OK, let’s just admit that productive people almost universally hate meetings – “what we do instead of doing something” is the frequent sentiment expressed to me. So, too often, the required meetings of corporate boards are simply “formalities” or sometimes an attorney’s creative writing exercise. I have had business owners tell me the primary reason they decided to organize as an LLC was to avoid the need for a board of directors. If board meetings are just a waste of time, why are they the center piece of any discussion of good governance in business? As with most things meetings are only as productive as the people who manage them. If the board chair manages the agenda, the discussion, and the action items well board meetings can be extremely productive.
If the board chair is thinking ahead to the next meeting well in advance the agenda and pre-meeting information can be distributed with enough lead time to allow everyone to come prepared. If the chair manages the discussion in a way that makes sure all opinions are expressed and understood but does not allow anyone to “hi-jack” the meeting for their own purpose both the quality of decisions and the satisfaction of members will improve. Rather than a time waster, good governance can be a time saver by testing ideas before they are implemented and avoiding costly mistakes.
Our highly wired culture encourages us to constantly be ‘in touch’ and communicating through texts, Twitter, phone calls, emails, Facebook, Linked In, you name it… It seems we are forever posting or checking updates, sending or responding to texts or emails, essentially constantly in the act of communicating – at least electronically.
But sometimes all this electronic communication crowds out in-person communication. I have seen countless face-to-face meetings interrupted by a phone call or a text; it is increasingly difficult to enforce the ‘no electronics’ rule at meetings; and I have even witnessed family meals with clients where family members are texting each other at the table (rather than speaking)! I sometimes wonder if we raising a generation of people who will be increasingly uncomfortable with direct human interaction.
In addition, the constant interruption of electronics also challenges people’s ability to focus and work on projects in an uninterrupted manner. As the norm in many business (and social) settings is that folks will respond to a received communication almost instantly, there is pressure to always check and respond to email, texts, etc. This effectively prevents individuals from having uninterrupted time for complex discussions or quiet work.
While I would never advocate eliminating electronic modes of communication (I am email-dependent), I do think families need to insist on some ‘electronics off’ time – both in the business and in the family. At your next family meeting you might put electronic communication on the agenda and have a frank discussion about how it is helping and harming the family and the business, and consider some policies to manage it intentionally.
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.