Fans of the television show “Succession” know the challenges that dynamics play in families and closely-held businesses. While the dark comedy is cringeworthy for its portrayal of next-generation weakness in the face of the dominance of iron-fisted patriarch Logan Roy (played by actor Brian Cox), it lays bare several truths faced in family governance.
Any consideration of governance begins with a conversation. The impetus often starts with the younger generation trying to plan for their – and their family’s – future. Where many think of this discussion as an end in itself, think of it instead as a journey. It’s likely that the children have spent time, discussing amongst themselves, how to broach the topic. It might even be years in the making, as they research the family realities and strengthen their arguments.
But how do they open that dialogue with the family, whether the parents, or fellow siblings who might need convincing on the future path? It might be a natural entree, like a death in the family, or the birth of a grandchild, or the need to sell the family business, prepare an elder’s exit, divest of a holding, or to launch a family foundation. Major life or family business events are regularly openings for the discussion.
An alternative is to stage a formal “family meeting.” I helped facilitate a family meeting for the creation of a family foundation, which saw the core family of parents and children, as well as uncles involved in the meeting. In another event, I worked with six founding patriarchs who were planning the future for their families. This is a key distinction. A family is comprised of family members; a founder’s office is a different organisation founded in the spirit and image of that “founder,” rarely with family members as part of the unit.
It is best that these meetings be held on a neutral site – a hotel, resort or other offsite location, ideally not the home of the patriarch or offspring. This creates a safe space that removes any perceived territorial dominance for the meetings.
I was speaking about family governance recently with a third-generation member of a global family, where there were 17 cousins in his generation. What became clear was the difference between “discussions” and the ability to “dissent.” Many of these “next-gen” members (who admitted disdain for that characterisation) found that much of their feedback is either dismissed or ignored by the older generation.
We therefore discussed how to make these conversations meaningful and impactful – how to express concerns, without dissolving into “dissent.” It’s key to lay the groundwork for the meeting. This should include a structured agenda and a mediator or consultant, who is not a family attorney, CPA, family foundation head, or other professional directly related to the family or business. Whomever it is should bring a high EQ, or emotional quotient, to read the room and moderate the personalities and emotions adroitly.
It certainly should have someone on hand to take notes and memorialise what is said. All outsiders must be under non-disclosure agreements.
It may take one meeting, but be prepared for it to require several, especially if the realities are emotionally complicated or financially complex. It regularly requires “sidebar” meetings among different subgroups.
Although family meetings and governance should be organic, sometimes they require a helping hand. Think of it as a living discussion. Plan for great results, but don’t be dismayed if more meetings are required to tackle particularly thorny or entangled topics.
Remember, family governance is a journey built on open communication between parents, offspring, siblings, and possibly extended family members. As they say, “you can’t pick your relatives,” but you can establish the framework for how family governance is handled. Check your emotions and be prepared to hold a fruitful conversation without fear or concern of retribution.
Anyone who knows “Succession” knows the fear, retribution and browbeating common to patriarch Roy. It’s cringeworthy, indeed, and has no place in well-run family meetings. It’s each member’s responsibility to see that it doesn’t.