My dentist used to have a sign on his ceiling so you’d see it when he tilted the chair back. “The dentist can’t do what the patient won’t do,” it said. Unless you practice basic oral hygiene and listen to your dentist’s advice, was the message, I ultimately can’t save your gums and teeth.

And so it is with family business consultants and their clients. A client hires us with the desire to deal with a problem, ease pain or to prepare for transition. The consultant gathers information-seeking understanding of family and business culture and values, and makes recommendations for processes, decisions and actions, which will help the client achieve stated goals. But sometimes, the client wants the result yet is unwilling to take the steps necessary to get there. The clients say in effect, “I want to lose weight, but I don’t want to exercise, reduce my caloric intake, change my eating habits or undergo surgery.”

What makes me think about this is not frustration about an unsuccessful client engagement, but an experience with a client that has gone exceedingly well.

The client engagement began inauspiciously enough. A series of phone calls, much indecision, lack of clarity about desired outcomes, almost a year between first contact and the beginning of the consulting project.

Once begun, the project went well enough. In the past, efforts to introduce change had not gotten traction. Some non-family executives were skeptical that change could be achieved. Some family owners were frustrated that their ideas had been shot down by their father and that efforts to hold board meetings (Dad and four offspring were directors) led to unresolved conflicts. Dad had a tendency to dominate meetings and talk at length.

The business was strong and profitable (though impacted by the recession), but structure, processes and managerial depth were severely lacking. Some executives were outstanding. Others were overly committed to the status quo or were not right for their positions. There was little in the way of strategic planning and the future was unclear. But the company had great relationships with customers, was a highly efficient operation, no debt, some great people and a moral code built on “unimpeachable integrity.”

The family was strong, too – despite inter-and intra-generational bickering.

And the need for change was clear to most everyone. The looming generational transition provided an important opportunity to bring change because business practices and structures were recognized as being inadequate for future success.

A detailed report was written and offered three recommendations:

  1. The father/founder/CEO said he was ready to let go. He needs to be true to his word, removing himself from management and ultimately from governance.
  2. The four siblings of the successor generation must step up to their ownership roles and responsibilities, developing shared vision and goals for the business and the family, determining-individually and collectively-what their roles would be going forward. If they plan to continue to own the business, they must commit themselves to becoming an effective ownership team. As owners, they must determine how best to govern their enterprise.
  3. Given the organizational transformation required to assure the company’s on-going success, a CEO who can provide the necessary leadership must be identified and installed.

A year has passed. Dad has retired and ceased direct involvement in the business. Thanks to aggressive estate planning, he now owns a minority of the company’s shares.

A new board, comprised of four highly qualified independent directors, the new non-family CEO, and the two sibling-owners who are the highest-ranking family members in the business, is in place. One of the independent directors is the non-executive chairman. Dad chose not to serve on the board.

During that year, the siblings met monthly to consider crucial issues, develop and articulate values, goals and policies, and make decisions about the family’s future. The family (including parents) now meets each month to consider matters relating to the family. The siblings continue to meet quarterly.

The CEO was identified through an extensive search after family executives indicated that they didn’t believe themselves qualified to lead the company through the changes required for on-going success. Non-family executives were invited to put their hats in the ring but chose not to. Two non-family executives left the company.

Today, the business is moving forward with new momentum. The owning family is thrilled with the progress and the results they have achieved. Family members feel a new sense of commitment to the business and the family. The third generation is beginning to express new interest in careers in the business, and recognizing the need for education and experience if they hope to play a significant role in the business’s future.

The independent directors and the CEO are tremendously impressed with the direction chosen by the family owners and their commitment to the process that they’ve initiated. All are excited about the opportunity to play a role in what they see as a solid enterprise poised for dramatic improvement.

Time will tell how successful this transition proves to be, but the early returns are extremely encouraging. So, what makes this case successful, when others with similar circumstances and advice are not? I think most of the answer to that question is found in the owning family. Here’s what they contributed:

  • Dad really was willing to step back and watch with pride as his children made decisions taking the company he founded in a very different direction;
  • The next generation was willing to step up to the responsibilities of ownership;
  • The next generation was able to reach consensus on values, goals and roles;
  • The next generation had the ability to function as a team and to reach decisions together;
  • Everyone in the family had a modesty about themselves that made them willing to learn and to apply lessons;
  • Each family member was willing and able to make realistic appraisals of their own individual abilities and circumstances;
  • The family was willing to invest generously in acquiring necessary human resources in terms of consultants, directors and executives;
  • Everyone in the family was eager to embrace change;
  • All of the siblings, in addition to their responsibilities as employees and as family members, provided extensive focused effort in all aspects of developing and implementing the transition plan;
  • All of the siblings were willing to differentiate between their roles as family, employees and owners, and all were willing to embrace their ownership responsibilities.

As family business consultants, we did good work-as did the family’s team of professional advisors. The CEO and directors recruited from outside the firm have enthusiastically taken on their tasks. The key to success, however, clearly has been in the hands of the owning family and they are using that key to open the door to a new future for their family and business.

Consultants can’t do what the family won’t do. We often get too much credit for either success or failure. We can be catalysts, coaches and bring experienced insight, but ultimately, the results are not in the consultant’s hands.