Last updated: January 28

Irreconcilable differences in the family business and how we can help (with download) 

Imagine working with a sibling you don’t like, can’t get along with, or who’s a bully. It happens a lot. With the great resignation, individuals are recalibrating their lives and their work. At Westgate, we help those individuals leave the family business with grace and with their reputations intact.

Exit Strategy

When people hear, family business or family office, they tend to think of them as mom-and-pop type shops or smaller companies. However, Walmart, Ford, L’Oreal, S.C. Johnson, and IKEA Group (to name a few) are all considered family-owned or controlled businesses. They can be private or public and some have a dual-class stock structure. They might be 100% family-owned or have outside investors.

“90% of the GDP in the world is created through family-owned businesses” (HBR: Demystifying Families in Business, August 2019).

Family Office
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, approximately 90% of American businesses are family-owned or controlled.

“Family offices play an important role in society. There are now approximately 3,000 single family offices worldwide, which collectively control over $2 trillion in assets. This amount of wealth, and the unconstrained choices families can make with their investments, makes family offices increasingly important across the investment landscape” (WEF: The Single Family Investment Office Today: A primer on structuring an investment office to achieve family objectives and societal value, August 2016).

But what if you are an unhappy family member in a family business?

Disclaimer: We are not experts on this topic and will defer to our friend and colleague, Russ Haworth, and the interview we conducted with him for the podcast to help validate this perspective.

While there is plenty of discussion surrounding the decision-making authority of Family Offices, the topic of family dynamics and inner circle conversations are rarely shared. Furthermore, what if you are a family member choosing to leave the family business?

In my recent interview with Ultra High Net Worth Institute board member, Russ Haworth, we discuss the layered dynamics that need to be navigated through. While I always knew that Family Office advisers address financial decisions, I didn’t consider the importance of coaching them through difficult conversations regarding family dynamics.

In terms of an exit strategy, Westgate does have a plan.

We also interviewed Denise Logan, Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-selling author of the book The Seller’s Journey, to discuss how executives navigate the waters of transition and reclaiming their sense of identity outside of their business.

Question

There's a common saying about family office money:

  • The first generation makes it.
  • The second generation spends it.
  • The third generation blows it.
  • 70% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, and 90% by the third” (Forbes).

A little history on Family businesses

Walmart

The Walton family (specifically Sam and Helen Walton), are the founders of Walmart. It is the world’s largest retailer and the world’s largest private employer. Due to the success of this family business, the Walton family is the richest family in the USA.

A common question with this amount of wealth, is what they are choosing to do with it to better society and the world at large. In our interview with Russ Haworth, he says, “I think attitudes are shifting around wealth as well, in terms of there being much more focus on purpose, and what is it that we can do in order to be good citizens. It is very stereotypical to say that's been driven by the next generation.

But I think through the way in which the world operates through social media, through the way in which we take on our news and information, there's probably more awareness at that level than perhaps the traditional media. And I think that can add to perhaps some of the disparity between generations when it comes to wealth, and what to do with it, and how to make it impactful. How to transition from one generation to the other. Is it all about the wealth?”

The Walton Foundation is a family-led foundation and it comprised of three generations of the descendants. Their mission and vision is to tackle social and environmental problems that will create access to opportunities for varying people and communities. They currently support the improvement of K-12 education, protecting rivers and oceans (and the communities they support), and investing in their home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta.

  • Philanthropy and impact investing are powerful, cohesive forces within families, with 94% participation across the two categories” (WEF: The Single Family Investment Office Today: A primer on structuring an investment office to achieve family objectives and societal value, August 2016).
City with sunset

Ford Motor Company, founded by Henry Ford in 1903

William Clay Ford Jr. (Bill) is the current Executive Chairman for Ford and the great-grandson of the company founder.

In an interview between Bill and The New York Times, William was asked a serious of questions including the following:

This year the whole country has been reckoning with the legacy of racism. To what extent have you and the company addressed the anti-Semitism expressed by Henry Ford?

B: “Do you feel compelled to make up for everything your great-grandparents did? What’s important is how we’re acting today. So, is it something I’m aware of? Yeah, absolutely, as part of my family’s history. But is it something that I feel lingers today? No, I don’t. Not in the least, and I want to make sure there’s no sign that that’s ever coming back.”

How do you see your role in both, as a leader of the company and the family?

