Coping with Family-Business Ills

By October 24, 2006Conflict Management

“Luck’s a chance but trouble’s sure,” the poet A.E. Housman wrote, speaking to the wisdom of preparing for problems as opposed to counting on good fortune. Even the most serendipitous family business will encounter trouble at some point. Some family business leaders may turn to attorneys, accountants, family-business consultants, and other experts to provide essential support.

But not all problems encountered in a family business will require outside professional help. A well-prepared family business should be able to cope independently with most of the common issues, such as hiring from within the family (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/29/06, “When Kids Play the Guilt Card”) or a parent’s reluctance to step down.

If you want to increase your in-house ability to deal with challenges like these, the best thing any family business leader can do is to install an experienced board of directors. The next best thing is to embark on a lifelong personal effort to learn all aspects of managing a family business.

Back to School

There are approximately 120 family-business centers, mostly university-based, scattered throughout the U.S. Dozens more centers devoted to studying and educating people about family business exist around the world. These centers sponsor research, organize events, and offer courses. The Boston-based Family Firm Institute, the preeminent group for family-business advisers, offers good resources for study, many of them available on its Web site, www.ffi.org.

Some of the university centers offer multi-year degrees or diplomas in family-business management. Others have courses you can complete in a few days or weeks, with valuable information on topics as general as basic management and as specific as intergenerational wealth transfer. Prices vary. Harvard Business School offers a six-day program for a whopping $30,000 per four-person group. Less expensive options and single-day seminars also exist.

Visit the Library

A sizable number of conventions and other gatherings aimed at family business leaders´┐Żsponsored by university or professional family-business centers or held by event management companies´┐Żalso offer good opportunities to learn. They may be one-time affairs featuring speakers and panel discussions on specific topics, or annual events that focus largely on networking.

Both can be educational, offering “leading-edge” ideas from recognized experts as well as the chance to hook up with like-minded family business folk who can provide more informal, but often equally useful insight.

Books are another readily accessible resource. Options range from the biographies of famous business families to how-tos on general or specific family business management issues to the more general business and professional titles. One of the most entertaining and instructive reads on my bookshelf is Birthright: Murder, Power and Greed in the U-Haul Family Dynasty, by Ron Watkins (William Morrow, 1993), the story of L.S. Shoen, founder of U-Haul. Generation to Generation, by Kelin Gersick, John Davis, Marion McCollom Hampton, and Ivan Lansberg, (Harvard Business School Press, 1997) is another favorite of mine.

Giving Yourself an Edge

For the most timely look at family business issues, there are several family-business magazines as well as regular coverage on family business published in general business magazines, both online and in print. Family Business Review, the journal published by the Family Firm Institute, presents research by scholars and practical examinations of critical issues from experienced family-business advisers and leaders.

If you take the time to educate yourself about family business problems now, you’ll not only learn to solve many of your organization’s problems without outside help, you’ll learn to distinguish between troubles that really do require expert assistance, and those you can handle on your own. On those occasions you determine you do have to hire a pro, you’ll also be better prepared to decide what kind of adviser you need, and you’ll have the tools to select the best one.

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