Does Distance Makes the Heart Grow Differently?

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Stephanie Brun de Pontet

While some of my clients have their extended family all in one community, that is more the exception than the rule.  Our North American culture is very mobile and it is common that young adults find professional or other opportunities that will take them away from “home” and may lead them to put down roots in new cities and states.

This leads to a few common challenges for enterprising families. First, family members who grow up in the home community of the family’s business are raised with the visibility of being affiliated with the owning family in a way that is less central to the experience of those growing up elsewhere.  This can be a burden if it leads to a lot of negative attention (e.g, if the company has layoffs that affect your neighbors) or if it casts you in a stereotypical and narrow role: “Oh, he’s from THAT family.”  Family members who grow up away from this limelight may not always appreciate the extent to which this facet of the family can dominate one’s broader community and growing up experience.

Another difference is that family members who grow up in the home community are more likely to have parents working in the business, which can also impact their sense of connection. I have seen cases where this leads the next generation to feel a deeper connection to the business because they know executives, attend company holiday events, regularly visit the offices, etc.; and others where they feel less connected because in their mind: “that is what mom does” and is inherently something from which they want a little distance.

Of course, the impact of growing up elsewhere can also lead to feelings of distance or closeness. I have observed that if the initial generation that moved away has a negative attitude about the enterprise, their kids are likely to grow up disinterested and detached.  On the other hand, if the parent’s generation feels connected to the legacy and engaged as owners, their kids often grow up deeply curious and eager to learn as much as they can about the business.

Finally, the other place where family geography can lead to different perspectives is around the family and business’s shared philanthropy.  While most family members understand that a significant proportion of family giving may be anchored in the community where the business is situated, those who grow up elsewhere often want the opportunity to also expand the reach of these efforts into their own communities. Getting a family aligned on how and where they want to make a difference certainly gets more complicated with expanded geography.

While you should not assume family members who grow up elsewhere are inherently less connected to the business – you do need to proactively engage them as committed stakeholders.  Strengthen lines of communication, nurture their interest and curiosity, proactively look for ways for them to interact with the business or business leaders, help them appreciate the challenges and joys that come from living and working in the home community, and expand your sense of what the family’s “communities” are and mean. These efforts help all stakeholders feel as strong a connection as they can to the legacy of the past and the vision going forward.

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