Using a Facilitator to Overcome Family Business Challenges

April 25, 2023

Most people realize that building a small business is challenging, but few understand the difficulties of building a business around the intricacies of family dynamics. In the best situations, the family offers a foundation of loyalty, trust, and dedication – traits on which most businesses need to thrive. In the worst cases, challenging family relationships, lack of trust, lack of maturing as an adult etc. and especially those that have become toxic that can bleed into the business will become the drain of its health.

Family Business Challenges

The problem facing family business owners is that the boundaries between the business and the family become entangled, and the roles of parent/child, cousin and cousin, grandparent/grandchild, in-law/in-law, sibling/sibling, uncle or aunt/niece and nephew and spouse/spouse are twisted with boss/employee and business partner/partner, owner/owner etc.  Just listing them can be confusing, so now what? This can only lead to a convolution of the diametrically opposing goals and tasks of the business and the family, which is unhealthy for both.

In many cases, establishing boundaries can help; but, maintaining boundaries is much easier said than done. It is not as simple as drawing a line that can’t be crossed. Between the business and the family, several competing and overlapping roles must be recognized, requiring varying approaches to establishing different boundaries. In the end, however, boundaries do need to be clearly defined and communicated so that they are legitimatized and respected.

Establishing Boundaries and The Need to Blend Business Goals with Family Goals

The key to creating boundaries that can be maintained with minimal conflict is to use a collaborative approach involving all family members based on blending the business’s goals with the needs and interests of the family. Family shared values should form the core business principles, and there should be a shared vision of family and business/shared wealth hopes and dreams. If clear family values aren’t in place, or aren’t communicated well, this might need to be tackled first.

Maintaining effective boundaries requires constant attention to adapt to the changing circumstances of the family and the business. As each family member matures, the needs, requirements, and dispositions of the individual family member/business associate will change. The more communication and transparency fostered through frequent family council and business advisory meetings, the greater adherence to family boundaries.

The Benefits of Using a Facilitator to Build Family Cohesion

Of course, this is a tall order for most families, especially when strong personalities and intra-family rivalries dominate the conversations. That’s why an increasing number of family business heads are turning to family business consultants to act as facilitators in bringing the family together on critical issues that affect business and family harmony.

A facilitator can objectively work with the family and business units in developing separate plans that align and that include mission statements, goals, strategies, and clearly delineated rules, roles, and expectations that guide behavior in the dual roles as a family member and business associate.

A well trained and experienced family business and shared wealth facilitator seeks to understand the interpersonal dynamics of a family, including personal agendas, hot-button issues, and views on family values, traditions, and legacy ambitions. In these discussions, each family member has equal standing with equal weight given to all thoughts and opinions.  These discussions open the opportunity to grow in how great communication opens the doors and minds.

With that understanding, the facilitator is well-positioned to oversee family meetings by establishing behavioral guidelines, problem-solving steps, and decision-making methods to help family members build stronger cohesiveness and reach agreement on even the most contentious issues. The idea is to create an environment where everyone is open to change without hostility blocking the way.

Keeping the Legacy Going

Many families grow their businesses intending to create a legacy for future generations. If everything goes as hoped, the business and family members mature, a successor emerges, and plans are developed for the transfer of management and control. It takes a lot of planning that begins while the children are relatively young.

As part of a family business succession strategy, there needs to be a multi-stage development plan for the children who are candidates, along with an objective way to assess their progress, interest, commitment, and competencies. And it’s always a challenge to make participating family members feel they are being treated equitably.

Using a facilitator to guide the succession planning process helps to keep emotions, biases, and personal feelings out of the equation while helping family members to recognize their value to the organization. Crucially, a facilitator can help the family to clarify its vision and enhance communications while facilitating critical conversations between older and younger family members.

The challenge for many family businesses is the tendency to allow family dynamics to get in the way of making sound business decisions. Or, when a hard line is drawn by the head of the family, it can create resentment and jealousy. Family disharmony becomes business disharmony, hurting the family, business, and legacy. Family businesses would be well-served to take the same steps as many CEOs who use facilitators to bring critical staff together to get things done the right way.

Let’s Continue the Discussion

On April 27th and 28th, I will be hosting a breakout session at the Prairie Family Business Association 31st Annual Conference. My session will be titled, “How a Facilitator Can Help Your Family Break Through.” For this session, I will be joined by clients Mike and Katrin from P&M Steel to discuss:

  • How to structure your family meetings (with and without a facilitator)
  • The ins and outs of attending and/or hosting a family retreat
  • Working with spouses and other family members to take meaningful steps toward the future

Join us virtually for lessons from this real-life story. Register here.