Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

February Current Thinking Column

Saturday, February 28, 2015


 Additional Thinking

by William E. Roberts, CLU, ChFC

In August, we wrote about basic issues that are compelling reasons for NexGens to have an estate plan in place.  Should both parents pass, guardianship for children is one of the primary concerns for parents of young children.  Devising thoughtful distribution patterns for both income and principal to their children at appropriate ages/amounts while identifying areas where additional funding with appropriate guidance would be allowed is a strong motivating factor toward creating wills and trust documents. Incentive trust provisions is a strategy that many employ to inject their family core values into their documents.

Values-based planning has become somewhat cliché and is often more a marketing ploy than a well-thought-out process of clarifying deeply-held core values intrinsic to a multi-generational family legacy. Clearly identifying these values early on is an important step before agreeing to an appointment with an attorney.  Often, our experience is that parents do not completely agree on their values. A discussion of these differences and negotiation to resolve them is better done before incurring expensive hourly fees.  Our firm uses a questionnaire developed by Scott and Todd Fithian of the Legacy Group to form a foundation for husband and wife to have substantive discussions of the legacy they want to leave to their children. This can lead to research into strategies that might assist in resolving the differences in values between husband and wife.

In family business situations, it is informative to have a clear understanding of the family's core values—particularly regarding ownership of company stock.  Family-agreed-upon restrictions, as to who can own company stock, could have significance in the planning for young families.   For example, we have worked with numerous families whose value system dictates that only bloodline can own or inherit stock.  They usually have restrictive agreements governing who stock can be passed to and what rights they may have.  Knowing that these restrictions exist and providing copies to the planning team will be important to creating documents consistent with family estate values.  It is also important in knowing what economic resources are available to provide ongoing survivorship income to spouse and children.

Often we encounter questions about the probate process.  What is it?  How complicated is the process?  How expensive is probate?  How can I avoid the probate process?  Probate is the process of closing the estate after a death, paying liabilities, taxes, transferring title to assets consistent with the will arrangement and filing any necessary tax returns.  In states with the Uniform Probate Code, the process is generally very simple and straightforward. Consequently, it is not considered an expensive process in those states.  To determine if your state of residency is subject to the Uniform Probate Code (UPC) you can search the website   For those states that have not adopted the UPC, the process can be complicated and somewhat expensive.  California is often mentioned as having a relatively expensive probate process.  Your legal advisor should be very familiar with the probate law of his or her state and consequently inform you of the complexity and expense of the process.

This leads to a question of whether it is necessary to have a "Living Trust," also known as a "Revocable Living Trust," as part of the estate plan.  Some attorneys are strong advocates for having a living trust, while others are less so.  In states where the probate process is complicated, cumbersome, lengthy and expensive, a living trust is almost always recommended for the following reason.  If a living trust is created and assets are actually transferred into the trust (an essential part of the planning process), the assets in the trust are no longer subject to the probate process. Instead passing under the provisions of the trust document, the living trust avoids the expense and complication of probate.  It also avoids publicity since trust-owned assets are not subject to public disclosure.   This confidentiality has motivated many in states where probate is not an issue to create the living trust as part of their plan.

An additional reason for having a revocable trust might be to have an orderly method to provide ongoing oversight if a traumatic event causes a loss of ability to manage assets.  Clear direction and orderly succession are part of the thought-process in creating the revocable trust document.  The trust is revocable--meaning if one wants to change it, they can at any time. Banks and financial institutions are familiar with this arrangement and remain untroubled by assets being titled in the name of the trust.  Clients have had to produce the document to prove its existence and the power to sell or transfer assets.  However, for a relatively minor inconvenience, clarity can be created, cumbersome administration avoided and an unnecessary expense bypassed—making this trust worthy of your consideration.

Another motivating factor for a few young families to complete their estate plan is the possibility of the federal or state estate tax placed on their estate. As of 2015, everyone has a federal estate tax lifetime exemption of $5,430, 000. If married, both spouses have this exemption and therefore can pass $10,860,000 to the next generation estate tax-free.  Many formerly taxable estates may pass tax-free to heirs now.  Some of the complexity of planning has been simplified by a recently passed "Portability Provision.”  In simple terms, it allows any unused exemption in the estate of the first-to-pass spouse to be applied upon the demise of the second spouse.  Your legal advisor can explain in more detail than intended in this article, but for our purposes it means that until an estate exceeds the lifetime exemption amount (an amount which is adjusted annually for cost of living increases), there is no estate tax.

However, for those living in states that have enacted a state estate tax or inheritance tax, the exemptions often do not align with the federal exemption, and are often quite a bit lower.  This can lead to surprising tax bills if not carefully considered.  For a list of the 24 states that have their own estate tax (18) or inheritance tax (6) law you can google  If you live in one of those states, it would be prudent to discuss with your advisor the details of the exemption amounts and plan accordingly.

For those who, at a young age, already have the asset base that exceeds the federal or state exemption amounts, the planning may become somewhat more extensive and complicated. The tax on the amount above the exemption is 40% (and can be as high as 50% in states that have their own estate or inheritance tax). Most entrepreneurs do not keep 40%-50% of their estate in assets that can be readily turned to cash.  The tax is due 9 months from the date of death, which adds a time constraint to an already difficult situation.  We recently worked with a 30-year-old with a considerable estate, who had been advised by counsel to apply for life insurance in excess of $50 million.  A rare situation indeed, but when the planning team evaluated his base of assets and forecasted a conservative rate of growth, it became clear that the need for liquidity in his estate could become severe. The recommendation was made to obtain life insurance while he is young and healthy and at premiums that are relatively inexpensive. Life insurance is but one strategy for consideration and a good estate planner will be familiar with other strategies that may be used in conjunction with life insurance to address the liquidity issue.

In a following newsletter, we will discuss some of these strategies and provide examples of applications we have seen in client situations. Whether the needs are relatively simple  or more complex, the importance of having an orderly plan of disposition reflecting your family values cannot be overstated.  In a time when grief wears resiliency thin, having a clear plan that is communicated and understood, with a cadre of professionals who are clear about their roles, can make a significant difference.  Ignoring the issue or procrastinating is no excuse—all of us are "too busy.”  If you make this project a priority, I promise you will have a deep sense of satisfaction when it is completed.


January Current Thinking Column

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Emotional Ledger: Part 2

by Joe Paul

The November 2014 blog was illustrative of three contextual theory concepts: the Emotional LedgerDestructive Entitlement and the Revolving Slate.

You may recall that the Emotional Ledger describes a condition in the web of a family’s internal relationships. In most cases, it automatically and autonomously reflects the balance of give-and-take in these relationships and results in the ambiance of the family. It emerges as a consequence of the degree of balance between fulfilling an individual’s legitimate drive toward self-fulfillment with their obligations to each member of their family. While this ledger is typically governed by unconscious or semi-conscious factors in each individual, the emotional ledger can be rebalanced by giving conscious attention to the considerations of one’s family members. The dynamics of succession are a particularly challenging time for a family that is in business because the process tends to activate Destructive Entitlement.

