“We didn’t truly appreciate what our father did and the weight of what he holds together within the business. It is only now that we have both realised just how grateful we are that he is around to deal with the big decisions.”
This is just a small extract from the many conversations I had with a family on a recent trip abroad. It stuck me that so many issues within family businesses arise because of a lack of ‘space’ to pause, listen and learn from one another.
Having spent more than two decades working with over 60 families, it is an all-familiar story and one that ultimately led me to do this work. The father is often so busy running the show, highly pressured and working every hour possible, that the children feel neglected and have little understanding as to why their father is never around, or even what he does. Resentment creeps in, the family dynamics become fraught and ultimately the business suffers. This of course happens in families all the time, but when there is money and potentially hundreds or thousands of lives at risk, the consequences can be devastating.
Just as every company or organisation benefits from having strong relationships, families also thrive when members feel able to share and communicate effectively. Many of the families I work with acknowledge the importance of establishing an intellectual and practical governance, but they often negate the one component that I believe is at the heart of any ‘healthy’ family business – emotional governance. Can everyone understand, use and manage their emotions? Is everyone able to express how they truly feel? Are they willing to be vulnerable? Do they trust they will be listened and heard? These are of course fundamental human values that we all seek in any relationship but are often overlooked when the daily grind becomes the key focus.
The conversation that I refer to earlier, is a wonderful example of a family who lacked the emotional framework and didn’t feel able to say what was really going on for them. They had avoided uncomfortable conversations, because…well they were uncomfortable! Humans have become conditioned to avoid conflict, believing it easier to just carry on and not upset the status quo. Whilst it may seem easier in the short-term, I can personally attest that in the long-term it is much more beneficial to speak your truth and be authentic. By creating a ‘safe space’ for them to all share their story, they connected on a deeper level.
Manual policies and procedures are of course necessary elements within family governance, but without the human element everything else is redundant. By creating a ‘safe space’ for the daughters to sit down with their father, they learnt what he does, why he does it and how he does it – they understood him.
The only way to learn how another person behaves and operates is to actually spend time with them. It is only then that you discover what makes them ‘tick’ – what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and how they engage with others; essentially how they ‘live and show’ up in the world. Until now the daughters had never witnessed their father in action, and consequently had little interest in the business and no idea as to what they could contribute. This insight was invaluable, and demonstrated how much smoother transitions from one generation to the next would be if families spent more time together, both inside and outside of the business.
Without ‘investing’ in the emotional and relational transactions we have with one another, we can only ‘assume’ why someone behaves the way they do. Holding a ‘safe space’ regularly is something I encourage all my families to do. Don’t wait until there is a problem or issue to arise and instead approach it as regular health check-up. Prevention and preparation can identify risks early on and will generate ‘wealth’ that lasts for generations to come.