Category Archives: Paradox

Finding Balance and Joy in the “Busy” that is Life

Brun de Pontet 100x150
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Busy seems to be the stock response to “How are you?” these days.

We all struggle at times to balance competing demands for our attention from family, work, community,and other commitments. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the frantic pace and lose sight of how fortunate we are to actually have so much going on in our lives.

  • Yes, children can be self-centered, create disorder, and put huge demands on our time… and they bring humor, new experiences and growth to our lives.
  • Yes, work requires long hours, difficult collaborations, and travel or other personal life sacrifices… and enables us to interact with other driven people, stretches us to learn new skills, and in a family business – allows us to know our family members more deeply than most.
  • Yes, community engagement can be frustrating, inefficient and hard to get initiatives sustained…. and they permit us to make an impact, change lives for the better and get to work with people who share our values.

The truth is, there is little in life that is really worth doing or deeply rewarding that does not require sacrifice and effort.  While we all need to make sure we carve out some quiet time and opportunities to take care of ourselves among all the responsibilities we shoulder, the truth is we are tremendously privileged to have these responsibilities. It means we are fully functioning grown ups, it means there are people who believe we make valuable contributions to important goals, it means we have love and joy in our lives….

The next time you are feeling stressed by your over-committed calendar, take a minute to smile about the richness of your life that is in fact evidenced by all you have going on.


Using the paradox model to unstick a stuck situation

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

Recently, I presented to a very engaged, thoughtful and curious group of family businesses and their advisors at the High Center for Family Business at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.  They quickly grasped the importance of managing paradoxes for both/and outcomes. But they kept pushing me to explain more specifically how they might apply these concepts, so I told them I’d use this week’s blog to explore some practical applications of the paradox insight.  (Additional examples can be found in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the series “Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox.” )

Let’s take a very common paradox in family business: Harvest and invest.

Many business owners — especially founders — believe that every earned dollar should be invested back in the business.  Funds deployed within the enterprise outperform every other possible investment. Investing dollars in any other way appears foolish, almost crazy.  Keeping all the eggs in one, closely controlled basket is the only approach that makes sense. Besides, it is often argued, individual family members have plenty of funds and rarely have a real need for more money.

However many folks — especially in G2 or G3 — disagree. They believe that a harvest event, i.e. a dividend or distribution, is essential to give them some measure of independence and self-determination. They recognize that their financial return on investment may be smaller outside the family enterprise, but they value other, non-financial returns. For example, the opportunity to move some eggs into a variety of baskets and diversify their assets, or to engage in a project all their own.

Why is it so hard for the investors to see the advantages of an appropriate harvest? Can an appreciation of paradox help them see that harvesting is not a threat to investment, in fact it generates support for investment? Paradoxically, a modest harvest to owners is probably the most powerful force for building support for future investment which will be necessary for creating future harvests.

And what about the harvesters? They must appreciate the importance of expressing support for investment as the source of their past, present and future distributions. The classic need to “protect the goose that lays the golden egg” must be made crystal clear to those who are tempted to overemphasize the benefits of harvests.

How do you unstick a situation where folks are tussling over two desirable approaches? Paradoxically, start by helping each side embrace, support and even advocate the position of the other side.  It is part of how the paradox works: Expressing staunch support for your “complementary opposite” actually creates stronger conditions for the implementation of your preferred approach. In the same way, any action you take in support of your less preferred option will help create more stability and trust in the larger system.

Many family businesses do this instinctively with great success. Now that you’ve heard these ideas, give them a try — they work! Let us know what happens.

My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see for more on polarities and paradox. 


Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox (Part 3)

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we have talked about the need for “both/and” responses to paradox. Easy to say, but how to put into practice?

Let’s take a fictional example based on actual situations. Bizco is a 35 year old real estate company, growing and profitable, moving from G1 to G2. From the beginning, mom and dad, along with their son and daughter, have set a goal of building BOTH a strong family AND a strong business. And, they have succeeded!

How? They started early!  While the children were young, the family actively participated together in volunteer activities and travelled together, building strong relationships and open communication. The parents spoke openly with their children about the growing business, its contribution to the community, and the values that guided the business’ growth and decision-making.  Although the parents encouraged the siblings to consider a career in the family business, they were clear that employment would be based on qualifications and skills, not family status. At the same time, they encouraged the siblings to explore their individual interests and passions with no pressure or requirement to come work in the family firm. The parents also demonstrated through their actions the power of a strong, mutually supportive family.

As the siblings entered college, the sister participated in the business’ summer internship and began to develop an affinity to real estate. Brother was more interested in animal medicine and found summer employment in a local vet’s office.

These different interests reached their logical conclusion, and the decision to employ the sister but not the brother in the family business came logically and without drama. The brother pursued his interest in veterinary medicine, but remained an active and supportive family member to his sister and parents. They continued to travel and volunteer together, now including in-laws and grandchildren. Employment of one sibling and not the other had no negative impact on the family, which continued on its supportive and loving way. And, since ownership of the business will pass to both siblings, they have begun meeting as owners to learn and plan for the future.

