Conflict Resolution

Preparing for 2020

The fourth quarter is packed with occasions when the extended family gets together. In addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas or Hanukkah, families who own businesses are likely to gather at the company holiday party.

As anyone with a family knows, all that togetherness can cause family tension, especially during a season when meals and decorations are expected to be perfect and memories of the past — for better or worse — are evoked.

With a presidential election on the horizon next year, friction is likely to be heightened. Families all over America have been arguing about politics since 2016. Business families are no exception.

Politically divided families are nothing new, of course. Differences of opinion about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, for example, sparked many a family fight. But in the age of social media, family disagreements you’d prefer to keep private can easily go viral.

Arguing with your relatives around the dinner table can ruin the family’s holiday. Taking the argument public is quite another matter — it has the potential to harm the business.

Examining what happened in some business families in 2016 might help your family to strategize about how to handle the next campaign — before it’s time to put your pumpkin pie in the oven.

One family I know of (probably not the only one) engaged a family business consultant to help them work through the divisions that had arisen in their ranks because of the election.

Some business families presented a united front in favor of a candidate. Several even offered up company facilities for campaign events.

Other family businesses stayed out of politics. But in some of those families, rogue relatives proclaimed their support for one of the sides. Even though these people didn’t work in the business, the public recognized their last name. Consumers on the other side of the aisle called for a boycott and posted heated messages on the company Facebook page. Though executives insisted the company was politically neutral, the business got caught in the crossfire.

However you decide to handle the next election, it will be best for everyone if you make your decision as a family and make it in advance. If you want your business to be perceived as neutral, has everyone in the extended family gotten that message? Do they all promise to stick with the program?

If you decide to support a candidate, how would family members feel if there were a boycott? Would this ignite a family dispute that could result in a shareholder exit, or worse?

Would your board or shareholders agree to budget for a PR strategist if needed? Would it make sense to have a statement prepared in advance so it can be issued immediately if necessary?

Whatever your political differences, keep your shared family values in mind. That might help everyone stay calm and grounded.

I wish you a peaceful holiday season.

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

Create a formal process for managing conflict

Family business feuds capture the public imagination. Last year, HBO introduced an original series, Succession, that centered on a quarreling fictional family who control an international media empire. In real life, disagreements in prominent business families often make the front page of the newspaper.

Although family business conflict is interesting to outsiders, it can tear families apart. What’s more, family conflict that’s not properly managed can harm the economy. According to the 2019 Global Family Business Index, compiled by EY and the University of St. Gallen, the world’s top 500 family-controlled enterprises grew by 9.9%, versus 0.06% growth for the Fortune 500. Family feuds can stunt this important economic growth.

Plan ahead for conflict
There are ways to plan for conflicts before they erupt. The best way is through a formal resolution process that can bring some order to the ebb and flow of emotions that are inevitable in a business-owning family. Just as businesses have contingency plans to address various threats, family companies should also have a plan in place for managing family disputes before disagreements escalate and tensions rise.

We found that conflict can be an important part of family businesses and even a positive force when handled correctly. In a 2016 EY survey of the world’s 525 largest family businesses, nearly half reported “dysfunctional family conflict.” But as I tell my clients, disagreement is inevitable. If everyone has bought in to the methods for resolution before a particular issue arises, there is a sense of fairness about the process, and not the view that any one person or situation is being short-changed.

As Joseph Astrachan, Ph.D., former chair of family business and professor of management at Kennesaw State University, puts it: “For family businesses facing conflicts without an easy solution, having a formal resolution process can be key to successfully solving problems. This process should include detailed responsibilities for each person involved in the process; a procedure for resolution, accountability and monitoring; as well as post-dispute analysis. Shareholders and other third-party individuals can be brought in to help ensure that conflicts are resolved fairly and that all parties are represented.”

Task conflicts versus relationship conflicts
Part of managing conflict involves distinguishing between task conflicts and relational conflicts. While disagreements over how business is conducted can stimulate needed change and spur creativity, disputes stemming from relationship issues can quickly become toxic and threaten family cohesion.

If relational conflicts are allowed to escalate, family members may no longer be able to function effectively together as colleagues or business partners. On the other hand, when family members work together to resolve conflict, they learn new things about each other and build family unity.

The data prove this. In EY’s 2018 Global Family Business Survey, 84% of respondents reported that their family members care deeply about one another. They spend time and effort shoring up family relationships, most effectively through initiatives such as developing family business branding and participating in corporate social responsibility activities.

Family cohesion is a key ingredient in generating better financial returns in the business. A vast majority of survey participants (83%) said their family members are very proud of being part of the family. This is positive news for the future of family business, since connectedness and pride are also important elements of multigenerational success. When families are cohesive, members can more easily compromise on personal preferences for the good of the family’s broader interests.

Our research has found that family cohesion leads to greater family business return on equity, and that the same mechanisms that lead to cohesion also reduce family conflict.

The importance of communication
Communication is often key, we’ve found. Our survey of the largest family businesses found that 90% have regular family or shareholder meetings to discuss business issues, 70% have regular family meetings to discuss family issues and 64% have a family council that meets regularly. Using social media to stay in touch is becoming increasingly popular, although the phone is still the primary channel for business and family communication.

Low-conflict families reach out to each other much more frequently than high-conflict families. Communication serves to build trust, reduce misunderstandings and strengthen relationships in general. Families who keep in touch can discuss disagreements as soon as they arise so bad feelings don’t fester.

Creating a system for addressing conflict can help families manage a range of issues, including simple personality clashes as well as disagreements over business strategy, expansion, financing, acquisitions or corporate governance. The process serves as a kind of early warning system that alerts company executives, family and non-family alike, to brewing problems.

A formal resolution process should outline responsibilities for detection and identify what steps should be taken. Families must create personalized systems that are based on their family values, meet their unique needs and have widespread support among stakeholders.

A sample conflict-management process
Here’s an example of what such a process might look like. These steps incorporate practices that leading family businesses are already using to manage conflict before it erupts into a feud that can threaten the business.

1. Create a standing committee of trusted family members (five to seven people) before any conflicts have erupted. There should be a broad agreement about who should serve on this committee.

2. All family members should have access to the committee. The committee, like the best committees in a corporation, should be proactive.

3. Committee members should regularly poll family members employed in the business so they can get a sense of trouble brewing before it explodes.

4. If a conflict is recognized, the committee will determine whether something should be done or whether the matter can be resolved without some kind of intervention.

5. If the committee decides that action should be taken, it will impose a cooling-off period. If the disputed issue is not urgent, perhaps it can be tabled until a later date.

6. The next step involves mediation with the parties involved and two or three members of the standing committee.

7. If that does not work, the committee should bring in professional counsel, such as an objective facilitator.

8. If the issue remains unresolved, the conflict should go to the full committee for adjudication. Hopefully, this last in-house step will suffice.

9. Finally, if there is still no agreement, the parties should be encouraged to submit to binding arbitration before lawyers become involved.

There’s no guarantee that a plan like this will head off a family feud, but best practices in this area can lessen the chances that family conflict will threaten the business’s growth and the family’s harmony. While it’s impossible to eradicate all family business conflict, business-owning families do best when they create structures and procedures for managing inevitable disagreements and channeling them into productive change so the business can thrive.                       

Carrie G. Hall is Americas Family Business Leader at EY (

Copyright 2019 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

Four ways to build resilience in your family business

During the 2009 recession, an article in the New York Times highlighted one of the great glories of the family business: its resilience. The author explored how family businesses may have unique potential to survive — even prosper — during hard times such as the recession thanks to several factors, including the fortifying power of shared history and accumulated knowledge. Of the reasons noted in the article, the most frequently mentioned was the strength of the family as a resource, their shared family ethic pulling together to carry the business forward.

Of course, powerful resilience based on a highly functioning family at its core reflects the potential in family business. Many of us know the reality is sometimes another matter. Family businesses also present a high probability of experiencing conflict, given the complex intersection of business, ownership and family systems. Roles and rules clash in the overlapping three spheres. This conflict cannot be controlled or wished away — it is inherent in the fusion of family and business. That’s the bad news about what you’ve gotten yourself into: There are landmines.

