The Family Forum: A Wealth of Advice for Family Firms
By Jennifer M. Pendergast, Ph.D.
If you are a subscriber to the Family Business Adviser, you have already proven that you are a student of family business, someone who actively seeks to learn more about family businesses and how they work. Reading this publication, as well as other books and articles on family business, is a great way to learn more about how to make a family business successful. But sometimes reading doesn’t address your concerns. Either the information doesn’t seem applicable, or you have questions about alternative methods of solving a problem, or you just need some security that a solution will work in your situation.
In many cases, it is helpful to seek out the advice of those who have faced a situation similar to yours. There is nothing more reassuring than hearing, “We tried that, and here is what happened…” But where do you go to find people who have had similar experiences? Fortunately, there are a number of options for family businesses seeking the advice of those with firsthand experience. One is to hire a consultant who works with family businesses. The benefit of consultants is that they have seen numerous situations, and many family business consultants have come out of family businesses themselves. So they may also have firsthand experience. However, not everyone has the resources to hire a consultant or has been able to find someone they trust.
Another option is to build a board of directors or advisory board. You can put individuals on the board who have been in similar situations and can share their experience with you. The challenge is in finding the right board members. And each director or advisor comes with his or her own biases based on that person’s particular experience.
If neither of these options seems appropriate for you, or if you seek an additional source of input, there is a cost-effective alternative that provides exposure to a broad range of family businesses—the family forum. Family forums are programs, typically sponsored by universities, that bring together large groups of family businesses on a regular basis. According to Joseph Astrachan, executive director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University, which has sponsored a family forum for 20 years, “All family businesses face predictable and manageable obstacles. Learning how to avoid and resolve such difficulties is a core benefit of the forum.”
Models differ from place to place, but almost all have some similar components. Family businesses pay a small fee to become members of the forum. For this fee, they have access to several programs per year (anywhere from three to 12). At these meetings, the group may be led through an interactive case study or a speaker may present on a topic relevant to family businesses. Speakers may be experts (lawyers, accountants, consultants) or members of other family businesses.
In addition to meetings, some forums provide access to coaching and advice from forum staff or faculty of the sponsoring university. Larger forums, such as the University of Toledo’s Center for Family Business, sponsor affinity groups. Affinity groups are small discussion groups with similar perspectives that meet throughout the year to share experiences. Popular affinity groups include next-generation groups as well as groups for non-family managers.
Taking the idea of an affinity group to a deeper level, Loyola University Chicago’s Family Business Center runs the Next Generation Leadership Institute. Its mission is to “provide a powerful network of learning and support to help NGLI participants develop and practice their own leadership style and skills, design their lifetime development plans and increase their effectiveness as responsible family business leaders.” The program is structured around monthly peer group meetings and also includes retreats, individualized coaching and personal assessment testing.
While not all forums offer these in-depth programs, many provide unique learning opportunities for family business members. And all provide access to a large group of peers who are facing issues similar to yours. So if you find yourself searching for that buddy or mentor with similar family business experience, consider joining a family forum. A complete list of family business centers with their contact information can be found at the Family Firm Institute website at http://www.ffi.org/images/rud/centersandorgs.pdf.
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