Many business family members seem surprised that they have conflict, argue, have trouble agreeing, are jealous of each other, have differing levels of commitment to the family business, or are scared after a parent’s death. The truth is that virtually every one of the hundreds of business families we know have many of these dynamics.
Understand that disruptions to your business family are normal. And normal means that when these tough disruptions hit your business families, your family members will have emotional and sometimes extreme reactions. Your business family won’t be “perfect.”
When a powerful disruption hits, the “crocodile brain” takes over – people will say hurtful or selfish things. They may not think through the impact of their reactions on others. Most often, the reactions are human and, indeed, expected given complex and unpredictable change.
Business families frequently resist accessing outside advice, especially if it is considered “therapy.” Some worry about sharing their family problems with outsiders. One well-known family matriarch told us their family motto was “never air our dirty laundry in public, no matter what.” As a family used to privacy, you may not want to ask friends or experts for advice because it’s an admission of a family problem.
Many business families pride themselves on being able to fix their own problems. That seldom works in the long run. Angry feelings fester, issues are covered up, and cracks develop later on. Seek help early on.
You can find a wide range of outside advisors available to help your business family. The range of disciplines that offer specialized support to business families includes family business advisors (this is the role we play), family system therapists, relationship therapists (such as marriage counselors), individual therapists (who come in many sub-specialties), mediators, conflict resolution experts, life coaches, communication specialists, and group dynamics experts to name just a few of the relevant fields.
The most important point is that there are problems that you can’t solve on your own, and it’s important to reach out for the resources you need.
Your decision on the type of advisor is key. If you reach out to a mediator, for example, they will see your problem through the lens of mediation. But that might not be what you need. If you are new to the field of advice you are seeking, we suggest that you talk to advisors in at least a couple of different fields to see who really understands your problem in a way that you are confident will address the heart of the matter. Additionally, we recommend that you talk to at least two providers in whatever specialty field seems to best address your issues. The practices of individual providers vary significantly. Personal chemistry also matters greatly. Include those family members likely to be affected by the change in this selection process.
Business families should expect to face tough dynamics. To ask for outside help is ultimately a sign of strength.
We believe that work can often be the best “therapy”. Working together – in the Owner Room, in the Family Room, or in the company itself – can build trust, commitment to each other and to the business, and knowledge and appreciation for the complexity faced by your business family.
A key message of this Handbook is that business families have much work to do together – defining what you value, working through difficult decisions together, building trust and communication, preparing the next generation to be owners, and so on. Through this work, you can build relationships.
The work that you’ve already put in together can provide a shock absorber for when you’re hit by an unpleasant disruption. By working together, you prepare your business family to react constructively. If you have done work together in the past, you are more likely to work well together when it is most needed. Governance structures, such as a Family Council, can help by providing a pre-set place to discuss and decide issues.
The best advice we can give you is be prepared for curve balls. They’re normal. You can’t always control the disruptions that life sends your way, but you can control how you respond to them. That resilience is the difference between families that survive and thrive generation to generation and those that fall apart.
*Adapted from the Harvard Business Review Family Business Handbook by Josh Baron and Rob Lachenauer. Pages 159-163.