You know there are landmines — that’s part of the good news. When you understand why family business, or the interconnectedness of shared family wealth, is complicated, you are already one step ahead. Another part of the good news is that resilience in family and family business does not just come with luck. Resilience can be built, and building it is critical for success.

As Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Here are four proven ways to nurture resilience in family business, so that when you stumble you’ll be able to rise up again.

1. Be deliberate in building strong family connection.
Conflict can be a serious disruptor of family business; resilience is what can help you work with the challenge and can bring you back to stability. Strengthening the family bond — what we call the “family factor” — has tremendous impact on a family’s ability to manage the level of conflict and have the resilience to make it through hard times. If families have a robust shared history — even if it is not all happy — they have something to lose by exploding in conflict. A strong family bond makes stakeholders better able to leverage compromise and more committed to change for the better. Building trust helps people consider making decisions outside of their own interests and in the interests of others. Making time for meaningful involvement in family events, upholding family traditions, and developing a shared vision for being family are all ways to build your family factor. Those strong connections will hold you together when the going gets tough and help you to grow from it.

2. Prepare for the journey: Invest in personal and family readiness.
Understanding how to navigate the complex, interconnected web of roles and relationships in family business is not second nature. Building skills in dispute resolution, having discussions to develop clarity on personal and shared family values, developing empathy and striving toward alignment are all involved in developing resilience in family business. Specialized conflict management trainings for family business can help family groups develop these skills, even in good times, preparing them to manage current and future challenges. As families improve their emotional intelligence, dispute resolution and communication skills, they are much more likely to become better partners in managing conflict and have a better outcome.

3. Define policy, process and organizational structures.
Developing structures that encourage objective decision making and discourage conflicts of interest can help family businesses develop resilience. Similarly, developing clear roles, responsibilities and accountability helps families respond productively during moments of transition or stress. Structural development is particularly useful in identifying where power is held and how power is used, typically the trigger of conflict. Power can also be represented by wealth, and where wealth is held in families that share assets without involvement in an operating company. When power is codified by agreed-upon policy and process — for example, establishing a family bank with clearly articulated purpose, such as paying for education —  conflict triggers might be avoided.
Developing structures such as a family council or an owners’ council also contributes to resilience by clarifying roles and offering an appropriate forum for discussions. These structures support appropriate learning and engagement, which strengthens the enterprise.

4. Look conflict in the eye — and maybe give it a wink.
Exploding in divisive conflict is a sure way to unravel resilience, which is why conflict management is such an important element in developing a resilient family business. Contrary to popular belief, conflict in family business is not a sign of failure — rather, it often indicates that something needs attention. Consider conflict in family business as playing a role similar to that of fever in the human body — it tells us when something is wrong and needs fixing.

Conflict is inevitable in enterprising families. It is important to overcome fear of conflict, and to approach it as a close but maybe challenging friend. Avoiding conflict often makes it worse. By learning more about conflict and addressing the weak points in your structures and systems, you will be creating pressure-release valves that will keep your family and business humming when things get hot. 

Doug Baumoel is the founding partner and Blair Trippe is the managing partner at Continuity Family Business Consulting (

Copyright 2018 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact


Getting a grip on conflict

Why is conflict in family enterprise often so extreme and intractable? It is extreme because roles in a family business, or access to family wealth, are not as negotiable as these issues would be in a non-family enterprise. This is true in large part because family members tend to take their role in the business very seriously. The disagreement is about more than just a job or money, it’s about what these signify to the stakeholder. Dismissing conflict in a family enterprise as greed is too easy. More often, stakeholders are fighting about very real emotional needs, such as self-purpose and personal identity.

Whether they are motivated by the desire for financial security, access to society’s upper ranks, acknowledgment by the family or the resources to be all they can be, stakeholders go to great lengths to preserve (or advance) the status quo when their position is threatened. When coupled with the highly emotional system that is family, the enterprise becomes a crucible for extreme conflict to develop.

Conflict is complicated

Conflict in a family enterprise is often multilateral in nature and built in to the overlapping systems that make up the enterprise (ownership, business, governance and family). Attempts at individual dispute resolution rarely have more than a temporary impact and can actually make matters worse. Simply applying a “best practice” to the individual systems often fails to produce long-lasting outcomes.

Managing conflict in a family enterprise is particularly challenging because of the importance of the family relationships. Unlike civil disputes, in which the parties may battle and then walk away, enterprising families remain connected. Therefore, it is important to consider how the conflict will be managed, the impact of the settlement on the parties’ relationships going forward and how the other interconnected relationships will be affected.

Understanding systemic conflict

A systems approach to managing family enterprise conflict may be understood best by breaking conflict down into its component parts:

Historical impasse: Families who work or own assets together bring their history with them into the enterprise. Often these histories are difficult—containing past hurts, betrayals and compromised trust buried under the happier experiences they would prefer to remember. As the dynamics of business challenge the family relationships, old feelings surface and give rise to active grudges and distrust.

Incompatible values: Families breed a variety of personality types, each with their own talents, skills and values. Such divergent values may give rise to conflict when the stakeholders rely on each other in a business or shared wealth setting. Differences in risk tolerance, frugality and work ethic as well as issues around substance abuse, personal ethics and even personality clash may lead to untenable working relationships and conflicting visions for the enterprise. Or, simply put, family members may not like or respect each other (or each other’s spouses), but are forced by circumstances to work and own assets together.

Opposing goals: Whether driven by different values, facts or needs, stakeholders’ visions for the enterprise may not always be aligned. As a result, decision making can become stalled, or worse.

The trigger: Some families may have all the ingredients that underlie conflict but seek to avoid it at all costs. They remain stuck and unable to make timely decisions, potentially bringing about devastating effects on the business, the estate plan and the family. Active conflict, however, requires a trigger. For example, when a stakeholder exerts power in a manner perceived by others as arbitrary, without moral or legitimate authority, lacking factual basis or with malicious intent, active conflict is triggered.

Managing systemic conflict

There are three principal approaches to managing conflict: bargaining, force and development. Once the sources of conflict have been identified and broken down into their constituent parts, matching the appropriate approach to each component is critical.

1. Bargaining: Conventional dispute-resolution techniques, such as direct negotiation and mediation, may effectively address economic issues of money, power and control. However, one cannot bargain the values of affection, talent and commitment—nor history. Bargaining, therefore, is effective only for negotiating specific goals and deciding how decisions are made.

2. Force: Any attempt to force an outcome to one’s advantage through the use of power (i.e., litigation or threats of retaliation) runs the risk of exacerbating the conflict. After all, if conflict is triggered by the disrespected use of power, any additional use of power to manage it is likely to make matters worse. As with bargaining, whatever the motivation for using power may be, it can address only issues of opposing goals and how decisions are made. Feelings, history, talent and psychological issues do not respond to force.

3. Development: While not a term usually associated with managing conflict, development—both structural and personal—can be the most effective approach to managing the systemic conflict that is unique to a family enterprise. It is especially effective when continuing relationships matter. Development is the process of identifying deficiencies and improving them.

• Structural development. Often in a family business, reporting structures, compensation schedules, policies and procedures, agreements and strategy may be the breeding ground for conflict. Ambiguity in documents, inappropriate reporting mechanisms, and inefficient communication and process can cause conflict because these all represent structural power entities. It is much easier to change such things than to change the people involved. Often the “low-hanging fruit” in family enterprise conflict management may be found in structural development of the system.

Specialists in the functional areas of the enterprise can have great impact by evaluating documents and structures, and then providing best-practice advice and independent guidance—for example, by suggesting ways to improve governance. Rather than merely professionalizing the company, the intention should be to support the enterprise in growing itself out of conflict-generating systems by addressing structural issues that underlie or exacerbate conflict.

• Personal development. Stakeholders can seek to grow themselves out of conflict through coaching and education, by developing increased empathy for and understanding of others, and by addressing psychological issues and longstanding resentments.

The development approach

Development, both structural and personal, is the only one of the three conflict-management approaches that can address values and historical impasses. In fact, as individuals learn more about themselves and the structures they are engaged with, many opposing stakeholder goals may get resolved.

For example, if a sister with a low tolerance for risk has been fighting her brother’s attempts to grow the company but then makes the effort to learn more about the market and the company’s finances, she may become better able to manage her fears and therefore support the goals for growth.

