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Families in Business: Mapping Out the Future with Family Business GPS Systems

Many Paths, Much Resistance for Families in Business

I’m old enough to remember maps. Yes, physical, paper maps that you bought at gas stations or got for free from the AAA office. Once unfolded, they never went back to the original uniform accordioned formation. A well-used map actually had worn spots at complicated intersections. But, GPS changed my life and eliminated at least 80% of the U-turns that were the hallmark of my trips. And for families in business, a good GPS can do the same.

Is your family business still using maps? Making U-turns? Or, are you using a family business GPS to ensure that you get to your destination with as few U-turns as possible?

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The key elements of GPS navigation are:

  • A well-defined starting point – where are you now?
  • An exact destination – where do you want to be?
  • The decision-making parameters that define the best course of travel – how do you want to get there?

The biggest source of conflict for families in business is when the individuals are not aligned on these three elements:

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How should we get there?

Families in Business: The Dangers of a Misaligned GPS

In a recent meeting with a multi-generational family in business, the five family members talked about their recent strategic planning meetings, their investigation into a potential acquisition, the success of their lean implementation and the uptick in sales after the new advertising campaign. When I asked if they were all aligned on the business plans, they nodded in unison with enthusiasm, quick sideways glances and confident grins.

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Maybe it was the sideways glances that tipped me off that something was out of alignment and made me dig deeper. They finally admitted that, like many families in business, theirs had diverse opinions and levels of commitment. Growth goals, the risk associated with the acquisition, the investment in automation and several other key decisions were disagreed upon. They continued to defend individual positions on each decision. Although they were discussing tactics, it became clear that they were not aligned on their vision for the future of the business.

They finally admitted that, like many families in business, theirs had diverse opinions and levels of commitment.

So, I gave each of them the “Why and Where Grid” (pictured below) and asked the GPS questions. Why do you have this business now? What do you want from it in the future? What are your guidelines for getting there?

families in business

The grid has two critical components for family business GPS:

  1. “What is your commitment to keeping the business as family-owned?”
  2. “What are you willing to invest in the business?”

These two components influence every decision within the business.

The first family member to speak quickly described his interest in building the value of the business with the hope they would be noticed and acquired. Another member adamantly defended continuing family ownership of the business, remaining an anchor in the community and protecting the legacy for the future.

A third talked about the need for the senior members of the family to be able to rely on a steady stream of dividend income for their retirement. The fourth expressed his concern about the future of the industry and his desire to diversify and redeploy the resources into a different business. And, one member wanted to keep all options open.

Their GPS systems were not synchronized! The family’s “Why and Where Grid” below shows clearly that the vision for the business was not in alignment!

families in business

Proceed to the Highlighted Route

The rich conversation that followed brought clarity. Although the acquisition was a great way to increase the company value and make it an attractive acquisition target, the required debt would greatly reduce dividends for the foreseeable future. Automation would increase cash flow but would significantly decrease the number of jobs in their community. They realized that their tactical positions were a reflection of their individual “Why and Where”. Reaching alignment on the tactics would not happen without alignment on the vision.

Automation would increase cash flow but would significantly decrease the number of jobs in their community.

For your family in business, ask each person the following GPS questions:

  • What do I want from this business now?
  • What do I want from this business in the future?
  • What am I willing to invest to get there?
  • What factors could change my mind?

Use the “Why and Where Grid” to plot where each person is now and their future direction. How aligned is your family? What will it take to be better aligned?

Families in business must set each member’s GPS in the same direction!

About Stephanie Olexa

I work with privately-held and family-owned businesses in the areas of succession planning, strategic business sustainability and governance. I pioneered the program Stewardship for Sustainability and developed The Business Sustainability Score Assessment to help these companies thrive through times of change. I have a PhD in Biochemistry from Temple University and an MBA in finance…

Read Full Bio »   •   View all articles by Stephanie »

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