Destructive Entitlement (“I have a right to expect more because I was not treated fairly”) is a consequential condition created when children are raised in the atmosphere of an unbalanced emotional ledger. Destructive entitlement can be created in a child either by neglect, by over-giving or by the exploitation of the child. In the family described in the last blog, Ruth’s destructive entitlement is vividly portrayed by her willingness to manipulate her parents via her children in order to punish her brother. 

“She thinks the world owes her a living” or “He always has a chip on his shoulder” are samples of the things people say about destructive entitlement in others.

The Revolving Slate refers to the transmission of family patterns from an older generation to a younger generation. This is illustrated by the link between the abuse of Jim by his father and the estrangement between Jim and his own kids in spite of him never being a physically abusive father. In Jim’s case, his children were afraid of him even though he refused to repeat his father’s abusiveness. Jim’s strategy for controlling his anger was to suppress it as much as he could, only to erupt later when enough had built up over time. It is an example of the great irony that often, when we anticipate a problem, we develop a strategy to prevent the problem from happening. Ironically, the very thing we did to prevent the problem creates the problem. This usually occurs when our ineffective solution was directed toward symptoms instead of the source of the issue.

In this follow up blog, we will look at the ethical dimension of relationships. Contextual theory postulates that there are four dimensions of human experience. They are:

  • Objective facts
  • Individual Psychological Issues
  • Systemic Patterns
  • Relational Ethics

Facts are the demographics of a person’s life, such as their ethnic origins, their intelligence, their physical condition, historical injustices to you, your family or your people, etc. The abuse of Jim by his father is a fact that created psychological issues for Jim. In the process of dealing with his issues, he repeated patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving characteristic of his family system. The repetition of these patterns created imbalance in the form of destructive entitlement based upon unjust feelings or unfair treatment and the consequential imbalance in the emotional ledger. The assessment of the interactions of these four dimensions is an accounting of the emotional ledger. 
Individual advisors, counselors and therapists are idiosyncratically predisposed to view a client/family predominantly through one of these four dimensions. For example, an accountant might focus on facts and attempt to manage the other three dimensions via rational conversations and contractual agreements. This adviser may tell Jim that the solution to his situation would be a formal succession plan. Another adviser may account for Jim’s dilemma from the perspective of individual psychology, and recommend that Jim’s daughter begin individual psychotherapy. 

However, I have found that the most highly leveraged dimension for an adviser to enter the client’s family business system is through the dimension of Relational Ethics. This perspective accounts for the first three dimensions in the context of the fourth. This approach would focus on the balance of give-and-take; the consideration of each individual’s concern for the well-being of other family members; and the level of trust, trustworthiness and fairness each person experiences. 

When a family attempts to resolve old issues of unfairness and/or injustice by moving toward greater trustworthiness, it becomes easier to resolve issues in the first three dimensions. Such a process overcomes relational stagnation and increases the range of possibilities for the family.

In the blog, Emotional Ledger: Part 3, we will look at Merit, Multilateral Partiality and the relationship to Posterity. 

If this discussion of the emotional ledger is useful, you will be interested in our soon-to-be-published book, Balancing the Emotional Ledger: Axioms and Guidelines for Counseling Families in Business


December Current Thinking Column

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Charitable Giving Year End Thoughts

 by William E. Roberts, CLU, ChFC

While thoughts of charitable giving are often motivated by the best of intentions, there is nothing like increasing tax rates to catch the attention of high income earners. This year, after April 15th, when the new income tax rates became apparent, clients received a very unfriendly call from their tax accountants that, to their surprise, they owed a very large tax bill to the IRS. Our office has fielded questions about strategies that could mitigate the tax pain, including the use of tax deductible gifts to qualified charities.

With top income tax rates exceeding 50% (California's top rate is 56.7%) and capital gains rates at 25-35% depending upon what state you live in, we often are considering income tax planning as a part of estate and business transition plans. Some of these strategies are prospective, that is to say plans put in place before the sale of a highly appreciated asset. Strategies such as Charitable Remainder Trusts can be effective in reducing income taxes while implementing long-term income objectives and charitable gifting wishes.

However, discussion of charitable giving is often accompanied with highly emotional positioning. When we ask clients about their charitable intentions, we often hear the phrase, "our charity begins at home.” While supporting church, schools, medical-related concerns and the like with annual gifts, the thought of making substantial gifts as part of a long-term estate plan is foreign to their thinking.

Other families want to make contributions to charity to avoid passing largesse to their children with the fear they may become "trust fund babies." Their concern over entitlement issues with their children may or may not be founded in fact or performance by their children, yet is a very real fear in the senior generation's thinking.

We find that most often, the decision for a family to make philanthropic contributions centers on the core values they have or have inherited from previous generations. Whether it is motivated by the desire to better their community around them by making gifts to charities, or causes they are deeply dedicated to, or simply because they have a passion to solve a societal ill, families will give up some of what they could have kept for their children and often make significant gifts to charitable causes because of their heartfelt values.

Therefore, it could be of significant benefit to explore different strategies involving charitable giving to understand both tax and other advantages that might just fit into family core values, goals and objectives.

Because of the concern to both benefit a charity as well as the heirs, several of our clients have implemented a strategy that has been used by very wealthy and well-known families. One such family passed significant valuable real estate with very little estate tax consequence, reaped a large income tax deduction, benefitted charities of their choice for 20+ years with healthy donations and ultimately returned the asset back to the family intact with no income or estate tax consequence. The real estate will provide the family an income stream for generations to come.

While you may not have the wealth of one of America's first families, this strategy might be an effective approach to saving both income and estate taxes while benefiting charities of your choice and possibly passing a substantial inheritance to your family. The strategy that was used in the above illustration is a Charitable Lead Annuity Trust (CLAT). It is a philanthropic estate planning tool in which a donor can transfer assets to a trust for a set number of years. Each year, payments are made from the trust to the donor's designated charity or charities. Once the trust's term expires, what is left in the trust is returned estate tax free to the donor's heirs. Thus, the assets appreciation can be sheltered from estate taxes. More importantly to our clients today, though, is that since the CLAT is a charitable trust, the IRS will allow a generous income tax deduction in the year the assets are transferred to the trust.

Those facts, along with some interesting applications, make this an intriguing structure for those who already have philanthropic intent. There are many variations on the simple illustration above, but let’s look at the components of the Charitable Lead Annuity Trust (CLAT) and some thoughts as to why it is such a good strategy in the current interest rate environment.

