Business Owners on the Couch

By Leon Danco

Agonizing problems in a business cannot be cured by putting people in a room and talking about “relationships.”

It seems that at least once a week these days I get a phone call from a psychologist or some other therapist asking for advice on how to get into family business consulting. The therapy business appears to be in a slump, and these professionals are seeking new horizons.

Of course, the first thing I tell them is to read my book, “Beyond Survival.” (The least they can do is buy a $20 book to go with my advice! ) More seriously, I urge them to get out and meet business executives, business owners, and business professionals, to steep themselves in the language of business people, to try to understand the problems they face every day and learn to communicate with them in their own language.

In over 30 years of consulting to family businesses, I have spent a great deal of time with psychologists, most of whom I have found to be kind, compassionate souls with great understanding of human nature. I have worked happily with many whom I have admired and who have tutored me for many hours over many years. I don't hesitate to make referrals to these people. I don't know how to fix a drinking problem or a marital problem. If a family seems dysfunctional, or if there are questions about some of the members' stability or basic aptitudes, I will, of course, refer them to a specialist.

I just wish the psychologists who consult with family businesses would spend as much time talking with business specialists. I have met too many whose understanding of business is exceedingly thin. A few had been treating their clients for several years and yet couldn’t tell me how many employees the company had, whether it was making a profit, what the ownership structure was, or whether the firm had a board.

Business owners have usually devoted their entire lives to building their company. It has afforded them little time for introspection. Their first concern is managing a profitable company, and they may not really understand their own deepest motivations. No matter what their needs, however, they do not react well to advisers who do not understand their world and cannot speak their language.

Most of the psychologists, psychiatrists, and family therapists I have met seem to have been trained to analyze their client's problems in the abstract and to maintain their distance and objectivity. They tend to regard themselves as observers, above the fray, rather than as participants. My approach has always been fundamentally different. I try to put myself in the shoes of my clients, to think and respond as they do. If my client grew up poor and now has all this money, I imagine myself as having grown up poor and suddenly acquiring wealth. If he or she has four siblings, so do I. If I am advising a young woman in the business, I try to think of what my daughter or granddaughter would want, and so on.

In a way, I become my clients—I am them. And to do this I have to admire them. Otherwise, I will not be comfortable advising them on how to govern their businesses—I'd feel like a hypocrite or voyeur. By the same token, they have to accept me and my values if the collaboration is going to work.

In my experience, business owners do not deal in the abstract. Every morning when they walk in the door they are met with an onslaught of concrete problems, whether it be from their employees, creditors, suppliers, customers, the government, or the economy. They must decide, they must act.

The other day a business owner practically got down on his knees and begged me to tell him what to do. This man owns a $150 million business with over a thousand employees. He has a son who has bungled one assignment after another. He has one senior manager who is constantly arguing with his subordinates, and another who is threatening to quit. His financial advisers are quarreling among themselves. What’s he to do?

These are agonizing problems that usually cannot be solved by getting people together in a room and encouraging them to talk about “relationships.” Psychologists tend to want to make peace through better understanding—which is a fine and noble objective. I, too, care about relationships. But I also care about saving people's companies. Rather than trying to change people, I try to change the way they are organized. I help them rearrange the furniture to avoid tripping over it.

I recently worked with two brothers, both in their 50s, who were equal partners in a metal processing business but had not been able to get along for many years following the death of their father. One brother was highly competent and had assumed more and more of the responsibility for the business; his sons were also well motivated and appeared capable of one day running the company. The other brother, in contrast, had long since lost interest and was carrying less and less of the burden of management. Following his example, his children demonstrated less promise as potential successors.The nicest thing one brother had said to the other in several years was to call him “a no-good S.O.B.”

The brothers needed to separate their responsibilities so that each was not constantly irritated by the actions of the other. They needed to put in a board with independent outsiders on it to help reconcile management differences and build up the company. Over a three-year period, the harder-working brother bought out the other. Fortunately, both were decent human beings who wanted to work things out, and they did. The brothers now see each other frequently and get along fine.

People sometimes get mad at each other for perfectly good, rational reasons. Psychologists who come in urging them to express their true feelings—to "let it all hang out"—sometimes only make matters worse. In addition, trying to heal their anger may require prolonged therapy, and constant doses of Valium.

I am not interested in endlessly holding hands with clients. I know that after every meeting with the client, I can get on a plane and go away. The client, however, is left alone to face the facts of his or her situation, digest my advice, and, hopefully, act on it.

Winston Churchill loved to tell the story of the tipsy gentleman who sidles up to a woman at a party and declares, “Madame, you are ugly.” The woman replies, “And you, sir, are drunk.” Whereupon, the man adds: “Yes, madame, but tomorrow I will be sober.” Much that is ugly in life is simply built into the human condition and cannot be erased. I doubt if anyone will ever find a cure for laziness, or greed. In contrast, many problems in a family company—and even in relationships—can be solved by facing the facts, by finding ways to grow the business and build up profits, by creating opportunities and excitement among the managers and employees. And when family members’ dreams for the business are simply irreconcilable, the best medicine may still be a buyout.

My advice to psychologists who enter this field is: Read Forbes, Fortune, and BusinessWeek, not just the Journal of Psychiatry or the American Psychologist. Join service organizations such as Rotary, where you can meet business people and get to know them and understand their concerns.

Narrowness is a vice in consulting to a family business. An overall understanding of business needs is critical. Empathy is as essential as objectivity. The relationship between a business owner and a close adviser should be symbiotic, like a ballet in which the two dancers need to move confidently together as one.


Léon Danco is the founder of the Center for Family Business in Cleveland and the author of four books on family business.


Article categories: 
Print / Download
Winter 1997

Other Related Articles

  • 5 keys to success in any family business

    Running a business is hard. Family life can be hard. Running a family business can seem impossible at times. In addition to the difficult decisions you must make every day for the company, you must al...

  • Risk Management in the Age of Uncertainty

    In the 1600s, merchant ships faced enormous uncertainty while delivering cargo throughout the world. Rough weather, pirates, foreign gunships and disease consistently threatened their voyages, and the...

  • GOJO doubles production to meet ‘staggering’ Purell demand

    GOJO Industries, the third-generation family business that makes Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer, has doubled production across all operations in order to ship twice as much product as it delivered to s...

  • Family giving during COVID-19

    Over the past several months, we have heard time and again: We are all in this together. Truly, not a single person in our country has been unaffected by COVID-19. Whether you or someone you know is a...