The role of a family business consultant

By Paul Morin

A family business consultant can serve a number of different roles in their work with family businesses of various sizes and stages of development. In my experience working with family businesses over the last twenty plus years, the most important step for a family business consultant is to become a trusted business advisor. Trust is important in all relationships, but in the relationship that exists between a family business consultant and client, trust takes on additional importance. Why? Most importantly, the family business consultant typically is not advising just on business issues, but also regarding a whole series of interpersonal challenges and conflicts that exist between and within generations of the family. In order to be effective in that role, the family business consultant must develop a relationship of credibility and trust with the family members. Without such a relationship, it’s very tough for a family business consultant to add much value, particularly in the realm of the family, which in a family business, in my experience, is usually more than half the game.

It’s important to understand that family businesses are complex. As if the family system and business system were not complex and challenging enough on their own, when you overlay one with the other, complexity goes through the roof. You move from the realm of “just” trying to solve business challenges, to trying to solve them in the context of relationships amongst and between generations of the family business owners. The family business consultant often steps into the proverbial “hornet’s nest,” where the business is experiencing challenges, in no small part brought on by ineffective communications processes and protocols amongst the family members. In such cases, the family business consultant must help all key stakeholders maintain perspective and get everyone “rowing the boat in the same direction”. Sometimes this is more easily said than done, particularly when feelings have been hurt and major philosophical differences exist about where to lead the company and often, who should be doing the leading.

So now that we’ve established a bit of context for the environment in which a family business consultant provides their services, let’s talk about some of the specifics, in terms of the roles and activities the consultant often undertakes. The following list is by no means exhaustive, however, it does provide you with a sense of some of the common areas where a family business consultant has an opportunity to provide value. I have broken the list into four categories: Relationships, Governance, Strategic Planning, and Succession Planning. Some activities can, and often do, fall into multiple categories, but for description purposes they are included in just one category below.

Relationships

  • Resolve conflicts between generations and branches of the family
  • Resolve conflicts within generations of the family
  • Develop a Code of Communication
  • Develop policy of who can and cannot work in the business, and under what circumstances, often called Family Member Involvement or Participation Policy
  • Help navigate through crisis management, not just at the business level, but very often at the relationship level

Governance

  • Assist in development of Mission/Vision/Values Statement
  • Develop Board of Directors guidelines, including whether outside board members permitted
  • Develop a Conflict of Interest policy
  • Define roles of family member shareholders, family council, individual company boards (if a group), and other governance entities
  • Develop policy regarding involvement and participation of non-family member executives

Strategic Planning

  • Conduct strategic planning and “family meeting” retreats
  • Facilitate development and implementation of the strategic plan
  • Develop goals and strategic initiatives consistent with Mission/Vision/Values of family
  • Ensure system in place for assigning responsibility and monitoring progress toward goals
  • Develop advisory board, if necessary and desired, distinct and separate from Board of Directors
  • Scenario planning
  • Review and assess all growth and exit options

Succession Planning

  • Develop a formal Succession Plan
  • Ensure appropriate Buy-Sell Agreements are in place
  • Coach, train and mentor successor generation family members
  • Formulate leadership development and training program
  • Develop a leadership succession plan that is fair and sensible

As discussed, this list of family business consultant roles is not all-inclusive. I could tell you some stories about some of the interesting roles we’ve been asked to serve on behalf of family business clients. The bottom line is that trust is everything in a family business environment. As long as a family business consultant is competent, once trust exists, the family business owners will seek the consultant’s assistance with issues from the mundane to the critically important. There’s a comfort level that comes from having a trusted advisor on hand, particularly when you are trying to manage and lead in the often highly-emotionally-charged context of a family business. It creates an environment where the family business consultant can provide an enormous amount of value for the family and the family business system that has been created, and hopefully, nurtured, over time.

 

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