Lessons Learned on Communication in the Family Boardroom

Elaine King

In family businesses, miscommunication is a standard issue. Of course, it can be a problem in any business, but what sets a family business apart is the layer of familiarity, emotion, and family dynamics that come in decision-making and conversations. It often happens that things get communicated only when they escalate and manifest through a disagreement or argument. However, that’s the result of poor communication.

And yes, family members usually claim that they talk all the time, but do they effectively talk about issues that concern them? Do they know how to separate business, family, and ownership issues? Here are some valuable lessons to be learned about communication in the family boardroom.

  1. Every Discussion Has Its Time and Place

Everyone should train themselves to keep the business discussion from messing with your family time. Serious discussions should be at the right time and place. It should be happening during work hours and, perhaps, at a formal family meeting. Take time to establish family governance structures and organize family board meetings or councils for structured times to discuss your issues.

  1. Don’t Use the Silent Treatment

The “silent treatment” is a trap in which many families fall victim. For example, the family business owners (the first generation) won’t discuss anything about the leadership of the business with the next generation of ownership. Instead of resolving the issue, it creates more tension.

  1. Use the Right Communication Medium

Sometimes you can talk via email, while some discussions must happen face-to-face. Family members can feel left out of meaningful discussions if they’re not involved in daily operations. That’s one issue that often comes out in a multigenerational family business. If you can’t talk face-to-face; use written communication to avoid leaving people out unintentionally.

  1. Keep It Open and Honest

To nurture a sincere and open communication environment, you first need to develop a way to separate out the three primary systems – family, ownership, and management. Dedicate some time to talk about forming habits and creating structures to instill discipline, so family issues are not discussed on the shop floor but in a family setting. Ownership issues can be addressed only among owners, while management needs to be able to make daily decisions without the interference of other family members. When you establish these systems of communication, they need to be respected and understood by all.

  1. Plan Those Family Meetings

Don’t go into the meeting and let everyone start talking about their concerns. A family meeting should be planned to allow for as much communication and interaction as possible. How can it be done? Start by developing a formal meeting agenda and enable all participants to add points to the schedule before the meeting. Determine the participants in advance, provide the overview of past successes, failures, and challenges, make sure to speak in a business language that everyone will understand. Acknowledge the efforts and sacrifices of all the participants in the meeting, not only family employees.

To build an open and honest family business takes a lot of effort and dedication, but it’s worth it. It’s worth in the long-term because you will reduce the miscommunication and conflict. Gather on a regular basis to discuss the progress of the business and allow family members to interact and ask questions. Even those who don’t work or own shares are affected, such as spouses, so this is necessary for building an understanding in a family boardroom.

Elaine King, CFP is an expert on family enterprise consulting, creating strategies for wealth planning, family governance, and financial education programs.

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Elaine King - Family and Money Matters™ 2021