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Should I Stay, Or Should I Go?

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

My nearly ninety-seven year old mother-in-law has an intriguing quote displayed prominently on her refrigerator at her home in Calgary. “One of life’s most important decisions is when to begin middle age,” it reads. My husband’s young-at-heart mother often reminds me on our evening phone calls that we’re only as young as we feel.

Today we can work as long as we want to, especially if we are blessed with good health, a clear mind, and our own business. But how long should we? That’s one of the many questions members of the senior generation sometimes ponder in the middle of the night and sometimes discuss with their spouses in the middle of the day.

Would the business be better off with or without me, they wonder. Do I continue to add value? Are my ideas still relevant? What if I raise the subject of my retirement and then change my mind about leaving?  How do I deal with the pain in my heart as I consider letting go of something so dear?

The next generation grapples with its own set of challenges. How long can they afford to carry someone who they perceive is no longer pulling their weight? How do they bring up the topic of a parent’s retirement without sounding ungrateful or uncaring? How do they ignore the gnawing in their gut as resentment grows and the silence between the generations becomes deafening?

The good news is that we’re living longer, we’re staying healthier, and we’re looking better than at any other time in history. So we must now wrestle with the question of when or even if to begin a new chapter away from work—a better chapter than our parents and grandparents have ever had the opportunity to write. This is new stuff for both generations, and we’re short on role models, experience, and theories.

Barbara Walters was still working at age 84, but could we? Should we? In a family business both generations need to have candid discussions periodically at both the family and the board levels regarding retirement. The decision about when a parent should move on drastically depends on the industry as well as the desires of both generations for the future.

Sometimes these conversations are already taking place, not with family members in the senior generation who are mulling over what they might do next, but among frustrated future owners. Whether they are thinking about grandparenting, golfing, starting a charity, or beginning to play Chopsticks it is crucial for parents to share their plans, so their adult children can make theirs. Both generations will be much more open to this discussion if it is approached with patience, appreciation, and love.


What’s The Best Way To Say Goodbye?

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Barbara Walters was one of my earliest childhood heroes. I remember watching her on our first black-and-white television set very early in the mornings, the only woman in a large cast of men. I cheered when she became the first female anchor on an evening news program, though ultimately that did not turn out well for her, and I was absolutely delighted when she created “The View” featuring strong, articulate, funny women.

Like millions of viewers, I’ve watched her retirement process over a number of years as she slowly cut back the number of hours she worked and the programs she did. Last week, I saw her final regular appearance on “The View,” which featured much fanfare as everyone from heads of state to international celebrities paid homage to Walters, who has changed our world in so many significant ways.

Saying goodbye and thank you to people who have had a profound affect on us is crucial for them and for us because the impact has ramifications on those who are leaving as well as those who are left. Nowhere is this as important as in a family business. When the family leader of a family business retires there most likely will not be appearances from celebrities nor buildings named in their honor, but it is vital that they have a proper send off.

When I began studying Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory at the Georgetown Family Center in the late 90s, psychologist Dr. Polly Caskie presented research suggesting that the future health of the retiring leader and the family itself was dependent on the celebration at the end of the career. For that reason, Polly said there should be presentations made from representatives of three specific groups: the business, the community, and the family. Leaders, like all of us, needed to know that their lives mattered, that their many sacrifices had been worth it, that they had made the world a better place, and that their family, especially the spouse and children, appreciated them. She hypothesized that the time, energy, and expense would be more than worth it to the future health and happiness of the retiree.

What reminded me of Polly’s sage advice after so many years was something Barbara Walters said on Friday, May 16th, on “Good Morning America.” She commented that she had remained dry-eyed as she had listened to all of the accolades from state heads and stars until she had received a message from her daughter, Jackie, who had written the night before:  “I just wanted to say I was thinking of you tonight. Tomorrow is a special day. You have impacted this world as very few can. This is a transition towards a new journey. I love you and wanted you to know how proud I am of you.” That’s when Barbara said she finally cried.

At the end of the day, no matter how big our business is, how many lives we’ve touched, how much we’ve changed the world, it is the love of our family that matters most. That’s why it is so important to say goodbye and thank you at the right time at the right place in the right way.


Keeping the Brain from Going into Temper-Tantrum Mode When It’s Time To Change the Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

“You need to change” must be one of the ugliest, most unwelcome sentences in any language. Neuroscientists David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz have a good explanation why. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), along with brain wave analysis technology, they can actually see neural connections in the brain for the first time ever. Rock and Schwartz contend that when we tell another person or groups of people what to do, such as change, the human brain automatically pushes back like a two-year old child. One reason for this is homeostasis—all organisms naturally move toward equilibrium and away from change. According to Rock and Schwartz, “Brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create novel connections.”

