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Don't Try This Without a Professional!*

by Jane Hilburt-Davis

We know the statistics about family businesses; we know about the horrific stories; and we have become pretty good at understanding what the successful ones have in common: shared vision and values; independent board of directors; strategic planning; good communications throughout the family-business-systems, and family cohesion.  One structure that is an effective building block for all these qualities is the Family Council.  But, in the wrong hands, family council meetings can also do more harm than good if filled with bickering, or used to rehash old injuries, or even a grandstanding family member.  Even the most functional families need help at first; the right professional must have the experience and skills to help create an effective work team out of the family. Here are some tips:

  1. Establish a Conflict Management/Agreement Process:  This is a critical first step that determines how the family will make decisions.  In my experience, most families try for consensus first and, if that can’t be reached, will decide by simple majority. It actually doesn’t matter what the process is as long as everyone agrees to it. Do not move past go until this is decided!
  1. Establish and agree upon Ground Rules: This is the necessary second step and includes both the process ground rules (confidentiality; everyone gets a chance to speak; everyone is encouraged to participate fully; this is both an event and a process; everyone is encouraged to speak in ‘I’ statements) and procedural ground rules (begin and end on time; no cell phones; breaks are mid-morning and mid-afternoon, agenda will be distributed to everyone one week before the meeting, etc; notes will be taken and distributed).  It is important not to begin the discussions until the Ground Rules are agreed to, using Step #1 above.
  1. Agree on the Agenda and Goals   In order to accomplish the tasks of each meeting, the agenda and the goals should be clearly defined, with times allotted for each topic and adhered to. The role of the facilitator at this stage is critical. S/he keeps the people on time and track, keeps a balance of process and content, gets issues on the table, calls on quiet individuals, acknowledges minority opinions, deals firmly with ‘talkers’, refocuses digressions, calls for time alerts along the way, builds consensus and concludes the discussion on time and on task. Both ‘all talk and no action’ and ‘all action and no talk’ are counterproductive and the facilitator’s job is to reach a balance of each. All of this adds to a sense of accomplishment and cohesion of the group.
  1. Establish an environment of open and effective communications: From recent brain studies, we know that our minds can change as a result of special kinds of conversations and relationships.  These special conversations require safety, new information, new skills, and some stress, or emotional arousal. The family is the perfect place for these conversations that need to involve the right mix of stress and safety! The ground rules and the decision making process add the safety and the topics for discussion add the ‘emotional arousal’. Additionally, none of us can change or alter old patterns if it doesn’t make sense to us both intellectually and emotionally.  So family meetings should include both objective fact gathering and exercises that make us sense and feel and even have fun doing it!  And, since the brain does not distinguish between doing something and imagining doing something, vision exercises are very useful in planning, i.e., “How do you see this company/family in 5- 10 years?”  
  1. Allow time for debriefing This is a time scheduled at the end of each Family Council Meeting for a review of the day.  It is not a rehashing but a higher-level look at the successes and challenges of the meeting and learnings for the next one.  The facilitator should use this time to remind the participants of the agreements, accomplishments, and ‘homework’ for the next meeting.  This is also a good time to schedule the next meeting and build on the enthusiasm generated as the family has fun and gets the work done!

So, using these tips, and the right facilitator, yes, family meetings are very effective and necessary structures to increase the chances of success and happiness.

*Originally published in the FAMILY BUSINESS WIKI THOUGHT LEADER SERIES

 

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