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The importance of family meetings

Allocate enough time for the meeting, give everyone a chance to put their item on the agenda before the meeting, and leave time for open discussion.

Working in a business is tough. Employees are trying to get ahead, develop their skills, and impress their boss. Most likely they are competing with a co-worker for advancement. At the same time, managers and owners are trying to develop and execute successful strategies while trying to groom their employees. And this whole dance occurs in an environment of aggressive competitors, choosy customers, and margin-squeezed suppliers.

Now imagine that this business is a family business with a mom, dad, son, daughter, son-in-law and maybe a nephew, all with different skills, life goals, and relationships with each other. No wonder over 66% of all family businesses don’t succeed to the next generation.

As Steve Forbes stated at a CEO Forum, communication is the key to success for any family business. Family Meetings are one of the best ways to improve communication in a family business. Here are some simple guidelines for family businesses to improve communication by holding effective family meetings.

1) When in doubt, include everyone

Clearly you include the family members in the business, regardless of their role. Yes, maybe the cousin is working on the factory floor, or maybe your sister is only part time. You also need those who are not working in the business, but are directly related, and spouses. Exclusion can create animosity and suspicion, and partners are typically the closest confidant, and strongest influencer, to the working family member.

2) Start with developing a code of conduct

The purpose of the code of conduct is to lay the ground rules of how the meetings will take place to ensure that everyone gets a chance to be heard, and that behaviors that impede communication are left outside. The key to an effective family code of conduct is that it must be created from scratch by the family members themselves.          

3) Active listening

Many people think this phrase means to pay attention, but that is only part of the definition. The other part is to prove it.  This is done by paraphrasing back to the speaker what you think you just heard and asking them if they understood correctly. This does not mean you necessarily agree with them. But without knowing they have been heard, the discussion grinds to a halt. The Harvard Program on Negotiations includes active listening as a core module.

4) Hold meetings regularly

They can be weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. But the important thing is for everyone to know when the next meeting will occur.  Left open-ended family members with issues to discuss can feel that others want to avoid their topic, and animosity can build towards whoever is responsible for scheduling the meeting. Either have a regular schedule or schedule the next meeting at the end of every meeting.

5) Plan the meeting

Be sure to allocate enough time for the meeting, give everyone a chance to put their item on the agenda before the meeting, and leave time for open discussion. By doing this, everyone can be assured of getting a chance to speak and be heard.

6) Facilitator

Family meetings can become awkward if there is a disagreement. Other family members will jump in, or get dragged in, and try to resolve the impasse with good intentions. Unfortunately, this usually results in the feeling that “people are taking sides”. Moreover, as the designated or default coordinator has some power, suspicion of their true motives can exist. An experienced facilitator who has no vested interest in the outcome can help keep family meetings on track.

7) Incorporate some fun

It doesn’t have to be much, but something that reminds everyone that we are here because we want to be, not because we have to be. You could begin each meeting with each person recounting an interesting encounter since the last meeting. Or ask an amusing question to answer: What five foods would you want if stranded on an island, etc. Everyone can answer or you can simply rotate turns at each meeting.

Family meetings are a great way to improve communication in a family business. Some thought and planning are required to be effective, but they are indispensable to the success of the business and the family.

Henry Hutcheson is the President of Family Business USA, a consulting firm dedicated to preserving the wealth of a family business and improving family harmony. Henry will be presenting “Resolving Family Conflict in a Family Business” at ISSA/INTERCLEAN North America.
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