The family’s emphasis on family AND business started very early. As the years went on, the two were proven to be compatible — not in conflict.

We have looked at the most fundamental — although not simple — paradox for family businesses and gained insight into the importance of starting early and being consistent in supporting a “both/and” approach. Please share your questions and experiences with us!

My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see for more on polarities and paradox. 


Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox (Part 2)

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

To read the first post in this series, click here.

Which to choose: Family first or business first?

Those who recognize the presence of a paradox would say: “Yes, both!” However, many families feel compelled to make a choice.

Let’s look at one case where this paradox was not managed well. The fictional Smith family often worried about the family interfering with the business, and over the years, set out to pursue business-first decision making. A merit-based employment policy required family members to work outside the company for five years and earn their MBA before applying for employment at Smithco. Family members were expected to be more qualified than non-family applicants, and could only apply to the company when an open, existing position matched their skills and experience.

On the five-person Board, two slots were designated for family directors. To qualify for consideration, the family member had to have at least 10 years of demonstrated success in a top business leadership role and at least five years of experience on a Board of Directors in a related field. No family meetings or family council was felt to be needed.

Now entering its fourth generation of family ownership, only one G3 family member was working in the business and she was nearing retirement. No G4s had expressed interest in the business because most were pursuing careers in other fields and other cities. The two current G3 family directors were nearing their retirement age, and serious doubts existed as to whether any G4s would qualify as Directors.

The current owners of Smithco, while proud of the non-family management and directors that had been so important to its continued success, were quite disconnected from the business they owned. Outside of dividends, they experienced no benefits from their family ownership and knew very little about the business. Because of these factors, a committee of the board has begun exploring sale of the business.

A sale is not necessarily a negative outcome, but if the goal of the family was to remain a family business, balancing their business-first approaches with some attention to family-first actions might have led to a different outcome. Family-first actions such as educational family meetings for family owners not working in the business, tours of facilities or summer internships for younger family members could have yielded vastly different results.

The Smith family worried that unqualified family influence on the family business would bring about its destruction. Paradoxically, keeping family away from their business may well have created the very conditions they most feared.

Taking one side of a paradox to the exclusion of the other, always leads to suboptimal results. In our next post, we look at a positive example of managing the “Business First/Family First” paradox.

My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see for more on polarities and paradox. 


Managing unsolvable problems: Understanding paradox (Part 1)

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

A paradox is a special kind of problem that has no solution. Paradoxes can only be managed, they can’t be solved.* Family businesses — like all systems — wrestle with tough challenges that, upon closer examination, prove to be “complementary opposites” or paradoxes. Some examples:

  • Family AND Business
  • Harvest AND Invest
  • Tradition AND Change

The wisest response to these paradoxes is to find ways to value and pursue BOTH values, even though it may appear  —  and feel  —  impossible.

Paradoxes are made up of two desirable values that appear to be in conflict but, in fact, are complementary. Choosing one to the exclusion of the other will yield predictable difficulties, but finding ways to pursue BOTH will yield superior outcomes, stronger relationships and more effective communication.

What’s the difference between a paradox and a problem? A problem can be solved, decided, put to bed. For example: Should I hire my daughter, yes or no? Should I invest this year’s profits into the business rather than paying a dividend, yes or no? Should we introduce a new product this year, yes or no? These problems may be difficult, but once decided and solved, we move on.

In contrast, a paradox can’t be solved, it can’t be put to bed. With the paradox of “Family and Business,” which would you choose? Which side of “Harvest and Invest” is superior? Which value would you select for “Tradition and Change?”

Hopefully, your choice in all of these examples is: “Yes, both!” The key to paradox management is recognizing that choosing one, to the exclusion of the other, will bring predictable problems. As you recognize the paradox, you know the necessity is to support both.

What paradoxes do you encounter in your family firm? How do you find the both/and solution?

Recognizing the presence of a paradox is the first step. Managing the paradox with skill is the next step and we’ll examine that more closely in the next post.

“We need a new way of thinking about our problems and our futures. My suggestion is the management of paradox, in that paradox can only be ‘managed’ in the sense of coping with…Paradox I now see to be inevitable, endemic and perpetual. The more turbulent the times, the more complex the world, the more paradoxes there are. We can, and should, reduce the starkness of some of the contradictions, minimize the inconsistencies, understand the puzzles in the paradoxes, but we cannot make them disappear, or solve them completely, or escape from them. Paradoxes are like the weather, something to be lived with, not solved, the worst aspects mitigated, the best enjoyed and used as clues to the way forward. Paradox has to be accepted, coped with and made sense of, in life, work and in the community and among nations.”

Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox, 1994

My deep thanks to Dr. Barry Johnson for his pioneering work and inspiration in this field. Please see for more on polarities and paradox. 


