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Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

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! 


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


October Current Thinking Column

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Exploring the “Troisieme”

by Leslie Dashew

As I find myself in the “troisieme,” or the last third of my own life, I find that I am trending along with the majority demographics right now. That is, I am a “baby boomer” and my peers are exploring how to find meaning and impact during our longer lives. 

Why is this important? If we hold on to our leadership roles and do not work on transitioning, we keep the next generation from having their chance to lead during their generative years. As an example, I recently saw a production of a play entitled Charles III about the supposed death of Queen Elizabeth and the succession of her son, Charles. However, that transition happened when Charles was an “old man,” and the next generation (his kids) were of the age at which they thought they should be ascending to the throne. Charles waited to have his chance, only to be seen as out of touch with the realities of the current political environment. 

Since it is likely that many of us will live well into our nineties, even exceeding 100 years of age, it is important that we plan not only for our financial security and medical needs, but also for a life of meaning. Erik Erickson, the noted developmental psychologist, told us that each age of our lives has a unique challenge to resolve. In the elder years, the dilemma is “integrity vs. despair.” If we can look at our lives and feel we are living in accordance with our values and using our waning energy toward those values, then we experience the joy and peace that comes with integrity. On the other hand, if we only look at our losses and what we can no longer accomplish, we despair. The ability to accommodate the evolving reality that we are experiencing with an attitude of acceptance and appreciation, while supporting the following generations with our wisdom and love allows us to gracefully age. 

Angeles Arrien, a cultural anthropologist who died early in her elderhood (just a few years ago), did a seminar on the second half of life that I attended some years ago. She pointed to some of the touchstones and opportunities that our later years provide for us. Some of her comments that resonated with me are the following: 

Before I explore meaning, I have to explore authenticity. Allegiance to honesty and integrity is greater than stubbornness and pride.

I see the stubbornness and pride in some elders who feel that holding on to power and control is the only way to continue to have impact and meaning. Having the courage to honestly look at the world today and authentically and openly recognize our own abilities/limitations allows us to stay connected to younger generations and our peers in very significant ways. 

The mark of wisdom is a person in the second half of life who is committed to being a unifying force, creative and solution-oriented. Wisdom is not age-bound. Every culture (except ours), respects elders. We need to develop intergenerational, multi-disciplinary, and multi-cultural councils to solve problems. 

When we can connect across generations in an organized manner and share the wisdom we are harvesting, we enable future generations to consider how to apply that wisdom in arenas we have not played. The combination of wisdom of the elderly with the understanding of today’s world is magical.

We cannot have wisdom without integrity and character. And it is never found in the extremes. Nor is it found in states of indulgence or denial. When in denial or indulgence, we normalize the abnormal, taking us out of our integrity base. It is always found trying to hold all the options and possibilities to find an elegant solution. 

Finding the way to make connections, come to middle ground, and being a force for “and” rather than “but” is a great gift that comes from seeing the benefits of collaboration over conflict.

Reciprocal mutuality is coded in our genetics—to help one another. In the second part of life, generativity includes passing on the family stories. We begin to harvest our journey, mend our life, and tell the stories that transmit the values and lessons learned. Young people often love to hear the stories of their ancestors and what contributed to their lives. Through this generativity, we can lead the process of healing schisms. We can encourage compassion and mutual understanding. We can demonstrate that our lives are more productive when we engage others in this mutual appreciation and complementary roles.

We have much to do in this stage of life. It is important that we identify what it is that we wish to leave as a legacy and how we can support the next generations in their work. Since living this long is a new phenomenon, we have few role models to guide us. Rather, our exploration and travels offer paths for others to consider as they approach this age as well. 


September Current Thinking Column

Friday, September 30, 2016

Implications of a Transition Plan on Today’s Operations:

Redefining the Role of the Leader

by Burak Kocer PhD

As we work with family business leaders to plan the transition of a company, one of the main topics becomes redefining the way decisions are made and carried out. In fact, a family business leader’s transition plan would be a void letter if it had no implications on how the company is run today.  Alas, this is a change that is easier said than done and a true test of sincerity for the owner. Quoting Morpheus of the film The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”

The most explicit impact of the transition plan on the way the company is run today concerns delegation. The mere fact that the founders grew a small startup operation to what it is today gives them every legitimate right to undertake all critical decisions. As the operations expand, the founders hire managers with specific executive responsibilities, yet in many cases, they work so closely with those managers that you would not necessarily call it a “delegation.”

