The Doe family is holding their second family meeting.  John Sr. stands up and reviews the minutes from the last meeting.  At the end he reviews the to-do list.  Then he follows up with each member of the family.  “Jane, how are you coming with planning the plant tour for the third generation?”  “Well, we haven’t gotten too far on that.”  “Joan, have we got a date set for the family retreat?”  “I haven’t been able to get hold of everyone to see if they can make our first-choice date work.”  “John Jr., where are we on the family newsletter?”  “A couple of people have submitted updates, but we don’t have enough content to create a newsletter.” 

The to-dos might not be exactly the same, but is the scenario something you can relate to?  If so, you’re not alone.  Once families get organized enough to identify things they would like to accomplish together, the challenge is in figuring out how to get them done.  If your family has good intentions but can’t seem to get plans off the ground, take heart.  There is a solution.

What you need is an agenda.  Not in a negative sense, as in “He’s just trying to push his own agenda,” but in the positive sense, as in a set of things you want to accomplish.  Most families have an agenda, to some extent, written or unwritten, even if they are not a business-owning family.  It is often posted on a calendar or to-do list in an area where everyone can see it. 

The agenda for a nuclear family, and particularly one that all resides in the same location, is easier to manage than the agenda of an extended family.  Once you expand that concept to the agenda of a business-owning family, things can get fairly complicated.

Items that may be on the agenda of a business-owning family include:

  • scheduling and/or planning a family meeting;
  • meeting with an estate planner;
  • revising a buy-sell agreement;
  • creating a program for next generation education.
Agenda ItemOwnerDue Date
Set date and location for next family meetingJane2/28
Create information packet for new spouses and next-generation ownersJohn Sr.3/31
Find financial planner to present at family retreatJune2/28
Investigate local university family business groupJohn Jr.4/30
Send out quarterly financial statement to all owners and schedule owner conference call to discussJim4/30

The list could go own and on.  The problem is not in identifying items for the list but in figuring out how the list will get done.  The challenge is to determine who has the responsibility to create and execute the list.  And how is accountability created to ensure that there is follow-through?

There are several different ways that a family agenda can be managed.  In the early stages of a family business, the agenda is more likely to be managed informally.  It may not even be clear that there is an agenda.  Rather, priorities will arise out of discussions about the business around the dinner table or the conference table at work.  The challenge of having an informal family agenda is in ensuring that items are accomplished.  Even when the agenda is short and relatively few people are involved in generating and completing agenda items, it is helpful to keep a written list, including the agenda item, the person responsible for accomplishing it and the date by which it will be accomplished. 

It is also important to assign someone responsibility to be keeper of the agenda.  This person is responsible for updating the agenda and following up with agenda item owners to make sure the items are accomplished.  In general, it is better not to have the head of the business be responsible for the family agenda, although sometimes it cannot be avoided.  The agenda keeper role is a great job for a teenager or someone not active in the business, as a way to get involved. 

As families become larger, an informal agenda will be more difficult to manage.  When a family moves into the second generation or beyond, the agenda can become a component of family meetings.  Like a strategic plan for the business, the agenda is a way of developing, managing and communicating the family’s goals.  In a manner similar to the first-generation scenario above, the family agenda should be written down and an agenda keeper should be assigned.  The agenda should be distributed to the family prior to every family meeting, and updating the agenda should be a topic on the family meeting agenda.  Ownership for the agenda might rotate on a yearly basis, providing broader opportunities for participation.

As families become even larger, the family council is the logical owner for the family agenda.  At a high level, development and execution of the family agenda is the role of the family council.  For the most advanced families, the family office might play a role in maintaining the family agenda as well.  While the family office can help execute items and follow up to ensure that they are completed, it is still important that the family feels ownership for the agenda.  The family should generate the agenda and do an agenda update at family or family council meetings. 

In some cases, no one in the family will be the logical owner for the agenda.  Perhaps no one has the time to commit, or perhaps family members feel uncomfortable with one of their relatives owning the agenda.  In such cases, consultants or advisors to the family can play a valuable role.  These individuals can facilitate a family discussion about what should be on the agenda.  They can write up and circulate the agenda.  And, they can also follow up to ensure that the agenda is executed.  However, the family should play an active role in generating the agenda and taking ownership for agenda items.  If ownership of the agenda goes outside the family, accountability for accomplishing it will be lost.

So how do you start a family agenda if you haven’t had this discipline before?  Before your next family gathering, ask each person in the family to write down any items the person thinks are already on the agenda, and three new items the person would like to add.  Submit this information to one person to compile before the meeting.  Then dedicate 30–60 minutes at your meeting to discussing the agenda, agreeing to the items and assigning responsibility for their completion.  Most important, decide who is going to be keeper of the agenda and how this person is going to manage the agenda to ensure that it is completed. 

If you don’t have a family gathering planned in the near future, you can still get the group’s ideas on paper by making a phone or email request.  But you will need to schedule a meeting to discuss and develop the agenda.  Chances are you are due for a family meeting anyway.  So now you have your first agenda item for the meeting – creating the family agenda!