It seems that when people come up with their own solutions to problems their brains release neurotransmitters such as adrenalin. So not only do our brains scream “No!” like a typical two-year old when told what to do, but they also follow up with another familiar toddler line, “I do it by myself!”

Rock and Schwartz suggest that their research provides a scientific basis for leaders to ask questions and let people come up with their own solutions rather than telling them what to do. Asking good questions to modify behavior goes back thousands of years; Socrates candidly admitted, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”

One way to facilitate change on a large scale, according to Drs. Rock and Schwartz, is to have some kind of event that allows people to have the opportunity to think for themselves. They site the work of Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University’s Institute for Neuroscience and others who have found sudden bursts of gamma waves in the brain right before people have moments of insight. This means a new set of connections is being made, which makes it easier to overcome the brain’s resistance to change. The researchers claim the best thing leaders can do when dealing with the challenge of change is to help their followers focus on solutions instead of problems and to let the followers create their own solutions.

In a business, when we pay people to work for us, it seems to be fair game to tell them what to do and that they have to change when it is necessary for improving business or the bottom line. If employees refuse, everyone understands the ultimate dire consequences—an escorted trip out the front door. But when change needs to occur in a family enterprise, especially when family members are also owners, it is vital that the family members spend time together considering the situation, asking the right questions, and discovering the answers together. Heeding the warning of the neuroscientists, if we simply tell family members what to do, or that they need to change for any reason, their brains are likely to go into temper-tantrum mode, and that’s not good for the family or for the business.


Neuroscience and Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Almost everyone remembers a time in childhood when they felt left out—the party they weren’t invited to, the snub by someone who was supposed to be a friend, the time they weren’t rewarded for a job well done, especially when others were being recognized. Even as you read these words you might still feel the sting of something that made you feel shunned or ostracized a long time ago. Now, thanks to neuroscience, we know why this pain was so severe and why you still remember.

Social neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles are studying what goes on in the brain to help leaders understand how their actions affect their followers. These researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) along with other sophisticated equipment, and the results have important implications for leaders of family businesses. One of the most pertinent studies for family business owners was conducted by Dr. Naomi Eisenberger, a social neuroscience researcher at UCLA, who studied what happens in the brain when people feel rejected. Her research indicates that when we feel excluded our brains have the same reaction they would to physical pain.

Dr. David Rock, the president of the Neuro Leadership Institute, writes Eisenbergers’ research illustrates “people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work . . . experience it as a neural impulse as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.” Rock claims many studies show the brain responds to social needs the same way as it does for survival.

Family leaders must be aware of the unintended consequences of accidentally excluding a family member. Perhaps you thought Aunt Alice was drastically overreacting because she didn’t receive the information she thought she should have been given. When her face turned beet red and she began screaming at you just before she angrily stormed out of the room, she wasn’t being overly sensitive. Her brain was telling her you had just hit her over the head with a baseball bat, and she was responding accordingly!

Family leaders who understand how strong the brain’s reaction is to being excluded, betrayed, or unrecognized can be more sensitive. There are steps they can take such as:

  1. Making certain all family members are invited to family meetings and gatherings;
  2. Seeing that pertinent financial information is accessible to everyone;
  3. Establishing family policies so all family owners are given the same opportunities in the business;
  4. Creating a Code of Conduct giving all family owners the chance to talk about how they expect to be treated and what is important to them;
  5. Recognizing the hard work of family leaders as well as business leaders; and
  6. Showing appreciation to family members and employees.

“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.”


Bullying in the Family Business: What Should You Do About It?

JoAnne Norton

Your sister-in-law works in your family’s business right alongside of you and for some reason thinks she can do both her job and your job better than you can. You begin dreading the day as you drive to work knowing she’s probably already at the office ready to pounce on you yet again, criticizing and correcting you, surprisingly sarcastic for someone you once got along with so well. More than anything, it is her condescending tone of voice that makes you leave your family’s business each day feeling demeaned and demoralized. How do you make this bad behavior stop?

The titles of the best-selling books on the market would have you believe it is just a matter of having a conversation—a crucial one, a fierce one, or a difficult one. While all of the authors have excellent ideas and wise advice, the key word in all of the titles is conversations. You cannot keep putting up with bad behavior hoping your sister-in-law will magically change over night because that strategy simply guarantees more of the same bad behavior. You need to talk.

