make time to develop the relationships that make up a family
  • Schedule fun time at family meetings that foster interconnectedness

Satisfaction with one’s career also involved a connection: feeling a connection with one’s job/business.  This connection also trumped money, status, and power.  The most successful family businesses are built on the connection of the family to the enterprise. Wise family members try to cultivate that deep connection in the next generation.

  • Develop a book/story that celebrates the history of the business
  • Teach the younger generation about the business, including age appropriate activities that focus on fostering a deep understanding of the products and markets of the company
  • Introduce key non-family members of the business to members of the family who do not work there
  • Have family-wide communication that celebrates milestones of the company

Another point of the study revolved around the ability to face and overcome challenges by making lemonade out of lemons, and overcoming them in a way that moved from thinking about oneself to thinking of others.

  • In family meetings, have older generation members talk about one of the most challenging issues THEY faced and overcame successfully.  This gives younger generation members permission to make mistakes, too.
  • Don’t shelter children from experiencing difficulties in life.  Instead, have them come up with potential solutions to challenges, discuss pros and cons with you and let them make their own decisions.
  • In family meetings, celebrate challenges that family members may have faced since their last meeting and how they overcame it, no matter how small.
  • Acknowledge and candidly discuss how overcoming challenges, in their own way, are one of the keys to happiness.

Relationships matter.  They matter to your bottom line of your business, and they matter to the bottom line of your family, and they matter to the bottom line of your life’s happiness.  A family business is at its best when the business and the family are healthy and are connected to each other.  Work on each.  Life’s happiness is all about connections.


Spring Cleaning – A Fresh Start

Jennifer Pendergast
Jennifer Pendergast

We’ve devoted the week to spring cleaning. For many people, the process of spring cleaning is not much fun, but they do enjoy the outcome – a more organized, clean and clutter free environment. Family businesses aren’t the best at fresh starts, and indeed getting rid of history, legacy and culture can take away what can be one of a family business’ greatest strengths.  However, we all know of elements in our family businesses that we would be better off leaving behind, inter-personal animosity from prior generations, outmoded business practices, or unhealthy family dynamics.  Families have a difficult time letting these things go, because they represent an important part of the family history or perhaps the family  isn’t even aware of the pattern they are perpetuating.  Whether these unproductive elements of the family are acknowledged or not, they would benefit from spring cleaning.  Consider one of two exercises for your next family gathering –

  1. Ask each family member to write down one thing about the way the family works that they would like to keep and one thing they would like to let go.  (Note that saying “let go” rather than “get rid of” takes the sting out of the process).
  2. Ask the family to think about starting with a clean slate.  If you didn’t have your traditions, history, legacy, what is one thing each person would do differently than what you do today?

Either of these exercises will lead you to a productive discussion of what things your family might want to leave behind so that it can operate in a more organized, clean and clutter free environment.


“Trust Me”

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

These are two of the most compelling words in the English language. As human beings we have an innate urge to trust one another because we know instinctively we need each other for survival. Establishing and maintaining trust is the basis for all relationships in the family and in the business, and what takes a life time to build can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. It is critical to trust and to be trustworthy in your family’s business.

A betrayal of trust can do as much damage to a business as a bad economy, and it can be even more catastrophic to a family. But beware: mistrust can be caused by miscommunication. For example, a CEO we’ll call John might tell his sister Jane one thing and then turn around and tell his sister Jennifer something totally different. If Jane and Jennifer get together and discover that John has told each of them differing stories, then they might find themselves wondering if they can really trust John any more.

Fortunately, if this family has regular meetings, the sisters in our story would be able to ask John face-to face why he had given them different answers. John could then show them that between the time he talked to Jane and when he talked to Jennifer a couple of days later the facts themselves had actually changed. John could explain he had been completely truthful to both of them.

Family meetings provide the opportunity for communication. Good communication requires the courage to ask questions—tough questions that can clarify situations and manage misunderstandings. Owners have the right to know what is going on in their company, and it is up to family members to build an enduring trust based on transparency and a history of fair dealing. So the next time someone says, “Trust me,” answer them with, “Talk to me.”


Why Are Family Meetings So Emotionally Draining?

by John L. Ward 

Most family members find family meetings to be emotionally draining and the anticipation of family meetings to be full of anxiety.  This is true even of strong and loving families, with either benign or exciting agendas on their horizon.  Why?  Listening to several families address this question provides the following explanations. 

  • Hot Spots” Are Always Expected
    Every family has tender or vulnerable relationships or topics that can come up with little warning.  While it isn’t at every meeting, it is inevitable that they occasionally arise.  Infrequent, inevitable, unpredictable, uncomfortable occurrences provide the highest levels of anxiety.
  • Family Meetings are an Unending Process
    Every family meeting, every family decision; seems to beget another.  Not knowing the next steps or decisions creates constant alertness and the tension of constant preparedness without knowing exactly what’s being prepared for.  Inevitably, members seem to believe, a tough emotional decision will arise.  But uncertainty about when it will arise adds to the nervousness.
  • Expectations are Damaged
    Families often include so many idealistic hopes for each other and for the family.  Time together dealing with difficult decisions can lead to disappointments to those idealistic expectations.
  • Process is Hard Work
    For some people in every family, process is a difficult experience, one in which they don’t feel comfortable.  They are better at tasks, projects, decisions that have a clear beginning and end.  Quite often those most uncomfortable with process are the family leader of the business whose power, when uncomfortable or dissatisfied, can lead to thunderous outbursts.
  • Power Moves Eventually Surface
    Family meetings often attempt to put all adult family members on a peer basis.  But, from time to time, the senior generation does exert its power, usually when they are personally uncomfortable or their past actions or their beliefs are questioned.  Those reversions of power by parents deflate and spark despondency in the next generation.  Nothing creates more pain and sets back the family meeting process more.

