Every cat owner knows the sounds. The deep retching and heaving. The cough that sounds like your cat just may turn himself inside out to eliminate a fur ball. Next may come a few backwards hops, as if to distance himself from the mess he just created. Turns out, sensitive subjects can cause the same problem in family business.
During a recent planning session with five members of a multi-generational family business, the CEO of the company did the most accurate reproduction of a cat’s fur ball struggle that I had ever heard. When the laughter stopped, he said, “You just hit on one of our family fur balls.”
A “family fur ball” is a topic that gets caught in the throat. Nobody wants to talk about it, and when it’s brought up, everybody takes a few steps backwards to distance themselves from a potential family business conflict.
In this case, the family fur ball was the spouses’ role in decision-making in the family firm. Although spouses were not considered shareholders, they were frequently told that their opinions mattered. Still, they felt marginalized and ignored. What the shareholders didn’t want to say was that the spouses’ opinions really didn’t influence decisions in the business anyway.
The spouses were not employed in the business, and they were not familiar with the day-to-day challenges. The shareholders were hesitant to address the sensitive family business topics inherent in the different roles and responsibilities of family members, business owners and business leaders, but it was clear something needed to be said.
Every family that’s in business together has fur balls. Ignoring them can lead to deep-rooted friction that can erode trust within the family and the family firm’s leadership. Addressing the fur balls takes courage, but here are some steps to take towards conflict resolution in family business:
Addressing the fur balls builds family strength and supports the sustainability of the business.
The aforementioned multigenerational family business successfully addressed their fur ball. They named it.
They set up a family meeting to discuss roles and responsibilities of the family, the shareholders and the business leadership. They differentiated between influencing a decision and making a decision.
They developed a vocabulary around the roles and use it to maintain clarity.
Going through this exercise opened the conversation to address other sensitive fur balls that can lead to family business conflicts. They are on a journey to improved family and business transparency.
Every family in business together has fur balls. What are yours? How are you holding back the family and the business by not addressing them? What would it take to start the conversation about just one family fur ball?
Once you’ve addressed these questions, set a date and make it happen. There’s no point in waiting; it will only cause the fur ball to grow in size—until it becomes the elephant in the room.
©All Rights Reserved. April, 2021. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM
Stephanie Olexa is an independent director and a governance professional with experience as a board chair and on audit and finance, strategy, compensation, risk management, and nominating/governance committees. As a business advisor, she has helped family-owned businesses build stewardship for sustainability. Stephanie is the Founder and President of Lead to the Future, LLC. In addition…
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