Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

February 2018 Current Thinking Column

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Knowledge Transfer: Getting a Handle on Family Legacy

Editor’s Note: Donnel is sharing important research that will help facilitate succession in the family business.

by Donnel Nunes
Aspen Family Business Group

Over the last few months, I’ve been finalizing the write up for a study on mentoring relationships between family members. Based on my findings, I believe familial mentoring relationships are very similar to the act of a craftsperson twining a handle for a basket. Where the weaver skillfully interlaces the rushes and grass to create a handle, the handle created by a mentor and protégé is woven with purposeful relationships and shared learning. In each case, a handle makes a basket easier to carry. Where a wicker vessel might contain goods from the market, the basket of the family is filled with legacy. In the case of familial mentoring, the handle provides a way for next generations to carry this legacy forward.

Just as the master weaver must learn the strands, fibers, and techniques needed to craft their wares, so must a mentor learn their craft. This month, I wanted to present a few of the mentoring fibers that are part of any highly effective familial mentoring relationship.

Highly effective familial mentors…

  • Encourage thinking of mentee: As a mentor, your job is to engage mentees through thoughtful questioning, NOT providing all-knowing direction. Skilled mentors are adept at spotting and drawing out the best in others. Lessons from neuropsychology support this claim. When people take an active role in the cognitive process of solving problems, they are more likely to build the neural pathways that will facilitate future problem solving. They are also much more likely to take ownership of the decisions they make.
    • How do you do this? Next time you want to tell someone the answer, ask questions instead. Sounds simple, but this might be one of the most challenging things you will have to learn. The key is patience!
  • Focus on solutions: The family motto from one of my cases was; “We know the problem, now let’s focus on the solution.” Once they knew the issue, they immediately turned their attention to finding solutions. Overly focusing on problems can stymie growth and creative thinking. A solution-focused mindset inspires action, creativity, and the ability to see the potential in life.
    • How do you do this? Be mindful about where you place your focus. Some problems take more analysis than others, but ultimately, you shouldn’t be spending more time on problems than you are on solutions.
  • Encourage the use of networks: In Hawaii, traditional models of mentoring view the primary role of a familial mentor to be that of a connector. The mentor’s job is to help the mentee assess his or her developmental needs and to connect them to other potential mentors who possess the appropriate expertise. One of the biggest pitfalls for family member mentors is behaving in ways that isolate younger generations from non-family mentors.
    • How do you do this? When you encounter topics that are outside of your expertise, refer-out. When you practice this in mentoring you model integrity, curiosity, and the importance of connectivity to others. You also increase the likelihood that mentees will make new connections and seek out other mentors in the future.

Whether a weaver or a mentor, the act of becoming skillful begins with curiosity. Skill evolves through sustained effort as new-found knowledge becomes a part of who we are. In my experience, effective mentoring is not something that ‘just happens.’ Becoming a highly effective mentor requires practice and a commitment to personal growth that evolves across a lifetime.



December Current Thinking Column

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Compassion Fatigue

by Joe Paul
Aspen Family Business Group

It was a standing joke in both the Mitchell Company and the family that Lenny and Fred didn’t need to talk since they obviously could read each other’s mind. They were like two puzzle pieces that fit together in such a complimentary way they were known in the community as “the brothers.” Fred knew he had a real challenge before him when his brother and business partner, Lenny, began to forget things like passwords, telephone numbers and the names of valued customers along with little symptoms like illegible penmanship. Later the symptoms would become more disabling.

However, these benign issues begin to cause frustration, resentment, hopelessness, irritability and even fear among the most senior non-family employees of the Mitchell family business. As a brother to Lenny he might protect the company yet by doing things like putting their retirement process on the fast track. But as the president of the company and the employer of over 500 people Fred knew he was ethically bound to be more direct.

Then, when Joyce, Lenny’s administrative secretary of 21 years, came to Fred’s office in tears he knew that denial of the problem would make things even more difficult for everyone concerned. Joyce’s father had died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease and she had come to the realization that with Lenny she was going to have to deal with another painful journey with this incurable disease. She could already see those who were close to the brothers trying to navigate around these complicated issues. After working with the family so long she knew that Fred would be dealing with his emotions by burying his “head deeply into the sand”.

And yet, notwithstanding that denial, she knew that he was also the best suited to protect Lenny, his family, and his company. And that is exactly what Fred did. He took on a key role as the caregiver for Lenny and worked closely with his medical team to assure that Lenny received the best care possible.

As a result, 14 years later Lenny was still involved in life. He had retired, but the progress of the disease had been significantly slowed via strenuous exercise. Ever so slowly, with the support of his family and healthcare team, Lenny’s capacity to navigate his life helped him successfully access the specialized services of a multitude of therapists including physical, speech, cognitive, exercise, a marriage and family therapist, and a social worker. His neurologist over saw all of these activities.

But Joyce also saw the toll that running the business and helping care for Lenny was taking on Fred. He was often exhausted emotionally and physically. His team at work tried to support Fred during this time as they understood how close the he was to Lenny. But his life—and the relationship Fred had with Lenny was not out of balance. This experience can be explained by something called “the Emotional Ledger” that accounts for the balance of “give-and-take” between individuals. Transactions reflected in the emotional ledger can include money, but there are many other factors such as not giving recognition for others’ contributions, harboring a sense of entitlement, mistrust, jealousy, resentment, loss of intimacy, and injustice. A chronically unbalanced Emotional Ledger eventually creates Compassion Fatigue in caregivers because they “over give” without a way to minister to their own needs. If the caregivers don’t look after their own mental health and self-care, mal-adaptive patterns begin to permeate the home and their family business.

Predictable symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Friends stop coming over to visit you at home because the tension is palpable
  • Employees become distracted because they have to be vigilant about the boss’s mood
  • You find yourself looking for a fight and are cranky a lot of the time
  • You create an emotional cut off from others in order to reduce the emotional drain
  • You begin to desire isolation in many forms from others
  • You might be described as having a chip on your shoulder, or thinking the world owes you a living
  • Substance abuse is used to mask feelings
  • You begin to practice compulsive behaviors such as overspending, overeating, gambling, sexual addictions
  • Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene appearance)
  • Legal problems

It goes without saying that when we treat our loved ones with respect, compassion, emotional support, honesty and truthfulness we are investing in our relationships. When we fall upon hard times this reservoir of good will sustains us and our relationships. Yet it is still important that the caretaker find a way to keep his or her own “balance” while honoring this imbalanced relationship. Reaching back to our own “sense of purpose” and making sure we are still living congruently with that purpose is one way of assuring balance. My mother-in-law told me several times that what one requires to have a good life is: Something to do, something to look forward to, and someone to love. Being able to sustain those three things during these times is particularly important.

by Joe Paul



December Current Thinking Column

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Views from around the world: High Growth Family Business

by Burak Kocer & Leslie Dashew
Aspen Family Business Group

We are delighted to share that the Aspen Family Business Group engaged in a study of emerging leaders in business in Turkey. Our associate, Burak Kocer, conducted the study and partner Leslie Dashew wrote a foreword on preparing the family business for the future.