Moreover, when values and historical impasses are addressed first, it is likely that any subsequent negotiations will be more successful. If litigation is still considered, there’s a greater probability that the focus can be on the search for truth and justice rather than revenge and coercion. Arbitration or mediation then becomes an option.

It is important to be aware of cases in which the family bond cannot work to leverage compromise or a commitment to personal change. When the family lacks the will to rebuild trust, address old resentments and develop a vision for how to be family in the future, litigation or separation might be the likely outcome.

Collaborative teamwork

Following a comprehensive systematic approach such as this will lead to a list of opportunities for structural and personal development. It will also help family members to identify those issues that may be resolved through mediation and those that may require third-party intervention.

An effective conflict management team may include attorneys for document review, estate planning and expert opinion; business consultants for organizational and strategic analysis; a wealth manager for planning purposes; accountants; valuation experts for historic and comparative performance evaluation; and a psychologist or clergy member to address emotional, personality and forgiveness issues.

This team of professionals may guide the effective and reliable management of systemic conflict by working collaboratively with a common understanding of how the various systems interact and by being mindful of the importance of the ongoing relationships.

Understanding the systemic nature of family enterprise conflict leads to approaches that improve the individual skills of family members and other stakeholders. It also strengthens the organization’s processes, policies and agreements. The result is a family and an enterprise that are sustainable and resilient.

Doug Baumoel is founder and principal of Continuity Family Business Consulting in Beverly, Mass. (

Copyright 2011 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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The imagined conversation

If you have spent quality time with business families, you likely have heard comments like the following:

• “I think raising this issue would be more damaging than helpful.”

• “I’ve tried to talk about it with my sister, but she’ll never do anything differently, so what’s the point?”

• “Every time I talk to my cousin, we start fighting our parents’ old battle, so now we just avoid it.”

We call these “imagined conversations”—internal rehearsals, played out in our heads in such horrid detail that we talk ourselves out of actually having them, even when we know the costs of avoidance are high. The issues we’re afraid to discuss are often essential for a family business—succession plans and career interests, feedback on performance, money and inheritance, etc.

Why are these discussions so difficult to have? And how can you move from paralysis to productive conversations that advance both the business and the relationship?

It’s not just business; it’s personal

In a family enterprise, difficult conversations can quickly become personal. What starts out as a business discussion becomes entwined—even if unconsciously—with a long history of family dynamics, past injuries and patterns of protection.

A discussion about succession becomes a test of self-worth between a parent and a child. A conversation about family employment becomes a competition for standing between branches of the family. Many avoid raising these issues, since the only imagined outcome is something worse than already exists. Yet we know that avoiding these conversations can do just as much harm as arguing can—or even more.

Three layers

Conversations in business families often have three interconnected layers. Understanding these layers can help family members to get “unstuck.”

• The interpersonal. “What is my relationship to the other person? How does this issue or conversation affect my own aspirations and interests, and my relationship not just with this person but in the constellation of relationships that surround each of us?” This is the place we most easily go, and we often get stuck here. “What’s wrong with him/her? What’s wrong with me?”

• The role. “What job do I have, relative to the other person’s job, and how does that help or inhibit the conversation we need to have? How do the tasks involved in my or the other person’s role relate to this issue, regardless of what person is in that role? Where does each fit in the organizational hierarchy?”

• The enterprise. “What is the bigger picture? How does this issue relate to our goals at the enterprise level? What we are trying to do as both a family and a business, now and over the longer term?”

Seeing the larger picture

Consider the following example: A manufacturing company in a high-growth industry is not meeting its budget goals. The eldest brother of five siblings is CEO. A sister is head of sales. Other family members head manufacturing, purchasing and distribution. The CEO and the head of sales have begun to argue every time they see each other. The CEO thinks his sister is slacking off. He remembers that she was a little “wild” when they were in high school, though she also helped grow the business. Others withdraw, knowing that once again, it will come to the same old argument between the two siblings.

This brother and sister begin with the belief that if only the other were different, life would be better. Their three siblings have their own interpersonal and role issues too, so they find it hard to “help.”

At this point, the siblings are stuck at the interpersonal level. Neither has considered the industry dynamics, including who’s growing and who’s shrinking. New entrants are showing up, and they are much larger companies with more sophisticated manufacturing and lower costs. Looking at the enterprise as a whole could change the focus of their conversation from an interpersonal conflict to a shared problem that people in both roles (CEO and head of sales) must assess and address.

Getting unstuck: 5 steps

Imagining a conversation often takes people down the same unhappy path already walked. Here are some steps you can take to make the actual discussion more productive than the one you are imagining.

1. Set a bigger goal. Can you change the typical pattern by aiming to solve a bigger problem than the one you imagine and, in doing so, create a precedent for discussing important issues? For example, you might approach the topic in terms of a goal everyone can get behind, like growing profitability, acquiring a new customer segment or developing talent throughout the business.

2. Create deliberate mechanisms for pausing when the conversation goes off track. Agree on a course of action when the parties are stuck in an unproductive cycle or avoiding a conversation. For example, you might take 24 hours to calm down before attempting to discuss the issue. Other family members who are in the presence of a difficult pair or trio might suggest a timeout rather than hanging back or taking sides. Make a rule that you will “press the pause button” when you find yourself falling into old patterns, and that you will restate things when they have been misheard or your choice of words was poor.

3. Have the imagined conversation. Standing together, each party separately plays out the conversation he or she has been imagining, with no interruption (verbal or otherwise) from the other.

By sharing your imagined conversations rather than debating or trying to do it differently right away, you might actually work together to identify the reasons you get stuck. Diagnose what happens. Why do you think it’s so difficult to discuss the issue in a productive way? Don’t forget about how it actually feels—palms sweaty, mind struggling to get the words out, eyes down, etc. With the new information, see if you can deliberately experiment with new ways to say things, frame things, etc. This can feel hokey at first, but eventually it can become second nature.

4. Reflect on what happened. After discussing an uncomfortable issue, ask the other party’s opinion about how the conversation went. What was he or she feeling? Consider what you might have done differently. Agree on things you can try next time.

5. Let others know you’re working on it. This signals to other family members that having this conversation is important enough to work on. It helps them to support you rather than avoid you. It also teaches them that if they are in a similar situation, they will be expected to work things through, and it creates a climate of openness that is usually preferred to one of gossip and politics.

Why you should try it

Ultimately, the only way to test whether the person you are avoiding will react the way you imagine is by taking a leap and actually trying to discuss the dreaded topic. It is a little like the elephant in the room anyway; you probably both know what the other is imagining. Leadership means taking a risk, so find a manageable risk to take and give it a try. The results can help you to learn about yourself and your family in ways that strengthen your longer-term relationship skills.

Nancy Drozdow is a principal at CFAR, a management consulting firm specializing in strategy and organizational development, with offices in Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass. (

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The Brooke Astor case: It wasn't about the money

In the summer of 2009, Anthony Marshall, the only son of New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor, was accused by his son, Philip Marshall, of neglecting Mrs. Astor’s care in her last years and of exploiting her for his own monetary gains. By the end of last year, Tony Marshall was convicted of first-degree grand larceny and sentenced to one to three years of prison time.

Although this sorry state of affairs may appear to have been centered on money, we assert that when it comes to family conflict, it’s never just about the money.

Families leave legacies, including financial ones. But the legacy in the Astor/Marshall family is a broken trust between mother and son and an inability to communicate effectively with each other. Tony Marshall gave himself a 208% raise for managing his mother’s affairs, removed valuable items from his mother’s home and tried numerous times through two attorneys—first Henry Christensen and then Francis X. Morrissey Jr.—to change his mother’s will significantly in his favor. Such behavior indicates that Marshall’s relationship with his mother had deteriorated to the point that he was thoroughly indifferent to her and her wishes.

Psychological issues exist in every family. If, for example, a parent abandons a child, and the child is never able to recover emotionally, that child will remain very angry. His anger, as well as other emotional issues, will bubble beneath the surface for decades. Although they may appear to be under control, issues pile up over time and create enormous stress on the family relationships. Sometimes that stress is so painful and weighs so heavily on the relationship that it breaks, releasing enormous anger. If that anger is not expressed directly—and often it isn’t—it can be acted out through money.