CLATs are irrevocable trusts that pay an annuity amount to a charity for the lifetime of the grantor for a fixed number of years. At the end of the annuity period, non-charitable beneficiaries, who are usually the grantor's family, receive the remainder, free of estate or gift tax. CLATs may be set up during a lifetime or at death as part of testamentary trusts.

As previously mentioned, the CLAT qualifies for a gift tax charitable deduction at its inception, or an estate tax charitable deduction at death. The income tax deduction occurs when the transfer to the CLAT occurs, and the amount of the deduction is the present value of the future annuity payments to the charity. The interest rate used is a specifically prescribed rate known as the Section 7520 rate. Currently, the rate is extremely low, +/- 2.00%. This opens some interesting possibilities for planning if the asset is earning in excess of the 7520 rate, such as an 8.00% return, the amount returned to the family could be significant.

One interesting application is to contribute a paid-up life insurance policy along with cash. The strategy provides the grantor an income tax deduction, while removing a portion of the life insurance out of the estate of the grantor at the end of the CLAT.

There are many charitable gifting alternatives and you should consult with your advisors as to which strategy best fits your situation given your objectives, values and tax situation. But if you are like many of our clients, reviewing your potential income tax with your tax advisor is a prudent move, and a charitable giving strategy may have a place in your planning. 


Reflections on Legacy

by Leslie Dashew

Recently, I have been called upon to reflect on the concept of “legacy” in several contexts: how do family business owners think about the legacy they want to leave to heirs and family members? What is the legacy we wish to leave, both professionally and personally? And what is the legacy that has had an impact on our own lives?

Legacy includes the tangible and intangible assets that we inherit, develop and pass on to those who follow us. These legacies can be either enriched or weakened through the experiences, opportunities, and systems that we create for the future stewards of the legacy. (Joe Paul)

For some, a legacy may be property: e.g. a vacation home that has been in the family for generations and has memories, traditions and emotions attached to it. For others, it is a business that was created and maintained with the hope that it would provide opportunities for generations to come. Still, others feel that they have a “spiritual legacy” to transmit in documents such as an ethical will, and hope that the values and lessons of their life will benefit those who follow.

As my father turned 95 and faced the end of his life, I wrote the following poem as a birthday gift:

Daddy-o’s Legacy

Your legacy began early in your life and certainly in ours
Showing us the way
By venturing
Into new territories
By taking us on the sea before we could walk
Through setting up shop in a new state
Creating new machines and new industries
And new ways of financing our lives

Your legacy is an attitude, a philosophy
That says
“You Can Do It!”
And you demonstrate that by never giving up
By seeing possibilities and opportunities
And by insisting that we be independent
And self-sustaining
As soon as we could

Your legacy is to be creative
In your inventions
Your photography
In problem-solving
And in the design of your life

Your legacy is to build
To build boats
and machines
and systems
and organizations
and family
and wealth
and community.

Your legacy is to be generous
With your family
Your friends
And the people around you who need help
With guidance, love and money.

Your legacy is love
of beauty
And the sea
Of your family
And your friends

Your legacy includes your
Great grandchildren
And all the other lives you have touched.

I feel blessed to have the benefit of your legacy

Your legacy will continue well beyond the days of your life.

(September 16, 2011)

As I reflect on the legacy I received, my dad’s values, model and impact were the greatest gifts I received. As we think about the legacy we wish to leave through our own lives, it seems most important to me to share wisdom, opportunities and to leave the world a little bit better.

The end of the year is often a time of reflection. If we use the reflection to gain clarity about our vision for our lives and the legacy that we wish to leave, we will move more purposefully into the New Year. I wish you clarity, love, wisdom and peace during this holiday season and in the coming year.



November Current Thinking Column

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Balancing The Emotional Ledger: Revisited

by Joe Paul

Several years ago, we devoted a column in our newsletter to the Emotional Ledger. In the next few months, we will be expanding that discussion in the context of contextual theory. This will include topics such as, one’s relationship to posterity, the ledger of merit, trustworthiness, the revolving slate, destructive entitlement, constructive entitlement, among many others.

You might not realize it, but you have two “sets of books.” One of the books is for your business—tangible and under the control of your bookkeeper. The other book, the “emotional ledger,” is invisibly intangible and under the control of no one. Yet, the emotional ledger defines what is possible in a family. While the business ledger keeps track of the money, the emotional ledger is self-organizing and monitors factors such as the level of trust, the earning of merit in the family and the indebtedness/entitlements of each of your family members.

Every family has an emotional ledger, but families that own businesses sometimes have a harder time with it. This is because the two ledgers often become entangled. Eventually, emotional ledger issues like mistrust among family members begin to have a profoundly negative effect on the bottom line of the business ledger.

The concept of the emotional ledger was formulated by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, a Hungarian psychiatrist/family therapist and founder of contextual theory. He was most interested in the relational ethics intrinsic to all social species. Attention to reciprocity is a common factor in all social species. The emotional ledger accounts for what is given and received in familial transactions with one another. The accumulation of merit by showing due consideration for others moves the family toward trustworthiness. The disregard of fairness in transactions within the family leads the family away from trustworthiness. Based on factors such as the willingness to show due consideration, a person earns merit in their family and constructive entitlement. Another family therapist, Murray Bowen, delineates the emotional ledger as follows:

“The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish, aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; and cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will break down.”

One measure of a balanced emotional ledger in a family in business is the capacity of the family to encourage the individuation of successors. The individuated successor has found a way to maintain a calm, non-reactive presence when confronted by anxiety of others; e.g. his sibling/ business partners, his parents or senior non-family executives. He has a clear sense of purpose and can convey that sense of purpose to those who follow his lead. If the family business system is not accustomed to having an individuated leader, the less mature members of the stakeholder group will attempt to sabotage a new individuated leadership style. The individuated leader stays calm and understands the normality of human systems to resist change. At the same time, he steadily makes new requirements of the family and the business.

Balancing both the financial and emotional ledgers while developing a successor can become very complicated, as discovered by one father a few years ago. Jim was his father’s successor in a manufacturing business. As he neared his targeted retirement age, three of Jim’s four children were working in the business. His only son, Bo, with 20 years in the company, was the COO, managing both manufacturing and sales. Bo had taken the company from $3 million in sales to $9.6 million in the last five years. Jim’s middle daughter, Joyce, had become the Personnel Director seven years ago. His youngest daughter, Betty, was hired to be the Office Manager four years earlier. Although Jim was very uneasy about it, he yielded to the pressure from his wife to pay his three children in the company the same. 

His oldest daughter, Ruth, didn’t work in the company. Jim felt that she was a difficult child to raise, always seeming to have a chip on her shoulder. For years, Jim tried to persuade Ruth to join her siblings in the company, but she would have no part in it. She married well was well-off financially—no pertinent need to join the company. As delineated in Jim’s estate plan, Ruth, along with Jim’s other children, would each inherit 25% of the ownership of voting shares in the company. Jim and his wife were satisfied with their estate plan, but were not prepared for their children’s reactions. 