Here are a few highlights of the report

  • Statistics indicate that small businesses (SMEs), which are all family-owned, are the backbones of growth, job creation and innovativeness in Europe and in the UK. This is evidenced as they outperform large-scale companies in the market in terms of new job creation and introduction of new products.
  • This is even more critical during times of economic uncertainty, which does not come as a surprise to us as family business advisors. We know how dedicated families in business are to create value and sustain it throughout generations. This characteristic becomes visible to the market with new job creation, finding new ways to compete in the market (with new products or in new consumer markets based on their core competence), which is more difficult for risk-adverse (and less agile) giant companies.
  • Thus, the economic prosperity in macro terms strongly depends on mobilizing the strengths of families in business and mitigating the potential inefficiencies, which are inherent to working as a family.
  • For example, according to Companies to Inspire 1,000 report, the fastest growing companies in the EU countries performed an amazing 3-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 103% (730% for top 100 companies). Their two-year new job creation equaled 43%. These 1,000 companies hold 4,884 patents in total, almost 5 patents on average per company.
  • AFBG undertook the preparation of the Turkish version of this study and found similar results in Turkey. Turkish SMEs, all family businesses (or “Emerging Leaders of Turkey” as we named them) outperformed their large-scale counterparts in terms of 3-year CAGR of net sales (25 per cent) and new job creation (13 per cent).
  • The fact that the CAGR of overall job creation in Turkey during the same period was 3.41 per cent underscores the power of the Emerging Leaders to act as an accelerator in revitalizing the economy.
  • They also proved to be highly dynamic in terms of new investments. The strategic plans of the Emerging Leaders for the next three years indicate that 52 per cent of them plan to make a new facility investment inside the country and 25 per cent of them plan to invest abroad according to the results of our survey. This fact renders the dynamism of the Emerging Leaders even more valuable, given the sense of uncertainty in the global trade as a common theme around the world.
  • As family business advisors, we focused our attention to potential pitfalls in sustaining this amazing performance. 73% high-growth companies are run by the first-generation and a quarter of them state that they will have to come up with transition plans in the next three years. Thus, succession planning constitutes a critical success factor for sustaining this fast-paced growth performance.
  • In planning this transition, the Emerging Leaders must identify both what has made the business successful to date and scan the environment to determine new dynamics that will change the success formula.
  • Critical in this transition is understanding the knowledge and leadership skills that successors must possess in the future: often different than what contributed to success in the past.
  • The transition of ownership must be planned in a way to address the needs for control of those operating the business, while satisfying the needs of transparency for more passive owners and identifying their benefits.
  • A new governance system often needs to be put in place, which assures that the oversight, advice and decision-making processes are achieved with the greatest degree of professionalism.
  • Effective systems of communication must be established within the company and with stakeholders including family members, advisors and employees.

The business world and the world in general are more complicated and more connected than ever before. There are lessons that we can harvest from our counterparts around the globe. These studies help us see the commonalities as well as different strategies that can help us flourish. We hope you will find this work of interest. In a future blog, Bill Roberts will share some additional lessons from our program in Greece.

The 22nd Annual Women in Family Business Conference in Tucson, Arizona, is less than three months away. Register before it is too late!

Go to for more information and to register.



October Current Thinking Column

Monday, October 30, 2017

Knowledge Transfer: Mentoring in Family Business

by Donnel Nunes
Associate, Aspen Family Business Group

Over the past year, I’ve had numerous conversations with family business owners and advisors about their efforts, and associated challenges, to transferring knowledge between generations. Most recently this included a discussion session during the Aspen Family Business Group workshop, Building and Sustaining Legacy of Oíkos, in Thessaloniki, Greece. In many of these conversations, family owners and advisors spoke directly about their efforts to institute mentoring programs to address needs for talent development, succession planning, and learning between generations. As the birthplace of the word mentor, I found Greece to be a particularly evocative location to dive into the topic of these learning relationships.

While there certainly are people who have a natural proclivity for being a highly effective mentor, more often, they are the ‘exception’ rather than the ‘rule.’ In most cases, effective mentoring relationships and programs require thoughtful planning and execution. This starts with building a shared understanding of mentoring followed by the development and implementation of a program that follows established best-practices. This said, in most cases, I found that advisors and family owners often relied on informal approaches to mentoring and were frustrated that they were not getting the results they had hoped for. In the world of mentoring, these factors commonly go hand-in-hand.

In this month’s Current Thinking Column, I want to start what I hope to be an ongoing series about knowledge management in family business. In this edition, my intention is to help readers deepen their understanding of mentoring as a concept and tool that can be very useful in family owned businesses. As a starting point, I will provide you with a brief overview of the history of mentoring followed by discussion about building a shared understanding of mentoring and the difference between a supportive family member and a mentor.

History of Mentoring

“Know from whence you came. If you know when you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.“   - James Baldwin

While there is evidence across time and cultures that suggest mentoring practices have existing for millennia and may even be part of human DNA (Dubois and Karcher, 2014), it is generally accepted that the first literary reference to the word mentor was in the 8th century B.C in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. In this tale, ‘Mentor’ is introduced to the reader as a close-confidant of Odysseus who was placed in charge of his ‘oíkos’ (household) while the king was fighting in Troy. As the keeper of the oíkos, Mentor was charged not only with the care of the physical estate, but also with the care of all who lived there. This included being responsible for the development and education of the king’s son, Telemachus.


1. Mentoring relationships and programs require a shared vision, thoughtful planning, and monitored execution.

2. Building a shared vision for your mentoring program starts with building a shared understanding of mentoring.

3. Mentoring is generally defined as a one-way, learning relationship where a, typically older, more-experienced person provides knowledge and wisdom to a, typically younger, less-experienced person to advance their career

4. Current thinking about mentoring includes a move away from simply looking at dyadic relationships to include ecological and network models.

5. Development and implementation of a program should include consideration of established best-practices.

6. Family business owners need to evaluate the family business experience of mentoring program advisors and/or the mentoring experience of family business advisors when looking for support in this area.

7. The best mentoring relationships are reciprocal, focused on solutions, mindful of integrating professional and outside networks, and cognizant of how they help to improve the quality of thinking for both mentor and protégé.

In the opening of the story, we find the estate of Odysseus over-run by suitors who are plundering the stores of food and wine, unwelcomely courting his wife, and treating his son with contempt. By all reasonable measures, Mentor was a miserable failure in executing his duties. In fact, it is only after the goddess, Athena (goddess of wisdom, council, and war), appears before Telemachus disguised as Mentor that his circumstances and fortunes begin to change. Through a merger of man and goddess, into what I refer to as the Symbolic Mentor (Nunes and Dashew, 2017), I believe Homer begins to reveal his own contemplations about the roles and functions of a mentor. Taken from a figurative perspective, we find Symbolic Mentor is both human and goddess, male and female, and divine and mortal. In the form of Mentor, she provides wise council, the procurement of supplies for his travel, and acts as a companion in arms. Athena arrives in a time of need, provides the call to adventure, and serves as the usher who guides Telemachus towards his destiny and reunification with his father. While Homer’s mentor may be an imperfect example, I believe there is still value in understanding the ancient heritage of this type of learning relationship.

