These days I am being invited more frequently to help align family members within their businesses so they can lead the organisations they own more effectively.
I am encouraged by those who reach out to me for such assistance, as it speaks of being realistic about the importance of cohesiveness among them and of feeling optimistic that they can indeed do better.
In my capacity as an adviser — or, as I often label myself, coach — I first listen to each family member involved, getting a sense of their personalities and styles, and of the roles they play in their enterprise.
In a spirit of “appreciative inquiry” I like to start by having them tell me about the achievements they are proudest of and the strengths that explain them, and then asking them to share the challenges they face — including and not least with other family members.
For this to happen I don’t rush into these topics, but begin by building a relaxed, cheerful and trusting relationship with them, getting them to talk more generally about their lives, while revealing something about mine.
As I was preparing to write this article I caught sight of a book I’d bought some years ago at the London Business School bookshop but had never got round to reading.
Published in 2008, Family Wars is about some of the biggest family-run companies in the world, showing how in-fighting among family members threatened to bring about their downfall.
It covers families such as Ford, Gucci and the Watsons of IBM, using these as examples of different categories of wars, not least between fathers and sons, among siblings, and as a result of marriages between families.
It also provides advice for anyone involved in a family business, offering suggestions on how to avoid such problems.
The book’s authors are London Business School Prof Nigel Nicholson, whose research interests include the psychology of family business, and Grant Gordon, the director-general of the Institute for Family Business and a fifth-generation member and former senior executive of William Grant & Sons, the distillers of Glenfiddich whisky (my favourite).
Despite relating stories of specific family “wars” they are careful to point out that many with family ownership outperform other kinds of organisations, and that some of the world’s oldest companies are those that have remained owned by their founding families.
I related very closely to what I read about both the kinds of challenges that family businesses commonly face, and how to prevent them and handle them if and when they arise.
Not least about the wisdom of “appointing skilled non-family professionals to fill business leadership roles”; “appointing a neutral ‘ombudsman’ as co-mentor of a sibling team”; and “instituting appraisals and regular feedback on work output and mentoring for family members”.
Not surprisingly, Grant and Nicholson refer to the lack of trust as “the real killer”, where one person sees another as unreliable, inconsistent, devious or duplicitous. And – as I do – they advocate for a spirit of forgiving and seeking forgiveness.
To avoid undue conflict, a culture of equity and fairness must prevail, with no cheating and taking of shortcuts. Worst of all is the hiring of lawyers to sue one another, never mind if the dirty linen starts getting washed in public.
Just as insufficient cohesiveness leads family members to either waste energy in fruitless attempts to win battles at the expense of a relative, or to disengage and scatter, so excessive cohesion, where families retreat into their own exclusive world, are also unhealthy.
The challenge is to nurture an atmosphere where differences can be aired and consensus built, in a spirit of give and take.
Yes, we want the leadership team in family businesses to be diverse — including these days by including the women. We want representation of a spectrum from elders to millennials, and it’s good for members to have varied exposure to education and to other cultures and countries.
Some will have a greater appetite for risk than others. Some will be more focused on longer-term sustainability and on being fair to all key stakeholders and some will be keener than others on professionalising.
The question is how such diversity can be brought together without generating wars, and by whom.
Who in the family is the consensus builder, the mediator? Or does the business, as so many do, require external help to keep the peace and allow each family member to contribute and thrive in their own way?