Bullying is detrimental to relationships in the business and in the family. Worse yet, it can have a serious impact on the family for generations. Children and grandchildren who witness disrespectful and hurtful putdowns learn: A) exactly how to behave this way, and B) it is okay to treat each other poorly. That’s why when these disrespectful dealings are going on, it is the business of the family to have a conversation about it.

To begin with, it must be made clear that all family members are required to speak to each other respectfully. Talking rudely and putting someone down are completely unacceptable behaviors. Bullying is counter-productive in a family culture and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

If a family member is feeling bullied, or if any family member witnesses bullying, it is time to have one of those conversations—a conversation that should take place with an objective outsider, maybe even a professional. The sooner the conversation is held, the less lasting damage will be done. But keep in mind that this is a critical conversation and one that should never be done by email or text. The preservation of your family is too precious not to be taken seriously.

For more information on how to deal with difficult issues, please join my colleague, Joe Schmieder, and me for our webinar on December 4 at 1:00PM EST when we’ll be talking about “The Ties That Bind: Facing Up to the Difficult, Sometimes Brutal, Family Business Issues.” For more information click here.


How Important is Your Vote?

JoAnne Norton

Very! Especially when it comes to elections that involve your family’s business. To be successful, family owners need to have good governance practices in place at least by the third generation. By that time, cousins own the business together, and decisions generally need to be made by a large number of people rather than a single owner or siblings.

Recently I was meeting with a family who were in the process of organizing their first Family Council. We talked about all of the exciting things the Council could do, such as creating the philosophy of family leadership in the business and drafting a family-employment policy.

A hand shot up at the back of the room, and a young woman asked: “But where does the Family Council get all of this power from? What if the Council does something the family does not agree with?” I explained that this power would come from all of the family members who were with us in the room that day. They would ultimately become the Family Assembly, which is usually composed of all of the members of the family. I told her it is generally the charge of the Family Council to draft the charter, but nothing could actually happen unless family members showed their support by voting.

Next, she asked who could vote? Would it be just the owners? Would spouses be included? How old would family members have to be in order to vote? I explained that the answers to these questions vary from family to family, but I assured her again the entire family would have the opportunity to vote on these issues. She looked greatly relieved.

Of all the voting family owners do, voting for family leaders is probably the most vital. Family Assemblies usually vote for Family Council members, and the Council members vote for who will lead them as their Chairman. That’s why when you have the opportunity to make this crucial leadership decision, please be sure to vote!


The Princess and the Peon

JoAnne Norton

“You just don’t know how hard it is to work with the princess,” the frustrated executive began as she anxiously played with her pearls. “She comes into work late, if at all, leaves early, and doesn’t abide by the rules. I am beside myself because her father sees her as the future leader of the company. Those of us who have to work with her just see her as a spoiled brat, and if she is chosen as the next leader, we’ll all walk.”

Because the executive was a well-respected, long-standing non-family leader in the company, I asked her if she had ever tried to approach “the princess” to discuss the situation with her diplomatically. “Yes!” she cried, “but it completely backfired. When I finally broached the subject, she responded by placing her hand on her hip and asking me condescendingly: ‘Do you know whose name is on the front door?’ With that, I was dismissed and shown the way out of her palatial office. I felt as if I were a peon, that I was just an irritant to her majesty, and yet I truly want what is best for her, her family, and the employees.”

Being the child of a successful entrepreneur is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, there are many opportunities not afforded most. On the other hand entrepreneurs can frequently be absent from family life. Blinded by guilt for not having been there enough when their children were growing up, entrepreneurs are sometimes motivated to try to make up for lost time with their adult children. Some entrepreneurs try to do this by bringing their children into the business.  When they do this without providing needed guidance or limits, the risk to the company is serious as princes and princesses of privilege can quickly destroy a family business that took a generation to build.

Loyal non-family executives can be pivotal in solving the “Princess Problem” by identifying the issue and encouraging the family to seek outside help.  Of course, this only works if they are ‘heard’ by all sides.  Parental love and guilt are powerful forces that can blind an otherwise rational person to the hard reality of their offspring’s limited skills or destructive attitude.