Following the etymology of the word ‘mentor,’ it wasn’t until 1699, that it would reappear in literature. This time, Athena is once again in the form of the man Mentor in Les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus), a book written by Arch Bishop Francois Fénelon. At the time it was authored, Fénelon was serving as the tutor of the 7-year-old Duke of Burgundy who was both the grandson of Louis the XIV and 2nd in line for the throne. Reportedly, Fénelon wrote to educate the young leader about benevolent leadership and to speak out against the political culture of the time. In this story, Athena guides and educates Telemachus through a relationship that many historians believe to be the first conceptual representation of mentoring in literature.

In 1750, the word, ‘mentor’ made its first appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2017). The word, ‘mentor,’ was identified as a noun and defined as “a person who acts as guide or advisor to another person, esp. one who is younger and less experienced.” Later, in 1918, the Oxford English Dictionary published a revised definition of ‘mentor’ which expanded to also recognize “mentor” as a verb. Adding, “to act as a mentor” was “to advise or train someone, esp. a younger or less experienced colleague.”

Despite its ancient origin, formal study of the practice of mentoring did not begin until the latter-half of the 20th century. In 1978, Daniel Levinson and his team of researchers published The Seasons of a Man’s Life in which he reported his findings from a study examining adult development. In this seminal book, Levinson and colleagues pointed to the importance of mentors in adult development and described their role as someone who helps another with the “realization of the dream (p. 98).”

Shortly after Levinson, Kathy Kram published another seminal piece of research on mentoring in her book; Mentoring at Work (1985). In this writing, she reported findings from her research on mentoring. Kram’s book is widely considered as the first comprehensive examination of mentoring practices in research literature. In addition to information about programs and roles, she identified a set of functions, phases, and challenges associated with mentoring relationships.

In the time since Levinson and Kram, the number of studies and the frequency to which people incorporate mentoring into various contexts has exploded. At the time of this writing, there are literally millions of academic and journalistic articles on the subject. Mentoring programs can be found in private and public organizations, education, the military, public health, programs for disadvantaged youth, and countless other areas.

Surprisingly, while family business owners and expert advisors have known for decades the importance of family members acting as mentors to younger generations, very little research has been done to examine the unique effects of a mentor also being a family member. Not only is this an important fact for mentoring researchers to consider, but it also means family business owners need to evaluate the family business experience of mentoring advisors and/or the mentoring experience of family business advisors when looking for support in this area.

Building a Shared Understanding of Mentoring

“A problem well put is half solved.“   - John Dewey

In most family business endeavors, the starting point for success is building a shared vision to guide your family and business forward, the same thing can be said when it comes to developing and implementing a mentoring program. In the case of mentoring, the first step to developing a common vision is formulating a collective understanding of the concept.

When I give talks, or interact with families on the topic of mentoring, one of the first things I do is I ask members of the audience or clients to share their definition of mentoring. What usually follows are responses that demonstrate a fair amount of variance between the way that people understand mentoring. Sometimes, the difference between definitions is related to roles. At other times, definition vary as relates to the program structure needed for mentoring. For example, I’ve heard mentoring defined as ‘teaching others,’ ‘coaching’ a younger person, or simply ‘giving advice’ in a work environment. As pertains to programs, I’ve heard people say they have a mentoring program, only to find through further discussion that they have simply matched a younger employee, or family member, with an older one and called it ‘mentoring.’ In reality, mentoring is more than teaching, coaching, or giving advice. Additionally, it’s also more than the sum of its parts. Effective mentoring is defined by all these things and more.

A good place to start when trying to better understand mentoring is to look at what the experts have to say. In 1991, Maryann Jacobi, conducted a review of the existing mentoring research and found the majority of mentoring definitions shared a list of common themes. According to Jacobi, mentoring was generally defined as a one-way, learning relationship where a, typically older, more-experienced person provides knowledge and wisdom to a, typically younger, less-experienced person to advance their career. This said, contemporary definitions of mentoring have widely accepted that a younger person is capable of mentoring an older. A significant responsibility of the mentor is to provide the protégé with both instrumental and psychosocial support. Jacobi also found a common agreement about the phases of mentoring. Initially identified by Kathy Kram in 1985, they include initiation, cultivation, separation, and redefinition and are characterized by varying expectations, points of focus, and levels of dependency between the mentor and protégé. While Jacobi’s work has largely stood the test of time it is most accurate to say that it has provided a foundation from which more contemporary thinking has continued to build.

Over the past ten years, the evolution in thought around mentoring has included a move away from simply looking at dyadic relationships to include ecological and network models. In these cases, mentoring is defined in part by the way that it affects multiple systems and draws on a diverse network of supporters. The truth is, while there does exist a generally agreed upon scope of definitions amongst mentoring professionals and researchers, there is still some grey areas related to different contexts.



1. Establish a shared understanding of mentoring: Start asking other family members and key employees how they define mentoring? What is your shared understanding of mentoring? How does it align with what the experts are saying?

2. Identify your family “mentors”:
Ways to differentiate between being a caring relative and being a mentor:

a. Their efforts should be focused on helping the protégé to advance in their participatory status in the family business or another professional domain. In the world of social-science, we call these ‘communities of practice. 

b. It should be evident that a familial mentor is sharing domain expertise or is skillful as a mentor in a way that would qualify them to be a mentor to a non-family employee or person.

c. Efforts of the mentor should be aligned with the goals of the protégé over the needs or wants of the business. If the goals of the protégé do not align with the direction of the family business, the mentoring might not be for the purpose of bringing them into the business.

3. Develop a Vision: Start constructing a shared vision for your mentoring program.

4. Consider the Possibilities: I encourage you to consider, not only, how a mentoring relationship might benefit a younger family member, but how these same relationships can help senior members to learn from the upcoming generations.

When it comes to familial mentoring in family business, it is very common for mentors and their protégé to be related. When this is the case, there are a few things that are beneficial to consider when you are defining the roles of these mentors. First, a parent or other care-giver is not a mentor by virtue of these roles. In order to help would-be-familial-mentors differentiate their roles, I suggest using the following criteria:

  1. Their efforts should be focused on helping the protégé to advance in their participatory status in the family business or another professional domain. In the world of social-science, we call these ‘communities of practice.’

  2. It should be evident that a familial mentor is sharing domain expertise or is skillful as a mentor in a way that would qualify them to be a mentor to a non-family employee or person.

  3. Efforts of the mentor should be aligned with the goals of the protégé over the needs or wants of the business. If the goals of the protégé do not align with the direction of the family business, the mentoring might not be for the purpose of bringing them into the business.