As illustrated by the Astor/Marshall case, when issues of family wealth, inheritance and competence are combined with powerful emotional issues, the mixture becomes combustible; sometimes it explodes. The approaching loss of a parent’s competence, for instance, signals time is running out—action must be taken now. It forces the angry child to tackle emotional and psychological issues at long last. All too frequently, he does so in an unhealthy way. When inheritance looms around the corner, legal bequests that play into the decades-long unhealthy dynamic sharpen the child’s desire to rectify perceived past harms by receiving what he feels he has earned by enduring feelings of rejection for so long.

Tony Marshall did what was normal in his situation; he worked with one of the family’s current advisers. He asked his mother’s estate-planning attorney (who was also his attorney), Henry Christensen, to change his mother’s will so he could receive what he felt he was entitled to. Christensen, deeming the request reasonable, facilitated some of the changes. Under the terms of a 2002 codicil, Marshall was entitled to an annual payout of 7% until he died, and then the remainder of Mrs. Astor’s estate would have gone to charity. The subsequent codicils modified her will further so Marshall became a more substantial beneficiary.

Christensen probably didn’t think he was hurting Mrs. Astor, who died in 2007 at age 105. (Tony Marshall was 83 at the time.) By giving Mrs. Astor’s son some of what he wanted, Christensen most likely thought he was doing a good thing; he was brokering a deal. He probably thought it was his job to mend the family schism even though he had no idea how strong the emotional fault lines were. As the mother’s estate planning attorney, he judged her competent to draft a codicil.

His judgment and the document he prepared were the anchor points for what happened next. Marshall took that judgment of competence and the codicil as preliminary and important groundwork for other changes he thought should be made. If Christensen, who had been Mrs. Astor’s lawyer for 15 years, had not made that judgment of competence and had not created that document, it would have been a lot harder, if not impossible, for Marshall to proceed with the next step. After Christensen established Mrs. Astor’s competency, Marshall hired Morrissey, and the two of them conspired to change his mother’s will so that Marshall benefited even more.

Christensen was naïve to think he could broker a deal that would not only assume a financial settlement, but also reduce the conflict in the family relationship. We don’t know whether Christensen consulted with a mental-health professional about the true state of the mother-son relationship. However, we believe that such a professional, after examining Marshall’s behavior of constantly asking for more, could link those repeated requests to problems within the family. That Marshall had married a woman who Mrs. Astor believed was a gold-digger may have suggested further that the relationship between the mother and son was not repairable and that any attempt to placate Marshall’s desire would only feed his fantasy that money would fill the gap.

By continuing to consult with Marshall (before he hired Morrissey), Christensen was brokering a deal between two adversaries. Even though he may have sincerely thought that he acted in the best interest of his client and her son, by spending so much time with one side, he made himself vulnerable to the ethical charges that swirl around conflict of interest. During the seven days Christensen was on the stand, the prosecutor alleged that Christensen failed to protect Mrs. Astor and gave into Marshall’s demands. In the prosecutor’s view, instead of dropping one lucrative client to clear up a conflict of interest, Christensen continued to represent both Mrs. Astor and her son, thus putting Mrs. Astor in peril.


The saddest aspect of this story is that in the Astor/Marshall case, there was more than enough money available to solve everyone’s problems. But the root of the problem was not only money; it was also a lack of positive human connection. It takes a lot of time and effort to establish a relationship with one’s children. Unfortunately, it appears that in the Astor/Marshall case, instead of doing the hard work of maintaining healthy relationships, the family used money as a means of power and control. This is not surprising: Easy access to money can lull one into thinking that it is easier and just as effective to control others through the pocketbook. While people with wealth may think they are rewarding “correct” behavior, money is never a substitute for relationships and the time required to build them.

The good news is that before a break occurs in a parent-child relationship, there is usually an opportunity for repair. But that repair needs more than intention or resolution—it requires each party to relate to the other differently from the way they have in the past.

In the Astor/Marshall case, the parties involved used a habitual and faulty mechanism to repair the broken relationship. History should have told them (as well as their lawyer) that since money had never been a successful antidote in the past, it would not be useful now. As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Issues that create discomfort among family members only get progressively worse when left untreated. If your family argues about control of family wealth or control of the family business, understand that no matter how things may seem to you, you are not arguing just about money. It is crucial at this point for family to members to pause and examine what really is driving their disagreements. Absent that reflection, things can spin out of control, as was the case in the sad affair of the Astor/Marshall family.

Thomas D. Davidow is founder and principal of Thomas D. Davidow & Associates, a family business consulting firm in Brookline, Mass. ( Patricia Annino chairs the estate planning group of the Boston law firm of Prince, Lobel, Glovsky & Tye LLP (

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A tool to spark a meaningful family dialogue

Successful family businesses continually monitor their business situation to identify plans and actions that support the firm’s continued growth and profitability. A fundamental step in this process is developing an understanding, shared by the family and the managers, of the business’s strengths and weaknesses. To accomplish this, the management team assesses how well the business is functioning, then works with the family leaders to build a competitive advantage.

But this is only half the equation. In a family business, equally important is simultaneous thinking about the family’s strengths and challenges.

Unfortunately, all too often the family is not regularly discussed, and family members are not brought into the planning process. This is because families, and the way they function, are emotion-laden topics, and many families lack the skills and tools that could help them frame a meaningful dialogue. When a family does address relationship or interpersonal problems, they often rely on memories, sagas and myths—which are easily influenced by defense mechanisms—to guide their discussions. Not surprisingly, conflicting interpretations based on selective memories and differing beliefs may complicate discussions of relationships. Many a well-intentioned family meeting goes wrong as individuals attempt to avoid, or in some cases to detonate, landmines of misunderstanding, blame and recrimination. The resulting disputes erode trust and destroy ownership continuity over the long term.

What can be done to help families learn to work together more effectively as business owners and managers? Let’s take a look at some strengths and weakness that all business families have in common.

Recognizing ingrained behaviors

Our families are the first “organization” that we experience as we grow up. Our family of origin influences how we perceive concepts such as decision making, performance expectations, communications, gender, rewards, appreciation, differences, autonomy and conflict. The family influence is even more pronounced in a business family because in this context, individuals simultaneously model generic skills like communicating as well as specific career behaviors applicable within the business they control.

A family with unresolved conflict betweens two branches, or a long pattern of succession “rules” (e.g., firstborn sons are always CEO) should not be surprised if the family’s legacy includes the institutionalization of these behaviors in future generations. These attitudes and behaviors are learned from the family elders and may not be obvious or acknowledged, particularly in the next generations. Nevertheless, it is important to explore our families if we want to truly understand our business behaviors.

It is often easier for a business family to explore their family’s patterns of behavior with tools that help them gather and analyze information. One very useful tool is called a genogram. The genogram is a type of expanded family tree that helps business families develop a shared picture of how their families work. The genogram helps a family see and appreciate how family members relate to each other and where functioning could be more effective. The family business genogram works on three levels:

1. Documenting family experiences (births, deaths, marriages, educational achievements).

2. Describing the family structure (position and power).

3. Assessing the family’s interpersonal relationships.

Families might also fill in a business timeline, providing a context for the family’s development based on critical business events. Talking about these business events often prompts the family to share stories that explain decision making and how family members work together on important tasks.

Toward a shared understanding

The family business genogram works because it is based on sound social science theory about individual and family life cycles, family structure and family dynamics. Social scientists have discovered that family of origin, and individual differences like birth order and gender, influence human behavior and personality.

Firstborn children tend to act like the caregivers who give them so much attention early in life. This attention and monitoring often leads firstborn children to be achievement-driven in comparison to their creative and adventurous younger siblings. Birth order also influences personality development. Even siblings who are relatively close in age have different experiences based on their parents’ work situation, changes in the family’s wealth, even where the family lives. Gender is another major influence that shapes how a child sees himself or herself and the external world. Typically, siblings in family businesses are “positioned” from an early age by gender and birth order, and this affects they way they are identified, and how they identify themselves, when the family is thinking about leadership roles and succession.

While family members may be intuitively aware of some of their family’s issues, working together to construct a genogram creates a deeper and shared understanding of their family system. In our work at INSEAD’s Wendel International Centre for Family Enterprise, we use the family business genogram to help individuals and families explore their family relationships. We find that the genogram exercise, supervised by a trained professional adviser, helps business families develop a working knowledge of the different factors that influence family functioning.