In this article, I would like to discuss three main problems that stem from a lack of proper delegation. Subsequently, I will suggest various ways on how to expand delegation.  

In the absence of an effective delegation:

The owner becomes a part of the decision.

When the owners work closely with the managers, i.e., make decisions together, they eventually become a part of those decisions, which leaves no room for the development of accountability.

There remains no space to grow talented managers.

A founder, who undertakes all decisions regarding the creation of new systems, eventually leaves behind an organization that is incapable of creating anything new in his/her absence. However, this is exactly what is expected from a leader—to not only run a system effectively, but to be also capable of creating new ones.

A leader dealing with numerous key performance indicators (KPIs) cannot see the forest for the trees.

Unlike the number of different horizontal responsibilities that a manager assumes, the number of KPIs that he/she should focus on should decrease with the level of  increasing hierarchy. When a founder strives to manage operational responsibilities, he/she ends up focusing on a vast range of KPIs, which obscure his/her appreciation of the overall situation.

Redefining the Founder’s Involvement in Business

A transition plan should eventually redefine the way in which the founder is involved in business processes today. Here are some suggestions to facilitate this most challenging task for a founder:

1. The best way to emphasize delegation is, to the extent it is possible, limit the cooperation between the founder and a manager to formally defined meetings, rather than informal discussions ad hoc.

2. Changing the meeting frequency from weekly to biweekly or even monthly can help implement the expansion of delegation incrementally.  

3. In order to make delegation properly work, a sound control system should be provided. When redefining the leader’s involvement in the operations, you need to make sure that internal controls are up and running. An internal control checklist is a critical instrument that requires periodic review.

4. Although valuable as time savers, abbreviations sometimes make us forget the real meaning of the concept. For example, KPI stands for key performance indicator and has value in limited numbers. A priority matrix can be utilized to outline monthly, quarterly, and annual review periods for each KPI in order to keep the meeting agenda more concise.

5. Tolerance intervals should be defined for the KPIs not included in the predefined review schedule and should be reported if and when there is a deviation greater than the accepted level. For example, this can be 1% for an indicator and 3% for another.


September Current Thinking Column

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Consilience: Linking Knowledge from Different Disciplines to Create a New Knowledge

by William Roberts, CLU, ChFC

The Aspen Family Business Group recently hosted a multi-disciplinary conference at Cannon Beach, Oregon.  There, with the crashing of ocean waves as our soundtrack and incredible natural beauty as our backdrop, 20 advisors from a variety of professional specialties joined together to share our passion for counseling with families in business.

The goal of the conference was to pass along both explicit and tacit knowledge about working with families in business, and to share in collaboration with other advisors. As the weekend progressed, a rich sharing of thought and insight unfolded.  The advisors truly bonded together over a similar passion to share the wisdom garnered from their time in the trenches with families.

One of the skills we explored was the ability to ask reflective questions—the nature of which cause the person being asked to pause and reflect. These types of questions open dialogue rather than ending it.  This skill was demonstrated in a "live case study" created by the group.  Problems were manufactured around the theme of a business succession crisis in a family business.  They ranged from a major health problem inserting the urgency to a rift in the family over an addiction issue to an unclear succession path and several business or financial issues. The insights gained by watching skilled specialists in different disciplines ask questions exposed the breadth of the family's issues.  From the reluctance of the senior generation to face the urgency of the succession situation to the fact that the bank or a non-family partner could call in notes and essentially shut down the business, a range of problems and issues were identified.  As Einstein said, "A problem identified is half solved.” This scope in questioning demonstrated the importance of having different disciplines involved, and that collaboration to understand the full range of issues while working together to devise solutions for the family is key.