All these possibilities and uncertainties generate anxieties and stressful vigilance.  Anxieties and vigilance are very fatiguing.  And, with families, there is no break.  The family and family memories are always with us.  Withdrawing to recharge and refresh personal energy is very difficult.

Families and family meetings can, of course, also be the sources of the greatest joys and the greatest accomplishments.  Families usually provide support for each other and the warmth of love is so comforting.  But when families work together, taking on more decisions together, the above issues also are part of the equation.  While fully worth the energy and anxieties for most families, it is important to remember that family meetings are emotionally draining for most, leading to great ambivalence over the whole idea of family meetings.


“Family Organization” – An Oxymoron?

by John L. Ward 

Family organizations, such as family offices, face many paradoxical contradictions. Several follow; then a fundamental paradox will be examined.  

  • Centralized leadership or direct democracy
       – Who makes decisions?
       – How is leadership selected?
  • Individual freedom or collective responsibility
       – Is privacy protected or are there no restrictions on social media use?
       – Is each mindful of the physical security of all?
  • Engagement or emotional space
       – What expectations are put on people for participation?
       – How draining are family meetings?
  • Voluntary involvement or remunerated roles
       – How broad is participation?
       – How appreciated are “doers” feeling?
  • Direct costs or shared costs[*]
       – Who pays for what?
       – How much effort determines real costs? 

Perhaps the most fundamental family organization paradox is Familial or ProfessionalWhen family members participate in family meetings or activities or governance they expect BOTH:  informal, family-like feelings AND productive, effective progress. 

One approach to paradoxes is to seek balance – when there are increasing efforts to professionalize put more attention on how to also emphasize more familiarity. Another approach to paradoxes is to seek a synthesis – “win win.”  Perhaps a family will find that the more professional its meetings, the more time there is for just plain, casual fun?


[*] Sometimes the long-term view dissolves paradoxical contradictions. Perhaps in the long-term all costs are shared?


The Value of Family meetings in early stage family businesses

Jennifer Pendergast
Jennifer Pendergast

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog or other family business advice, you know the value of holding family meetings.  They provide a forum for discussing family issues, educating family members about the business, fostering trust, and sharing the family legacy and values with future generations.   Does this kind of approach really make sense if you are just starting to build your family business legacy? 

Take the case of a 2nd generation family business, run by four siblings in their 40s. Their father has already handed over the reins, their oldest 3rd generation in middle school, and their spouses not really involved.  While many families would start meeting at this point including children, spouses and the founding generation, the four siblings, 3 brothers and a sister, want to build their sibling partnership before they open up meetings to the full family.  They meet frequently as an executive team, so have a ready forum to discuss family and ownership issues. 

The challenge with this meeting format is longer term issues rarely get the attention they deserve in the rush of day to day operational issues.  The importance of longer-term thinking was recently surfaced for this family when someone raised the question of how the family might capitalize on the 2012 estate tax law.  To tackle this question and surface others, the siblings decided to engage a facilitator and hold their first ownership meeting.  At that session, they jointly articulated their long-term vision for the company and identified topics that needed further discussion. They realized they needed to start developing a next generation of business leaders because their children wouldn’t be ready to take over when they retired.  They also agreed that their current dividend policy, loosely defined, worked well for them but wouldn’t work well for the next generation.  Finally, they determined that they needed a shareholder agreement among their generation to ensure that their vision of maintaining family ownership was fulfilled. 

With these important topics on the table, they agreed to meet every 4 months as owners to ensure they have a place to address these important long-term issues.  As this example shows, family meetings come in a number of shapes and sizes.  The important thing is to ensure you’ve created a place for owners and family members to discuss important topics that affect the long-term future of the family enterprise.


The Agony and Ecstasy of Family Vacations

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

I’m just back from a long anticipated vacation in Israel with my husband and two of our adult children. It was wonderful in so many ways.  At the southern tip of the country, Eilat, we devoured fresh whole fish caught just that morning in the Gulf. In the northern part of the country, Karmiel, we grabbed falafel and schwarma from street vendors. We capped the trip with a visit to the red rocks of Petra in Jordan, guided by a Bedouin from a local tribe. No doubt, this vacation will live on as a high point in our family’s memories.

But, like all family trips, it wasn’t all roses. In between the fun and excitement, there was plenty of time for argument, dissatisfaction and frustration.  Travelling with young adults – ages 23 and 19 – required adjustments that my husband and I didn’t always make quickly enough. We often forgot about their maturity and sophistication, and treated them like 10 year olds. And, not surprisingly, there were times when they whined and pouted like children much younger than their years.

Here are some ideas that emerged along the way to make the whole experience more enjoyable for all:

 1. Spend time separately, doing what you most enjoy – the reunion and sharing over dinner is all the sweeter from the time and space apart.

2. Early risers can take an early morning exploration and breakfast, then bring back coffee and a roll to those who want to spend more time snuggled under the covers.

3. Requests from the kids:

                **You don’t have to explain everything to me every 5 minutes – I can see for myself what’s going on in front of my eyes.

                **Don’t ask me every 5 minutes what I want to do, or eat, or see – if I have a request I’ll tell you.

                ** Don’t plan every minute of every day – leave time to hang out, sit at the corner café, enjoy the city in its natural state

The most fun thing we found to do together turned out to be long, late night card games, euchre and rummy, full of laughter, teasing and friendly competition.

There are some great lessons here about helping families knit more closely together across the chasms of age and experience.  Don’t get too wound up by the tense and tough times – they are inevitable. Balance time together with time apart.  And, find time for simple laughter and fun together – say over a game of cards or checkers – that’s the best that family has to offer, wherever we may be on the globe.


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!


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.