How to run your own family meetings

The job has many pitfalls. And it’s only for bravehearts. Indeed, a new program that trains family members to chair meetings advises using two “co-facilitators.”

By Sharon P. Krone

Sara Wells approaches the front of the room and pauses to organize her opening statements for her family’s first-ever family meeting. Her voice quivers as she introduces herself and the purpose of the gathering. She stares at the overhead screen as she reads through the agenda. Her face communicates dread. From behind the video camera at the back of the room a voice calls out. “Turn off the overhead and put down your notes.” The voice continues: “You know why you are holding the meeting and what you hope to accomplish. Look at your family directly, and speak to them as if you’re excited they are here.”

After viewing the session on videotape with one of the coaches in the room, Sara realizes how stiff and uncertain she appears. She makes some adjustments and begins again, this time with more confidence and conviction. Her voice is louder, her eye contact much stronger.

Sara Wells, along with her niece, Jane Wells, were attending the Family Business Communications Institute at Loyola University Chicago to learn the necessary skills to run their own family meetings. Inaugurated this spring, the program grew out of a two-year study by a task force at Loyola’s Family Business Center to study the qualifications and techniques of effective facilitators who are themselves family members, and how those techniques can be taught. Video coaching is just one of the many tools used to help Sara and her classmates organize their thoughts, facilitate discussions, and understand the impression they are making on the group.

Another exercise in the 60-hour course teaches participants the importance of paying attention to group process. On day two, Ben Berryman, CEO and chairman of a 400-employee family business, is sitting in the middle of the floor. Stormy sounds blast from the boom box as he and his classmates attempt to assemble a tent blindfolded. “Through that activity, I realized how determined I am to finish a task without considering the process or the people who are part of the process,” Ben recalled. “I have to be careful not to bulldoze my way through a meeting and ignore the process. It also helped me realize that there may be other task-oriented people in the room that I will have to coax to slow down.”

Meetings of business families differ significantly from other group interactions in that the participants bring with them emotional baggage that often goes back to childhood. Families often have tacit rules about topics to be avoided (such as money, death, or divorce). And certain issues tend to dominate the conversation (such as business strategy, financial reports, and marketing updates). For a member of the group to facilitate a family meeting with all this complexity requires a high level of sensitivity, finesse, and courage.

Advisers to family companies tend to agree that family meetings are helpful in promoting cooperation and learning conflict-resolution skills. In addition, empirical research shows that holding family meetings improves the chances for a successful transfer of leadership to the next generation. While urging business owners to organize such meetings, however, the field has not until now provided training for families in how to do it well. Trained facilitators are in short supply, moreover, and many families cannot afford their fees.

The founders of the institute wanted to help families correct some of the organizational and logistical problems they had encountered in their family meetings. Our aim was to find out what worked and what didn’t and why. Mostly, we wanted to see if we could train a group of lay facilitators who could get family meetings started and, given a reasonable amount of harmony in the family, run them effectively—who could at least “wade into the shallow end of the pool” even if they might not be ready to swim in deeper waters.

 

Creation of the task force

Planning for the Communications Institute began in 1994 with the organization of a task force made up of members of Loyola University’s Family Business Center. Of the 60 families who belong to the center, 15 were selected to share their insights and experience with family meetings. The group was made up of a spectrum of family stakeholders—owners and non-owners, participants in the business and non-participants, older and younger generations, spouses and in-laws. They came from Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Our experience had taught us that what business families call a “family meeting” varies all over the map. Some consider their weekly strategy sessions with family managers at the office “family meetings.” Others think that conversations over Sunday dinner or on family vacations qualify as a family meeting.

Meetings at the office do not include family members who are not in the business but whose lives are nonetheless affected by it. And conversations over dinner are not always ideal for getting clear decisions on important matters, such as what can be done to assist the career development of the next generation, whether to pool the members’ investments through establishing a family office, how they should respond to queries from the media, and so on.

If we were going to create a program to teach families how to facilitate their own family meetings, we realized we would have to design a new approach. And whatever approach we chose would have to take into account emotional barriers, family stereotypes, and embedded conflicts that evolve over a lifetime. To be effective, some facilitators chosen by the family would have to deal with biases that went back to childhood.