B: “Most of the people who are involved with the company — our employees, our dealers, even government — like the family involvement because they know there’s someone accountable. I’m not going to disappear with a golden parachute somewhere. I’m here through thick and thin, and my reputation is on the line every day. Our family name is on the line every day” (NYT: Bill Ford Interview Corner Officer)

In our interview with Russ, he says, “A lot of it is about having discussions that are around how the family interacts with each other, and how they interact with the business depending on where they sit in terms of either ownership or management within the business. And sometimes those can get confused.

So, if you imagine you're the managing director of the business, you may also be a wife and a mother to those that are in the business. And you might also own the business. So, when you're making a decision, what hat are you wearing when you're making that decision?”

Not only do you need to consider what “hat” you are wearing, but you need to also consider the difference between your contributions as an individual to the business, versus the contributions from previous relatives.

Russ says, “if you've grown up in the shadow of that wealth, it can be sort of intimidating to know, ‘well, how do I find my own legitimacy here? How do I be defined by something more than either the shadow of a giant that has gone before me or the wealth that's been created by them?’”

In the shadow of wealth and success

L’Oreal

L’Oreal is the world’s leading company in cosmetics and beauty and it was founded in 1909 by Eugene Schueller. It is now controlled by a combination of the second, third and fourth generations of the family, who together own around 30% of the voting rights in the business.

Second generation Liliane Bettencourt, 92, still owns most of the shares. Her daughter Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers has around 12% of the company’s shares held in trust, and her son, Jean-Victor Meyers, was recently appointed to the board of L’Oreal.

“Liliane and her daughter have often been in dispute over control of the business. What became known as L’affaire Bettencourt developed into a big story in France, and eventually led Francoise to try to get a court to agree that her mother was unfit to manage her fortune. In recent years, the dispute between the two has been dissipated” (Family Capital: L’Oreal success defined by being family owned, June 2015).

Another concern for family businesses is the development of effective communication between the family members and their responsibilities. It’s been commonly heard over the decades that going into business with your family is the first business mistake you make. While several billion-dollar family businesses could easily dispute that, it is important to consider the potential for conflict that can break a company and possibly even worse, a family.

Remember, “There's a common saying about family office money: The first generation makes it, the second generation spends it and the third generation blows it. 70% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, and 90% by the third” (Forbes).

Family Office tension

Family dynamics and running a business

The topic of family dynamics and inner circle conversations are rarely shared. There are pitfalls to be aware of in terms of succession planning and transition of ownership or management responsibility. Navigating family dynamics while also trying to run a business can be extremely challenging, particularly without objective, outside help.

One of the most important questions to face first and foremost is, “why are you in business together?”

Russ Haworth starts here with his clients, and it usually helps unfold any hidden challenges or misnomers surrounding governance. He says, “I'm not saying that as a challenge to say you shouldn't be. But if that hasn't been discussed, and isn't clear, then that can sometimes create tensions when everything goes along smoothly, and it can be for years and years and years.

And then suddenly, one family member or one branch of the family slightly diverges away from what's been the sort of accepted norm within the business. And that can create tensions and misunderstandings. And if they've never had the discussion of, why are we doing this? What's it all for? How do we deal with transitions? Then it can create the tension that then spills into conflict, and then that can be damaging for not only the business, but obviously the family and the individuals involved.”

Another dynamic that isn’t always considered (mentioned above), is the search for legitimacy with newer generations in the company. The shadow of wealth can cast a daunting perspective of imposter syndrome and inadequacy. Do I want to be a part of this business? Am I only pursuing it because it is right in front of me? Will I live up to the expectations of my predecessors? If these questions aren’t acknowledged earlier on, those thoughts can fester and contribute to unavoidable conflicts.

“Instilling a sense of personal achievement is crucial. Principals attach great importance to ensuring that their offspring grow up with a sense of personal achievement and are well-positioned to succeed as stewards of the family's wealth. Business experience is considered the primary path” (WEF: The Single Family Investment Office Today: A primer on structuring an investment office to achieve family objectives and societal value, August 2016).

Successful Businesswoman

Russ says, “one example could be that there are siblings within the business, and siblings outside the business. And they own an asset together. But some of them have management control over what happens on a day-to-day basis within the business and those outside don't necessarily have that control.

Therefore, if there's a decision around, do I invest in this business for the long term,  put a lot of money towards a particular project…does that mean that I then can't pay dividends to my shareholders, and if those dividends are anticipated, and in some cases already been spent, then it can create that tension.

