Matters Column

Family meetings: identifying exactly who is in the room

April 29, 2016
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Everyone has that odd uncle who shows up at family events and creates awkwardly memorable situations. What if that uncle is not just a family member but you “get to” work with him every day in your family business?

Family businesses often have an interesting cast of characters, each of whom contributes uniquely to the organizational culture and the climate of family meetings. If the meeting is going to run smoothly and be productive, it is helpful for the facilitator to understand each person in the meeting and how to respond to him or her.

1. The godfather (or godmother): What seems like “strong leadership” at first can end up being highly controlling behavior. This person is always in charge, sometimes openly and other times behind the scenes. All roads lead through him/her, and it is tough to get anything done without his/her blessing. This can have a disheartening and demotivating effect on the rest of the team while stifling deep engagement, new ideas and fresh thinking.

A skilled facilitator will do the best work outside the meeting, as taking on this powerful person in the meeting will lead to significant conflict. Outside the meeting, a facilitator can both affirm the leader while also helping him/her identify new leaders who can be given a chance to express their leadership style and ideas. Looking ahead to a time where the godfather will not be as engaged is one way to motivate this thinking and get him to loosen his grip.

2. Visionary Victoria: Vicky is a BIG thinker. Her ideas are on a grand scale. To some she seems incredibly visionary and forward thinking but to others she seems unrealistic. While she may not be great at implementation, she ensures the group will not “settle” for simple thinking or easy solutions. She can be a catalyst who helps the group break free from ruts or tradition, even though she drives the practical members nuts.

But Vicky creates a positive tension in the group, and a skilled facilitator can manage that. It is a bit of a dance: Let Vicky go if the group needs some energy and fresh thinking, but dial her back if she gets too “out there.” Identify someone who can partner with Vicky and help her develop an implementation/feasibility plan.

Ask Vicky to prioritize her big ideas. Statements such as “Vicky, that is some good thinking, any feedback or questions from the group?” or “What are your top 3 strategies, and who can help develop a plan for implementation” can stimulate broad group investment and active response to her energy.

3. Hijacker Harry: Harry has no popup blocker; he says whatever is on his mind. From “we’ve tried this before and it doesn’t work” to emotional explosions and overlong explanations that hijack the meeting with items that are neither relevant nor on the agenda, Harry is all over the place.

There are some simple verbal prompts that can signal these wandering family members that it is time to return to the meeting: “Let’s come back to the agenda item we were discussing” or “Can you help us by linking your comments to the question we were discussing?” A more direct intervention could be, “I need to interrupt you and see if there are any other perspectives on this matter.”

4. Questioning Quentin: Quentin asks questions persistently until he feels he has enough information.  Generally, he does this out of his deep detail orientation, rather than being passive-aggressive. Even though he asks more questions than anyone else in the room, his questions deepen everyone’s understanding. But people might begin to check out if it goes on too long. How to strike a balance?

A good facilitator is patient and realizes a healthy team is a self-regulating team. You don’t have to answer all of Quentin’s questions, but merely prod the team to stay in the discussion. You role is to keep it moving, watch the time and enable everyone’s participation.

If a team is frustrated with a member’s legitimate need, you might consider asking them to take a step back to prioritize their questions, meeting with the person offline, or bringing the agenda item back at a future meeting. Above all, do not appear to take sides. The facilitator is on the side of fairness, good process and the group’s stated goals.

4. Smooth It Over Sam: Instead of letting a good conversation proceed, even with disagreement or debate, Sam will interject to pull the group to a neutral, but unproductive, place. Watch for statements such as, “Well, I think the important thing is that everyone is happy about the decision” or “Hey, everyone tried really hard and that’s what counts.” Over time, this can either be self-marginalizing behavior for Sam, or others might become influenced by Sam’s discomfort and be less likely to fully invest in tough conversations.   

In the meeting, a facilitator can let Sam know you are “on it” (developing conflict). You can observe, “I think Jack and Barb are helping us understand this complex problem much better; thank you.”

5. Busy Biff (Buffy) is always late, always in a rush, and gives others the impression there are more important things he could be doing. Biff is rarely prepared, very distracted, and spends time interacting with his phone. 

This is very distracting to the other members of the team, and can have the effect of eroding others’ behaviors if left unchecked.

Clear agreements about how we conduct ourselves while meeting is a great start and arms the facilitator with the necessary standing to ask Biff to comply with the previously agreed upon standards. Refusing to backtrack and cover items already discussed for those who come late is another means of providing accountability to stick with reasonable agreements. Finally, chronic behavior may require a sidebar during a break or between meetings to remind Biff that his contribution and focus are important to the team, inviting him to a higher standard.

One of the most difficult aspects of doing good, effective work in a family meeting is keeping people focused, engaged and participating in ways that not only achieve the goals of the agenda but also don’t leave permanent marks on the relationships between the team members.

It is a challenging balance to strike and daunting for any family member to facilitate a family meeting. It is likely significant work will need to be done outside the meeting, and for some, it may be best to find someone who specializes in facilitation and isn’t part of the family.

In either case, it is helpful to identify who is in the room. Hopefully, these “characters” will both cause you to smile and have a plan for responding to them.  

Tom Emigh and Tamara Rosier are principals at Acorn Leadership (acornleadership.com), an organizational and leadership development consulting firm based in the Grand Rapids area. 

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