Classic Dilemmas

by John L. Ward

Classically, families transitioning from sibling parents to successor cousins face the challenge of transferring wealth and power by common rules shared by all the branches or by each parent deciding what’s best for their children. The questions where parent/branches could disagree:

  • At what age should next generation receive dividends, income?
  • At what age should next generation receive stock and voting rights?
  • At what age should next generation attend board meetings as observers?

Parents, of course, have the right to disagree on what’s best for their children. On the other hand, equivalency facilitates transparency and goodwill among the families.

As with all dilemmas, what to do is a matter of respectful balance. One family said it well:

“We coordinate and set uniform policy as much as possible


respect that parental privilege comes first.”

That reminds us of a family seeking to balance the family-first or business-first dilemma. They speak to it in a paradoxical way:

“The business always comes first – but for the family.”

Please share any dilemmas or paradoxes you face as a family in business.


Work-Life Balance: Who Would Choose Work?

by John L. Ward

Commentary on work-life balance has been fueled by the recent pronouncements of Sheryl Sandberg (COO Facebook) and Marissa Mayer (CEO Yahoo).  A recent article by Laura Vanderkam in USA Today urged using the term “work-life fit” instead. She notes that focusing on balance sets up a false choice. Fit provides an insight where work and life can be the resolution.

We often blog about managing dilemmas, balance and paradoxes, as family business leaders must have those capabilities. The example of work-life fit is very instructive.


Another Family Business Paradox

Jennifer Pendergast

Where is your family’s focus?  In the early stages of a family business, the family must focus its efforts on the success of the business.  Second generation members often share that the business was the child in their family, absorbing all the time and attention of their parents.  While it can breed resentment, this unwavering dedication may be required for the business to survive.  And, for most families, the success of the business is imperative because it pays for their basic needs. 

As the business becomes established and thrives, the success of the business will actually depend upon shifting focus away from the business.  By no means do I suggest that the business should be ignored. Rather, the needs, expectations and aspirations of the family must be considered simultaneously with those of the business.  Clarifying these needs, expectations and aspirations will actually contribute to the survival of the business. 

How so?  Once the business proves to be viable (e.g., it can attract customers, it can compete effectively, it makes money), family owners have the opportunity, or perhaps more strongly stated the responsibility, to set a long-term vision.  This vision defines what they are in business to achieve, what parameters or constraints they will place on the business and what values they want it to represent, among other things.  Articulation of a commonly held vision by the ownership group ensures that the family owners are aligned with the business.  Without the owners’ commitment, the business is unlikely to succeed.

Think about where you are in your family business evolution and where you are focusing your attention?  If you’ve gotten beyond the stage where the business requires 100% of your focus, maybe it’s time to start focusing on the family.  Continue reading this week for more thoughts on creating a family vision.


“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?


Just Like Her Dad, part 3

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

All week we’ve been pondering the case of ‘Jennifer,’ daughter of the founder, who has been told by those around her that her success seems assured, because she is seen to be Just Like Dad. Jennifer is a wise young woman, so here are her thoughts on the matter:

I know people are watching me really closely. My father is so loved and respected by those around him here at the business. He built a fantastic enterprise in only a few decades, and the people here are dedicated and committed to the values and vision he has put forth. Treating others the way you want to be treated. Working hard. Providing top-notch products at fair prices. Earning a fair wage and sharing in the gains made by the business. The entire family believes in these values – originally stated by my dad.

When people tell me I am just like Dad, I think they are referring to these values and vision. It is definitely my job to show everyone that I am equally committed to those values, and to make sure the larger family understands this too.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is when I am in meetings, and people seem to turn to me for decisions on matters that are well outside my job responsibilities. I never know if I should speak up or stay quiet. I am working in sales right now, and when we discuss pricing or product design, I often have a strong opinion. But I worry that when I state my opinion, the people around me will take it too much to heart. Sometimes it appears that when I make a comment, some of the people in the room assume this is my dad’s opinion, which is not the case. This has all caused me to hang back a bit — but, I still have a lot of good ideas and want people to know! It can be pretty confusing to know what to do.

As time goes on, it becomes clear tha I am very different from my dad in many ways. First and foremost, I am a mother of the most adorable little girl you’ll ever meet. Although I care about the company’s success, I also want to be there for her when she needs me. I’m not sure how this will work out but I already know that I need a strong international sales team, because I am not going to spend half the year travelling to our customers on other continents like my dad did. Also, I want us to look into making flexible work arrangements more available for the parents in our workforce. Both my father and the CFO are not too excited about this, but I want to find a way to make it work without hurting our company. In the long run, I believe policies like that will actually make our company stronger.

 I’m sure there will be plenty of other important differences between my father and I, but my support of the same values will never change.

So, there we have it. Being Just Like Dad has upsides and downsides that merit our attention and energy.

Those of you that follow our blogs and read our books probably know that when an either/or question like this is slapped on the table, our answer is likely to be: YES. In other words, rather than being forced to choose between two desirable options, we will never give up seeking a way to get BOTH.