A Question for Family Business Advisors
This week we’re going to take a look at a common question that family business advisors get and dig a bit deeper into my standard answer to try to test its limits.
It so happens that a couple of the client families with whom I’m presently working are showing signs of concern with the pace of our work together, which has brought this to the front burner for me.
I want to write something here that I can share with them, and at the same time, make some broader points about how my engagements with a family can play out.
But first, a flashback to a skit from an old Saturday Night Live episode that came to mind when I wrote the title above, which I immediately realized could be misconstrued.
“You Can’t Put Too Much Water in a Nuclear Reactor”
That 1984 skit featured guest host Ed Asner (begins at 53:42) as a retiring boss at a nuclear plant, who gave workers he left behind some advice that ended up causing confusion from which much humor then ensued.
“Just remember, you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor” had some workers believing that you shouldn’t ever put too much water in, while others opted for the opposite interpretation, i.e. that it’s impossible to put in too much.
My “You can’t start too early” suffers from the same shortcoming, but my sub-head, “It’s never too early” clarifies my views.
Starting WHAT, Exactly?
It may help if I define what I’m referring to when I say “start”.
My work typically involves families who are trying to ensure that the wealth or business that they’ve created can be successfully transitioned to the next generation of their family. Those efforts involve a number of legal and structural steps and procedures, of course, but those are always handled by other experts in those subjects, not by me.
My work is in the family circle, working on the family dynamics and relationships aspect, which usually includes getting the family started with regular family meetings. The work around these efforts, bringing the family members into these key discussions, is what I mean by “getting started.”
Try Not to Make a M.E.S.S.
I wrote about this back in 2017 in a post called Start Cleaning Up Your M.E.S.S. where “M.E.S.S.” was an acronym I had created to help readers remember four important aspects relating to getting started.
The “M” is for “Start Moving,” emphasizing that this is much more than just thinking about it or talking about it with one person. It’s about action.
The “E” is for “Start Early,” which is what we’re looking at today.
The two “S’s” are where it can get tricky for some, especially those who feel like they need to be in a hurry to get somewhere.
Some people just don’t do well with “Start Small” and “Start Slowly,” but they’re key for a number of reasons.
Why You Need to Start Small
It’s important for family business advisors to start small because you don’t want to lose anyone along the way. Onboarding family members into such a process needs to be done carefully because you really want to make sure that you will maximize their engagement.
Taking big steps would allow you to feel like you’re making big progress, of course, but if it means that some of the more skeptical family members aren’t ready to buy in, then big steps work against you.
Why You Need to Start Slowly
Life is more about the journey than the destination, and that’s an attitude I encourage parents to adopt. Going slowly, and taking small steps, is important for the engagement question too, because, again, you don’t want to lose anyone along the way.
You can really only go as fast as the group is willing to go, so erring on the slow side is what I always encourage.
There Is No Finish Line
There’s actually no need for big steps or going fast when you consider that there is no finish line to this work.
We’re not trying to get to the last page of the book or tick off all the boxes on a checklist, we’re trying to make sure that the family knows where they want to go and how they will work together.
That work never ends.
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