Weddings and Family Councils – Who’s On The Guest List?

Mechanisms For Family Buy In
Recently we held a first Family Council for a business transitioning between generations 2 and 3 (with the Founder still in the picture). When we planned the meeting, the leaders of the business let us know they only wanted those family members active in the business to attend the Family Council. This is a common approach for people unfamiliar with such meetings, and not surprising since the topics which are often top of mind for these leaders are typically transition issues in the business which primarily affect those working inside company walls.

However, this approach misses a key objective for such meetings. The goal of a Family Council is to discuss “family issues that affect the business, and business issues that affect the family.” Think about that for a moment. What kinds of things from the business affect your family? If we are honest, lots of things do. Something as simple as the hours we keep (and spend) in the business affects our availability to the family, and our compensation definitely affects the family as well!

These are only a couple of examples, but the point is, our families are regularly affected by aspects of the business (in good ways too), and the business can be deeply affected by what is happening in our families. I was working with a CEO recently who was going through a difficult divorce. While he was perhaps unaware, his circumstances outside the office were definitely affecting things on his team.

The Family Council, or Family Meeting as it is sometimes called, is a place where transparent conversations on challenging and exciting topics can be had, in a safe place where the support and commitment of the family allows healthy transparency and honesty. For many people, there is no other place like this to safely bring discussions they want to have.  If the discussions will be difficult, a trained external facilitator can be very helpful in making sure issues get attacked, not people.

What is even harder than having these kinds of “fierce conversations” is not having them. We regularly meet children in families who say “we were never asked” if they wanted to be part of the family business. Spouses similarly tell us they feel shut out of conversations that impact them, or they find things out only through the filter of their wife or husband, and they feel they have no ability to have input to the processing of issues.

Our going-in approach is generally to include all spouses (fiancées too) and kids who are 18 and over if the family agrees. We sometimes include younger children for a portion of the meeting, and make sure there are things in the meeting which will interest them – the education of the next generation should be a key goal of any ongoing Family Council process. Such inclusion and preparation does not mean they will be in the family business. It can simply mean preparing them for responsibilities like being a good steward, a hard worker, understanding a bit about business, and understanding a lot about the values of their family.