National Development Manager, Family Dynamics

In this update:

  • Planning for generational transitions of a business or wealth can be difficult. Many successful families may utilize formal family meetings to prioritize conversations around generational transitions.
  • Family meetings can be a great way to create an environment where participants can communicate expectations and intentions.
  • There are several tips you can consider using to make your family meetings a success. Setting up an environment where participants are relaxed and open may help to foster constructive dialogue.

Planning for generational transitions of a business or wealth can be difficult. Creating an environment to communicate expectations and intentions doesn’t take place without conscious effort. Many successful families have moved toward formalizing how they communicate about wealth and multi-generational business transitions. Some may decide to begin the communication process by having family meetings. This can be a great idea for almost any family, but having the right structures in place may provide a higher likelihood that these meetings will accomplish what you desire for your family and your business.

One creative way to begin a family meeting is to play two songs. Then ask the participants to listen to the words and tell you what these songs have to do with this meeting. For example, the first song you might play is "Highway to the Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins. (Most people may remember this as the theme song for the famous 1980s movie, "Top Gun.") In many instances, there is a lot of nervous energy with family members who are attending their first family meeting. Playing this song can put that fear out in the open and allow for a discussion. The song may help make the topic of family communication or generational planning approachable. After the discussion around this song and what the words mean, you might follow up by asking a question like, "In what way does this song relate to what we are doing here today?"

Another great song you might use as a meeting opener is from the Disney movie "The Lion King," called "I Just Can’t Wait to be King." Because many families that engage in family meetings have multi-generational businesses, this song can really strike a chord. If you remember the movie, the lion cub, Simba, sings this song. He’s young and naïve, and thinks he is ready to take on the responsibilities as king of the jungle. You might ask the question, "How might this song relate to what we are working on here with our business transition plan?" Again, it’s a fun way to take a topic that is sometimes difficult to approach and just call it out directly. With this song, you can make the argument that many times, the next generation feels like it is ready to be "king," but the older generation disagrees. "The Lion King" can be used as a great analogy for how younger and older generations feel about the leadership transition process.

Encourage attendees to be creative and have fun with family meetings. Setting up an environment where participants are relaxed and open may help to foster constructive dialogue. Here are five other points to consider in carrying out successful family meetings:

  1. Schedule it: Regularly scheduled meetings that are on the calendar well in advance give family members a chance to make the meetings a priority. It also gives them a chance to prepare for the conversations that will take place. Meetings that happen last minute or only when there is a family emergency will probably not result in great harmony or a consistent, open dialogue.
  2. Provide structure: The best meetings generally have a written agenda. This agenda should be simple  and not try to accomplish too much at one time. Family members should have an opportunity to suggest items that they feel need to be addressed. Sending out the agenda a few days before the meeting will allow invitees to gather their thoughts and help them avoid being reactionary in the meeting.
  3. Make it a safe space: Meetings need to be a "safe place" for participants to be able to ask questions without the threat of being ridiculed or demeaned. Each family should have a set of guidelines for how communication takes place during the meeting. For example, some families use a "talking stick" to avoid people interrupting each other. It’s also important that protocols be established for when, and not if, conflicts arise because conflicts may be inevitable. Conflicts are not necessarily bad, but they need to be managed properly. There should be an established method for working through conflict, so that when challenges and issues arise, they can be addressed in a controlled and hopefully positive manner. Many families choose to have a non-family moderator run the meetings until healthy communication patterns are established. It may also be beneficial to have the meetings take place in a "neutral" location, away from the home or business.
  4. Add educational benefits: Meetings should not just be for updates on the business or to resolve conflict. Consider using the meeting as a forum to learn new skills and experience things together. Experienced-based learning may draw family members together and can create positive memories.
  5. Keep it positive: Try to set a positive tone for the meetings. This isn’t to say that difficult conversations won’t take place, but family members should look at the meetings as an investment in their relationships with each other. If meetings are treated as such, families can establish a pattern for regular, productive communication.

The potential benefits of meeting regularly as a family are many. Anytime you have informed ownership and family members who are interested and invested in the business emotionally, there is a greater likelihood that conflicts can be managed and business legacies can be preserved. Take time today to decide if family meetings are something that your family should invest time in.