Creating the genogram

We begin the process by asking the family to complete a genogram by drawing three generations of the family organized by generation and family branch. Figure 1 shows a typical family genogram before it is filled in.

The first step is to add the family’s demographic information, including dates of birth, death and marriages, as well as education and other significant information (see below). This is a relatively straightforward process, but disagreements may arise over birth order or other historical family information. The second step is adding historical information on critical business events (the business timeline, including founding, growth periods, ownership or leadership transitions and bankruptcy) on the left side of the genogram to provide a business context. The result of these two steps is a demographic picture of the family members, how the family is organized and what business events have shaped their development and current position.

The final step in drawing the genogram is to add the schematic descriptions of the family’s interpersonal relationships with each other (see Figure 2). This step requires the participation of a trained adviser who can manage the data collection and the resulting family reactions as relationships are discussed. Family relationships, whether positive or negative, are subjectively perceived by different family members, and the process requires facilitation and interpretation. A discussion among family members about who has a particularly close relationship or who has a conflicted or cut-off relationship often stimulates emotional responses that must be used constructively to ensure no family member is hurt.

Once a genogram has been completed, the family can start to consider what factors create strengths and challenges for the family and the implications of generational patterns. The following themes and questions will help guide the family through an exploration of their genogram that supports thinking and planning for family participation and skill development.

The genogram overview: A fruitful way to begin exploring the completed genogram starts with an inventory of the family’s strengths and values. A good discussion question might be, “What family values or strengths have contributed to our success?” A logical next step is discussing relationships: “Who has particularly strong or conflicted relationships?” and “What is the influence of these relationships on family performance in decision making?” These questions help families think about what has supported their success, the nature of their relationships and the implications for family functioning.

Family and business timelines: By noting important events in chronological order, the family discovers how these events are interconnected and create impact across generations. The family business timeline helps the family and their adviser consider past family business events and transitions that have affected the family and inspires them to develop new behavior that will create improved family harmony. To help families see patterns in family events, we ask questions like: “What life events or life transitions are still unresolved and challenging your family?” and “What are the life cycle transitions that your family may face within the next five years?”

Impact of birth order and family roles: The next phase considers family roles and birth order. In simple terms, this is demographic information, but it is structured in a way that helps families to understand how birth order may influence different roles family members play. We all talk about the “little sister” role or someone who is “mom” or the brother who is a “rebel.” These family roles are all influenced by birth order and the personality of individual family members as well as the family’s functioning. It is important to think about these roles and how different family members interact with each other in order to begin to address behaviors that do not contribute to family effectiveness.

Dealing with family conflict: Business families have multiple reasons for conflict, including overlap between the family and business systems. The genogram highlights ongoing conflict in relationships so the family can discuss how to change tactics and move from denial, blame or capitulation to collaboration, fair process and teamwork. Conflict will never go away, but family members can learn more effective responses to prevent or address future conflicts in their family system.

Figure 3 depicts a genogram showing all the family members’ positions by generation, with specific indications of family dynamics, alliance or conflicts. This genogram represents multiple snapshots of how different family members perceive relationships and interactions. It shows, for example, that one family member considered a relationship with another as distant, while the second person saw it as more satisfactory.

Enhancing conflict resolution skills

Completing a family business genogram and discussing the finished product can help the family and their adviser better understand the family’s unique situation. Each family member will start the exercise with different interpretations or beliefs about the family, but as they work together these differences will be reduced as information and ideas are shared. Discussing the family system also develops the family’s ability to communicate. The family group hones a fundamental skill for bringing new information into the family system to support new behavior, such as renegotiating relationships that must change as individuals and the family develop.

Communication is the family’s only tool for addressing conflict and resolving differences in individual perspectives on an issue. Conflict is inevitable in families because transitions create loss and families experience loss with significant emotional responses—but communicating well about how to deal with conflict can be very helpful. It is also equally important to recognize that some issues will not be fully resolved and must be considered as part of the family’s long-term planning processes.

Randel S. Carlock, Ph.D., is the first Berghmans Lhoist Chaired Professor in Entrepreneurial Leadership and the founding director of the Wendel International Centre for Family Enterprise at INSEAD (Europe and Asia). Previously he was the first Opus Professor of Family Enterprise and the founder of the family business center at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He is the co-author of Family Business on the Couch: A Psychological Perspective (with Manfred Kets de Vries, John Wiley and Sons, 2007) and Strategic Planning for the Family Business (with John L. Ward, Macmillan, 2001).


Creating a family business genogram

1. Collect data on family composition.

A. Draw three generations of family members (names, age, education, birth order and positions).

B. Add symbols for life events (adoption, death, divorce and illness).

2. Complete family business timeline with critical business events.

3. Discuss and draw family relationships using symbols.

A. How do family members relate with their nuclear family (parents and children)?

B. How close are the intragenerational relationships (siblings)?

C. How does the family relate across generations?

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The power of negotiating in a family-owned business

“I keep thinking I should be ready to hand the business over to my son, but I’m worried he might not have what it takes to run the company. I really don’t think it’s just me hanging on.”

These were the hushed words of John, a successful family business CEO. The original business, started two generations ago as a manufacturer of rubber hosing, had been sold, and the family had pooled assets to establish a family investment fund. John was a charismatic extrovert who had extended his investor base by pounding the pavement. His only son, Bill, worked in the business. Unlike John, Bill was reserved and shy. He had a solid work ethic but a quiet temperament and worked behind the scenes. (All facts are from a real family business client, but names have been changed.)

As John reached the age at which executives think of retiring, he wanted Bill to succeed him as CEO. But he did not trust his son’s abilities and competence. Bill wanted nothing more than to take the reins. Father and son on several occasions had tried to sit down and develop a succession plan but were deadlocked over how and when the ultimate transfer would happen. Fear of damaging the relationship caused John to avoid discussions. Bill became increasingly frustrated by his father’s apparent lack of confidence and pushed even harder for a plan to transfer leadership. They had reached a classic stalemate.

Negotiation: Caustic or constructive?

The word negotiation conjures up the ways we make our way in a world of commerce and competition and triggers for many an adversarial stance. While family businesses often excel at negotiation with outsiders, they are reluctant to use negotiation tools in their internal work for fear of damaging relationships that have held the family and the business together.

By reframing what we mean by negotiation, it becomes the tool that family members use to understand each other’s interests and make explicit ways members can integrate their personal interests with business requirements. Negotiating can link people together by taking the potentially divisive forces of ambition and competition, inherent in any successful family business, and turning them into productive give and take about what will build satisfying and sustainable outcomes for the business and the family.

Wishful thinking? Consider what happened to John and Bill.

John appointed a “gray-haired” executive, Henry, who was officially the CIO, but whose real job was to look after Bill. John saw this as an interim step to help his son develop the skills needed to run the business and to assuage the anxieties of his senior team. Inevitably, this created a cycle of disappointment between father and son. While John thought that hiring Henry demonstrated a show of support for his son, Bill saw it as a vote of no confidence.

In addition, John was experimenting—silently—with small tests of Bill’s leadership that fueled the vicious cycle of disappointment. He would step back in small and subtle ways to give Bill space, but Bill would have no idea that John was stepping back. John saw that Bill did not step forward to take command and concluded that Bill was not ready or able. He would communicate his disappointment to Bill in indirect ways, and Bill in turn would be disappointed because his father’s mistrust seemed unwarranted.

Meanwhile, Bill focused keenly on the business and the problems he saw ahead. John and his team had acknowledged that something was awry with the business. They had lost longstanding investors as well as some of the confidence of the extended family whose money they managed. Bill believed the company had grown to a point that it needed more systems and team leadership to succeed in an increasingly competitive money management and investment world. It could no longer rely on the charisma of a single leader. He suggested creating new team configurations and infrastructure, motivated by his view that a different kind of leadership and management was needed to respond to customers’ growing expectations. John interpreted this as further evidence of Bill’s weakness. Why wasn’t he following in the path that John had created?

Without the basis for a productive conversation about the future, it was difficult to make progress on a strategy to advance the business into the next generation. It all looked personal, and the future looked bleak.