In addition to these factors, you may also want to consider how a mentoring program might affect the other sub-systems within and outside of the business. Further, I encourage you to consider, not only, how a mentoring relationship might benefit a younger family member, but how these same relationships can help senior members to learn from the upcoming generations. In my research and work, I’ve found the best mentoring relationships to be reciprocal, focused on finding solutions, mindful of integrating professional and outside networks, and cognizant of how they help to improve the quality of thinking for both mentor and protégé.

The important take away from this section is to remember that, like your business, mentoring programs have the greatest chance for success when they include a shared vision. Building a shared vision for your mentoring program starts with building a shared understanding of mentoring.

What’s next?

Keep an eye out in future Current Thinking Columns for follow-ups on knowledge management. The next time I write, I will start to lead you through some of the key program standards to use when evaluating existing programs or to consider when planning new mentoring programs. After that, I’ll discuss ways you can make your professional and personal networks more efficient and effective by formally evaluating and structuring your developmental networks. From there we will explore some of the current thinking related to how to teach and how we learn through discussion of the latest in educational program frameworks and design.

In the meanwhile, start asking other family members and key employees how they define mentoring? Gather this information, merge it with some of the research findings I’ve shared, and start constructing a shared vision for your mentoring program.



Dubois, D. L., and Karcher, M. J. (2014). Youth mentoring in contemporary perspective. In D. L. Dubois and M. J. Karcher (Eds.), Handbook of youth mentoring (2nd ed., pp. 3-13). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Jacobi, M. (1991). Mentoring and undergraduate academic success: A literature review. Review of educational research, 61(4), 505-532.

Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. University Press of America.

Levinson, D. J. (1978). The seasons of a man's life. Random House LLC.

Mentor. (2017). In OED Online. Retrieved from

Nunes, J.D., and Dashew, L., (2017). Mentoring between generations: A family affair. In Clutterbuck, D., Dominguez, N., Kochan, F., Lunsford, L., Smith, B., & Haddock-Millar, J. (Eds). Sage Handbook of Mentoring. SAGE Publications



August Current Thinking Column

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reflections on a Life

by Leslie Dashew
Partner, Aspen Family Business Group

A good friend died last week and we went to the memorial yesterday. The service included two passages that particularly touched me.

The first was a story from the Torah:

A man was traveling through the desert, hungry, thirsty and tired, when he came upon a tree bearing luscious fruit and affording plenty of shade, underneath which ran a spring of water. He ate of the fruit, drank of the water and rested beneath the shade.

When he was about to leave, he turned to the tree and said: “Tree, O tree, with what should I bless you?

“Should I bless you that your fruit be sweet? Your fruit is already sweet.

“Should I bless you that your shade be plentiful? Your shade is plentiful. That a spring of water should run beneath you? A spring of water runs beneath you.

“There is one thing with which I can bless you: May it be God’s will that all the trees planted from your seeds should be like you . . .”

So what is the mark we want to have on those who follow?  What is the legacy we want to leave?

Is it the fruit of our labors that we want our children and grandchildren to have?  Or the ability to be fruitful and to feel good about that ability.

I believe that most of us would like our offspring to be productive and to share our values, as in this case, to produce sweet fruit, offer help to others and be nourished.

And if we are very fortunate and truly live our lives with integrity (i.e. living our own values) then we might see our offspring manifest the same values. But even more important is that our children differentiate and become their own “selves” and follow the path toward their own dreams. When we are in a family business, often we hope that our kids’ dreams will coincide with ours and that they will succeed us in the business. Yet often the “trees planted from (our) seeds…may share some of our values, but not necessarily our dreams.

The second prayer tells us how to live our lives such that we are remembered by those who follow.

Let us treasure the time we have,
and resolve to use it well,
counting each moment precious – a chance to apprehend some truth,
to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil,
to relieve some suffering, to love and be loved,
to achieve something of lasting worth.
Help us, God, to fulfill the promise that is in each of us,
and so to conduct ourselves that generations hence
it will be true to say of us:
The world is better, because for a brief space, they lived in it

-Rabbi John Rayner

Our most precious asset is not our “gold” or even our knowledge. It is our time. How we use our time defines that which is most important to us. Will we relieve some suffering or experience some beauty or do something less constructive?

With each death I experience, I have a deeper appreciation of how fleeting are the moments of our lives. Taking the opportunity to reflect on that which is most important to us to accomplish, helps us determine how we will use each of the moments ahead.

Further, as I think about the phrase “fulfill the promise that is in each of us…” I appreciate that fulfilling our own promise and supporting others in so doing may take us on different paths. Once again, honoring the differentiation of those close to us helps us to fulfill the dreams and to make the world better.

I hope to see you in Greece next month.

The Aspen Family Business Program in Greece is next month. Register before it is too late!

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June Current Thinking Column

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Parental Aging Tidal Wave

by William Roberts
Partner, Aspen Family Business Group

The following entry by Bill Roberts shares his personal reflections on the demographic phenomenon we are all seeing: a huge wave of elderly parents entering a phase of increased dependence and death. The mobility of our society combined with the health care that helps people live longer has made this transition a difficult one for families. Bill offers great advice from his own experience personally and professionally.


As I circulate among the world of privately held business owners, family businesses, and the advisors to these owners a common theme has emerged almost always accompanied with a somewhat surprised look of puzzlement.

“What in the world am I going to do with my parents and their stuff?”

In whatever form it might take, the owners or advisors have recently encountered in their own situation or that of friends a loss of capacity or, in several cases, a loss of aging parents. What then follows are story after story of the quagmire they found themselves in trying to unwind boxes of financial information: "stuff" to be sorted through and disbursed to family members who likely could care less or the simple act of cleaning up and throwing out the 50-60 years of accumulated history of their parents.

The people I am encountering are very smart people and well aware of current trends. Most are good planners in their own right, yet to a person all of them agree that they were woefully unprepared for the quagmire they found themselves in, the legal entanglements that kept them from settling their parent’s affairs and most of all the emotional and time drain that this situation required of them. We found dealing with the social security/Medicare/Medicaid system a challenge in dealing with our own parents. It became so frustrating that we did what we probably should have done at the beginning, hire an elder care specialist and an elder care attorney to walk us through the maze of government regulations and paperwork.

One of the common themes is the inordinate amount of time the care taking requires. I have often read of very successful daughters who have to quit high paying jobs to devote themselves to the care taking role for their parents. The process puts an incredible emotional drain on the marriage and family life of the caretaker as the relationship with spouse and children suffers and sometimes ends in a divorce. Even the very process of wading through boxes of stuff and making decisions about what to keep and what to sell or give away is time consuming and emotionally draining. One friend of ours commented "cleaning out our parents’ house was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken".

Often parents have sold businesses and moved to Sunbelt cities far away from their children and support network. As their skills diminish their ability to manage their affairs becomes less and less and problems begin to emerge. Can they still manage their checkbook? Can they make rational decisions regarding contributions to the endless mailings from political and charitable predators? Who helps them manage their mail? They are often fearful of throwing away mailings with their address fearing the information will fall into even more predators. Mail piles up in a frightening manner. Giving up the checkbook often becomes a battle between caretaker and prepared!

