I listened to a presentation recently by the consultants of the Family Office Exchange, who spoke about how some of the core elements of company culture can get lost as you move through generations of ownership. Think about it: In the midst of growth, the number of people gets bigger, the number of shareholders gets bigger and the number of families gets bigger.
So how do you make sure that you maintain the conversation regarding culture? And what are the most important parts of the culture?
I recommend you commit to the rule that part of your culture is making sure to say: ‘We as a family may disagree with each other, but we always get together and talk about it when we disagree. Yes, there are occasionally elephants in the room, but we’re going to call them to the front of the room, so we can have them standing next to us as we converse, as opposed to having them hide in the back corner.
In many family organizations, there may be a “black sheep” that few family members understand. But there’s a reason for that. In most cases, the family never really stopped and had a conversation about it. Even though they as a family can talk about being open and communicating, there may be one poor individual who is brushed off to the side, because he always disagrees.
Yet, that individual brushed to the side may be able to arrive at the challenge from a totally different angle, giving it some needed validity and opening more eyes in the process. What if that person is expressing something that is very fundamental to the way you’re doing business and making a good point on how you need to change? This isn’t a person to be shut down, but likely someone who needs to have their voice heard so they can thrive.
By thinking about your company culture, you can approach the black sheep in your family and essentially say to them, “We want to hear what you have to say as opposed to throwing you out of the room because we don’t ever agree with you.”
How are you making your decisions? Are you making sure that you’re both being adaptable and consistent?
If part of your culture is about the willingness to consider and embrace appropriate change, then that’s being adaptable.
In doing so, you can cement a set of criteria that helps you make better decisions against the landscape of what your company culture stands for.
For example, let’s take the lure of “shiny objects,” which describes new processes, technologies, formulas and the like that can arise and feel attractive, because they’re new. How do you evaluate those?
What you have to do is say, “This is what our culture is. When something comes up, we need to have a methodology for evaluating it. We need to have a constant openness to change, but change based on a process for thinking about change.”
Whether the shiny objects you’re evaluating are exploding gas bubbles you want to avoid or beautiful diamonds that you want to embrace, it’s vital to have a way of looking at and thinking about both of those.
The conversation about a particular shiny object can represent the elephant in the room that some people want to avoid talking about, but it can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. There may be quite a bit of disagreement on incorporating the shiny object into your environment. Still, use these principles as a guiding force throughout your conversations:
Your fundamental beliefs as a company might be honesty, integrity, helping the community, etc. Whatever those beliefs are, they need to be remembered, preserved, nurtured and most importantly, lived in your people. Be very cautious about changing the most deeply rooted beliefs, or be prepared to have a very intense discussion about it for good reason.
For example, the way we may be helping the community today may be very different from the way we may help the community tomorrow. So in this sense, we should have a constant openness to change. Again, the principles themselves should be consistent, but the delivery of those principles can be adaptable.
The key is not to ignore or sidestep these questions as they arise, but to tackle them head-on. That elephant isn’t going away, no matter how hard you try to believe it’s not there. So talk about it in great depth. Disagree as much as you need to. Remember to let the black sheep speak, and keep an open mind to new angles rather than shooting them down.
[Editor’s Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following webinars: Welcome to the Team! Recruiting and Hiring, Including Restrictive Covenants; HR 101-Finding, Negotiating With & Retaining Potential Hires; and It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye: Minimizing Risk When Terminating Employees.]
David Spitulnik is a successful executive with over 40 years of experience in both large technology companies and in consulting to and leadership of mid-market, closely held and family owned businesses across a variety of industries. In addition to serving as chair of the Private Directors Association’s Private and Family Business Center Outreach Committee, David…
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