The power of differences

John believed that Bill’s interest in building a team indicated he had a weak character, rather than simply a difference in style. Negotiation facilitates succession by acknowledging that differences—in interests, style and expectation—are natural. Bill was doing what we have seen in many second-generation businesses: creating systems and teams to sustain the business when a charismatic founder leaves. The founder can’t understand this because he or she leads through the force of personality and intuition.

We introduced Bill and John to a well-researched conflict style assessment that gives individuals scores across a spectrum of styles—labeled “competitive,” “accommodating,” “compromising,” “collaborative” and “avoiding”—each with its own applications and challenges. The instrument serves as one way to break out of the stereotypes that often pervade family relationships—“he’s just not good at leading,” “she’s not capable of listening to anyone”—and have a discussion about the way different styles come into play in leadership. Given the stark difference between John and Bill’s styles, this tool was the first step at getting unstuck.

The assessment result created an “aha” moment—differences can be acknowledged and honored and the other person is not necessarily flawed. John and Bill agreed to work on a succession plan as a negotiation. They talked concretely about what style various business situations demanded and considered what Bill needed to do to take the reins. As John realized that Bill could be successful without being just like him, he saw how they had gotten stuck. This freed them up to look at the business more objectively. He even began to see how Bill’s style and instincts could benefit the business.

For example, faced with a threatening market evolution, John naturally turned to what had made the business successful so far: aggression and personal charisma. But Bill had a different point of view about what was needed. He had reviewed recent customer surveys and found that many long-term customers questioned the consistency and responsiveness of the service department. Clients were satisfied with the kind of investment opportunities offered by the firm, but they had become more sophisticated in their expectations about ongoing tracking and monitoring of their investments, and they knew they had other choices. They questioned whether John’s business had developed the infrastructure to serve their ongoing needs. Bill believed that new systems, linking the parts of the business together, would distinguish them in the future.

This transition wasn’t without its bumps, of course—negotiation never is. At a tense meeting, feeling that his father would never trust him, Bill headed for the door and threw down the pile of customer evaluations and the work plan he had developed. “Fine,” he said. “Keep doing things your way. But don’t be surprised when your customers continue to hire our competitors because you haven’t responded.” As Bill left the room, John looked through the documents with surprise. “I didn’t know he had done all this work,” John said. “Now I understand why he keeps talking about teams.”

This was a breakthrough moment. Bill demonstrated his thoughtfulness as well as his mettle. They began exploring alternative ways of running the business. John’s lieutenants, once skeptical about Bill’s abilities, watched with increasing confidence as the two vigorously debated their points of view. “If Bill can take his father on,” they marveled, “then he must have more gumption than we thought.”

Today, Bill runs the company, which has grown in large part because of the introduction of a new approach to online service. John has just about retired. The business and the family are doing well.

Succession challenges all family businesses. Negotiation tools bring family members closer together by depersonalizing, even harnessing, differences. By reframing negotiation from an adversarial strategy to a structured, tool-based process that builds relationships, you can devise durable agreements for the family and the business for generations to come.

Debbie Bing is a principal at CFAR, a management consulting firm that helps organizations improve performance, with offices in Philadelphia and Boston (

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Stepping up: Challenges of a blended family firm

When parents and their adult children work together in the family business, the family's emotional ties can interfere with their working relationship. Parents, recalling the days when their children were toddling around the house, may be slow to accept their now-grown kids' professional competence. For their part, the next-generation members may misconstrue the senior generation's managerial direction as parental nagging.

But when the business family is a blended family, the emotional issues are even more complex. In some cases, the blended family must negotiate professional relationships while it's still writing its family history. “We need to work toward a business relationship that does not reflect family ties, only performing our duties to the best of our abilities,” says Georgia Kelley, 53, president of Mountain-Lake Log Homes Inc. in Pell City, Ala., where she works alongside her husband, Gary, also 53, and her children from her first marriage, 27-year-old Rachel Baribeau and 33-year-old Matt Willis, plus Matt's wife, Catherine, 23.

It's easy for Gary to compartmentalize his relationship with the children while he's at work, Georgia says. But, she notes, “This is such a challenge for me personally.”

The process of creating a new family and business identity is stressful, acknowledges Denise Coates, a family counselor at Family Resource and Counseling Center in Gap, Pa. “The rules change when the family or business structure changes,” Coates says. “Everyone needs to know what their new role is in the new situation.”

Negotiating relationships

Mike Dunn, 40, recalls that when he first joined his stepfather's winery, Dunn Vineyards in Angwin, Calif., he was unclear about how many hours per day he was expected to work. Dunn was accustomed to working from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. “unless it's harvest or bottling time,” while his stepfather, Randy Dunn, 60, was used to “people working long hours, six to seven days a week.” (Mike started using the surname Dunn as a seventh-grader, when Randy Dunn married his mother, Lori. Randy Dunn legally adopted Mike in February 1982, when Mike was a high school sophomore.)

On several occasions during the early years, Dunn says, “My stepdad would show up at 4 p.m. and give me three more hours of work for that day. Then he would leave. It used to make me frustrated, like I could never finish or get enough done.”

Dunn says he was able to resolve the issue when he realized that his stepfather loved tennis and would leave the business early to pursue that passion. Once he understood the situation, Dunn says, “That was a relief because then I felt it was OK for me to leave as well.” He now recognizes that some basic communication could have saved him anguish. “Of course,” Dunn says, “I never really sat him down and explained how I felt. He was probably just trying to keep me busy, knowing I would leave when the day was over, regardless of what was left to do.”

It's essential for blended families to communicate clearly at home and at work, says family counselor Coates. “The key is to be proactive and anticipate any touchy areas,” she says. “If a touchy area has not been anticipated with open communication, set rules on how to handle the situation until a family meeting can be held.”

Of course, every family must find its own way of handling communication issues. “My mom tried to schedule morning meetings once a week, but it didn't last,” Dunn says. “What's key for me is to be able to ask questions at the time of need, and I need to not let frustration build up.”

Surviving stressful times

Mike Dunn says he avoided his stepfather's business at first; he worked as a bicycle mechanic after graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1988. Memories of the stresses on the family in the late 1970s, when the winery was in its infancy, kept him away, he says. “My parents were under a lot of financial distress,” Dunn says. “Land was expensive, especially with vineyard planted on it. Barrels were incredibly expensive, storage space was tight and the equipment was old, broken-down rejects from other wineries” In addition to running his own winery, “My stepdad worked full-time at another winery,” Dunn recalls, “while my mom stayed home to take care of the children.”

The pressures sparked family conflicts, Dunn says. “This is a large reason I stayed away from the family business.” He decided to join the winery after his sister Jennifer died from bacterial meningitis at age 21 in 1999. Dunn says he's learned that he must address issues as they arise rather than letting them fester, which in the past would lead to blowups with his stepfather, Randy, or his mother, Lori, 62. It's important for him to stick up for himself, Mike Dunn says. “I needed to act like I mattered—that I'm in control and that I'm not powerless to the demands of my family.” At the same time, he says, he realizes he must not take all family members' comments personally. “I don't respond to issues angrily [anymore],” he says. “And I don't try to win or intimidate—I try to be accommodating and receptive [in order] to resolve the conflict.”

Georgia and Gary Kelley started their log home business when they were in their early 40s and had been married a few years. Today, it generates about $2.3 million in annual sales. Georgia's daughter, Rachel, has been with the company from the beginning; as a teenager, she helped out with administrative duties and continued with the company throughout her college years. Her brother, Matt, joined the business as a sales consultant after graduating from college. Matt's wife, Catherine, works in the Kelleys' gallery and gift shop. Gary's daughters, Lauren, 26, and Courtney, 25, also have helped out in the business. “Both girls started after high school and have worked on and off in our business as needed,” Georgia Kelley says.

As a blended family, Kelley says, they must “work as a team, all understanding the goals and objectives that need to be met to stay successful. The older Matt and Rachel become, and the more responsibility that we place on them, the greater the opportunity that we have to grow together.”

Kelley says she realizes that in the past, her protective instincts took over when Gary got upset with her children. “It was hard to separate this great [maternal] instinct from business at times—and then, at times, I had to stand my ground too.” Her conflict-resolution strategy has included reiterating to Gary that their children will take over the family business someday, she says. She also has pointed out that while the children depend on her and Gary, the couple also need the children to help the business prosper. “When you have a family business,” Kelley says, “there are always situations, roadblocks and inconveniences that have to be dealt with, as well as adjustments to be made and decisions that affect everyone.”