“I am preparing to walk into a room of family members who are, on average, 25 years older than I am,” explained Joan Wells, Sara’s niece. “As a facilitator, I must project an image of competence and trustworthiness to a group of relatives who still regard me as a naive college student.”

 

The neutrality issue

Not long after the task force meetings began, we concluded that we should not limit our research to the experiences of 15 people. The task force decided to conduct a telephone survey of other business-owning families across the United States to elicit their experiences with family meetings and their preferences for facilitators.

In our phone interviews, we heard a wide range of reasons for not using family members as facilitators. Many people expressed concern that family members were not adequately trained or did not possess inherent qualities necessary to facilitate complex family meetings. Others doubted that the facilitator could be objective or that he or she would keep the meeting “safe enough” for people to be willing to share personal thoughts and feelings. Several respondents thought family meetings were a waste of time altogether, or had been pushed by one or two family members who had a heavy personal agenda. The majority of the 50 people we interviewed sought, above all, a facilitator who could be impartial in guiding discussions of issues.

“The overwhelming response from families was their need for neutrality in a family meeting facilitator,” recalled Bobbie Gordon, a faculty member of the institute. “We had to step back and think, ‘How can we offer families neutrality and trust from a facilitator who happens to be a member of the family?’”

It was clear that any model for a family facilitator would have to include checks and balances to raise the level of trust and prevent the person from pursuing a personal agenda in the meetings. In our initial design for the curriculum, we intended to train only one member of the family as a facilitator. As a result of the survey responses, as well as the concerns of several task force members, we considered several other alternatives. For example, we discussed training people to facilitate the meetings of other families instead of their own. Could we develop and encourage a network of family meeting facilitators who would exchange their services with one another?

While this proposal satisfied the need for neutrality, we were concerned that some families might worry about the loss of confidentiality from having a non-member run their meetings. We also felt that the plan might compromise the “home-grown facilitator” model on which the institute was founded. Ultimately, the concept of the “facilitator exchange” did not satisfy the task force, and we decided to consider one final option: Instead of structuring the course for a single family member, we decided to train two “co-facilitators” who would be nominated by their families prior to registration. The co-facilitation model not only could give family members some assurance against the domination of the meetings by a single individual, but also would make it possible for the facilitators to express their personal views on the issues.

“By having two family members trained as facilitators, they could alternate between them, depending on what was happening in the meeting,” explained Bobbie Gordon. “If one facilitator happened to have strong opinions about a topic that was being discussed, she could stand aside, turn the meeting over to her partner, and then participate in the discussion.”

Co-facilitators, working as a team, could support each other. “Having a family partner with me throughout the course was incredibly helpful,” recalled one participant, Michelle Dorin, who attended with her brother-in-law, Rick Hastings. “I had someone who understood my family and the special challenges I would face. Rick and I shared our ideas and concerns about the family meeting with each other and could plan more effectively.” Michelle added that having a pair of facilitators also prevented the family from getting the impression that the family meeting was “just my thing.”

 

Building basic skills

The task force meetings deepened our insights into what an effective family meeting requires and the qualities needed in a family facilitator. Generally, we at the institute believe business families should meet at least annually or semi-annually. The meetings should include all family members over 16 years of age, including spouses, regardless of whether they own stock or participate in the business. The purpose of the meetings is to learn together, to discuss, to plan, to preserve values and traditions. Agenda topics may range from preparing a family mission statement to developing leaders in the next generation, to planning various philanthropic ventures such as a family foundation, to writing a family history. The overall goals are greater cohesion, communication, and planning in the family—all of which can be fostered by a skilled facilitator who is able to encourage participation and ensure a fair hearing for everyone’s views.

Stuart Rollins, a business owner who was a task force member, described the intangible benefits of his family’s meetings: “Sure, we have a family mission statement to show for all our meetings, but we are a more solid and cohesive family because of the process we went through to create that statement.”

Through our research, we identified a number of traits of people who naturally excel in the facilitator role. They tend to be goal-oriented, charismatic, flexible, professional, diplomatic, sensitive, intuitive, and patient. But we concluded that other competencies could be acquired through training. They included skills in communication, conflict resolution, active listening, decision-making, and group management.

“A lot of eyes rolled back when we began teaching listening skills,” said institute faculty member Mary Clare Healy. “Everybody has learned this before—they can repeat it in their sleep: ‘I messages,’ ‘rephrasing,’ ‘reframing,’ ” said Healy. “We push them to the next level, which is to be able to teach and coach the family to do the same thing during their meetings.”