The experience of many is that the suggestion of moving to assisted living is often met with significant resistance by their senior generation. This is a tough generation, used to being and living independently and like all of us having a deep connection to the home they are used to living in. The very thought of moving out of familiar surroundings into an assisted living environment is frightening to them even in the most dire of circumstances. It is the giving up of the very independence that has made them so successful that is an anathema to them. The alternative is to hire a caretaker or for one of the family members, often the daughter, to assume the role of caretaker. According to a USA Today study, there are 29 million such caretakers in the United States today.

A second challenge mentioned by many is the continued driving of the family car by the senior generation. My mother drove until she was 102 despite efforts to get her to give up her keys to her Pontiac Sunbird with a spoiler on the rear deck. When I questioned our caretaker for my Mom about her driver's license renewal on her 100th birthday, she laughed and told me that my Mom knew I did not want her driving and she had already taken the driving test and had her license renewed. To which my son replied, "I am never driving in the state of Georgia again"! While this was a humorous situation in our family, the danger to themselves and to others is very real. Macular degeneration and other debilitating illnesses affect the ability to see and judge speed and distances. Misjudgments abound endangering those around them resulting in the decision by the family that "we have to get the car keys away from the parents."

That is often easier said than done. I spoke with one daughter whose father was suffering from dementia as well as other physical ailments. She told the story of her father who she remembered as a loving caring man, but as she attempted to discuss giving up the car keys, he screamed at her and used language she had never heard him use before. It was a horrible experience for her and one that left emotional scars for her to deal with at a later date. This story is repeated over and over again, like their home, the automobile is a symbol of the parent’s independence, their ability to "go to town" when they pleased is very difficult to give up. As my son later observed, after we finally talked my mother into giving up her keys,

"If you think getting your mother's keys was difficult, wait until we have to take them away from you"!

And he is absolutely correct!

Having prior conversations about these very difficult subjects while everyone is cognizant and rational is vital. Having an agreed upon plan, discussing the transition with elder care specialist is an important step to developing a cogent plan of handling what is in most cases an inevitability. There are legal issues, the need for a Durable Power of Attorney which is effective in the state where the parents live, because it will become one of the most used documents that the caretaker or the family has in their arsenal. Durable Powers of Attorney are effective if the elderly person becomes incapacitated. Without it one cannot deal with bank accounts, securities accounts, pension administrators, financial advisors, medical facilities and insurance companies. We learned that the Power of Attorney in our case expired when she did. Had we not put another family member on checking and savings accounts, those accounts would have been frozen until cleared by a probate process, often a long and sometimes expensive process.

Our situation with our parents was not unique. As it becomes more common for people to live longer and apart from their family and old circle of friends, it is far more likely that the children who step up to help will have almost no familiarity with their parents financial life, what bills needed to be paid immediately, what were annual bills versus monthly expenses. Often there are multiple checking and savings accounts. Sorting all those out can require time and frustration with endless telephone voice mail systems and parents who cannot remember much about their finances. This is often accompanied by a deterioration of their health situation, demanding endless trips to doctors or hospitals. All of this is as you would expect: time consuming and since we are dealing in something we have never done before, filled with missteps and frustrations.

All of this can lead, even in the most understanding of families, to tension between siblings as one or more take on the role of caretakers. Resentments build up towards siblings who make no or little effort to pitch in and help with the parent’s situation. In talking to elder care attorneys and listening to their experiences, they tell story after story of these family battles precipitated by the perceived inequity in the care taking responsibility. This can lead to deep rifts and emotional stress which eat away at the fabric of the family.

Then comes the decision, "what do we do with the family home now that the parents are in assisted living?" Keep it, rent it, or sell it are all alternatives. But in our case the house was across the country in a small town with a limited rental market, and while in a good area, if left uninhabited could have been subject to home invasion, even someone trying to live there on an extended basis. There are also tax issues. If a house is sold prior to the death of the parents, there may be capital gains to pay on any increase in value over the parents purchase price. Holding the real estate until after the parent’s death under current law allows the house basis to step up to date of death value thereby avoiding any potential capital gains tax. Consulting tax experts can help in coming to a rational decision.

Assuming the decision is to sell, what to do with furniture that is often dated, not very well kept, and not desired by any of the family becomes a problem. A few cherished items may be kept by family, and hopefully who gets what has been sorted out prior so conflict does not arise when more than one sibling wants Dad's prize $12,000 shotgun - and a fight ensues. What to do with the rest?? There are companies that will come in and for a fee, auction off or take all the left over furniture and "stuff". In our case a "silent auction" was held and people from our church and other friends bought almost all of the furniture remaining. But whatever the result, having a plan between family members laid out well in advance will save hours of agonizing decisions. The second rule is to have the parents begin to sort through and throw out things defined as "stuff" they have been saving for decades (ex. I still have college textbooks--they go post haste). The children or grandchildren do not want the stuff and only items of historical interest to the family should be conserved.

An example of this, a friend of ours, who has lost both sets of parents, related a personal story over a dinner discussion of this dilemma. She has begun an "I am Dying Day", which she communicates to friends. On this day she spends the entire day sorting through their her considerable "stuff" and throwing away those items she believes none of their children have any interest in. This is so far a month’s long project dedicating one day every two weeks to sorting out and getting rid of things. She has thrown away boxes and boxes but admits there is still much to be sorted out. A morbid but effective approach in removing much of the mess the children would have been faced with.

We learned much from our experiences while seeing our parents lose capacities and eventually living through their passing. While emotionally draining, there were lessons to be learned. One, appreciate what we have while we have it. As the skills diminish, the ability to communicate and have those precious conversations will forever be gone. Gather as much of the family history as possible and preserve it for future generations. But practically, while people don't like dealing with the tough issues with their parents when they are healthy, it is much more difficult dealing with them after the tsunami hits and mental cognitive abilities are diminished. Develop a plan of action agreed upon by the family and the parents. Unfortunately, this problem is inevitable and approaching at a rapid rate. It is time now to develop a plan of action. Please set a deadline and set the family meeting to discuss a plan of action and then put your plan into motion!

Tools to help:

  1. Plan ahead with your parents. Having prior conversations about these very difficult subjects while everyone is cognizant and rational is vital. Make sure that all offspring are involved in a conversation about plans and responsibilities.

  2. For the “elder” generation, be sure you document your goals and wishes for your care, disposition of assets and where everything is kept (e.g. safe deposit boxes, insurance documents and passwords!). For a great “checklist” for this, see Bonnie Brown Hartley’s book “Sudden Death: A Fire Drill for Building Strength and Flexibility in Families”

  3. Regular “purging” of possessions.

  4. Hire an elder care specialist and an elder care attorney to walk us through the maze of government regulations and paperwork.

  5. Make sure that someone has legal access to manage financial matters.

  6. Interview (and video!) elder generations about their stories and memories so that these can be preserved for future generations


See also:  Before it’s too late: A Continuing Story (about Leslie Dashew’s experience taking over her father’s financial affairs) 

Registration for the Aspen Family Business Program in Greece opens this week!

