Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

July Current Thinking Column

Monday, July 28, 2014

Assessing the Family in Business

By Joe Paul

“A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.”

-Charles Kettering

What would you think if you went to a medical specialist who diagnosed you without asking questions or administering any tests? Trusting that doctor would be challenging and you would have cause to question his conclusions.

When I began counseling families in business 25 years ago, I was struck by the dearth of assessment resources specific to the issues these families were facing. However, as the field developed, individual advisors began to create protocols, and if you do a search on the internet for “family business assessment,” you can see how far the field has come. My impatience with the available instruments prompted me to draw upon my experience in neuropsychological evaluation to develop an assessment device designed to reveal knowledge gaps, differences in perceptions/assumptions, the presence of incompatible memories about the family, and areas of agreement and disagreement. As my assessment protocol evolved, I began to notice an interesting dynamic. The process of administering the assessment protocol itself triggered a change in the client family. This can be seen in the following short story: 

For 40 years, Steve worked hard building the business his uncle originally started in his garage. Steve had taken the company from a mere two employees to a 500-employee manufacturing company. A year before I met the family, a multinational corporation unexpectedly made a remarkable offer to purchase the company at a premium price. Steve and his wife, Jane, were overjoyed because it would allow them to fulfill their dreams of creating a very well-endowed charitable foundation. However, there was a dark lining to their silver cloud due to good estate planning, ironically. 

In order to manage the estate tax liability, they had transferred a significant percentage of the company stock to their four children long before the unexpected offer was proposed to them. When they began gifting processes years ago, their goal was to bequeath approximately $2 million to each child. The unanticipated growth of the company coupled with the windfall purchase price, however, resulted in over $35 million in shares for each child. 

While Steve and Jane had always wanted to provide their children with a comfortable lifestyle, it was inconsistent with their values to render their children so excessively wealthy. Suddenly, Steve had an epiphany. They would create a charitable foundation to which they would contribute $100 million. Their four children would then also contribute $10 million each. Together, the six of them would become Directors of the Foundation. After a few years, Steve and Jane would retire from the Board of the Foundation and their four children would continue as stewards of the family legacy. Jane and Steve were optimistically excited about making this offer as all four children were already philanthropically inclined.

Jane also hoped that this would draw the family closer. There was some estrangement between Steve and their only son, Jake, since Jake quit working for the company a few years back.

To the parents' great disappointment, Jake declined the invitation to join and contribute to the potential family foundation. He told his parents that while he appreciated the offer, he wanted to carry out their charitable work separately from the family. Jane was heartbroken and Steve was angry with his “ungrateful” son.

As is often the case, an attempted solution to a family problem (i.e. creating a foundation to draw the family together) ended up making the problem worse. This often happens when there is an underlying issue that fails to be addressed.

We are frequently invited to work with a family when they are at such an impasse. In order to avoid the distractions of “red herring” issues and delve into the core issues, we have developed a battery of assessment devices to make the assessment process more efficient.

  • The Aspen Family Business Inventory
  • The Aspen Family Wealth Inventory
  • The Aspen Estate Management Inventory
  • The Aspen Family Foundations
  • The Aspen Future Foundation Inventory
  • The Aspen Heirloom Property Inventory

These instruments are very good at identifying:

  • The strengths and weaknesses in the family/assets 
  • Who agrees or disagrees with whom on what issues
  • Where the information and knowledge gaps are
  • What the core issues are
  • Issues that are risky to discuss

Steve and his family went through this assessment process using the Aspen Future Foundation Inventory. With the report present to guide the private individual interview, Jake was able to communicate, for the first time, the reason he did not want to participate in his father’s next great idea. He was halted by uncertain feelings towards himself and his father, attributing the foundation experience as another instance of “being a minor character in ‘The Story of Steve.’” By this, he meant that since childhood, Jake felt his father’s finger prints on everything he did—from being Jake’s first grade soccer coach to promoting him to manager of one of the company’s plants—it all felt like Jake (and the rest of the family) were supporting actors in “The Story of Steve.”

Jake loved his dad deeply and admired the heroic way he lived his life, but the vividness of his charismatic father was tangled up in Jake’s blurry image of himself. After our private interview, Jake realized that his dilemma was not whether he would join in the foundation, but rather if he could be his own person while having a relationship with his father. He realized that he often felt like an adolescent when he had an issue with his dad, and that his “rebellion” about the foundation was just a manifestation of that. He began to see that the issue was not his father, but rather his own reactivity to his father. Jake’s challenge was to let go of his adolescent patterns of behavior and be a calm, purposeful, and thoughtful adult while dealing with emotionally-charged family issues.

During the following family meeting, much was shared. One of the most important clarifications was Jake’s new self-awareness. He said, “This morning I realized I had three versions of my own story from which I could choose to respond. I could respond as a rebellious adolescent and refuse to take part in the foundation. I could be an obedient child and just go along with everyone to keep the peace. Or I could respond as a thoughtful adult who could decide based on the merits of the proposal. When I looked at the situation from the latter story, I realized I liked the concept of the foundation. However, I have several issues that need our attention and think we should clarify our goals by developing a strategic plan for the project.” 

With this story, we do not mean to suggest that all family business problems can be remedied by one family assessment retreat, but we think when the timing is right, the process of a family’s self assessment itself can create new possibilities for change. 

The following are some of the issues that can be assessed with the instrument:

  • The match of advisor skill and expertise to client needs
  • Identify specific expertise needed by family
  • The degree of congruity in attitudes and feelings
  • The presence of a strong minority view
  • General perceptions about the level of family and business functioning
  • The perceptions of the family regarding their strengths
  • Their perceptions regarding issues that are a problem
  • Detailed measures of individual differences on all 100 issues
  • Issues where there is great difference of opinion on specifics
  • Gaps in the knowledge of individuals
  • Individual discomfort in expressing opinions
  • The general level of trust in the family 
  • The presence of serious problems such as chemical dependency
  • Which individuals think alike and which differ
  • Differences between subgroups such as males/females, owners/non-owners, employed/unemployed, different generations, branches of the family, etc.
  • Multiple administrations for benchmarking annual changes, before and after project results, developmental milestones or leadership transition, etc.
  • Predicting areas of disagreement
  • Identifying possible alliances and subgroups in conflict
  • Identify family “blind spots”

Process Facilitation:
  • Structure the initial stages of the engagement
  • Structure a series of meetings based on client identified issues
  • Allow individuals to digest family issues calmly and privately
  • Manage the anxiety of the group
  • Private individual interviews based on the person’s responses
  • Organize family retreats
  • Define issues to be addressed
  • Present issues before the group while respecting privacy
  • Provide detailed view of diversity/congruence within the family 
  • Identify problems that can be resolved and those that must be managed
  • Create projects that address identified issue clusters
  • Empower family to create their own agendas
  • Create context for issue-specific discussions with relevant people
  • Simplify the process of self-awareness
  • Facilitate dialogue between people with divergent views
  • Engage participation of less vocal members
  • Help the family confront chronic serious problems more safely
  • Allows individuals to decide how candid they want to be

Interdisciplinary Collaboration:
  • Create a common ground for interdisciplinary conversations
  • Establish cross-disciplinary case profiles for clients
  • Establish disciplinary boundaries and issues
  • Coordinate stages of engagement
  • Integrate presentations to clients
  • Coordinate sequence of specific disciplinary activities
  • Assure that all advisors have same information
  • Facilitate trust among advisors

If you have any questions about our assessment process, visit our website at


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