When Rachel was a teenager, the Kelleys' log home served as a model home, open at any time to prospective customers. Georgia recalls that Rachel had to be prepared to show off her room at a moment's notice, and only a limited number of her friends could visit. Because the business office was located in the bedroom across the hall from hers, Rachel was told “how important it was to maintain professionalism,” her mother says.

Kelley now says she's sorry she had to put limits on her daughter's teenage giggles and use of the television and stereo. “This is one of my regrets,” she says, “but we're all survivors and made it through those volatile years.” Rachel balanced the constant focus on the business with outside activities like cheerleading and choir, her mother notes.

Family counselor Denise Coates says that the stepparent-stepchild relationship is especially tenuous when the stepchild is a teenager. “This is where proactive planning can make the chance of [success for] such a relationship increase exponentially,” she says. A business family can maintain a sense of normalcy and help keep the peace by scheduling time off for a family getaway; banning business talk at meals; encouraging the children to get involved in sports or other school activities; and ensuring that at least one parent attends soccer games, school plays and similar events.

Resolving conflicts

Coates advises blended business families to anticipate problem areas in advance and establish conflict-resolution strategies before tensions arise. These strategies might include clarifying problem areas, giving detailed instructions and checking to ensure family members understand them, treating family members as respectfully as employees, and maintaining strict barriers between office and home. “Create a plan during regular family meetings,” Coates suggests. “Make sure to plan both the big and little issues, so that everything is covered.”

Georgia Kelley says that when her family senses a confrontation is near, “We all need to calm down and wait until we can sit down and talk among ourselves in a professional manner. We need to remember that we're business team members. Husband-and-wife owners need to learn how to separate business from marriage. And they need to learn how to lay [aside] the business and concentrate on one another.”

It may be best to wait before discussing a controversial topic, Mike Dunn advises. “It's sometimes better not to bring up issues right away and let things cool off for a while,” he says. A good piece of advice he once received, Dunn says, was to write down issues he wanted to discuss with his stepfather, then wait to see if the issues still mattered to him the next day. “If it is still on target,” Dunn says, “then present the problems.”

Kelley notes that the trust that her blended family has worked to build with each other mirrors the trust her company must establish with customers. “Trust is the most important factor in any business,” she says. “ do know that all businesses, especially family businesses, need a major portion [of trust] to survive.”

Wendy Komancheck, a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa., writes about small business, agriculture and tea (

Working together as a blended family

Denise Coates, a family counselor at the Family Resource and Counseling Center in Gap, Pa., offers four tips for working together harmoniously as a blended family:

  1. Set rules ahead of time.
  2. Verbalize expectations.
  3. Respond and/or behave consistently.
  4. Align your parenting and working styles.


She also offers advice for remarried entrepreneurial couples:

  1. Decompress in the car on the way home.
  2. Exercise before coming home from work to let off steam.
  3. Set firm boundaries, and set aside time together as a couple.
  4. Turn off the phone while at home, at least for a little while,
  5. Plan for playtime.


— W.K.

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Dealing with dissent

Dipping into the talent pool

Ryder Steimle, California Pools & Spas, West Covina, Calif.

Ryder Steimle, 39, never worked directly with his father, Doug, at the family's company, California Pools & Spas in West Covina, Calif. Doug, now 63, took a leave from the CEO's post in 1999 to join a three-year church mission to Argentina.

“That gave me an opportunity to grow without being overshadowed by his personality,” says Ryder, who was a vice president at the time. In his father's absence, he worked closely with his uncle, David Morrill, the company president, who's also now in his 60s.

“I think we would have gone different ways, had my father not left,” Ryder speculates. “It would have been difficult for our two personalities to blend for a long enough period of time for us to make the transition.”

After Doug returned from his mission in 2003, Ryder was named CEO of the company, which now employs 60 people. “When he got back, he realized the company was a different place, and it was probably best for me for him not to come back,” Ryder says. “It would be difficult for me to learn the things I needed to know to take control.”

At times, however, Doug found it tempting to jump back into the pool business, especially while Ryder was trying to help his three brothers find their niche in the company. “Of course there was tension,” Ryder admits. “It was very difficult to have his older son making decisions on behalf of his other kids.”

For instance, brother Quinton, 37, learned he's not interested in management. He found he excels in sales, and today he works directly with homeowners. “But settling into that seat has taken time, to discover what makes him tick and for us to coach him through,” explains Ryder.

Vanz, 34, initially worked in sales. He worked hard and was conscientious but didn't really shine in that position, according to Ryder. When an opportunity opened a few years ago for an assistant manager at the company's warehouse, Master Supply, he was able to grow into a management position there and now oversees that division. “It has been a perfect fit for him, and he has excelled,” says Ryder. While Doug agreed that Vanz should be given that opportunity, Ryder notes that he and his father disagreed about how it would happen.

“I think my father wanted to ramrod him into there, and I wanted it to happen a little slower,” Ryder says. “I remember being uncomfortable with someone on the outside—my father&151;who wasn't involved in the day-to-day business, sort of making those kinds of decisions.” He says he told his father, “‘There are things you're not seeing that I'm seeing. There are other players this will impact. We need to be sensitive to all that.' And we got on the same page together.” It is working well now, Ryder says. (His youngest brother, Myles, 30, is the manager of sales and marketing.)

Ryder understands why many parents want their children to have equal positions in their family's business. “They love them equally,” he acknowledges. “But you cannot have equality when you're passing the business to the kids. You have to have leaders and followers—a clear chain of command that everyone understands, respects and is willing to live by. When you start breaking that chain of command, that's when things get screwed up.”

Exploring family issues

Sheila Sigel, Travel One Inc., Bloomington, Minn.

In 1998, Sheila Sigel had worked her way up to vice president of operations at Travel One, her father's Bloomington, Minn., travel agency. Then she learned that her father, Bob Neuman, now 70, had decided to buy out his non-family partner and bring in a new president: Sheila's brother Bill Neuman, now 38, who was then working as an insurance salesman for MassMutual.

This was a surprise to Sheila, who had spent 15 years at the agency. “I didn't know that the buyout was happening, or that they went to my brother about bringing him in as president,” she recalls. Sheila, now 44, admits she may not have taken the position if it had been offered, as her daughter was just an infant at the time. “But I guess I would like to have been talked to about it prior,” she says. “There were hard feelings about it, but I've overcome them.”

The family's business relationship has survived, she says, because of her solid relationship with her brother, and the great job he's doing growing the company, particularly strengthening the staff, which now numbers 55, and enhancing community involvement. Her other brother, Steve Neuman, 42, joined the company three years ago and is now vice president, sales and services.

Today their father is vice president and CFO. Ownership is divided equally among the three siblings. “There are always issues and personality conflicts, but we are all on the same page to grow the company,” says Sheila.

The siblings brought in an outside consultant two years ago to help iron out those issues and conflicts. To choose the consultant, first Bill and Bob interviewed three candidates. “Then I got to choose the one I felt most comfortable with,” says Sheila.

One issue they tackled involved the closeness between Bill and Steve. “That was interfering with our working relationship. And it was causing friction,” explains Sheila, who says she felt left out.

They also needed to understand each other's personality types: Bill and Sheila both have “type A” personalities, while Steve is more laid-back, Sheila says. She says she resented everyone's assumption that because Bill is the president, he's the busiest. “The schedule always ran around him,” Sheila says. “[The consultant] made everyone realize I'm as busy as Bill, and my role is just as important.”

The family is still working with the adviser, who is helping them build trust and improve communications, Sheila says. “[The consultant] opened everyone's eyes that we have an issue communicating,” she notes. “Because we're family, we don't want to hurt each other's feelings. She's teaching us to separate family and business, to take criticism and know it won't personally affect our family relationship.”

Have the sessions helped? “I think we've come a long way,” Sheila says. “We can now speak about things easier than we could before.”

The siblings now make decisions together, she points out. If an issue arises, “We all give our opinions and concerns. But if we don't decide 100%, Bill has the final word.” And then the family puts on a united front and supports that decision, she says.