Go to
for more information and to register.


April Current Thinking Column

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Building and Sustaining Legacy of your Oikos

Best Practices for Families in Business

by Burak Kocer, PhD
International Associate, Aspen Family Business Group

This coming September, the Aspen Family Business Group will conduct a conference in Greece: Building and Sustaining Legacy of Oikos: Best Practices for Families in Business.

The Ancient Greek word oikos (pronounced ecos) refers to three related but distinct concepts: (1) the family members per se, (2) the family’s possessions and (3) the building, which houses the family.

The concept oikos can be found as part of many words in modern English such as “economy” among others: oiko and the verb nemo, which translates into distribute or allocate in English. This history of words shows us that the term economy itself was born from the need of allocating the rights and responsibilities among the household members. Although throughout the centuries, respective roles of the members in the family and in the society in general have largely changed, it looks like the need remains the same:

Defining the principles regarding the relationship between the family members and the family’s wealth.

And this is exactly what the experts of the Aspen Family Business Group have dedicated their careers to.

In September, we will discuss with our guests at the conference, the barriers against the continuity of family’s wealth and the best practices to prepare for effective transfer to the next generation. Beautiful Thessaloniki, in Northern Greece will host this exchange of experiences as an international group, thanks to the participation of families from different countries.

We invite you to join us for this opportunity of being part of this invaluable multicultural platform of knowledge sharing, where our partners Joel Paul and Leslie Dashew, pioneers in the field of family business consulting, will share their extensive experience together with my colleague Donnel Nunes, several other expert speakers and myself.

We are excited to explore how ancient wisdom would compare and contrast with best practices for families in business from different aspects including succession planning, knowledge management, governance of family and its business, as well as communication.

Defining the Eco-System

Aristotle in his Politics utilizes the term oikos in order to refer to everybody living in the house. This term is used today in the form of eco-system, to define the elements of a whole, which exist in an interdependent relationship. This is also the first step in our work with families: defining the family tree to understand who is involved in our oiko-system and how their perspectives differ from each other. This awareness helps family members to understand one’s own assumptions as well as others and to manage the expectations.

Succession Plan

Oikos also referred to a line of descendants not limited to the living members of the family but encompasses also the previous and upcoming generations. As a key element in sustaining the family’s legacy, we will discuss different elements of family’s wealth to be transferred to the next generation during the conference. The above-mentioned transfers require careful planning, including rigorous preparation of both the next generation to assume an enriched role in the family’s business and of the senior family members to experience a meaningful retirement period. As part of the focus on successful succession, Donnel Nunes will share with us his expertise on mentoring the next generation by highlighting pitfalls and how to overcome them. His session will also allow us to understand the targets for development when preparing the next generation.

Knowledge Management

Sustainability in families requires a concerted effort that has been well-defined in the literature. The challenging part, though is walking this path. In his book called Balancing the Emotional Ledger, Joe’s reference to Tolstoy reminds us the value of best practices in sustainability:

“Happy families are happy in similar ways, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.”

One of the main elements of the family’s wealth to be transferred to the next generation is the knowledge in the family that makes the difference. In Thessaloniki, Joe will lead our session on knowledge management to help us identify, what this knowledge is, where it lies and how effectively it flows to where it needs to go.

Governance of Family and its Business

Having identified the best practices in terms of the essence, e.g., values, knowledge and ways to transfer them; the family needs to establish a system, which would ensure the sustainability of the family’s wealth. The central element of this system is decision making. My role in our conference in September will be to lead the session regarding the governance of family and its business, where we will discuss the question: “who is entitled to make what kind of decisions and through which procedures?” Since there is no limit to sophistication of governance models, (e.g., variety of committees, number of non-executive directors, differentiation of authorities), our focus will be on exploring best practices that are applicable to all organizations of different size and maturity.


Effective communication in the oikos is the sine qua non for the family to work on all these critical issues. Based on her extensive experience in working with complex family situations, moderating family retreats and guiding families through transitions, Leslie will broaden our understanding of the three critical elements, (i.e., safety, structure and skills) in effective communication and provide models on how these apply to families in business. Under Leslie’s guidance we will explore ways to set up the forum for regular communication, to adopt constructive confrontation to a family business decision and to enhance courage to share openly and handle conflict.

Let’s Meet in Thessaloniki on September 22-24

This two-day program is an excellent opportunity not only to enhance your awareness and skills for sustainability of your family business but also to socialize with and learn from the experiences of other families from different cultures and to visit some inspiring venues in Northern Greece and spend some quality time. Looking forward to meet you in Thessaloniki. In addition to the very interesting and engaging programs, additional opportunities to interact while visiting the area have been arranged for the 24th of September.

For further details about the conference please refer to our brochure and for your possible questions please contact Leslie Dashew.

View/Download the Conference Brochure:
Building and Sustaining Legacy of Oikos: Best Practices for Families in Business - Conference Brochure



March Current Thinking Column II

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sustainability Leadership

by Joe Paul

In this blog, we will focus on the leadership of sustainable organizations.  The very survival of our culture and even our planet will depend on these leaders’ courage, skills, and insight. 

We will look at recent research that reveals factors influencing these leaders’ emotional and intellectual development.  Our understanding of these developmental factors will help us identify and train candidates at early stages in order to better provide them with the resources they will need.

The concept of sustainability was first used academically in the context of bio-ecology. Among other things, sustainability describes the capacity of an ecosystem to survive and prosper.  Ancient rain forests are examples of previously sustainable ecological systems that have been injured by human exploitation.

The Financial Times postulates that business sustainability is often defined as managing the triple bottom line; a process by which company leaders manage their financial, social, and environmental risks, obligations, and opportunities. These areas of sustainability are sometimes referred to as profits, people, and planet.

However, the Financial Times goes on to say that this approach relies too much on an accounting based perspective and does not fully capture the element of time that is inherent to business sustainability. They propose a more robust business scenario where sustainability is based upon resiliency over time.  These would be businesses that can survive shocks because they are intimately connected to healthy economic, social, and environmental systems. These businesses create economic value while contributing to healthy ecosystems and strong communities.

According to the World Council for Economic Development (WCED), sustainable development is development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” So, for industrial development to be sustainable, leaders must address important issues at the macro level, such as: economic efficiency (innovation, prosperity, productivity), social equity (poverty, community, health and wellness, human rights) and environmental accountability (climate change, land use, biodiversity).                      

Steve Schein, PhD. has written a book on this topic called A New Psychology for Sustainable Leadership – The Hidden Power of Ecological Worldviews.

By drawing upon interviews he conducted with 75 sustainability leaders in more than 40 multinational corporations and NGOs, Schein explores how ecological worldviews are developed and expressed in global sustainability practice. He draws upon traditional theories from developmental psychology and eco-psychology to better understand the best sustainability practices. Schein encourages us to think about leadership in a different way. The insights from this book can be usefully integrated into leadership curriculum and development programs to help the next generation of leaders respond to the global challenges.

