During an average business day, I would wager the average business owner conducts or attends at least one business meeting. However, in my experience, most family businesses never have conducted a family meeting with all interested parties in attendance even though such a meeting potentially could solve or prevent conflicts.
Why do so few businesses take advantage of the opportunity? Most family-business owners say they never have considered having one, feel uncomfortable bringing the family together in such a setting or simply do not consider it a priority.
Family meetings are as important to the success of a company as any management meeting. Although the meetings may feel uncomfortable or awkward at first, a well-run meeting should bring a family closer so during tough periods, such as illness or death, the family unit and company are prepared to survive.
If your company is serious about conducting regular family meetings, you need to prepare for them as you would for a presentation to one of your biggest clients. Following are suggestions to help plan your family meeting:
- Create an agenda, and stick to it. This is not a Thanksgiving dinner or family outing; it is a business meeting and should be treated like one. A constructive and well-planned agenda is imperative. One person should take responsibility for agenda items and request input from everyone who will be attending. Suggested times should be included to keep attendees on task and help set expectations.
- Set goals. What is the meeting's objective? Are you going to convey expansion plans? Announce your successor management team? Report sales results? A successful meeting always should point toward your final objective.
- Select your attendees carefully. It is my belief attendees should have a stake in the meeting's outcome. If your agenda only addresses current business issues that revolve around the day-to-day operations of the company, you may not need to involve the entire family. However, if topics include long-term issues and family succession, all parties with an eventual stake in the company should be invited. A common mistake is that family members involved with a business are kept in the loop about major issues and nonworking family members are not. This can create problems when the first generation passes away and nonworking family members inherit company stock. Bitter fights between family members usually happen shortly after the first "forced" meeting following a death when topics such as lack of planning are discussed and nonworking family members want answers.
- Choose which advisory members will attend. Keeping various legal, accounting and financial advisers involved will help give advisers a better understanding of the family and can help the family feel more comfortable with the advisers. Having an adviser serve as a "referee" during a meeting also may help remove the bias some family members feel toward other family members. I suggest having an adviser handle a portion of the agenda. For example, an accountant could help discuss cash-flow issues and salary concerns with nonworking family members more easily than a family member working within the company.
- Outline the discussion boundaries. As important as it is to set an agenda of topics to be included, it also is important to mark the off-limits items, such as personality conflicts, nonbusiness items, in-law concerns or anything that could derail the meeting's main purpose. If the rules are defined clearly, all parties can focus on more important items.
- Hold regular meetings. This purely is a function of the weight of the agenda items and company size. The more change that occurs, the more necessary the meetings become. However, I recommend meeting at least annually. Regular meetings foster a feeling of inclusion. For family members who rarely see the inner workings of the company, a family meeting can help them understand that working for the company is hard work, and rewards are earned, not given.
Although family meetings may at first seem awkward, the results can help heal family issues early so they don't require massive legal bills in the future.
Brian Heckert is president of PENFlex Services Inc., a business consulting firm with offices in Nashville, Ill., and Peoria, Ill.
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