Their father, Bob, still comes in every day to oversee finances. “He doesn't like his children disagreeing,” Sheila observes. “He's a good sounding board, so he can be a good middleman. But it's easier now that he's no longer the main decision-maker.”

Planning for family time

Marie Williamson, Affairs to Be Remembered, Broomall, Pa.

Each of the four sisters who own and run Affairs to be Remembered, a Broomall, Pa.-based event design company, is in a different stage of life.

Eileen Williamson-Getty, 48, the controller, has six children. (The older three work at the company: Thomas, 24, builds props; Francis, 25, is a florist; and Daniel, 21, is the lead production person.) Maureen Williamson-Collins, 37, art and floral designer, has three children, ages seven, five and three. Annabelle Williamson-Mirra, 35, a salesperson, has a two-year-old.

Sister Marie Williamson, 33, is single and has no children. Her sisters who are mothers “have a harder time juggling everything,” she observes. So she accepts being on call more, she says. She notes that she doesn't mind because “I love my job.”

The family has figured out how to make the arrangements fair, Marie says. “We try to work the schedules so if there's a Saturday install, even if it's not one of my clients, I'd head up the load-out the night before, since Annabelle and Maureen need to be at home at night. But then I'd have off the next day. So I'm not really working more hours.”

A fifth sister, Kathy Williamson-Moran 50, is the office manager. Brother Michael Williamson, 40, serves as warehouse manager. They both came on board a year and a half ago and are not yet owners. (Kathy's son, Patrick, 25, builds props for the company.)

Marie says the siblings take care not to pick fights. But she adds that they know they can take advantage of each other. For instance, Marie says, when tempers occasionally flare, “We don't have to apologize. Our form of an apology is getting iced tea for each other.”

Generally, she says, they are more sensitive to each other's moods than non-family colleagues would be, because they don't want an argument to create a family rift.

The siblings' mother, Annabelle Williamson, a retired seamstress and rental property owner, helps them maintain work/family balance and keep the peace. She takes care of her four youngest grandchildren in a day care room at the company facilities. After 3 p.m., Maureen picks up her second-grader and kindergartner from school and spends a little time with them at the company's day care room. The children do their homework there and can visit with their mom or aunts and uncle. Maureen and sister Annabelle can also have lunch with the younger children. “It breaks up the day for them,” notes Marie.

In the seven years the company has existed, the family has had to handle typical business family disagreements, Marie says. “For instance, I'm more eager to take risks, but we have checks and balances,” she explains. “Every major decision goes through all four partners.”

The company, which oversees about 100 events a year, is currently considering purchasing new trucks. Marie would like a 15- and 24-footer and a van, but Eileen, who tends to be more cautious, is not convinced.

“Sometimes [a decision] goes by majority,” says Marie. “I know Eileen is not just saying no for the sake of it, that it's because she has our as a company's interests at heart. Most of the time, we learn to trust unconditionally that we have each other's back, and you can't put a price tag on that.”

Letting their feelings out

Laurie Brock Lisk, Max Brock Co. Inc., Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1979 Laurie Brock Lisk took a break from her job in social work to join her father's Buffalo, N.Y., recycling yard, Max Brock Co. Inc. She thought she'd make a pile of money and then return to her career. But her late father, Jerome Brock, took advantage of her presence to take a vacation.

“He said, ‘You're in charge,” and that changed all my feelings about the place,” recalls Laurie, now 53, the fourth-generation owner. “I really paid attention at that point. By the time he came back I had all these ideas to change everything. He'd say, ‘slow down, slow down.' He knew I was there to stay.”

But it was not easy working together, Laurie recalls. For one thing, Jerome, who worked until a few months before he died in 1994 at age 85, wouldn't pay his children any more than the lowest-paid employee. That might have been OK when Laurie and her brother, Mike—who died in 2002 at age 50—worked during school vacations. But once she was on board full time, making $4.50 an hour did not cut it. “He asked me how much I wanted, and I said $20 an hour. He said, ‘Pack your things and go.' So I walked out the door. Then he screamed, ‘How about $10?' I said, ‘With perks.'”

The screaming was in character, Laurie says. “My family tends to scream and yell. But we don't fight,” she insists. The distinction? There are no fights “where we don't talk for days,” she explains. “We argue about business, scream it out and then it's over. We don't hold on to stuff.”

When Laurie disagreed with her dad, she'd wait for him to go on vacation. During one of his holidays, she put up a big sign over the front: “Max Brock Co.: Father and Daughter Business.” Then she got bolder, and installed a new platform for trucks to dump their scrap metal.

Another year, Laurie says, she purchased a $10,000 computer system. She recalls that upon his return, he always asked her, “‘What'd you do this time?' Then it would usually end up ‘his idea.' I didn't care whose idea it was; I'd get it done.”

The year she planned in advance to have a new building constructed, she told him, “I really went over the top this time—you'll really be pleased.” When she drove him to see the $50,000 structure, she recalls, he bellowed, “I told you we don't need another building.” She answered, “I thought you were wrong.”

One thing Laurie did not change while her father was on vacation was the staff. But as soon as he died, she let four old-timers go, including his 87-year-old secretary and three yard workers, also in their 80s.

The $3 million company now employs 15 people—plus Laurie's two nephews, ages 21 and 16, during school vacations. Her two older daughters have their own careers. “They're great kids, but the thought of coming to work in combat boots and jeans would not work for them,” Laurie says. “My third daughter, who's 17, has the heart to do it,” she notes, but she adds that she's had a hard time getting her youngest to work during school vacations.

A few months before Jerome died, he and his wife, Rose, would drive to the yard after his dialysis treatments. “He'd toot [the horn] at me, and I'd go out back with him,” Laurie recalls. “Then he'd bark, ‘You're doing this wrong, you're doing that wrong. As soon as I die, you're going to go broke.' I'd be a mess. Then my mother would call me later and say, ‘The whole way home your father bragged about the great job you're doing.'”

Managing fast growth

Amgad Saad, Garner TV & Appliance, West Garner, N.C.

“I've never had an idea that's been overruled,”; claims Amgad Saad in his Southern drawl. Called the “Egyptian redneck” by friends, the 40-year-old general manager of Garner TV & Appliance shop in West Garner, N.C., measures his new ideas in terms of how many meetings it takes to sell them to the five family members who work with him.

One idea—opening a second location—has been mulled over at about a dozen meetings over three years. But, Amgad is quick to add, it has not been ruled out by family members, including his father, Mones Saad, 68, the company president, and his aunt Magda Saad, 60, treasurer, who started the company in 1977 after immigrating to the U.S. several years earlier. They retain their titles and still act as advisers, although they retired last year. Another uncle, vice president Magdy Saad, 55, has been spending more time on community activities.

Amgad's sister Rita Hines, 37, works with Amgad on the appliance side of the business, while Magda's sons, Tamer Saad, 37, and Adam Saad, 32, run the electronics end. Magdy's wife, Samia, serves as accountant.

“We're willing to take a few more risks than our parents want us to take,” notes Amgad. “But we've always found a middle ground on all the ventures we've wanted to try.”

He says he understands the two reasons why his expansion plan has not yet taken hold. A previous expansion several years ago resulted in substantial losses. Amgad is optimistic that eventually, his plan will prevail because “the company is different today than it was before.” For the past six years Garner TV has enjoyed tremendous growth, from $4 million in annual revenues in 2000 to $12 million today. “Not that [the older generation] is completely resisting,” Amgad notes. “We talked about it last week because I happened to get a letter from a real estate agent about a property. But the fact is, we have a lot going on in the store currently.”

Which leads to the second reason for not yet opening a second store: a $300,000 renovation of the 20,000-square-foot retail store and warehouse.

“I'm not chomping at the bit; I'm busy enough right now,” Amgad says.

The family tries to manage its growth carefully, he says. “Half of our employees used to be family members. Now there are 31 employees. Our dynamics have been changing over the past five years.” Amgad says the company manual helps keep everyone's expectations in check. “As long as it's in writing, everyone understands, and you'll minimize dissent.”

Jayne A. Pearl, a freelance writer, editor and speaker (, is the author of Kids and Money: Giving Them the Savvy to Succeed Financially and a workbook based on her seminar, How to Gimme-Proof Your Kids.

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