Schein focuses on life experiences that shape eco-centric worldviews. Some of the early experiences these leaders described were:

  • Family of origin and early childhood experiences in nature
  • Environmental education and memorable teachers and mentors
  • Seeing poverty and environmental degradation in developing countries      
  • Perceiving capitalism as a vehicle for environmental or social activism
  • A sense of spirituality and service
  • In contrast, today’s leaders have also grown up in an anthropogenic worldview.  This view treats mankind as the epitome of evolution and capable of eventually controlling the earth.  This belief predisposes people to minimize the importance of factors such as global warming. One of the challenges that eco-centric leaders face is anthropogenic blindness and a profound complacency of large segments of societies.

    Schein draws the following contrast:

    An eco-centric thinker sees the biosphere at the center, with homo sapiens as one of the many thousands of species that are dependent on the Earth’s living systems for survival.

    Anthropocentric thinkers believe that human beings can ultimately control nature through technological and economic advances.

    Schein uses a term I have not heard before. It is “ecological self.”  I understand it to mean that we all are a cluster of “selves.” These selves are a cluster of scripts. Each script generates a self for the various relationships we have.  Examples are a father script, a professional script, a citizen script, or a spiritual self script, etc.  Each self, script, or role competes with the others for airtime. Each self is energized by certain external situations and by our perceptions of what we think is going on with our other selves. Most of these selves are trying to develop themselves to be better in each role.

    Dr. Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Das), author of Be Here Now used the analogy of a bus with around 12 or 15 passengers. Each passenger is one role we play in our life. Sometimes two or more roles will join forces to deal with important things going on outside of the bus.

    One thing that is important to know is that sometimes our selves are helpful to other selves, but they are also capable of derailing one another (but that’s a separate blog).

    There are a number of best practices that foster business sustainability and help organizations move along a sustainable path. These practices include:

    • Involvement of stakeholder groups in decisions
    • Subject your planning and implementation to global standards
    • Identify the knowledge that differentiates your organization in the marketplace, locate this knowledge, and find out if it is going where it needs to go
    • Understand your organizational life cycles
    • Create an organizational culture that attracts the best and the brightest

    Dr. Schein shares a story about the emergence of his eco–self as a young boy high in the trees  in the deep woods around his home.  After reading Dr. Schein’s latest book, I realized that I had an ecological self that I have often called upon, but that I need to use a deeper understanding of my own and others ecological selves to further my relationships. 

    The description below illustrates a joint effort by my father-self and my ecological-self at an important cross road.

    A River Passage

    For Chris on the eve of his marriage

    We took a three-day Deschutes trip; you, our dog, Jera, and me.  We had run a lot of rivers together but never just the two of us.

    I wasn't sure what the conversation was that we needed to have before your marriage, but I knew it was out there waiting for us like a rapid we had never run before. The trip took us through 44 miles of steep desert canyons. I had run this stretch of the river some years ago, but had no clear idea of what comes when and what it would be like.

    You did most of the rowing since you had never run the Buckskin Hollow to the Columbia stretch of the Deschutes.  I watched you read the rapids with the dark eyes we share. Watching your “now” expand to the limits of your senses; a talent that rivers had drawn out of you over the years.

    It started raining at 6 AM the second day and we rowed in our rain gear until we set up camp after lunch. Then the rain stopped. We were above Harris Rapids that second night facing a 1000 foot cliff across the river. That wall of rock was home to a herd of big horn sheep. We sat in camp appreciating that the rain had stopped, and we watched the big horns work their way across vertical faces on ancient lava flows. 

    Then we had the talk. About commitment, memories of your conception and your birth, the kind of son you had been, how a man's place in the world shifts when you change from a son to a father. I cried as I remembered how difficult your birth had been. I told you how I had apologized when you were two hours old for how hard your entry into the world had been--and how I had promised to make it up to you and take you on lots of river trips. 

    You then put your hand on my shoulder and told me I had kept my promise. I told you how a father and a mother had been born when you had been born. I also told you how raising you had been a dance of holding you close and letting you go. I talked about how letting go was always accompanied by a sadness of losing the intimacy of you as my child--and how that sadness always quickly became the fulfillment of you growing into yourself and becoming your own person.

    And we talked about how your marriage is another fulfillment for me along with the familiar sadness of letting go.

    And so deep within the canyon silence we found the words that wanted hearing as much as wanted to be said.

    The third day was sunny and warm and full of rapids that you ran with grace and confident composure.

    Without knowing it my son and I had embarked on our own sustainable journey of our eco selves. But thanks to Dr. Schein’s writing I have been taken to an unexpected place where I can utilize his ideas in my own practice.


    March Current Thinking Column

    Thursday, March 16, 2017

    Evolving Responsibilities of a Family Business Stakeholder

    by Leslie Dashew

    What makes family-owned businesses different than others is the web of complex relationships that surrounds the business. Consider the daughter or son who is born into a family with a business. They often feel that they have a sibling that is more important than they are: the business! This can lead to jealousy or resentment of the attention that this “sibling” receives. Jealousy and resentment mark only a few of the attitudes that comprise this family-business web, with others such as entitlement, greed, and a strong sense of responsibility often surfacing as well. 

    As the lives of young people evolve, they often feel they cannot merely decide on a career of their interest/choice, but rather they must decide whether or not to join the family business. Even when parents indicate that they want their kids to follow their passion, wherever it takes them, the null hypothesis is engagement with the family business. Some youngsters look at the business as an “employer of last resort.” In any event, the question of whether to take a job in the family business must be addressed.

    For some youngsters, the sense of responsibility for the family business comes with ownership. Parents often bestow shares of the business upon their offspring without their knowledge as part of estate planning. At some point, these new owners look at the tax forms they are required to sign and begin to ask questions. What does it mean to be an owner? What are my rights? What are my responsibilities?

    And then there are the “married ins,” or the in-laws who join the family. Often, they hear about the challenges, conflicts, and perks that are associated with the family business. However, for many, they feel awkward about the connection and not sure where or how they should engage this “family member” known as the family business. 

    The sometimes-awkward dance around the family business becomes manifest in the disparity between which information is shared or omitted concerning the family business and how to communicate this information, especially pertaining to those family members not working in the business. In fact, some family members who work in the business and even perhaps own part of it, may also feel awkward about asking the types of questions that a board member or investor might ask. 

    So as roles evolve over time, it is important that family leaders recognize the changes that should happen in the engagement level that various stakeholders should take in the family business and the subsequent preparation required for appropriate involvement. Educating family members about the business, industry, roles, and responsibilities of ownership are important aspects of this preparation. (See for instance, our monograph Ownership Education). 

    Understanding the fundamentals of business management are important for all family stakeholders so they establish appropriate expectations of the family members who are working in the family business. For example:

    • What is the vision for the future of the family business? Who establishes it?

    • Does the company have a strategic plan for achieving the vision?

