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Ancient Wisdom for Today

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

“What’s the most important thing I need to know to be successful in my family’s business?” asked the young MBA student with his soft Southern accent. This question after I had just been interviewed by his professor for over an hour in a family business class! We had covered everything from family councils to family constitutions, from family unity to family politics, from having strong family values to having inspirational family vision statements, and now he wanted to know the most important thing.

Sharing the ancient secret of the Oracle at Delphi, I whispered to him: “Know thyself.” While it is crucial to have the best governance possible in a family business, I explained to this serious student, there are many ways of learning why you are the way you are, why you do the things you do, and how your communication style differs from the communication styles of others. The more you know about yourself, the better you will be able communicate.

If you are in a family business you need to ask yourself, how does your birth order affect your personality? What can you learn about yourself from taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? What is your Enneagram type, and what does it say about you? Then once you’ve learned about yourself, learn as much as you can about the personalities and communication preferences of your family members, especially those who are in the family business with you.

Good communication is critical to the success of your family’s business, and understanding each other’s personality types makes communication easier. When you’ve invested time and energy to know yourself and your family, those little misunderstandings that have the potential to grow into big problems never materialize. Then there is no cause for resentment, retaliation, or retribution. So go on a journey of self-discovery—and take your family with you!

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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.

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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.

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