The research is clear: regular family meetings play a critical role in successful family business longevity. Among the many reasons that families do not hold regular family business meetings is that the very basic task of finding and scheduling a mutually acceptable time and place for the meeting may appear to be impossible. The first meeting may never materialize because family members fail to find a mutually acceptable time and place to meet.
Certainly, there are legitimate challenges. Few American families have all members living within driving distance of each other. Choosing a central location may be impossible, and choosing the city of the home office will always mean that some may be inconvenienced more than others due to distance and meeting schedules. Then add to this challenge the frantic schedules that many family members attempt to manage. When should family meetings be held? On a weekday or weekend? Often, family members working in the business want to meet during the work week. They spend all week in the family business and do not want to devote precious weekend days on family business concerns. Family members working outside the business, however, may not want to spend their vacation days on family meetings, which may have little to no vacation aspect to them.
These are legitimate logistical barriers, yet we often see them magnified by lingering issues related to events long past. Individuals may show minimum flexibility, choosing to make only very narrow windows available in their schedules for family meetings and justifying this behavior by past injustices. Meeting locations and meeting format demands may be cries for respect that has not been shown in the past. Taking firm stands or setting conditions for attendance may be a response to past, repeatedly lopsided decisions which have favored one family branch, one generation, the individuals who work in the business, or the family members who live near their childhood home or company headquarters over others who are geographically or emotionally distant. In short, the need for improved relationships and communication, for which family meetings are the remedy, may torpedo the family meeting process before it can even get off the ground.
The difficulty in establishing a mutually agreeable place to meet may also reflect a difficulty in finding common ground anywhere. Struggles over meeting details such as the type of food to serve or the formality or informality of meeting location may reflect unspoken struggles over more important issues such as interpretation of family values, ownership goals, or business direction. It may seem trivial to argue over a dress code for family meetings, but a preference for blue jeans or suits often reflects positions on larger, more important subjects.
What can be done when the process of setting up meeting times, dates protocol or locations seems insurmountable?
Apply the concept of Fair Process to family meeting logistics and you will build trust for among family members, which will be reflected in the way members approach other, important family issues.
Noted family business researcher, Christine Blondell presented the concepts of Fair Process at the Family Business Consulting Group’s Advanced Family Business Conference in Bilbao Spain in 2002. For a process to earn the title of being fair it needs to provide the following:
- Communication and Voice:Family members must have the same opportunities to express their desires and needs regarding family meeting logistics. That is, an equal voice for each member must be established. For a family with much distance and poor communications, the solution for scheduling a meeting might be for a neutral party, such as a consultant or universally-trusted administrative employee of the business, to assume control. Taking the scheduling out of a family member’s hands and placing it into the hands of someone independent might help by making all the difference in family members feeling as if their logistical constraints are being weighed equally.
- Clarity: Family meeting goals and processes must be shared in a way that is clear to all family members. Very basic to this is a clear method of scheduling. Some families use the very simple method of circulating a calendar and having family members provide first, second, and third level priorities to the dates. Rules for selecting the date are clearly stated—the date with the lowest sum will be chosen. Transparency can add to the value of a fair process—a calendar with all the priority values can be circulated back to all family members to show them that a decision was unbiased.
- Consistency: Family meeting logistics and procedures must be applied in the same way to all family members across successive meetings. Changing the rules without agreement or involvement of everyone is a sure way to diminish trust.
- Changeability: All family members must have the same opportunity to alter family meeting plans with no family members having more or less influence. Decision-making rules for key decisions, such as the adoption of family employment policies, are often consensus based, or voted by majority rules. The same procedures used to adopt key policies should be used for making changes to the logistics of a meeting. An individual with a strong interest in alternating meeting times between weekdays and weekends might submit a resolution to be adopted or defeated using familiar rules.
- Culture of fairness (continuous improvement is demanded): As better ways are discovered, all family members can participate in improving the family meeting process.
- Rules of the game to keep it in place (policies): There is a written document regarding family meetings that expresses how decisions will be made, the rules for reimbursing expenses and limitations, procedures for decision-making, etc.
It helps to know that tussles over small details may not be small matters. Persistence and success in resolving these decisions creates the condition for success at tackling the larger issues. The same negotiation and communication skills practiced in establishing simple meeting logistics will be needed in establishing more complex family business policies. When you feel frustrated with the amount of angst that is generated by the smallest issue, step back and practice empathy with the individual who is raising that issue. If you are successful, you may build patience, skills and trust for the next, more substantive, issue.
When is it time to just give up? Our advice is to persist and go with what you have got. Know that trust and teamwork build gradually in families. Focus on the family members who follow the fair process and choose to participate. Continue to keep non-attendees in the loop and give them full information and equal rights in making logistical decisions. Punishing the holdouts will only lead to lopsided power relationships and diminished trust.
The key value of a fair process for setting up meetings and then conducting them is that even if an individual does not get his way, he may go along and live with the less desirable decision. A fair process does not mean equal outcomes to everyone in the family, that is, each person has her turn to win. It means fairness will be the format for making a decision or resolving a difference. The goal is for a family member to think, Even if I didn’t get my preferred result this time next time might be a different story. And the benefits of family meetings— so well-documented in family business literature— are well worth the compromise.