For years, we have looked for insightful and thoughtful questions. We have searched for questions that will reframe a problem in a different light and cause the person being questioned to pause and say, "I have never thought about the problem that way.”  We learned just such a question a few years ago.  As the story goes, an advisor was having a first time meeting with a very affluent person at a Starbucks.  The meeting was winding down with the fatal result for any advisor trying to move to an action step, the client said, "Great to meet you, but I think I have all my ducks in order and I am all set.”  The advisor then asked, "Would you mind if I asked just one more question? How would things be going both operationally and personally in your family if you had passed away 90 days ago?"  As the advisor related to us, with this question came three hours of discussion that culminated in the client agreeing to hire the advisor.  When asked later on why he had hired him, he relayed that every other advisor had asked a similar question but in the future tense, "What would happen if you died five years from now?" he said, “But you put me in the picture by asking what would be happening if I died 90 days ago.  You made me realize where all the missing elements of my plan existed and motivated me to action.” I have used that question ever since.

I had the opportunity to study an address by Dean James Ryan from his 2016 Commencement speech for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  He put forth the premise that searching for great questions and then using them in all kinds of situations—with family, with friends, at work with fellow employees, or with clients—would help others and increase our value to those around us.  He then described five questions which at first seem quite ordinary, but upon reflection provide a way to see past the easy answers and to focus instead on the information behind the answer that gives us so much insight into the real problems that exist.  

Here are the five questions Dean Ryan suggested could open the door to deeper insight:

The first is "Wait, what? " The "wait" is the stop sign when we hear something that is important but needs further clarification. "What" could be asked in various forms several times until we have the clarification crucial to a full understanding.  The "what" keeps us from jumping to conclusions about the answers.

The second question is “I wonder…?” followed by “if,” "why,” and “what” which expresses curiosity and an invitation to imagine. This type of “What could happen if…?” mindset can lead to a better understanding of what the other person is imagining in their own mind and encourages them to drill even deeper into the subject being addressed.

The third question is "Couldn't we at least…?" This is a question that could be used when the conversation is stuck on some point, enabling us to get past the disputes or disagreements and instead find areas of common consensus from which to move forward.  It is also a method to move forward when we are not sure of where we will finish.  “If we could just begin...” or “How might that play out?”  is a way to move forward around difficult barriers.

The fourth question is “How can I help?” This expresses a humility that we may not have all the answers and that there are others—other advisors, other experts—who can offer assistance.  We are looking for specific ways that we individually can help.  Yet this question also expresses a genuine desire to lend a hand where we have the expertise or insight to assist.

The fifth question is "What truly matters?"  Dean Ryan even suggests that this question could be substituted for New Year's resolutions. This moves to the heart of the issue at hand and truly allows the questioner to delve into the motivation behind the person answering.

If you get into the habit of asking these questions regularly, you have an excellent chance of being both successful and happy.


July Current Thinking Column: Consilience

Thursday, July 28, 2016


by Joe Paul

In families, each individual carries a narrative about their family. Sometimes these narratives match up with one another, yet often they do not. Sometimes individuals understand the motivations of their relatives, yet often they do not. Family members need to trust each other, yet it does not always happen. 
We find that families in business together (FBT) often have divergent memories that can be so different from each other that one might conclude they grew up in completely different homes. 

An example: I once was talking with three adult siblings about their family history. A brother said to his older sister, 

“I used to get so scared when dad would become angry and treat you roughly.”
“What do you mean?” his sister asked.
“It happened lots of times. I remember us sitting at dinner one time and Dad grabbed a handful of your hair saying, ‘Get that damned hair out of your face!'”
His sister looked concerned. 
“I don’t remember anything like that. What happened next?”
“Well, we did what we always did. We whispered a frightened ‘May I be excused?’ and slowly slid our chairs back, silently withdrawing to our rooms, shutting the door behind us. We would stay alone in our room for the rest of the evening hoping we wouldn’t hear the sound of his shoes coming down the hall.” 
“That’s so strange,” she said to her brother, “I don’t remember Dad being physically abusive to anyone except you.”
“What do you remember?” he asked.
“He was always slapping you on the side of your head, or kicking or shoving you around when you did something he didn’t like.”
“Wow! That is really spooky,” he said. “I don’t remember him ever being abusive to me.”