Generally what makes entrepreneurs so successful is their hard work and self-discipline. Good family business coaches use those entrepreneurial strengths to design a program that will be effective for both generations. The present generation of leadership will need to be more disciplined in their approach to their children, and the children will need to be more disciplined in their approach to work.  This can represent a significant shift in how both have operated for a long time, but it is essential for the survival of the business.

Jim Rohn once wrote, “We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.” Mature, well-meaning non-family leaders can make sure there are no regrets.

JoAnne Norton can be reached at norton@efamilybusiness.com or 714-273-9367.  Click here to read JoAnne’s biography.


A Tale of Two Sisters

JoAnne Norton

It was the best of times, and then it was the worst of times for the second-generation family owners of a flourishing gardening business. Sisters Amy and Bethany, members of the third generation, were bright, talented women who were active in the newly formed family council, though neither worked in the operation.

Amy served admirably as the first chairman of the seven-member family council composed of her sister Bethany, her uncle, her aunt, her brother, and two cousins. Amy seemed to be a born leader. She had done a lot of the research and initial legwork to get the family council started and launched.  Thanks to her efforts the family formed an active family council, and the family agreed that these were some of the best of times for them.
After Amy served her two-year term as chairman, her sister Bethany took over. Also bright and well organized, Bethany seemed like the perfect successor. After a year, though, the family council was not performing nearly as well as it had under Amy’s leadership. Council members weren’t showing up, meetings did not run as smoothly, and everyone noticed there was a real lack of camaraderie. Family members wondered if having good governance was really worth the time, effort, and expense.

The best of times and the worst of times boiled down to one significant difference: the leadership styles of Amy and Bethany. Amy understood the importance of building relationships, and Bethany did not. At the beginning of each month, Amy would look at her busy calendar and decide what day she was going to take her dad and her aunt to lunch. Since they were the owners of their family’s growing gardening business, she knew how important it was to stay close to them. She would also schedule calls to her siblings and cousins – making a point to find out what pressing issues she should have on the family council agenda so all topics could be addressed. She knew that staying in touch with the entire family and continuing to build those relationships was critical to the success of the family and the business.

Bethany had not realized the organizational and personal skills it took to make the council run smoothly. She was, however, smart enough to seek her sister’s advice. Amy explained to Bethany how imperative it is for family leaders to stay in close contact with everyone in their family system.. Amy said her strategy was to organize her calendar on the first day of each month because scheduling time for relationship building should always be done first. No one wanted to miss one of Amy’s meetings because the topics were always on target, and everyone was fully engaged.

Staying in contact with the members of the family council did not come easily to Bethany, but she became increasingly aware of how the little things she did to stay in touch paid big dividends in the cohesiveness of the council and the effectiveness of the family governance. Bethany learned from Amy that it is the investment of time that makes for the best of times when it comes to working successfully with your family.

JoAnne Norton can be reached at norton@efamilybusiness.com or 714-273-9367.  Click here to read JoAnne’s biography.


Improving Communication in Family Businesses

JoAnne Norton
Jo Anne Norton

There’s never been a time in history when we’ve been able to send messages faster. In an age when what you are thinking can be written down, sent via email, and read by another person in a nanosecond, you would think that communication in family businesses would be improving. At a time when we are dishing about our dislikes, likes, political views, greatest aspirations and favorite inspiration on Facebook, or Twitter you would think that family members who work together every day would be in touch, online, and in sync, but you would be wrong.

Frequently family members who work together are so busy tending to business and dealing with the day-to-day operations, they don’t take the time to share what they are thinking, and more importantly, they don’t make the opportunity to listen. In the absence of good frequent communication people’s minds automatically fill in the blanks. A mother working with a busy daughter, who constantly talks shop, could assume there is a problem where none exists. A son, who works with a strong silent father, could assume that everything is splendid when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. In both situations neither the mother-daughter team nor the father-son team is dealing in reality, and that is dangerous for any family but particularly a family who owns a business together.

How do you improve communication? Communication is from the Latin word communicare meaning “to share,” so spending time together away from the office sharing with each other what is most important is the easy and obvious answer. Unfortunately, it can be extremely difficult to get away from a thriving business to talk about anything but business, especially when the business is brand new or when we’re going through tough economic times like we are now. When communication decreases, anxiety increases, and relationships begin to suffer, which causes family businesses to slowly die on the vine. Stephen Covey once said: “The deepest need of the human soul is to be understood.” To be understood we must speak, and we must be heard. It’s time to make a date with a family member to go to lunch, to take a walk, or to take a trip with the express intention of sharing what’s going on and understanding each other. It’s good for the business and great for the family.