I was recently asked by a forum from the Young Presidents Organisation (YPO) to moderate a session with six heads of family offices. The goal was to moderate a discussion in a free and open manner, to discuss some of the challenges they face. The hope was for them to share with each other some of the common issues they face as a family office – finances, banking and investments; navigating family issues and personality conflicts; and how to keep all the family members on the same page, which can be no small task.
A common but recurring theme was the importance of family meetings – when or how often to hold them, whether they should always be formal or can be ad hoc, who must be included, and what topics to discuss? Doing it wrong – or in a way that may be perceived as wrong, they agreed – could lead to jealousy, animosity or hostilities in the family.
There’s no denying family affairs can be complicated. Meetings shouldn’t be another source of frustration.
But how important is it that they be formalised, scheduled or held regularly? One attendee said he was reluctant about calling regular and “formal” meetings. In his experience, formality tends to complicate matters.
There’s a misperception that family meetings must always be formal and scheduled. When formalised should they be held every few months or annually. For those occasions when attorneys, accountants, the family office CFO, financial or investment advisors are invited in order to discuss legal, finance, asset performance or other important matters, the event must be scheduled with an organised agenda. In those circumstances, all family members should be present to make sure they are informed or involved in any necessary decisions. Such meetings should be held in a neutral location with a “No Technology” policy to reduce distractions.
But what about informal or ad hoc meetings? In my opinion, those can be highly productive. They almost belie the “meeting” moniker. In the television show, “Blue Bloods,” the Reagan family has dinner every Sunday night. It’s a regular, yet informal gathering with no agenda. But family matters are regularly discussed. So it qualifies as an informal “family meeting.”
In that YPO gathering, one member discussed how he was driving with his grade school-aged children in the car, when one asked the other, “Are we rich?” The sibling responded, “Yes.”
The father felt a conversation about the family’s perceived wealth was needed. Yet, he failed to take advantage of that opportunity. He realised later that to return to that topic might seem forced, awkward or borne of some “I’ve been thinking about your question…” response. Nothing sets a child on edge like that line coming from a parent. In the car, in that moment, would have been the perfect opening for an informal family “meeting.”
Sometimes, situations call for communication. Another client mentioned how they had formal family meetings every year. At those meetings his father and siblings would review the family business and assets. In this meeting, however, the patriarch communicated his plans and abruptly sold the family business. This was the first the children were hearing of the sale, even though the father had countless opportunities in prior meetings. The children weren’t advised and were left feeling frustrated and deceived. Could it be that the father felt it unnecessary to share news of the negotiations or did he forget? Regardless, the damage was done and this impacted their views of their father and the value of family meetings.
Communication is at the root of all family interactions. The chief cause of family feuds is a lack of open dialogue. The more you talk and invite discussion, give each other a platform to air views and grievances, the more likely you’ll have peace around the table – and in the family.
All family meetings or conversations needn’t be formal. Don’t over-engineer the event. It can be scheduled, unexpected or opportunistic. People need to feel included; the heads of the family need to feel comfortable with the openness.
Whether discussing family business or investments, charitable giving or other issues of importance, family matters can be complicated. Meetings shouldn’t be another source of frustration.
If you need guidance orchestrating a family meeting, or just want to explore how to bring your family together in a productive, congenial atmosphere, give me a call. We’ll assist you in keeping the frustration out – and work to ensure it’s a productive event well worth repeating again – and again.