In the Aspen Family Business Group, we call this kind of difference between the memories of individual family members “narrative dissonance.” This kind of condition emerges in families that experience long periods of time in a high level of chronic anxiety. It is an example of the kinds of challenges facing families in business together (FBT).

In a small workshop this upcoming August, the Aspen Family Business Group is introducing the term consilience to the field of counseling families in business. The Latin root of the term means “jumping together.” We are using the term to describe the coming together of family members over things like their memories, ideas, beliefs, emotions, mission, and purpose. We work to develop creative ways to overcome their differences, encourage family harmony, and create a more productive organizational culture in the businesses they own. We use the word consilience to describe the way we work with our clients that are FBT. Consilience creates convergence and agreement in spite of differences. Consilience encourages the differentiation of individuals and sub-groups (e.g. a Board of Directors, next generation of owners). 

Reaching consilience requires courage, respect, dedication, altruism, goodwill and trust. As a family loses consilience, communication breaks down in the business and/or the family. Individuals become aggressive, selfish, pig-headed, and secretive. At the same time, altruism, trust, and collaboration disappear.

In the sciences, consilience describes a convergence and confirmation of knowledge from different disciplines. In legal circles, it describes an agreement among all parties. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, the entomologist E.O. Wilson postulates that since the Renaissance, the sciences have become split into more and more narrowly defined specialties. He believes that through consilience, there will be a reversal of that history, uniting science and the humanities.

Our conciliatory process helps families overcome the damaging effects of mistrust, internal competition, poor communication, etc. The conciliatory process involves assessment, alignment, commitment and implementation. We are sharing this concept with any interested advisor to FBT because we believe that the use of these processes does not require formal graduate psychological training and education. Rather, what is required is wisdom and emotional intelligence. 

In the August workshop, our goal is to pass on both our explicit and our tacit knowledge about working with FBT’s and collaborating with their other advisors. We will be giving you practical tools that are “tried and true,” as well as introduce concepts like memetics, epistemology, cultural evolution, and evolutionary psychology that will be new to you in the context of family businesses. These ideas are stretching our own understanding of the profound purpose and meaning of what our work is really all about. 


June Current Thinking Column

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Legacy Transformation

by Leslie Dashew

I recently had a conversation with a client who said, “A lot of what you write about is how to transition ownership and legacy from one generation to another…but what about those of us who are considering selling the legacy business? What about our dilemma?”

So I decided that I would give it some thought through writing about it. 

The Dilemma: We have tried to be good stewards of the business we have been given through our work in the family business, our oversight on the board, and the role(s) we play in the family and community. We have appreciated the assets we have been given. However, our lives have taken different paths, the industry is not the same and frankly, the continuation of the business without the infusion of much debt or sharing of equity would not be good stewardship of this asset. Even more so, the passion isn’t there anymore. 

So, as our friend Jay Hughes has suggested, without the energy that comes from personal passion, a business will die (see, for instance, his thoughts on the matter in The Rising Generation).

The legacy of most families, however, is more than the business. In addition, there is often a “spiritual legacy” that encompasses the lessons, values, principles, stories, and wisdom that can be shared from generation to generation. There are also pieces of a legacy we often might choose not to pass on, such as addiction, abuse, suicide, long-term conflict, and/or obligation to continue a destructive relationship, or unrewarding business.

Transforming the legacy means, to me, taking the best of the family’s financial, spiritual, relational, intellectual, and other forms of capital and passing them on in a form that will be productive for current and future generations. Some examples include:

In one family, the founder created a somewhat successful business from which his sons took the baton and continued, through good times and bad. The father originally built a very small business, but as the sons took over, they had to learn good business practices in order to grow the company. At one point, they were so close to bankruptcy that they felt their faith was the only thing that saw them through it. However, because of this experience, the sons committed to sharing their success with the employees who stuck it out through thick and thin. This experience also inspired the sons to tithe. Their legacy was not just a financial one, but a very concrete manifestation of the faith in what they shared. This legacy passes on to the next generation on paper in legal documents and also in the hearts of their heirs. 