    • What are reasonable expectations for return on the investment (ROI) that the family has made in the business? What are industry standards for profitability, turns in inventory, revenue/employee? What reinvestment is necessary in order to continue the sustainability of the business?

    • How efficient are the processes of the company? How are they measured? Are they documented and automated?

    • How are employees recruited, selected, trained and developed? Are there effective human resource systems in place? Are there succession plans (emergency and long-term) for leadership roles in the business?

    • What are the greatest risks to the business and how are these mitigated? (regulatory, litigation, competition, obsolescence, environmental, etc.)

    • Does the business use debt effectively, including having access to a line of credit?

    • Are there appropriate financial controls in place and transparency?

    Being born into a family with businesses or assets does not mean you know about these components of business knowledge. Yet, sometimes there is a sense that one needs to oversee what is happening at the family business or cast an opinion without having a proper context to do so. This can become the source of great conflict in the family if not handled properly.

    The Annual Women in Family Business Program being conducted this month by Leslie Dashew at Miraval Resort and Spa will help participants to gain the perspective and tools to better manage the responsibilities of a family business steward. Stay tuned for further insights from this program.


    January Current Thinking Column

    Monday, January 30, 2017

    Life Transitions and Planning

    by Leslie Dashew

    Nowadays, we live longer and are typically healthier than our parents were at the same point in their lives. With that perspective, we have more active years in our lives than our “role models.” This creates a different, larger book in which we can write the story of our life—one for which we have very little preparation. Thus, it is useful to think of our lives in terms of “chapters” that have their own individual timeframes associated with them, rather than the fixed, prescribed stages of adolescence, career and retirement.

    I once gave a talk in Bermuda entitled “Health, Wealth and Happiness: Can We have it all?” The answer to the question is yes—we can have it all, but maybe not at the same time. Some of our goals may be sequential. With our lives being longer, marriage and children sometimes happening later, care for our elders or boomerang kids continuously transpiring, and leadership transition occurring earlier than we may like, the chapters of our lives might have all the activities we envisioned, but just at different times.

    I believe that the earlier we begin this process of documenting our dreams and clarifying our purpose, the easier we will find these transitions. Women who want a career and children need to think about their biological clocks. Men and women who want to travel and be creative, as well as have a secure lifestyle, need to think about how they picture the type of travel and what employment provides that security as they take their steps into careers. Family business leaders who want to see their business legacy continue must thoughtfully plan the preparation of successors and their own exit strategy to coordinate developmental stages and multiple generations’ dreams. 

    I know of two such men who had passions that they put aside for a while in order to develop lucrative careers. One studied painting in college, but chose a business route, running many and ultimately becoming a business advisor. In his 60s, he returned to painting as a focus of his life and blossomed in his creativity. The other man had a strong passion for helping children, and in his “spare time,” developed philanthropic initiatives for them. As he turned over the reigns of his business, he jumped in with both feet and hands to help kids. 

    Entrepreneurs, in particular, have a hard time transitioning out of an active business life. Their identities are so intertwined with their businesses that they typically lack significant engagement outside of work. Many desire to turn over the reigns of the business to a successor, but find it difficult to feel significant and fulfilled without their business leadership roles.

    Clarity of Purpose, Vision and Values

    As we go through the chapters of life, our purpose, vision and values may adjust with our experience, accomplishments and growth. For example, an individual who grows up without financial security may value financial security and work to create that in his/her career. In fact, we have often heard men say that their purpose in life is to “provide for their family.” But what happens when you accomplish that financial security and your kids are doing well on their own? Then, what is your purpose? Is your greatest value still financial security or is it now free time to explore the world and/or to help others? 

    Those of you who have read my work in the past may recall that I have written about the importance of purpose and vision. These define why we are here (purpose) and where we are headed (vision). How we go about that journey is described by our values (saving, because we value security, spending on art, if we value aesthetics, skydiving if we value adventure and thrills, etc.). 

    As I reflect on my mission (My mission in life is to help people utilize, develop and appreciate their capabilities and those of the people whose lives they touch), it has been pretty stable from youth through now. My vision of life has adjusted with time as have some of my values. Not too long ago I created a new vision statement for this stage of my life and it is pulling me into a future as an “elder.” This vision statement helps remind me of the chapter of life I am moving into rather than the one I am leaving behind. My vision statement is:

    To be a financially secure, physically fit, respected elder advisor who is centered at home with my healthy husband, working when I want, taking pictures, writing and publishing books with photos, poems and wisdom, hanging out in my garden, traveling for fun, visiting my family and friends, supporting causes on an ad hoc basis both financially and with advice, and having gatherings of friends, colleagues and clients. 

    There are aspects of this which are coming along nicely and others, like being centered at home and not traveling as much for business, which I have not attained! But it is still a work in progress. Vision statements should be aspirational, not something already attained. 

    We now know from neuroscience, that the clearer our images are of what we wish to attain, the greater the probability it is that we will do so. As such, at whatever stage in life you find yourself, consider the following questions in helping to clarify your personal purpose (mission), values and vision: 

    1. Purpose/Mission: Why do you believe you were born and what are you supposed to accomplish in this lifetime? What would really disappoint you if you didn’t personally accomplish it? (Hint: think of a verb—e.g. to create, to help, to foster, to make). Consider what others would say at your funeral if they said you died contently with what you had accomplished. 

    2. Values: What is important to you about how you live your life? (Hint: think adverbs and adjectives, as well). A value is that which is important to you (e.g. not being wasteful, being helpful, having fun).

    3. Vision: What are your aspirations for the next chapter of your life (to be…, to do…, to create…, to have…) that would be truly fulfilling to you? This is a great time to brainstorm and not censor yourself. Write down whatever comes to you. Then think: “If I completed this chapter of my life and I haven’t done x, y or z, I would be really disappointed.” What are those thoughts? If you have many, prioritize them. For some people, it might be to have children. For others, it would be to change occupations; for still others, it may be to see the South Pacific. If it isn’t in your vision statement, it may be off of your radar screen and thus, not as likely to be accomplished. 

    Whose life is it, anyway?

    Many people find themselves initially saying “this is not what is expected of me.” Some people feel it is difficult to dream. I recall one woman who came to my “Women in Family Business” program. When we would do visioning exercises, she would say “I can’t dream.” Finally, one day, she realized that a dream of hers was to hike in the Pyrenees Mountains. She wrote it down and described what she envisioned the experience to be like if it were ideal. Several years later, she sent me photos of herself on that hike! She said “I can dream!!” For most of her life, she reacted to what others expected of her in her roles as daughter, wife, mother, sister or employee. Because those roles were so consuming, she didn’t allow herself the luxury to dream. Many of us have obstacles to dreaming as well.

    But whose life is it? When do you get the chance to move proactively into the next chapter? Each of our transitions in life is easier and more fulfilling if we have given ourselves the opportunity to put ourselves on the pages of the chapter. It may not all happen on the timetable we would desire, but we enhance the probability of actualizing the dream when we give ourselves permission and opportunities to define it. 

    Dream on! 



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