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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Born Under a Good Sign?

by Ira Bryck, Director, UMass Amherst Family Business Center

When I hear about a population that eats no fat, or runs daily marathons, or for that matter gets four hugs daily and a nightly glass of wine; and as a result has longer, happier lives; I think you really have to be lucky to be born into the right time and place.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the same may apply to birth into the right family business. You might be in the business of printing legal tender, but your business will not do as well as the high functioning manufacturer of buggy whips if your family members in business cannot communicate their hopes, fears, frustrations, values and behave generously, fairly, and lovingly.

Top researchers into what makes business families tick say that an airtight succession plan (the product) is not as much an indicator of successful succession as the healthy conversation that may have gotten you there (the process). You may have a signed and sealed document drafted by the world's sharpest advisors, but if your family cannot roll with life's punches, the family might still self destruct if the "most likely scenario" doesn't happen. Those researchers agree with the basic premise espoused by my father in his many years of family business involvement. "You gotta have Mazel (luck)."

But what if you don't have it, since even the person who coined the term "dysfunctional family" says it applies to 99% of us? Luck is apparently not evenly distributed amongst us. The minute portion of the family business world that intuitively does all the right stuff (and makes it look easy) still has an important lesson for us: Do What They Do. What They Do- not because they read it in a book, but because they instinctively understand how to run a business professionally, but with a family feeling; and run a family, with goodwill and the understanding that it's not a labor pool, welfare state or caste system.

What the most able business families understand is that the business provides an opportunity for relatives if: the business has needs that match the unique talents of family members who are interested in the company's mission and objectives; the business makes an offer of meaningful work that is not beyond or beneath the family member, or better filled by an outsider; that the family will be benefited by working together- including simply enjoying each other's company- and the business will be benefited by being family owned and operated.

From this pre-emptive approach families might see the need for telling some family members that there isn't a good fit. In other cases, there may be realizations and progress that more objective policies are required that govern hiring and firing, compensation, how decisions are reached, and so on. Some difficult but essential discussions might conclude that the company and its non family employees, as well as customers and community, are better served by non family ownership and/or management.

Of course, life is not black and white, and we, the 99%, fall into the gray, and though not naturally highly functioning, are adequate and capable, and should invest time and energy reaching for greatness.

It seems to me that one of the qualities of the 99% is the sense that there is not enough time to work ON the business, we are so busy working IN the business. The 1% high function family does this naturally- most others need to intentionally negotiate the doling out of responsibility and authority, how to manage conflict, how to appreciate and compensate good work, how to discuss the threats and weaknesses facing the business, handling the provocative issues around generational transition, and so on.

An honest and well-facilitated family discussion might ask: What are the ways in which this business benefits from its family ownership and management? How does the family "sub-optimize" the company? Are we living our principles and achieving our goals as individuals and as an organization? How can we make the company a better tool for us to be effective and happy as family members and individuals?

The questions don't need to be exactly as stated, and it's helpful for someone (facilitator or skilled family member) to keep organized notes; keep the process and mood positive and clean; and always be looking for ways the family can establish policies and goals to make their discoveries and revelations practical and relevant.

Joining an organization like the UMass Amherst Family Business Center goes a long way toward helping the aforementioned 99% improve and clarify. Many of our member companies are in that magic 1% as well, and believe it or not, they are never satisfied- they are the first to strive for more and better.

Ira Bryck is the director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center, a learning community for families in business. Find out more by calling 413 545 1537 or clicking on www.umass.edu/fambiz

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