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Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

December Current Thinking Column

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Professional Satisfaction: Not a Footnote to a Career

by William Roberts

Have you received a compliment lately that was unexpected and reflected well on your abilities and professionalism?  This is a season when we often exchange pleasantries, whether it be a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” that share our good feelings about the season or year we have almost completed.  Then, along comes a comment that is anything but ordinary or mundane—a sincere, thoughtful, from the heart expression that stops the world for a moment and causes a pause for reflection.  Just such an event recently occurred not once, but three times all within the last month. Clients, some of 20 years, took the time to express appreciation for the work their advisors have done resulting in two successful G-2 to G-3 transitions and a third that is well on its way to a plan of transition to G-2.

The stories behind these successful transitions or planning processes are as varied as the families that created them, yet there are success principles/lessons that run through all three and are instructive to us.  A bit of background will help put the challenges these families faced into perspective and lay to rest any thoughts that these were easily arrived upon transition results.  In fact, quite the opposite, there were facts and strong opinions that could have easily flipped the switch to a completely different result devoid of the principles and values that followed during the planning process.

Each of these families began their planning process knowing that there were likely going to be next-gens in G-3 who were employed in the business and some who would not be employed.  Among those employed, there was a wide variety of skills and dedication to their work.  There was compensation, family employment, and in some cases, entitlement issues to be dealt with.  In one case, there was not a clear-cut "leader" that had emerged and a real question about whether the next-gen had the unique skills necessary to be CEO of the family business.

Despite the plethora of challenges and potential landmines, there was also foundational pillars upon which we could build the plan for the continuation of the family business.  The first and foremost was deep-seated values that had been passed down from generations before.  Two of the families had deep spiritual beliefs and respect for one another that was critical as we moved through the planning process.  

Each of these situations shared the following values: strong family ties, respect for one another (even during disagreement), a desire to maintain family connection and to deepen the ties to one another, a passion to maintain the business the family had passed to them and to pass it along stronger and better for the next generation.  

Passion for education as it related to developing better management skills, and other talents valued in the family business were evident and important to the success of the transition as well.

Interestingly, what the families refused to allow—obstacles to destroy their connectivity to one another or to damage what had been passed to them—revealed additional family values. One such was the cancer of "entitlement,” another was the destruction that can occur from the impact of a forced sale of assets due to estate taxes levied on the value of the family business.  A third was jealousies or rivalries/conflicts caused by the employment of certain next-gens over others. Another was life choices made by some of the next-gens that could have been destructive to the family and ultimately the success of the planning process.  Each of the families dealt with these challenges in unique paths, but all referred back to their values to deal with them in non-destructive ways.

The lessons learned from these three families hopefully will be instructive to your family path, ultimately lending hope when times are difficult, as often they are. Hopefully, if these principles are followed, a successful outcome will ensue.  In looking back over the years of work with these families, their commitment to putting family first was inspiring.  They were not going to let the challenges or difficulties get in the way of their relationships.  There were times of constructive conflict when actions were challenged that were counter to the families values, but it was done with a goal of inclusion instead of exclusion.

In each of the families we dealt with the "equal versus equitable" philosophy surrounding the ownership of stock and participation in the family business.  Each family has dealt with this issue in its own unique way, but with common values exhibited. Those values are the owners of the stock control the decisions regarding the business.  However, the design of their plans focuses on exhibiting fairness to the non-active shareholders.  There are control mechanisms in place to protect the business (the goose that is laying the golden eggs) from distributions that could be damaging to its health and future while still providing benefits from the ownership of the stock in the family's business.

All the families have developed a “Shared Vision” statement that incorporates their values and principles.  This vision statement is prominent in family meetings and evident in the decision-making of the family and the business.  We like to think of it as the "lighthouse on the hill" as it provides guidance when the family is working through difficult issues or evaluating opportunities that are presented.  If the strategies or opportunities are outside of the family's vision of where they want to go, it is discarded and time is only spent on those strategies consistent with the Shared Vision.  

It also allows the family to identify obstacles that lie between their current situation and where the Shared Vision would have them.  They have not shied away from dealing with those obstacles. Rather, they have aggressively sought the advice or advisors necessary to creating a solution.

This leads me to another best practice observed in these families: a relentless dedication to the effort necessary to work through their planning with their advisors.  Each of the families has spent countless hours with a variety of advisors to assist them in crafting the solutions we celebrated with them this month.  Millions of dollars of tax-saving strategies were implemented to avoid the demolition of the business due to estate taxes.   Specialist advisors were brought in to address unique problems that family members faced.  Testing and evaluations to determine skill sets and compatibility were used appropriately.  Mentoring, education, and training were a hallmark of each situation resulting in the next-gens preparedness to accept the mantle of leadership.

