The stereotype that families dread having to spend time with each other during the holidays is a bit of a myth. Sure, it’s true for some. But many families enjoy each other and look forward to the holidays. The pressures of work fade away for a few days, and we gather to celebrate with each other. It’s the perfect time to restore, refresh and reconnect. It’s also the perfect time for a family business meeting! While that may go against the idea of disconnecting from work, the holidays present an opportune time to have conversations about the future of the family, and the family business. Everyone is together in the same room, everyone is feeling a bit of holiday cheer—which can dull any lingering resentment—and a new year is about to begin. For family businesses, the holidays are a fantastic opportunity to discuss succession plans and other business matters that require the whole family. For families who don’t own a business, the holidays can be a great time to discuss the family will and other issues. While some of these conversations may be uncomfortable, they are entirely necessary—and beneficial. In fact, high net worth families may want to consider scheduling an annual meeting around the holidays.
Appoint a Facilitator—And Get Down to Business
In many cases, bringing in an outside facilitator to a family business can really help move the process along and limit the acrimony by setting ground rules. During the holidays, however, it’s likely that a professional facilitator will not be joining you. But you can still lay down some ground rules in the manner that an outside facilitator would. You may even want to appoint one of the family members as the facilitator—the most non-partisan family member would be best!
One of the most important things a family meeting facilitator must do is ensure all the participants have equal standing. Another thing a facilitator will do is conduct some pre-meeting due diligence, interviewing various family members to become familiar with their personal agendas, hot buttons, and views on legacy (values, family traditions, wishes to be fulfilled, meaningful family possessions, and financial assets). You want to enter a family meeting with a goal in mind, and “surprises” can derail its achievement. Your family knows each other well enough to know most of this instinctually, but it may be worthwhile to have everyone restate these concerns and views to set the table for the meeting.
Set Your Family Goals
Any meeting without clear goals is bound to be a fruitless meeting. Before the conversation starts, make sure your family lays out its goals.
Each family is unique, and your goals will depend on your family and your business situation. But here are some typical family business meeting goals:
- Creating a framework for the optimal development of family financial interests
- Sustaining the value of the family legacy
- Keeping the family together
- Supporting individual family members in meeting their goals and potential
- Setting expectations and responsibilities for family members
If you have appointed one family member as the facilitator, their responsibility is to guide the family in a goal-oriented manner by providing an opportunity to recognize and resolve conflicts, preserve family values, and share family history so that younger generations can gain an understanding about the commitment they need to make to the family. A family meeting also allows for older family members to help children prepare for managing inherited wealth and provides a formal setting in which to organize the family’s thoughts and mission in the form of educational projects, philanthropic efforts, and mission and wealth statements.
The facilitator will also be tasked with managing family members’ expectations, and before any discussion begins, they’ll establish ground rules such as:
- A meeting timetable/length
- Meeting topics
- Confidentiality expectations
- Focus on active listening
- Keep an open mind
- Make “I” statements (rather than blaming or attacking)
- Create an action plan to follow up on each topic
The facilitator must be engaged to be successful in this essential role, and they need to constantly find ways to add value to the family. So, find someone impartial enough to fill the facilitator role, break out the eggnog, and start the meeting!