Working with Your Family Business Roots: Reflections on Advising from Experience
A lot of family business advisors have histories of working in their family business. But working as an advisor to family enterprises involves making an important distinction between our own experiences and those of the families and businesses we work with. In my practice, I have had opportunities to consider these distinctions, and use my perspective to strengthen my advising strategies.
Here are a few things I have learned are key to leveraging personal experience.
Know Your Own History I began my career working in my father’s business. During that time, I was all “in” on the Valeri enterprise, so much so that my identity was entirely wrapped up in it.
But we never discussed ownership roles and responsibilities or considered having a frank conversation about what succession would look like. When my dad sold the business, it pulled the rug out from under me and forced a lot of shifts and personal reflections that really transformed my own perspective.
Looking back on the tensions in my family, I realize a lot of our challenges revolved around a lack of communication. It never even occurred to me to consider what I wanted for me, and how that fit with the larger goals of the business or the desires of my family members. My early family experience and work with families since then have shaped my perspectives on the intertwined relationships between personal and professional choices in family enterprises.
Differentiate the Baggage from the Wisdom A lot of years have passed since my dad decided to sell our family business, kicking off an important period of growth for me. While I have let go of the baggage, I keep the important pieces of wisdom.
My family avoided crucial conversations. I think it is because of this that I feel quite comfortable with the idea of diving deep into the complexity with the families I work with. I know first-hand that working through tension makes a significant difference in family and business relationships. I often use the term “compassionate truth” when talking to my clients now, which gets at the reality that these conversations are not always easy but they can be thoughtfully facilitated and usually prove essential to get everyone on the same page.
Embrace the Complexity When I work with families of wealth or family business clients, I do not presume their experiences are the same as mine. From experience working with families, I recognize the complexities that family and business relationships can hold.
We are all different, and there is a danger in projecting our experiences on others too much. But I have come to understand the different positions that everyone in my family held during our transition and this personal experience has given me the ability to relate to people at all levels of a business family. I understand the next generation kid coming up in the family business because I was that kid once, but I equally know what it means to make difficult decisions according to a different set of values as my father did.
Bottom line? It is critical that we understand ourselves as advisors when working with families. If we are self-aware, our histories can lead to greater depth in all areas of our work. When we are sifting through relationship dynamics with our business family clients, compassion and engagement with complexity is key. Ultimately our job is not only to understand our clients but also to understand ourselves and the unique perspectives we bring to the table.