They might think, ‘Well, hang on, we're not on the same page here in terms of what we're trying to achieve with this business.’ Because those outside it might be looking at it and saying, ‘well, I need the dividend income, in order to support my lifestyle’, and those within it could either feel shackled by that or will want to go down the route of investing.

It doesn't always happen...there are very harmonious families out there. But it's those kinds of challenges that often need to be discussed before they come up, so that you know what you're going to do when they come up, as opposed to reacting at that time and potentially causing some conflict.”

Then there are the conflicts that can arise much further down the road—when a company has become much larger and has seen multiple generations of a family involved. It will always be a risk because regardless of family or not, different people have different priorities and ways of doing things, so continuing to maintain a process around governance and succession planning is of the utmost importance.

Russ shares an example that illustrates the potential problems down the road:

“…there is a 350-year-old bank in the UK, and the chap that I interviewed from there…he explains that in that family, there are 2400 potential partners in the business, basically direct descendants that could go and work in the business. There's no way practically, that you're going to be able to accommodate 2400 descendants and relatives within an organization. So, what they've had to do is really think about that.”

Consider long-term employees (family aside) and how important, yet sometimes difficult it is to maintain top talent. Then consider the scenarios when someone have done all that they can for a company during their time there and how it might be time for them to leave. Now consider the extra layer of family ties and being a direct descendent of the founder.

There isn’t a simple or even guaranteed solution. However, recognizing the complexities of family dynamics and how they affect governance and succession planning is a very good place to start.

DISC leadership

Another useful tool(s) would be the scientifically validated DISC assessments. We use these with our clients in several different ways and it continues to pleasantly surprise us in all of its successful applications.

Westgate uses scientific assessments in the early stages of working with clients to get a better understanding of who they are, how they react, and what they respond poorly/well to.

This gives insight into which roles, companies, and environments they would work best in and feel happiest. If you aren’t interested in staying within your family business, a tool like this might offer the objective perspective you are looking for.

Technology and leaving a legacy

Imagine a 2nd or 3rd generation member of a Family Office being able to watch a video or hear a recording of their descendent(s)—the founder(s) of a family business. Of course, there might be media outlet archives that are accessible for viewing old interviews, speeches, etc. But wouldn’t it be fantastic (and extremely useful) to have access to recordings of the founder(s) that describe the process of creating the business in the early years.

Russ says, “…again, touching on the technology side a little bit, we're in a very fortunate time that we've got the ability to be able to record this in these ways. If you go back, even 50 years, it's tape recorders or you know, big clunky video recorders. Whereas now we've got the digital capability to be able to do that, also to do that remotely. So, we don't have to be sat in a specific studio in order to record those.

So, the ability that families now have to capture and record a document and be involved in creating some of that legacy, it's a fantastic opportunity. And not only that, it helps to create, in my view anyway, connection between the generations.

If you're able to look back on a video of your great great grandfather, who is sat explaining the essence of what he went through to create that business or seeing a matriarch explain what it was like to push boundaries in a time where there weren't a huge number of female leaders in family businesses, then all of these connectors, really inspirational ideas around creating that emotional attachment to the family business, and that kind of connection, whether you're in it or not, having that connection is a very valuable and precious thing.”

family tree

If there is a new selection of employees not associated with the family that are onboarding, some of the footage/recordings can be used to instil the foundational values that the family wants to maintain within the company. The most successful companies are built on purpose, vision, and a mission. What better way to have that engrained in an older company than having the original ideas and processes documented and presented?

In turbulent times with family members inside an organization, this process can extend grounding information and refresh the team on what the true purpose and meaning is behind the company they’re continuing to lead.

Finally, a colleague of ours in California is a ghost writer and she has worked with family businesses, writing a book as a legacy document for the family. Generally, it isn’t for public consumption, it is just for the family. It provides the same purpose as video and/or audio and can be printed several times for each member in the family.

Family Office Adviser

Similar to how a coach acts as a sounding board for their clients, a Family Office Advisor or Family Business Advisor helps execute the difficult "elephant in the room" conversations as a confidential sounding board.

“As families grow in size and complexity, so does the need for auxiliary services such as legal advisory, concierge services and philanthropic advice and planning (WEF: The Single-Family Investment Office Today: A primer on structuring an investment office to achieve family objectives and societal value, August 2016).