In another family, the rising generation (4th) faced the conflict of their elders (3rd generation), which prevented them from constructively collaborating in the stewardship of their family and its assets. They came together, determining that conflict would not be their legacy. They committed to enacting certain practices and processes that would keep communication open and direct. They also committed to creating their own vision of the future that built on the strengths of the family and business, leaving behind the “shaky” footing of the previous generation. 

Another family captured the heroic history of their ancestors in books and videos about the family and their endeavors. They sold the legacy assets and built new businesses that were relevant to today’s market. So while honoring the values, courage, and business savvy of the founding generations, they pursued a new path that captured their imaginations and hearts, ultimately leading to financial success. 

Finally, another family took the difficult path of saying they would be better off not collaborating as business partners, but rather finding a way to stay connected as a family, which they ultimately deemed more important. They honored their roots as blood relatives and worked hard to rebuild relationships that had been strained by the inability to partner together. They each took a part of the business legacy and transformed it individually, healing the strained relationships. Their gift to the next generation was the opportunity to have holidays together, to remember the ups and downs of the family history, and to create new traditions.

Research at Emory University has shown that children who have heard stories about their ancestors are more resilient than those who have not. These ancestral stories help children feel they are a part of something larger than themselves, fostering an enduring identity that holds generational meaning. So, when the going gets tough, children know others might have solutions as the family goes back generations.

Moreover, kids who have heard stories that included the “ups and downs” also understand the cyclical nature of life, and that when you hit rough spots, it isn’t the end. 

These resilient offspring have a legacy that gives them context and hope during the most difficult times, as well as stories of achievement and dreams that can propel them further.

As such, I think that part of the answer to my client’s question about passing on legacy from family to an outsider is to look to the stories, traditions, and creative possibilities that can be passed along no matter what physical assets exist. These may ultimately be more powerful as they provide the tools with which new legacies can be built. 


May Current Thinking Column

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Direction, Representation, and Accountability

by Burak Kocer, PhD

This past April, I spent three creative days in our Aspen Family Business Group 2016 Spring Salon with Joe Paul, Leslie Dashew, Bill Roberts and Donnel Nunes. These annual meetings provide a great opportunity to catch up and contribute to each other’s work by learning from each others’ experiences and perspectives. This year, we also hosted Dr. Manulani Aluli-Meyer of University of Hawaii, with her brilliant wisdom introducing to us the concept of “epistemology” and how we can apply it in our work.

For my part, I have greatly benefited from the Spring Salon, in terms of clarifying my mind and focusing on my role more effectively as a family business advisor. This column is one of the most immediate outcomes of our Spring Salon on my behalf. Since I wrote my October column on “The Art and Science of Governance,” I have been working on developing a more organized and clear model. Well, one does not need to look far for inspiration to further develop this model with these wonderful people around me. Hence, this small piece is devoted to the leading experts of the Aspen Family, Donnel, and Dr. Meyer.

Decision-Making Power

Defining how decisions are made and controlled is central to our work with families. This involves designing mutual roles of three main governance bodies in family businesses: the family council, the board of directors, and the executive team. Of course, from a legal point of view, this list should have started with the shareholders’ meeting, but for the purpose of this paper, I will not do so for the following reason:

As Joe contends, “Power in a family business is often independent of ownership or management position.” And this is exactly where we want to influence for a quality decision-making function.

The role of governing bodies is to create a healthy environment for quality discussion and ultimately form a common decision in favor of the company’s interest, not that of an individual shareholder. On the other hand, save for exceptions, a shareholders’ meeting is where individuals come with premade decisions. They either approve or disapprove an agenda item based on the position they took before they even entered the meeting. In these meetings, it is legitimate for each shareholder to protect his/her own interest and, in general, it is a process of “legalizing” the decisions that were made before.

In a family council, we prioritize creating open channels for communication among the shareholders, and between shareholders and other members of the family, ultimately developing a culture of collective decision-making. Hence, this is one of the platforms where a family can achieve “collective transformation through individual excellence” in Dr. Meyer’s words.

