My family has a tendency to "latch on" to catch phrases from our favorite media (If you hear . . . "Inconceivable! or "Beam me up, Scotty!" . . . you might get the idea). We do this, perhaps, even to the point of being nauseous. If you hung out with us, you could probably guess our current obsession from our banter.
One of our current favorites, is a British radio program called "Cabin Pressure." It is about a . . . (Yellow Car! *) . . . family business where Carolyn, acquires, in the divorce from Gordon, the one thing her ex-husband "truly cares about" --a plane called "GERTI" for it's call sign of Golf, Echo, Romeo, Tango, India--and creates a business, MJN Air which stands for My Jet Now Air. The show stars a couple of acting heavy weights (Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephanie Cole) and, perhaps even more impressive, a comedic duo of unknowns (Roger Allam and John Finnimore, the latter of which, is also the author of the series). The program is a delight.
The airline owner, Carolyn, employees two pilots, one fired from the big airline, and the Captian, who is a technocrat who took four tries to get his license. She also has a "crew," her son, Arthur, played by Finnimore, who declares everything he experiences as "brilliant!" So whether it is the "Skipper's" ridiculous gold-braid embossed hat, the task of giving a lecture on polar bears, determining if he can--or cannot--imagine a thousand penguins, or just cleaning the lavatory . . . are equally wonderful, and Arther exclaims this with great enthusiasm as "Brilliant!." In fact, the only exception to this pattern of viewing the world in such superlative terms is when talking about his father who is . . . is . . . ". . . not brilliant," and thus severely condemned in Arthur-parlance.
What does this have to do with therapists and family business? Well, for one thing, the crew of MJN Air could use the help of a good advisor . . . with some behavioral health experience. So could, for that matter, the divorced-but-still-family of Carolyn, Gordon, and Arther. But that's a story for another day, the point is, that businesses, especially family businesses, are inextricably interwoven with the relationships of the family members. Art here, as it does so often, mirrors life.
Most family business owners, like those in the sitcom, are left to "work it out among themselves" -- with greater or lessor success. But that is slowly changing. Family Business owners are recognizing the need to be planful about preserving the family.
In 2004, The Economist published an article on Succession called "Passing on the Crown." In it, they reported that 70% of the attendees at the annual conference of the Boston Family Firm Institute were Family Therapists. What? Therapists! Surprising? Probably. But it highlights both a need and one of the great challenges for Family Businesses--The family element of succession planning--and the risks it poses to both the business and the family.
Sources such as the Family Business Institute report that 88% of Family Business owners expect that the family will continue to own and operate the business in the following generation. But, as students of family businesses are well aware, in actual fact only about 33% make it to the second generation and around 10% to the third.
The sad part is not necessarily the outcome. After all, if the family itself decides that they no longer want to continue on as a family business--for what ever reason--and close down, get bought out by the management/employees, or out right sell--this is hardly a tragedy. It is simply a decision and an action no different that choosing to sell a car.
No, the sad part is that too often the end of the family business is not due to a plan but a reaction to tensions in the family itself. Dad or Mom won't let go. The kids can't get along or are uncomfortable inheriting the business. Personality characteristics threaten to disrupt the family or perhaps get tired in a public, legal, battle.
So, it's a good thing that family therapists are preparing themselves to be advisors to these families. You see, the truth is, family therapists--like the family businesses themselves--typically have no education, training, or experience with family business issues.
So, sending families with family business issues to the average helping professional is likely to end in a less-than-optimal outcome.
Family businesses need to prepare for succession and the difficult challenges they will face as the generational shit approaches. Helping professionals need to recognize that the majority of businesses are run by families and to prepare themselves to find the appropriate referral sources or train and educate themselves to be a good advisors.
This latter path often requires a change in the paradigm of the helping professional. Am I a business expert? No. Can I tell them what legal or financial structures are recommended? No. So what value do I bring? Well, I can tell them how to set good boundaries, practice effective communication, not abdicate out of fear into avoidant behaviors, how to manage estranged family members . . . and much more.
The things is, our value lies in what the family business owners say is their highest value, "The family!" In this, we are the experts. Our involvement has the profound effect of making it more likely that family businesses, once left to their own survival, will experience an increase probability of being sustainable or closing without straining the relationships.
Helping professionals in general, but MFTs in particular, with the proper education and training can be invaluable resources and advisors for Family Firms. Utilizing skills like in-depth ethnographic interviews, assessment tools, coaching skills, family therapists can help craft action plans to aid these families with their move toward a successful succession and the maintenance of family relationships.
Planning retreats to reconnect disengaged families and coordinate planning for the future, sitting in on the family council meetings or participating in annual family meetings, coaching young leaders, helping families manage or prevent family conflict etc--the advisor's focus is on the health and well-being of the family wit in the ownership-management-family dimensions.
A Family Business Consultant, with a family therapy background, can encourage the family to continue it's growth, address issues before they become toxic, keep open dialogue and provide support for the family's goal to maintain, preserve, and protect the family, and . . .
* P.S.- One of Arthur's games is "Yellow Car!" where you say, "Yellow Car" if you see a yellow car. But if you see a car that's not yellow, you don't say "Yellow Car!" I know, I know, the rules can be quite tricky but fortunately, Arthur has completed a tutorial to explain the rules. Oh, and if you are a therapist, I think you will love John Finimore's take on therapy . . . see it here. Finally, I must tell you . . . "the lemon is in play."