If you are considering starting a scalable family business, the advice of an advisor should be acknowledged early on.

Russ says, “the point with things like family governance is if there's a potential family business that is listening/reading, going, ‘well, how do we start on this, because it's not been done before, there is no governance in place, those discussions aren't happening’, they are lucky in some sense, because they're possibly the first generation that are going to go through that process of understanding more about what the family sees is the vision for the business.”

He says, “…that can be quite difficult. And I don't want to say painful in the sense of a too negative connotation, but you might need to have discussions that are currently elephants in the room rather than, you know, stuff that often comes up around the dinner table. But at some point, in the history of that bank, they sat down and had that discussion for the first time. And now they are a 350-year-old, very successful, hugely admired organization here in the UK.”

If you hire someone to help implement those preliminary, likely uncomfortable conversations upfront, the consensus is that your business will have a self-awareness that will encourage its success.

Family Business Advisor

A final note from our friend and colleague, Russ Haworth:

“There's far more complexity around families of significant wealth that are linked to lifestyle factors, like well-being that is linked to risk management, linked to how you deal with estate planning, family dynamics, and transitions and things like that. If all you're doing is talking about the money, you're probably leaving an awful lot unexplored.

If they're [family business owners] experiencing a pain point, and they might have tried to get some guidance or advice from their other professional advisors, their lawyers or accountants, their wealth managers and it's not quite hitting the area that needs focus, that is where the sort of family system comes into play. And it's at that point that they then reach out.

I work with the family. So, I don't work for an individual. I don't represent any individuals view, I'm there to help facilitate the discussions that needs to happen in order to move you towards what a successful outcome is. And that successful outcome is defined by you.

Rather than me say, ‘while the idea is this has to be a multi-generational business, and everyone has to work in it or the opposite—it can't be a multi-generational business, you have to sell it, and nobody can work in it’. It's not for me to say that. But it's for me to understand what the family's views are on that and then create the frameworks and governance procedures that help to navigate that.

When I go into speak with a family, there are challenges that they're facing that they might not even be able to talk to each other about. And they're the people that are closest to them. So being accepted into that role and that position is hugely humbling for me and a real privilege that I don't take for granted.

Because I'm objective, there's a saying that goes, you can't read the label of the jar you're in. So, I'm able to read the label and go, this is what's going on, don't worry, there are solutions out there. But it can be work in order to get to those.”

Elephant in the room

Exiting a family business

Similar to any executive exit strategy, protecting your reputation upon your exit from your company, board, or philanthropic organization is your first priority as you plan your departure. Your personal brand will follow you, and it is important your communications are carefully planned.

The difficulty in this case is separating your personal branding journey from your family business influences. Ideally, if the proper conversations discussed above are happening throughout the governance of that family business, your exit shouldn’t be as cringeworthy as it might be for family businesses avoiding family dynamic discussions.

In our interview with Denise Logan, Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-selling author of the book The Seller’s Journey, she says, “We have this professional mask on, and it can start to fit kind of wonky. It no longer really fits, and it can begin to crack. Sometimes it can be held together with duct tape. But each time, each morning when we put this mask on of who we were—a person we no longer want to be...it won’t fit.

Your exit strategy is ideally prepared long in advance of your actual departure, especially when another family member, investor, or team member disrupts an otherwise harmonious work experience.

That said, sometimes this is impossible because of circumstances beyond your control. It is common because it happens often, and many executives struggle with a sudden change in the corporate or board structure. Feeling trapped and reactionary are two reasons many executives make hasty career decisions—sometimes decisions that can have a negative impact on your career trajectory.

My recommendation in this scenario is to begin planning now. When there are uncomfortable, unethical or illegal activities underway, you will not have the luxury of a long runway.

If you are in this position, contact us today.

Alternatively, you can explore our Career Navigator Program or our C-Suite Optimization Program.

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About executive resume writing author 

Westgate - Maureen Farmer

Maureen Farmer is the Founder & CEO of Westgate Executive Branding & Career Consulting Inc., an international personal branding and career consulting firm delivering premier executive branding and career consulting services for high-profile leaders. Author of The CEO Script Vault: Job Search Scripts for Busy Executives, Maureen believes that when we’re doing work aligned with our values, everyone wins. Using the law of attraction to identify quality employers utilizing the hidden job market is a cornerstone of her career management strategy.

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