Ruth reacted to the estate plan by threatening to withhold her children from her parents if Bo became the next CEO. Between gritted teeth she said, “ I will be at every board meeting with my sisters. We have discussed this, and if we don’t approve of what our dear brother is doing, we will begin a search for a more compatible CEO. We have lived our whole lives with you making us feel we are stupid, Dad. But I guarantee you that I won’t passively accept the same relationship with Bo that I have endured with you.” Joyce squirmed in her chair and Betty began to panic as the two sisters suddenly found themselves in a split loyalty between their sibling and their parents. 

Ancient wisdom tells us that the “sins of the father will be visited upon the children into the third and fourth generation.” This is especially true for the successors in a family business. Jim was seriously physically abused by his own father, for whom he had also worked. The resulting emotional wounds led Jim to decide that he would never punish his children physically. While he was successful in controlling the physical abuse, he still had a tendency to let problems slide for a long time in an attempt to avoide conflict, only to later explode at a minor offense. When he finally did explode, his kids would feel their grandfather’s red hot rage alive in their dad. Each of his children found ways to stay connected with their father in spite of the poor messages he gave them when he was angry. Working for him was a way to be connected and maybe someday earn his blessing.

Bo’s family and business were full emotional ledger issues. Trust was seriously eroded, Ruth’s destructive entitlement was a significant problem, there was little concern for others, and the adult children’s hunger to earn merit in the eyes of their family was thwarted. It was in this state that Bo sought out the services of an executive coach, Matt. Having been trained to work with family businesses, Matt chose to help Bo individuate while staying connected to his family. We will hear more about how Matt helped Bo in a later blog. However, I can tell you that Matt focused on helping Bo to maintain a “calm, non-reactive presence” whenever a member of his family was overcome by their anxiety. Using one little trick to help Bo remember to stay calm, Matt instructed him to use the phrase “nevertheless.” For instance, if Ruth barged into his office saying, “What makes you think you can be CEO?” Bo would respond, "I understand that you have no faith in me yet as the next CEO, nevertheless, I think that I have the knowledge and skills to protect our assets just as I have done for the last four years. I hope to earn your trust.”

Matt highlighted that the act of creating a response using the words “nevertheless” will help you focus on being calm when interacting with Ruth, letting her know you understand her concerns and that you are not going to fight. Matt also asked Bo to memorize a line from the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling:

"If you can keep your head while those around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
-Rudyard Kipling

The Aspen Family Business Group will soon be publishing a book entitled, Balancing the Emotional Ledger: Axioms and Guidelines for Counseling Families in Business. Watch for announcements. 


October Current Thinking Column

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Vision and Voice: Growing Healthy Kids

by Leslie Dashew

I attended a conference this week where the opening speaker recounted the story of his life. He revealed how he overcame circumstances that have proved perilous for others, yet prevailed to grow up and become successful. He described the circumstances, the messages he received and his path to success.

“I walked to school,” he told us, “from a very loving home.”

His grandfathers, Frank and Ernest, lived nearby and exemplified their names.
“I grew up the youngest of three with an older sister and brother. “

His father, he described, was a hard worker and very consistent, coming home from work every day at the same time, and reading the paper on the porch after dinner at night. “We didn’t quite know what Dad did at work. What we did know is that he loved it, and was very good at it. And he was happy.”

“Mom was good at listening and learning from people from any walk of life. She and Dad both loved music. I grew up playing piano on the porch where my dad would go every night to read the paper.”

It sounds like the mother played the role of the “Chief Emotional Officer” that we have spoken about in other writings.

He then described the transition away from music as an adolescent, “While I loved music and playing the piano, I got discouraged when I became great buddies with someone who was so much better at it than me. He had such a natural talent for music that I figured I could never be as successful as him. So I gave up. I went off to college without a clue as to what I wanted to study or do ‘when I grew up.’”

“My dad and mom both told me to find my own passion and follow it. They followed their passions, and that is what made them happy.”

“I rediscovered my love of music,” he told us, “and began rediscovering the joy it brought me. I wasn’t sure how I could make a living out of it, though. Just then, my grandfather died, and my dad informed me that I would be inheriting $90,000. My dad encouraged me to invest in myself and find my own ‘voice.’ He coached me to live frugally so the money would last. He didn’t rescue me when I made mistakes or failed—he encouraged me to learn from it and provided the emotional support I needed. He would regularly ask me if I had found my own voice yet.”

“When I inherited the money, my father said he could invest it for me, or I could use it to invest in myself. If he had invested the $90,000 at that time in his business, Berkshire Hathaway, it would have been worth $120 million today! But he encouraged me to invest in myself.”

Yes, the speaker was Peter Buffett, son of Berkshire Hathaway founder and one of the richest men in the country, Warren Buffett. 

Peter appreciated a number of things his father did that helped him stay grounded during his childhood despite the enormous wealth his family accumulated:

1. First and foremost, he encouraged Peter to become his own person and not follow anyone else’s path or vision—not his family, his peer group or even their professional path. Peter gave an example of a great opportunity he had to build his music career by moving to Los Angeles, where he would have access to the contacts needed to score music for films (which is what he wanted to do). His music agent encouraged him to do so, but he realized that he loved living in the Midwest and was finding his voice by being there. A path to discovery that may have been swamped by other peoples’ voices in LA. 

2. The wonderful relationship he had with his father was based on mutual respect between two well-differentiated people. “We never asked the other one to be something he was not,” Peter told us. It appears that Warren knew how to be a coach or mentor to his son without trying to control him. 

3. Clarity of values and integrity: Warren Buffett still lives in the modest home he lived in when he started his family. He believed in using his money to help others, and didn’t feel the need to live extravagantly to boost his own sense of self. He gave his kids money in foundations to do the same. While he was helpful to his kids, he didn’t enable them, as he so famously stated “to do nothing” in reference to financing his children. He lived his values, and as a result, his kids grew up with a clear understanding about them.

4. Importance of recognizing individuality and not forcing teamwork: Warren gave each of his kids a $10 million foundation. Peter relayed this was very useful, as it did not force the three of his siblings to collaborate, but gave them room to follow their own interests and passions with their philanthropy. As a result, the three siblings sought each others’ counsel, and ended up collaborating in many ways when they were ready. He felt this encouraged their teamwork rather than trying to force it. 

5. Transparency about the asset base: “We always knew my dad would give away his money. It was his to do that! He made all three of us executors of his will, so we always knew what would happen. There is no mystery about it. Involving us from the beginning took away all of the concerns and questions.”

