Family Business Conversations at Christmas - Keep the Grinch Away

Christmas is supposed to be a time of cheer and warm fuzzies but I wonder how many families will have tense moments that will put a strain on their festivities.  Will the Grinch strike and steal the spirit of their Christmas?

I’m not talking about your usual niggles like your brother-in-law who has had one to many beers and falls asleep when it is time to do the carving or washing up. I am thinking about what conversations may be brought up amongst the family about the family business, or conversely, what issues may be ignored. For example, what is the future of the business? Who is taking it forward, or not? Christmas is a time when families gather together from far afield so it is an opportune time to front foot such questions.   It is better to discuss them early, before they become loaded conversations that fester or escalate into disputes.

Succession planning is a big issue especially as the current generation of owners aren’t getting any younger and need to consider how their business will transition to the next generation. Such conversations are particularly tricky when family members are involved in business together, such as a family farm.  If family businesses don’t work out, they lose money and family relationships.  But farming businesses are further complicated because they involve an emotional connection to the land, not just the monetary value of it.

Typically, intergenerational issues crop up. Parents spend most of their lives building the farm and are often worried about what will they do if they don’t work so they can hang around. Businesses get stuck because founders won’t hand the reins over. The next generation involved in the farm typically can’t forward plan, be innovative or take risks. Also, how and when are family members going to get money out of the business?

But on the other hand, the next generation can be part of the problem: are they ready to take over? Do they want to be involved? Do all of them want to be involved? Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is what people think is fair. Fairness needs to be negotiated. It is natural that brothers and sisters of all ages compare themselves to each other. Fairness is not an independent thing that is based on logic. It is relative to each person and how they feel.

Some families might be able to come to arrangements amongst themselves. However,  if you know there are going to be some sticky patches or you hit a stumbling block, it is really useful to engage an independent person  who can ask the awkward questions and has the neutrality and knowledge to problem solve and think differently about solutions. 

The main thing is simply to start these conversations in a respectful and inclusive manner. If you can do that, you might just keep the Grinch at bay. Here my top tips for keeping him away:

1.    Act early – don’t let issues build up so they become loaded.  Talk about them, don’t ignore them. Pick a good a time when people are not distracted. The sooner you have these conversations, the more likely you can talk about them calmly without them turning into disputes.

2.    Have honest and open conversations. It is important that you are transparent and that all the family is involved and knows what is going on. If possible, have a family meeting. Some people decide to keep it to direct blood relatives, others want it to involve spouses as well. Listen without judgment and ask questions aimed at trying to understand the other point of view.   Separate the people from the problem. You can joke but be careful not to offend anyone. Take breaks. 

3.    Agree on some ground rules: Only one person talks at a time. Keep the booze to a minimum. If someone is under the influence and says the wrong thing, walk away. Agree to disagree and talk about the difficult topics again at another time. 

4.    Develop a plan so that so your expectations are clear and everyone knows what is happening. Plan a date to meet again to continue the discussion.  Agree that if any one of you feels compromised, you will get an independent person to help you work through the plan and resolve any sticky issues.