Consistent with the dedication to planning was a loyalty to the advisors who knew and understood the history of the family, which contributed to suggestions that were in line with the family's values.  They were also aware of where "bodies were buried" so as to not step on long-buried landmines. While not afraid to bring in specialists when needed, the loyalty to existing advisors allowed the planning to proceed with an eye to the past as well as the future.

Inherent in all the above was a dedication to follow through.  Meetings ended with action plans, timetables, and leadership responsibilities.  Accountability was maintained among advisors, which raised performance levels and kept projects from languishing due to procrastination.  This ultimately led to completion and implementation of agreed upon strategies and to the success we see today.

Lastly, in all of the families, there was a real concern and compassion for the employees, many of whom had been with these companies for years.  There was a respect for their opinions and skill sets and an overall recognition that the business was highly dependent on their high-level performance.  The family was not only concerned about employee work performance, but also the families of their employees. They exhibited this caring in tangible and generous ways specific to the needs expressed.  I have found this to be a consistent value not only among these three companies, but also in many others over the years.

It is always heartwarming to see successful transitions of family businesses.  What we have learned is that transition is not easy or automatic, but rather a result of thoughtful leadership, strong values, consistency and dedication to the goal of transition and a commitment to the process.  Hopefully you will find the same principles in your family business and will develop your own success story to share with your advisors and peers.


November Current Thinking Column

Sunday, December 04, 2016


by Joe Paul

Last July, the Aspen Family Business Group put on a conference called Consilience, which in Latin translates to “jumping in together.”  It was a learning intensive for non-clinical professionals who wanted to be comfortable working with families in business or those who manage other significant assets. An international affair, our conference limited participation to 20 people from all over the world, each bringing a unique perspective. In this blog, I am discussing some ideas left over from the conference that are somewhat off the beaten path for most consultants. The questions that underlie these issues are the psychological and social effects of the geometric evolution of technology.

How can we help prepare our clients for the flood of “game changing” technologies that are already coming down the digital pike? For example:

Driverless cars and trucks

Contact lenses with embedded facial recognition and search engine software

 3-D copy machines

Nano-robots the size of red blood cells that can cross the blood/brain barrier 

This blog will only be a brief introduction to two futurists, Ray Kurzweil and Ross Dawson. You will find links to video of both people among their quotations below.

It is staggering to think about the amount of knowledge on planet earth that is being created and managed every second of every day. There are oceans of data, unending amounts of information, all of the knowledge we have and the depth of the wisdom we have acquired being continuously created, integrated, improved and preserved. This includes every corporation, city, medical specialty, army, universities, and science discipline.

How does one plan for their business and their family in the hyper-interconnectivity of the planet?

Will the earth become a meta-life form in this stage of evolution?

The following excerpt from Ross Dawson begins to answer these questions. His book, Living Networks, attempts to answer many of the challenges we face as we approach an increasingly connected and technologically-integrated society. 

How Connectivity is Bringing Our World to Life

“We who are privileged to be alive today are participating in the birth of a new life form: the global networks. All the talk of the ‘new economy’ in the late 1990s reflected many of the changes at play in our world. In truth, they may well have underestimated the importance of the juncture we are at, which represents a complete change in the nature of society and business. Since the dawn of humanity people have been the dominant force on our planet, for better and—sometimes—for worse. Now individuals are being transcended by a higher-order life-form, which is connecting and merging most of the people and all the digital devices on the planet into a single entity.”

“In some ways we have been moving towards this point for millennia. Just as amoeba or other single-celled organisms flowed and interacted in the primordial soup long before eventually coming together to form multi-celled organisms, individuals have been developing increasingly rich interaction over the years. The pace has accelerated, and now we are finally reaching the stage at which we must think of ourselves and the networks that connect us as an entity in its own right. This is happening on two levels. First, integrating humanity and the flow of information and ideas so closely it becomes as a single ‘global brain.’ And second, the computing and communication technologies themselves are forming a system with all the characteristics of life. As we shall see, these two concepts overlap strongly, as people and technology increasingly merge.”

“You might find this idea ridiculous, intriguing, far-fetched, amusing, perhaps all of these. I will argue in this book that once we adjust our understanding of life to the new world that we find ourselves in, that it is simply a fact. However this book is primarily a business book—it is intended for people who are managing organizations, working for themselves or others, trying to make a difference in the world, doing what it takes to achieve success in any domain. I certainly hope that as you read this book you come to believe and understand that we are living within networks that are themselves living. That isn’t important, however—in any case you will see how it is useful to think of the networks as being alive, and the very practical business implications of a world in which information and ideas are flowing vastly faster, more broadly, and more richly than ever before. As such it is an examination of the apotheosis of the information economy.”