6. Finally, he spoke about the power of believing in another person and encouraging them to be the best at what is in their heart. He illustrated that by showing us his father’s report card as a young adolescent: mediocre grades. He was industrious, but lost. He didn’t believe in the teachers’ assessment of him, nor did his parents. His parents encouraged him to find his path and excel at that. Peter is now reaching out to young, oppressed girls around the world and helping them escape from poverty, ignorance and slavery, becoming an encouraging force in their lives. He told the audience: 

 “Being a witness to someone else’s life is a powerful intervention…Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Peter shared his story with the creativity that characterizes his voice: music, video and art. His story and his messages were very powerful, and he inspired us to reach out around ourselves.

So many affluent families struggle with how to encourage healthy, productive living in a world of abundance. Peter’s message could be interpreted as suggesting that parents live lives of integrity by manifesting the values they want their kids to embody and fostering their individuality. Offering guidance without control, teaching “life skills,” such as budgeting and handling frustration, and finding the quiet still place to hear one’s own voice are all tools to achieve this.


September Current Thinking Column

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Keeping Commitment Alive on the Road

by Burak Kocer, PhD

Having explained the expectations of developing a family constitution to all three members of a second generation, I asked them to introduce me to their family leader, who was also the Chairman of the company, as I wanted to understand his perspective, expectations and concerns. On our first meeting, the Chairman explained that his first priority was making the right decision in terms of nominating the person who will succeed him. He was concerned with merely relying on a document that outlined a set of rules, which would be archived in a drawer without any practical value. Therefore, drafting a family constitution was not on his agenda. His mind was busy with people rather than rules. Although his priority for nominating the right successor was a rational concern, I felt I had to explain that the absence of his personality could never be replaced by another personality. None of his potential successors could establish a similar leader-follower relationship in the way he did among the second generation, who were essentially the same age and level of experience. 

The strongest successor he could leave behind would be the principles inspired and developed from his personality.

In order to do this, he had to work in cooperation with his family in drafting the rules to guide them in his absence. When he challenged me by asking if I can guarantee that his children would care about these principles and treat them as a living document, I reflected on the factors that are necessary to keep commitment alive. I mulled over which factors influence the implementation of a family constitution once it is signed off, especially at the early stages, and which supporting instruments are useful to maintain members’ commitment throughout the years. This is how I decided on the topic for this month’s newsletter. Here is a summary of some key points from my perspective to help enhance a family’s ability to cope with formal rules during the time of transition:

Division of Responsibilities for a Shared Purpose

One of the main indicators of a well-governed company is its differentiated components, each of which contributes to a shared purpose by undertaking specific responsibilities. This involves establishing and maintaining a vertical and horizontal division of roles among the members of an organization. However, this is where many families have trouble: switching to a new governance style of delegation and accountability from the former “everyone involved in everything” management style.  

When adopting this new structure, one of the most challenging aspects for families is the inconvenience of switching to a more formalized work environment. Formalization involves a predetermined set of rules concerning two essential business functions, information flow and decision-making (e.g., a family constitution), which are normally handled through occasional social interactions in the family. While many factors cause inconvenience during this period, the most common ones include discontent with losing the warmth in human relationship, reluctance to commit to a standard reporting procedure and a more precisely defined span of control.

Reminding yourself of the outcomes you want to achieve and shortcomings you want to avoid will help keep your commitment alive during the early stages of formalization.

Keep the Ball Rolling

A family member’s commitment to work together under a predefined set of rules ultimately pays off by increasing their ability to work with other members of the family. Fortunately, the most critical factor here is not determining where to start, but how to keep the ball rolling. The study of attitude–behavior consistency (A-B Consistency) sheds light on this situation. A-B consistency concerns the degree to which people's attitudes (opinions) predict their behaviors (actions). A–B consistency exists when there is a strong relationship between opinions and actions. For example, a person with a positive attitude toward protecting the environment and who also chooses to recycle shows high A-B consistency.[1] On the other hand, you do not need to wait until others develop a high degree of environmental awareness (opinion) to motivate them to recycle. Merely encouraging the act of recycling (behavior) by placing corresponding recycling receptacles by homes would also create awareness on protecting the environment and eventually cultivate the same opinion.  In this case, the behavior fostered the opinion.

Governance of a business is not much different in terms of A-B consistency. Family members with negative attitudes towards a formalized work environment will be the least cooperative, however, you do not have enough time to wait until each person is on board. By keeping the ball rolling through board/committee meetings with promptly announced agendas or periodic reports on KPIs, you may have the chance to develop a more positive attitude towards a new governance style.

As Much As Needed

While keeping the ball rolling has the potential to foster positive attitude, too much sophistication is counterproductive. Depending on the needs of the family, your governance framework may involve an independent board, sub-committees within the board, a family investment committee, additional family committees dedicated to various needs such as training/development/recruitment, a family office—the list goes on. Yet, A-B consistency from B to A will not work if these sophisticated governance bodies do not satisfy a strongly felt need, as recognized by the family as a whole.  

In its simplest form, your new governance structure will involve a separation between decision-management and decision-control.  This is achieved by building a Board of Directors, which has a judgmental ability independent from those who run the company. However, in regards to the Board of Directors, there is also no limit to the level of sophistication you can implement through increasing the size, adding independent directors, establishing sub-committees or work groups, and meeting more frequently.

Building and Activating Your First Board

In order to define an appropriate composition for your board, it is worth reviewing what you want to achieve with a functional board. The Board of Directors is a “common mind” formed by a group of people representing different interests. For example, starting from the second generation onward, there will be multiple elementary family branches with different levels of involvement in day-to-day management.  This multi-generational perspective could eventually lead to discrepancies in information concerning company matters. Therefore, one of the most critical duties of a functional board is to ensure adequate representation of all branches on the board.  

Additionally, the presence of outsiders with no ownership, employment, family or commercial ties with the company is essential in bringing the independent judgment of managerial decisions to the board level. Some argue a qualified board member who is connected to the family, but acts independently could also precipitate the expected contributions of such a position. Although this might be true to a certain extent, independent judgment is not the sole expectation from independent board members—confidence in that director from the stakeholders (different family branches) he/she represents is equally important. In the case of a Board of Directors, the term independence also involves impartiality, and this can only be provided by an outsider.  Thus, by giving confidence to all stakeholders with different interests, the board fulfills the keystone role of governance. Without the keystone, you will not be able to keep the commitment of the family as a whole alive. If your family members are not convinced of the value in having a strong and functional board, their future commitment to a cohesive governance style could deteriorate. 