Facilitators must also be good delegators. In fact, they gain support for the process by involving people—by designating others, for example, to take notes in the meetings, keep track of the time, handle the flip charts, prepare minutes, chair committees. Instead of trying to do all the work herself, the facilitator needs to concentrate on coordinating the efforts of others and keeping everyone moving forward.

 

Wading into the pool

The institute course focuses on building these skills. Each participant experiences the course work as a learner (“What am I learning that benefits me?”), as a family member (“How would my family respond to this or that experience?”), and as a future facilitator (“What am I observing that I want to teach or emulate at my family meeting?”). The course also stresses some basic guidelines for organizing the meetings.

Before tackling any business at the first meeting, for example, some ground rules should be established to assure family members of safety and fairness in the conduct of the meetings. The ground rules may include, for example: “Cell phones are to be turned off during the meeting,” “Everyone has the right to finish his or her sentence before another speaks,” and, “Late-comers pay an admission charge (for example, 25 cents for each minute late).”

A little gentle humor in the application of the rules doesn’t hurt. During the first course, Rick Hastings began offering feedback to a classmate before she had finished her opening statement in front of the class. Suddenly he was handed a bright orange rubber chicken. “At the beginning of the course, similar to the beginning of a family meeting,” he explained later, “we all agreed on a list of ground rules for the group—one of which was ‘No interrupting.’ Anyone who violated the rules gets the chicken. It is an effective tool to keep everyone under control, but it also adds some fun to the meeting.”

Facilitators can reduce possible misunderstandings and suspicions by communicating frequently and sharing information with all family members. The agenda and background material, for example, should be circulated well in advance so that members can come prepared to the meetings. We also recommend that family members be invited to submit agenda items before it is circulated.

Be wary of taking on too much too soon. Some families may choose to begin with only a three-hour meeting to set the ground rules and plan future agendas. Afterward, families may choose to move to a half- or full-day format or even a weekend retreat.

Start slowly, with relatively uncontroversial topics, such as developing communications skills or setting some basic ground rules. Don’t tackle the hottest issues, such as estate and succession plans or articulating a family vision, until the group has become comfortable speaking and interacting in an open forum. “Our approach at the institute is to teach the participants to pace themselves,” said Drew Mendoza, founder of the Family Business Center. “The process is so much more important than the product of the meeting.”

We have also realized that in many cases the guidance of an experienced professional will be required. Family facilitators need to understand where their competencies end and intervention by a professional outsider must begin. “They keep saying we are just wading into the shallow end of the pool,” said Jim Berryman. “I just need to pay attention to where the pool floor slopes to the deep end.”

 

Sharon P. Krone is founder and dean of the Family Business Communications Institute at Loyola University Chicago. Editor’s note: The names of task force members and institute participants have been altered for this article.


Guidelines for family facilitators

Co-facilitate. Have a partner with whom you can take turns facilitating the meeting, depending on the topics discussed.

Promote buy-in. Gain the support of other family members by encouraging them to participate. Delegate tasks such as researching topics to be discussed and taking minutes.

Get training. Improve your communication, conflict-resolution, facilitation, and listening skills, preferably with the help of a good coach or at a hands-on workshop.

Know thyself. Become more aware of how you lead and interact with others, to build on your strengths and remedy weaknesses in your style.

Know thy limits. Identify your competencies and be aware of the constraints on a facilitator chosen from within the family. Know when the services of an outside professional may be necessary.

Communicate openly. Shower your family with information. Use e-mail, memos, phone trees, newsletters to give them details of upcoming meetings.

Set the rules first. Take ample time to establish ground rules for meetings that the family will agree to. Then, hold them to whatever rules you devise.

Pay attention to details. Don’t overlook the importance of providing ample breaks, comfortable seating, refreshments, day care for infants, access to phones, and so on. Some families have a hospitality committee to make sure everyone’s needs are taken care of.

Take your time. It takes time for some families to become accustomed to discussing things openly. Begin with bite-sized, neutral agenda topics and limit the first few meetings to under a half-day.

Have fun. Make meetings more memorable by taking time before or after to celebrate birthdays, graduations, and other milestones. Plan family trips, outings, and other fun activities.

-- S.P.K.