The Superorganism

“The idea of humanity as a whole being considered as a living entity is by no means a new one. Some of the early proponents include the nineteenth century evolutionary biologist Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ before Darwin used it, and science fiction writer H.G. Wells, who wrote a book World Brain outlining his vision for human minds coming together as one. The revolutionary mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin brought into our language the word noösphere, which means the global domain of mind. Over the last decade the ‘global brain’ movement has gained momentum, however primarily as a discussion between academics on the social implications of the birth of a higher-order entity”.

“The word ‘superorganism’ means an organism that is itself composed of other organisms. Plants and animals are made up of many living cells, however those cells cannot survive on their own. In contrast, beehives and ant colonies are prime examples of superorganisms. Each insect has an independent existence, but often can only survive as part of the larger societies of which they are part. The behaviors of bee swarms or ant colonies emerge at the level of those societies, and cannot be predicted from studying the individual insects”

“The idea of a superorganism is that it can be considered as an integrated whole. It is clear that a multi-celled organism such as a tree or a cat is an integral whole—messages and responses flow through the entire organism in a coordinated fashion. However while an ant colony consists of many ants that are alive in their own right, it can be thought of as an entity because of the complex signaling that enables distribution of labor and coordinated actions. These signals can be considered to be the nervous system of the life form, whether they are within a single multi-celled organism, or between the individual living entities that make up a superorganism.”

The Business Implications of Living Networks

“So what are the implications of the birth of the living networks? What does it mean for the organizations and individuals that are meshed into a life form far greater than themselves? Those are the issues we will explore throughout this book, seeking wherever possible to find practical approaches to the key business drivers we confront every day. How does it affect the way we manage people and processes in organizations? How should we develop valuable relationships inside and outside our organizations? What is the impact of intellectual property issues on our life within the networks? What organizational strategies will be successful? As individuals, how can we live richer and more fulfilling lives?”

“The first thing we must understand is that the living networks form a whole. There are no true boundaries within the living networks—the flow of information and ideas that is at their heart respects no artificial borders, be it across nations or organizations. Most managers think at the level of the organization, about their company and how it interacts with its environment. This is dangerous, almost delusional. We must think first on the level of the flows of information and ideas, the flows of value, the global nature of the networks that in which we participate. Only from that perspective can we understand how our firms can create and extract value by integrating and combining with these rich flows. The way we approach all of our business relationships, including working with customers and suppliers, outsourcing, alliances, and collaboration, determine the success of the organization.”

“Information and ideas—and the relationships through which they flow—are all that matter in the economy today. To take just one flow of value in the economy, whether you are mining and refining copper, transporting it around the world, building and selling products from copper, or trading copper futures in the financial markets, the effectiveness of your business decisions is based on the relevance, accuracy, and timeliness of the information you have, and the quality of the ideas you apply to your processes. The critical importance of information and ideas in the economy is by no means new. However it is now predominant.”

“The only truly sustainable competitive advantage in a world of free flow of information and ideas is the ability to create and implement valuable new ideas, in other words to innovate. However the dynamics of innovation are changing dramatically. As technology becomes increasingly advanced, and thus specialized, no organization can claim to have the full spectrum of expertise required to innovate. We have no choice but to collaborate in order to keep ahead. And this creates a whole minefield of intellectual property issues. The concept of the living networks gives us powerful insights on both how we create intellectual property.” 

To read and learn more information about Ross Dawson’s entire book, Living Networks, click here.

The next concept I want us to be thinking about is singularity. In The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil presents the next stage of his compelling view of the future: the merging of humans and machines. This ultimate merger between man and machine is what Kurzweil refers to as “the singularity.”

Upon a mere cursory Google of Ray Kurzweil and the accelerating speed of technological change, you can see his description of the singularity. It describes a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Kurzweil further postulates that we are already in the very early stages of this transition, and that within just a few decades, life as we know it will be completely different. He writes,

“The singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-singularity, between human and machine nor between physical and virtual reality. If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it’s simply this quality — ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.” 

For more information about Ray Kurzweil, click here

The accelerating pace of the evolution of technology cannot be maintained with traditional means.  Some of our clients will be on the cutting edge of this change. One way we can help them is by using techniques for making their tacit knowledge more explicit.  We can answer questions like: What is the knowledge that differentiates your business? Where and how is that knowledge preserved and protected? We can also find out where the flow of knowledge is blocked. 

Within the next few decades, there will be a large percentage of companies that do not survive this acceleration. Often the conflict between family members is the greatest liability for the company. These relationships will prevent the family from adapting to the changes required in the transforming marketplace. We can help with that.

I welcome you to get in touch if you would like to compare notes on this multifaceted topic. I encourage you to message us here



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