A Committed Leader

A fundamental part of a predefined set of rules of governance involves the organization of meetings. The ability to extract the most from each member of a team is a different sort of art, and essentially a trait of a strong leader. In the transition from one governance style to another, the role of family leaders must evolve, too. In most cases, the leaders of the family assume the roles of Board of Directors and/or CEO to navigate the company through its strategic priorities by making the critical decisions with or without consulting others. On the other hand, the role of the Chairman, the person who leads the board, is to extract the common sense of members who collectively lead the company.  Switching a leader’s mindset from managing the company to managing the board is a challenging task, which requires preparation in advance. Without a prepared Chairman, the change in a company’s governance style will not resonate, further risking the future commitment of the family.

Family or the Business?

Once you have the governing bodies up and running, you expect them to generate good decisions. In the case of a family business, a “good “ decision is not only economically accurate for the company, but also satisfactory for the family. At the end of the day, this is a family company and will remain so as long as the family maintains control of ownership.

In that sense, rational decisions that overlook the needs of the family will undermine commitment and eventually hinder the functionality of governing bodies. For example, while being a well-governed company necessitates hiring qualified managers, being a well-governed family necessitates guiding and supporting its members to develop the required qualifications. Thus, a family recruitment policy should not only define job specifications, but also a development plan for enthusiastic family members. Similarly, a dividend policy should seek a balance between cash flow needs of the company and liquidity expectations of different family members. This can be achieved by offering alternative solutions through additional policies to annex the dividend policy, such as a share purchase or family loan programs.


  • One’s attitude towards a new governance style will evolve as she/he observes its components functioning. Do not postpone establishing the key governing bodies and main reporting functions until the family develops a mutual understanding on each and every detail.
  • Do not complicate your governance structure with dysfunctional components such as additional committees or meetings. Just because other families govern in this style does not mean it is right for you.
  • Keep in mind that you will not end up where you want to be unless you have a real Board of Directors.
  • Make sure that the leader is prepared to acquire additional skills separately, while shaping the overall governance framework.
  • Do not sacrifice the requirements of your company at the expense of the needs of your family. Likewise, do not sacrifice the requirements of your family at the expense of the needs of your company. If not anything else, governing a family business is a continuous effort to seek a balance between the two.

[1] Roy F. Baummeister and Kathleen D. Vohs (2007), Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, SAGE Publications, Inc.


August Current Thinking Column

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Estate Planning--Is it For the Young?

By William E. Roberts, CLU, ChFC

At my firm, we have a question directed to us regularly:  "Why should we worry about having wills or trusts and creating an estate plan? We do not have an estate. We are young!"  On the surface, the logic seems compelling, but the reality is vastly different. What if there are minor children? Who will be their guardians? Who will be custodians of assets for them? Should there be guidelines for how income and principle are distributed to them? Is there a business interest or ownership? If in a family business, what are the family guidelines regarding ownership of stock in the family business and what effect does that have on the planning? 

The obvious answer is of course a plan is needed that reflects your values and objectives for your family. With that, we arrive at the need to develop a plan, including a will and likely a trust that will carry out your legacy in the manner you would direct if you were still alive to do so. 

What I hope to accomplish is to highlight some of the more important reasons why estate planning is absolutely critical. In the case something should happen to you, the documentation of your wishes is highly important to your extended family and their future. 

Firstly, let's clarify what entails an "estate.” No, it is not a castle in the United Kingdom, which is often the first impression of many clients. Instead, it is everything you own—assets (minus liabilities), your house, personal effects, cars, stocks and bonds retirement accounts, and more given the different aspects of your situation. Many are surprised to find out that their life insurance, whether it is the group life plan provided through work or policies they own as husband and wife, are also included at face value of the death benefit. We will consider the tax effects of these assets later.

Let's first consider the effect of not having a will. In fact, you do have a will, just not of your own design. Each state has its own plan and provisions for persons who die intestate, or without a will. You can find your state’s intestate guidelines by googling “[state name] intestacy rules” to determine how your assets would be handled. For most states, as well as most of the people we deal with, the provisions are not what responsible parents would want to happen. Having half the estate distributed to a child or children upon their 18th birthday without any guidelines to how that money is spent is hardly the responsible plan that most parents would voluntarily arrange, however, in several states, such is the provision in the law.

Almost everyone agrees that dying intestate is hardly the plan they would wish on their family, but what are other motivating factors? There are two issues high on the list of parental concerns regarding the treatment and care of children should both parents die in a tragedy. One is guardianship of their children and the other is how their money is to be invested and distributed on behalf of the children's best interest. Let’s deal with them separately.


In my years of working with families and establishing their estate plan, no single issue has caused greater delay in signing their documents more than the question: "Who do we want as guardians of our children if we are not here?" Many attorneys agree on this point. Some say they have seen some interesting disagreements concerning this issue. In our situation, with two sons, we had three different sets of guardians through the years. We began with my wife's parents (likely because we could not agree on anyone else at the time). We realized due to their age, that we needed to have younger more compatible guardians and selected a couple whose ethics, integrity and parenting were similar to ours. However, after a few years, they moved out of our neighborhood and we realized that if something happened to us, our boys would not only lose their parents, but also be uprooted from their friends and school system with which they were familiar. Consequently, we changed to another couple using the same guidelines we had established prior, but who lived in our vicinity.

My point is to first establish your guidelines: does it have to be a family member? Is that a compatible pick? What other guidelines do we want to evaluate? If your experience is like ours, the list of possibilities rapidly shrinks down to a few contenders who are trusted friends or family. One additional item we added was a letter summarizing our wishes. Besides naming them in our wills and trust documents, we cleared the arrangement with them and then wrote a letter outlining our wishes as parents and a general outline of the assets available to assist in offsetting the expense of raising our two sons. We did not want to burden them with our children without providing the resources needed to properly raise them.

Distribution of Assets

This brings me to the second major reason for having your own plan—how do you want your assets used for the benefit of your children? What income or principle do you want distributed to them? What guidelines do you want established for use of the funds by or for your children? Most parents have firm feelings about these concerns. However, it is a good idea to have a discussion between spouses and a financial planner to gain agreement and direction before approaching your attorney.

If you are in a family business and own stock in that business, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with any established buy-sell agreements governing who will be able to own stock, what happens to the stock should a death occur, what value the stock has and if the stock is redeemed and how the purchase price will be paid, whether cash, note or a combination of both. This is a very important step before going to your attorney. Often the stock represents a considerable percentage of the total value of the estate and knowing what the "rules" are is important to the planning process.

Two other documents that are usually created as a part of the will-planning process are the “Durable General Power of Attorney” and “Durable Health Care Power of Attorney.” I have found the Durable General Power of Attorney, or "POA," critical in caring for my aging (103-year-old) mother. I have been required to send proof that I have POA authorization innumerable times for such innocuous things as a simple change of address for her bills, changing her home security system and of course, in dealing with her banking transactions. While this seems far-fetched to younger generations, accidents do happen that incapacitate, and the POA is of incalculable help.

