On togetherness and inclusiveness

When a family business stakeholder group is small enough to fit everyone around the dinner table, the family values and business mission are communicated naturally, and important company developments are brought up in everyday conversation. But once the family moves into the third generation, it becomes harder to get everyone in the same place and on the same page.

At that point, it's important for family leaders to create ways to bring family members together to learn about the business and celebrate their legacy. If a conscious effort isn't made to unite the extended family, a range of issues could arise that threaten the future of the enterprise, including apathy, factionalism and entitlement.

Consider the Bancroft family, who owned Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Wall Street Journal, for a century. In 2007, they sold the company to Rupert Murdoch, who offered an attractive price but was not the kind of buyer the family preferred. Because the family's younger generations had not been trained to be engaged stewards and had never coalesced into a unified ownership group, the deal became their best available option.

In many later-generation families, an "us vs. them" mentality develops: bloodline descendants vs. married-ins, those who work in the business vs. "outside" shareholders, younger vs. older generations, one branch vs. another. Members of factionalized families view their relatives as adversaries rather than business partners.

Inevitably as the family grows, there will be members who move far away and those whose passion lies outside the family business. If they have no interest in reading the family firm's financial statements or getting to know their third cousins, their ability to work together as long-term business partners is at risk.

The way to combat this dangerous fragmentation is to create communication mechanisms and face-to-face meet-ups that get family members thinking like one large clan rather than separate branches and interest groups. It's also important to allow family members who feel removed from the business to raise their concerns and know that they are being heard.

In this issue, we suggest some action plans for creating an atmosphere of inclusiveness. Charlotte Lamp, an owner of Port Blakely Companies and a family business consultant, offers tips on engaging the next generation and welcoming new in-laws into the family. And reporter Margaret Steen presents suggestions from family business stakeholders and advisers on organizing annual meetings that your extended family will look forward to.

Like other major collaborative undertakings, family meetings involve compromise—and some persuasion, trial and error, and drudgery as well. But the result will be a group of extended family members who know each other and are committed to working together as co-owners of a business united around a common mission.

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