In fact, the three governance bodies represent stages of a process, in which multiple interests of different stakeholders are transformed into a single direction.

From Multiple Interests to a Single Voice

It is quite fair for shareholders to have different strategic preferences, risk appetites, or management styles. But these are all discussions at the ownership level and must be melted into a single voice that will set the direction for the business. Keeping this plurality at the executive level will turn into incompatible managerial actions that could potentially lead to a business disaster.

The board of directors is where different alternatives are evaluated and the direction is set.  The head of execution holds the steer as the captain to lead the business in the manner designated by the board. Depending on the complexity of the business, the appropriate mechanism may change, but the need is same: You need to develop a process for evaluation of different alternatives in a way that all shareholders feel legitimized and heard, with a single voice to guide the entire organization accordingly.

This chart depicts the strategic flow of the governance body from multiple interests to a single voice. 

Once you start designing the three main governance bodies—the family council, the board of directors, and the executive team—you will face the following questions:

  1. Who should be involved?
  2. What is the ideal size?
  3. What are the respective authorities?

The Holy Trinity

There is an unlimited number of answers to those questions. Choosing the right combination is the art of governance, which should be decided in relation to the specific needs of the family and the business. However, we also have a formula for this process, which I call the holy trinity of corporate governance:

  1. Direction
  2. Representation
  3. Accountability

Whatever governance model you create, it should satisfy these three needs. You have to make sure that governance bodies:

  1. provide a clear direction to the organization,
  2. allow for representation of stakeholders and
  3. hold those who are authorized to act on behalf of the others accountable

At this point, I would like to recall the second axiom in Joe Paul's book, The Emotional Ledger, "It is not a question of whether a family business is governed or not. A more salient question is what is the business and the family being governed by." The right answer to this question lies in the way a family business approaches the aforementioned three needs. 


“If there is no goal to achieve, there is no progress to be secured.”

When the company is not operating in line with the predefined and approved objectives, the performance of executive managers will be questionable. In a family business, the cost of this suspicion is usually higher. It is good practice to have a system in place that allows for setting the objectives accurately. To do so is inevitable to define, which requires a combination of skills and experience to ensure the quality of decision-making.  This analysis will help families focus on the qualifications instead of individuals and differentiates between ownership and management roles, which come with different rights and responsibilities.


“Rewards of inclusiveness outweigh perceived risks.”

Families need a shared vision, which is carried out to the future owners of the business throughout the years. This requires gradually involving family members who do not work in the business with the governance system. Representation also allows family members to be confident that they are able to exercise their legitimate rights on the business despite limited involvement in operations, while differentiating between ownership and management.


“If both questions and answers come from the same person, you cannot be sure about the accuracy of either one.”

The depth of separation will depend on the complexity of the business, but any organization requires some sort of border between execution and control. This also allows for a division of work between the decision makers in terms of their time horizon. The focus of those who undertake the daily operations is on the specific work they do, while those who exercise the control function must apply a broader perspective to ensure long-term stability.

Matching the Holy Trinity with Governance Bodies

This Governance Priorities Matrix can be used as a guideline when seeking the right answers for designing governance bodies.

At the family council, the primary concern is representation, followed by direction. First, anyone with legitimate interest in the business must be present. Only with their involvement can the direction for the business be mutually agreed upon and accepted.

In the board of directors, the primary concern is giving a clear direction to the executive team and accountability for the formulation and execution of this direction. Representation is of least concern, as we cannot give up the qualifications we need to set an accurate direction for the sake of an individual member’s needs. This is where different interests are melted into a single voice, requiring a combination of diverse skills. A good practice is to define the required qualifications and let people nominate the appropriate candidates according to their right of representation.

At the executive level, representation is not one of the needs to be satisfied at all. In fact, the entire chain of governance is built upon this objective: To ensure that the business is run by competent hands. These competent hands will be accountable to the board for results, and must cooperate with them in setting the direction and providing feedback.

When evaluating the governance bodies, you may want to check The Governance Priorities Matrix to understand the potential consequences of your existing composition. 



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