The Durable Health Care Power of Attorney simply appoints someone to make health care decisions for you when you are unable to do so. I have heard story after story of hospitals and doctors who refuse to turn off life-extending support systems unless the Health Care Power of Attorney can be produced and is on file with the appropriate authorities. We have even heard of families having the Health Care POA on file in their permanent medical records. Hopefully as medical files become more universally electronic, access can be obtained even if traveling in another state or overseas. Without it, even family members may not have the legal ability to discontinue life-sustaining efforts.

Hopefully, this has given those of you who do not have wills or trusts or who have not updated them lately the motivation to review your documents. If you are absent of documents, schedule a meeting with your attorney to begin the process of creating or updating your planning. Should something tragic happen, your heirs will be forever grateful!

In subsequent issues, I will address some of the tax issues that may be considered part of the planning process and how you might go about selecting a team to advise you. In addition, I will focus more on the "soft side" of thinking about your values, legacy, goals and objectives, which should be an important part of the planning process. These guidelines, coupled with the collaboration between husband and wife, provide a much easier environment when dealing with the crucial decisions of estate planning.


In other AFBG news, Leslie recently presented a podcast on the subject of women leading family businesses--to listen, click here


July Current Thinking Column

Monday, July 28, 2014

Assessing the Family in Business

By Joe Paul

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

-Charles Kettering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These instruments are very good at identifying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June Current Thinking Column

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Revisiting the Painful Truth: It Must Be Heard

By Leslie Dashew

In the recent past, I had the honor of working with a new client and a client from some time back, who were both suffering from pain within the family. In both cases, each family implemented many solid business and family business practices that demonstrated their deep caring for one another. However, issues arose in both circumstances when members of the family felt unheard.

In one scenario, a family member examined the decline in business volume during this past recession and feared the family leadership had not done all that could be done. Left with good ideas that failed to be implemented during the recession, the family member felt frustrated and hurt. 

In the other situation, a rift from the past that was allegedly repaired seemed to trickle into the next generation, as younger members of the family sensed continued angst. Once again, the original issues stemmed from incomplete communication about what was going on in the business and why certain business decisions were being made. Subsequently, family members felt marginalized and threatened.

There is something about full communication that conveys respect.

If I respect your role and/or your competence, I will hear you out—I will include you in the circle of communication. If I do not feel heard or included, I feel ignored and powerless. When this threatens my well being, I may take legal action, which is often the beginning of the end for families in business.

Obstacles to Open Dialogue

There are many obstacles to having the open dialogue that eventually leads to the healing process. Fortunately, in the case of the two families, both found the courage to revisit the painful truths and acknowledge shared responsibility for the situation. The types of obstacles that can inhibit open communication include:
  1. Fear of things getting out of control—We are opening up “Pandora’s Box” by raising old issues and it may be something we will not be able to get over.
  2. Judgment—Members of the family will dismiss the concerns or issues and discount my point of view, making me feel unimportant or not valued.
  3. Feeling misunderstood and frustrated by lack of acceptance in the family.
  4. Lack of time and having so many stakeholder groups with whom to communicate.
  5. Inability to clearly articulate a point of view and stumbling over how to say what I want to communicate.
  6. Thinking we are communicating more than we are—I could have sworn I told you that!

Creating Safe Environments

Many of these issues and obstacles speak to the need to create a setting that is safe enough for participants to take the risk to be open and vulnerable. The others speak to the need to have a structure that assures good coverage of parties with whom you need to communicate. In both of the family situations alluded to above, having the opportunity to privately talk through concerns and issues with an independent advisor allowed each individual the chance to be heard without judgment and illuminated the challenges and the feelings associated with them. This preliminary dialogue reduced the anxiety surrounding the issue making it easier to clearly articulate the problems at hand. 

Safety is also a necessary component, which can be achieved by a set of ground rules. For example, it is helpful to have an agreement about what content is confidential and what information can be shared outside of the room. This helps to assure that participants can share openly without fear that private matters may become public.

Rebuilding Trust, Openness and Safety

In some situations where safety and trust have declined, utilizing a facilitator to create a safer environment is essential. A facilitator can help encourage active listening and paraphrasing, which assist in feeling heard while fostering true mutual understanding. When family members fall into old habits of impatience or dominating the conversation, the facilitator can shift the conversation back to a more balanced and constructive one. There are people who find it disconcerting to think their family needs an “outsider” in order to communicate. Under “normal” circumstances the climate may be sufficiently safe for conversation without the need for a facilitator. However, if the direct, open and compassionate dialogue that needs to happen is not occurring, then help may be required. 

Rebuilding trust requires acknowledgement of what was done to lose the trust and its subsequent impact. Approaching the situation with an open, vulnerable attitude is an important tool in building a safe, trusting environment. As my colleague Joe Paul says, “It takes courage to trust again.” Often, the most telling sign of real leadership is one who takes the risk to be vulnerable or unpopular by raising necessary issues. When others respond with compassion and a willingness to address these issues, trust can be rebuilt. 

In both of the aforementioned situations, the families felt relieved that the air had been cleared and that everyone felt heard. Concrete steps to move forward with both ideas and communication improvements will add substance to the ephemeral feelings of the day. Fears that opening “Pandora’s Box” would permanently increase distance and discomfort were proven to be unfounded. In fact, by and large, both sets of family members felt more comfortable and connected.

Boundaries that Support Openness

One of the most difficult aspects of a family-owned business is having partners or colleagues whom you might not have chosen in a non-family business. You have multiple relationships with each. You may not respect their competence or insight as much as a more “independent” colleague or partner. However, in successful family businesses, there is a respect for one’s right to be heard. The right to be heard, however, must be governed by boundaries and context. As a family member, my vision for the future of the family and its assets should be heard as part of a collective dialogue that provides a foundation for direction. As a shareholder, my interests in the business must be understood by the board and again communicated to business leadership as part of a collective perspective. The board must be governed by the “NIFO” perspective: nose in, fingers out. Boundaries must be honored. There is a time and place for every type of dialogue: it is important that in our complex family business systems, we find the right time and place.

Lessons from Consensus Decision Making

The most effective form of decision-making is consensus. Once a team assures that all parties have been heard, a decision is made through total accord, rather than by voting (when decisions are made by vote, it sometimes prematurely ends dialogue, while excluding all points of view from consideration). With a consensus model, when my point of view does not prevail, I feel confident that the rest of the group fully understood my point of view and in their collective wisdom, decided another direction was more appropriate. I trust the thoroughness of the process and respect for my point of view. Consensus decision-making provides a lesson for families in business: when I feel heard and my perspective is considered, it is much easier for me to support an outcome that might not be my choice. And, once we leave the room where we explore many different perspectives very openly, we speak with one voice, supporting the team’s decision.

