Rethinking Family Relationships Within the Business Context

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This week, I hosted a conference call with Saybrook professor Dennis Jaffe, which led me to rethink the most muddied and, perhaps, top-of–the-totem-pole thinking: family relationships within the business context.

During my conversation with Dennis this week, I had an opportunity to visit his 2009 book on family stewardship, Stewardship in Your Family Enterprise: Developing Responsible Family Leadership Across Generations. In his book, Dennis explained how the role of the wealth advisor is that of a process consultant who guides the family business from an enterprise standpoint and introduces a systems approach to managing the mud. You see, within a family organization, role identities tend to get confused making matters, well, muddy.

Years ago, business schools viewed family businesses as an unsophisticated version of a business. Mindful that Honda, Kawasaki, and Toyota are all family businesses, one would think how silly, right?  If business is too left-brain, or too logic-focused, in the treatment of a business entity, wouldn’t some of the rich, business acumen developed by these family-run companies be missed and eradicated over time? Additionally, wouldn’t the eradication of family ties in business be unimaginable?

For more than 150 years the A.T. Cross, a family business, has managed to be stylish provider of top quality writing instruments. Memory-making was enhanced or even peaked by the simple gifting of a pen or, better still, pen and pencil set for a student’s graduation, an employee’s promotion, or a business deal-signing.

I’m not suggesting that A.T. Cross is the only example of a sustainable family enterprise. Rather, I’m suggesting that long-lasting businesses manage the tension of skill deployment amidst layered relationships by applying systems thinking.

To that point, if we begin thinking of the “family organization” as the one organization that allows skill to be glossed over in the on-board process, maybe we’d see the calling for systems thinking in this arena of consulting. I have been fortunate enough to witness some of these innovative systems approaches in the way Whale Rock Point Partners, a financial firm based in Rhode Island, bridges the great divide of money and family business matters. How fortunate for their clients to have such thinkers and doers on demand to provide such crucial conversations, like a bonus service.

You see, if wealth work begins to truly shift from a selling-and-telling approach to a processural one, wealth advisors, CPAs, lawyers and consultants will have to consider (and actually learn) how structures such as family councils, family mission statements, and a family bank may help “un-muddy” family business relationships, clarify communication, and sustain something worth of life: the family organization.

As a product of family born business and as a creator of one, I have to thank my first professor in the psychology of money, Dennis Jaffe. That Dennis is not only an inquisitive critical thinker, but also embodies the trans-disciplinary thinking required in systems thinking. 

By pulling together sociology, family therapy, organizational behavior and psychology via systems thinking, Dennis is one of only a few innovators in the field of family enterprise. 

As he flies from Germany to California and back to India, he is collecting data via his direct work and research through separate work to assist others in providing a systems learning opportunity in this field.

Thank you, from one Dennis to the other, in providing me with the spark I needed to become trans-disciplinary and motivated to connect this good work to the family business and human beings in our consulting space.

Perhaps by rethinking our own psychology of money, more harmony and grace can be achieved in more family businesses so that the good work of the founders can be honored by multiple family stewards over time to create the next A.T. Cross, Honda, Ford, or Toyota.

Read other posts by Dennis Rebelo

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