The main breakdown of the process includes the following:

  1. In the appropriate venue, raise issues to be addressed.
  2. The group paraphrases the issue (sometimes using a flip chart to capture the thought) to assure it is heard accurately.
  3. All points of view are considered and the group collectively evaluates the options.
  4. A decision is reached in which all members are comfortable supporting.
  5. The team communicates their collective point of view to other stakeholders with one voice.
Many years ago, Scott Peck wrote in his book The Road Less Traveled that if you want to show someone that you love him, listen to him. If you want to effectively navigate the challenging twists and turns of the family business path, listening respectfully is essential.

See Also: 
by Leslie Dashew, Fall, 2004 AFBG Newsletter
by Terri Bennink (archived newsletter)


May Current Thinking Column

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Which Values Do You Attach to Your Business?

Motivation for Sustainability in a Family Business

by Burak Kocer, PhD

Fuat and Metin Ayhan, brothers and founders of a successful manufacturing business in Izmir, Turkey, started transitioning their company into a new period under the management of their children. In some 35 years, the two brothers had brought the company to a reputable position in the market place with long-established customer relationships. Yet two of their four children have started to complain about the way they manage the company. Ahmet and his younger cousin, Efe, have recently failed to show up to work, often times without an excuse. In due time, Ahmet told his father that he is no longer sure about pursuing a career in the company. On the other hand, Ahmet’s frequent absenteeism and lack of commitment concerned Fuat about his readiness for leadership. Furthermore, Efe’s lack of attachment to the company was equally concerning. Relying on revenues from the business, he had not developed an alternative career, yet he simply refused to take responsibility in the company. 

When we are talking about sustainability, to which the discipline of family business itself owes its recognition, we are most aptly referring to people’s motivation to stay together. During times of transition, multi-generational collaboration is fundamental to ensure that the younger generation is ready and qualified to assume more critical responsibilities. However, it is equally important to create an atmosphere in which the potential successors feel that their voice is being heard and recognized.

Having worked with the company for 8 years now, Ahmet has been complaining to his sister, Leyla, that he has virtually no control over managerial decisions. Additionally, despite all his hard work and “know-how” he has accumulated since joining the company, Ahmet’s salary is nearly equal to his cousin Cem’s salary, who joined the company 3 years ago following his college graduation. The most recent controversy occurred over a bank loan, which fueled Ahmet’s resentment toward his father and uncle. Essentially, Ahmet secured an international order from a reputable French company that required an extension to the production line. He planned to finance this additional investment with a bank loan, which would only equal a minimal portion of their balance sheet. However, Fuat and Metin refused this financing and missed the export opportunity, undermining all of Ahmet’s work.

The problem faced by the first and second generations of the Ayhan family is not unusual. The transfer of managerial control from senior to younger generations is the most critical phase in securing the sustainability of a family business. Many financially successful family businesses do not survive simply due to the lack of people’s motivation to stay together. Most likely, the sustainability of the Ayhan family business will depend on Ahmet’s decision to stay with the company. Understanding the precedents of his motivation will help us identify possible arrangements and practices that favor sustainability. 

Psychology scholars have developed various theories to analyze why individuals choose to follow certain courses of action. Particularly, the Expectancy Theory, popularized in the 1960s by distinguished Yale professor, Victor Vroom, has a great deal of practical value with its three-level approach: 

1. Expectancy: Our own perception that our effort will result in performance 
2. Instrumentality: Our own perception that performance will result in a certain outcome 
3. Valence: The value we attach to that outcome

What this three-level approach implies is that we do not bother putting effort in something, if we know there will be no performance at the end. Even if we anticipate the performance, we again are not motivated to put effort in something if we know that the performance will not bring achievement. Finally, achievement itself is not sufficient for motivation if we do not value that achievement. 

1. Expectancy:

The perceived relationship between effort and performance for Ahmet was most likely the opportunities made available to him where he could possibly make an impact on the company’s future (e.g. achievement). The business must grow to keep pace with the expanding family. Despite all those years he spent preparing for a managerial position, Ahmet still had no control over making a meaningful difference in the company. What was perceived by Ahmet as being “over-protective” was actually his father and uncle continuing the business practices with which they founded the company, including avoiding risks with rapid growth and external financing. Throughout the years, Fuat and Metin have adopted a well-known Turkish idiom as a principle: “Roast with your own oil,” which roughly translates to “Stand on your own feet.” To make sure that the company was run properly, they have tried to actively manage the company along with their children until they felt that their children were ready.

Nevertheless, the failure to differentiate between monitoring and executing has the potential to risk the sustainability of the business rather than creating a healthy environment for control. Combining these two functions also delays the finalization of transition. Corporate governance offers a useful tool to manage this issue—a board of directors. Equipped with the necessary experience, boards are there to provide guidance and monitor the performance of the employees. By identifying certain matters reserved for a board of directors according to the level of risk involved with a certain business decisions, the company could provide a clearly defined space for the members of the younger generation. 

2. Instrumentality:

Ahmet was also asking himself, “What is the difference if I could make an impact on where we are going?” The perceived link between performance and achievement disappears in the absence of policies and practices that make family members feel recognized and rewarded accordingly. In Ahmet’s case, the family recognized their children as future and equal share owners of the company. Yet the problem lies in the fact that these people were not only the future share owners, but more importantly for the moment, also employees (or managers) of the company. As such, employees are compensated with salary, but not dividends. Dividends are equal for the holders of the same class of shares, while salaries are much more complicated to shape. The consequences of this failure to differentiate the rights and responsibilities of an employee from those of a share owner may be intolerable in terms of the sustainability of a business. 

3. Valence:

Of the three prerequisites for motivation to stay together, valence is the most crucial in fostering sustainability. The Ayhan family can create structural arrangements and policies, such as a functional board or an effective compensation policy, so that two generations are able to cooperate effectively in managing the company. These arrangements could secure Ahmet’s motivation to stay with the company up to a certain level. Even in the presence of an environment where his efforts would bring high performance (e.g. increased sales) and in turn, successful results (e.g. growth of the business), he should value this achievement to be motivated enough to accomplish it. In the case of the Ayhan family, Ahmet’s de-motivation was caused by factors related to the first two prerequisites, expectancy and instrumentality, whereas the problem with Efe pertained to the third prerequisite, valence. 

To a large extent, sustainability is related to what a family’s business means to them. Is it merely a career alternative that provides good living standards? In that case, sustainability stems from the family members’ reluctance or inability to seek/maintain the same standards elsewhere. In most cases, the most powerful valence is the attachment to a family’s most valuable asset: its legacy. Carrying out a business that is perceived as a “tradition” or “defining role in society” serves as the strongest factor leading to sustainability. Furthermore, this sense of ownership is fostered by governance mechanisms in the family, such as family council meetings, which help younger generations truly internalize the meaning of what they own.



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