Harmonising the Family Business

Peace and joy is a family in harmony

Harmonising the Family


No, we’re not talking about creating a family glee club!

In the family business context, “harmonising” means: “to bring the family into consonance and accord”. That translates into everyone playing nicely and feeling good about it.

The family harmonisation process may run independently of, or parallel to, any work that’s being done on the business. It can run as fast, as slow, as wide, and as far as the family chooses to go.

Each process is based entirely on the makeup, character and needs of the individual family and is designed to:

  • Improve communications.
  • Increase respect and trust.
  • Improve family relationships.
  • Improve problem solving and decision making processes.
  • Increase individual and collective knowledge and skills and,
  • Provide the tools, techniques and confidence to use them.

In short, the process should lift family performance across the board and place it firmly on the path to long term peace, happiness, prosperity and sustainability.

Relevant to:  families who take themselves seriously and know they need to lift their game to become happier and stronger if they’re to build a valuable legacy for future generations, or just to survive in their current state.

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Family Alignment

An “aligned” family is well on the way to being “harmonised”. When everyone is aligned they have clarity about where they’re going, certainty about how they’re going to get there, and commitment to making the journey together.

The harmonising process gets them working well together as a team (or choir), and therefore turns a group gathering into a collection of people with a purpose – to make a stronger business and a happier family.

To this end, harmonising includes training together in core skills and working together on activities and projects that provide opportunities to practice doing the things you’ve committed to doing. This provides an accelerated process for building the respect and trust that lies at the foundation of every high performing team.

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Family Diagnostics

Before prescribing anything for the family we really need to understand: who’s who, what’s what, and where does everyone want this thing to go? And then we need to locate the landmines, bear pits and honey traps before making any moves that will almost certainly have major ramifications for the individuals, the family and the business.

We need to run some diagnostics.

In its simplest form this is a series of one-on-one, information-gathering interviews, with improvised scripts responsive to each interviewee. The interviews are designed to:

  • Check that the chemistry is right between the adviser and the family.
  • Give the adviser first hand information and impressions about each family member – their individual personalities, issues, hopes and concerns.
  • Obtain a feel for the strength and nature of underlying family dynamics.  If there are powerful currents, or conflicts present, we need to identify and deal with them before much else happens.
  • Provide information and explanations to family members about the current situation, process objectives, and the process itself.
  • Build trust between the family and the adviser before things really get going.

We’ve also developed “Best Practice” and “Aspirations” Assessments that can be completed online, to give you a fairly comprehensive and reasonably objective picture of how things stand in your family.

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Communication and Relationships

Many people treat “communication” and “relationships” as inter-changeable terms, deeming that a relationship fails because communications have failed. In fact, communication is just an outward manifestation of the reason the relationship really failed: because the underlying relationship itself was damaged. So if we just work on improving communications without first fixing up the relationship, chances are the outcomes won’t be pretty, or lasting.

For us, everything starts with the individuals involved in the family and in the business. Understanding where they’re all coming from; what they hope for, need and fear – these factors lie at the heart of every family business assignment.

That sometimes means we need to spend some serious time working with and on individuals who simply aren’t able to participate properly in any family process before we engage them in the process. If sympathetic coaching, counselling and mentoring aren’t enough, we call in specialist psychologists to help.

This can save their families, and even their lives, in the process of getting the bigger family issues into the open.

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Family Meetings

Regular, structured family meetings inject discipline and purpose into business families and form an essential part of the professionalisation process.

Families are used to having social gatherings, but meeting as business owners, and/or as stewards of the family’s legacy is a very different thing. By discussing, developing and adopting plans and policies for the family’s ownership of the business (which is not the same thing as business plans) the family gets many things into the open – for discussion and resolution. The family develops as a team, developing responsible decision making skills, along with greater mutual respect and trust. Surprisingly, some of these things are in much shorter supply than one would expect in many family environments.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of family meetings is their ability to allow parents to work with their adult children to make important decisions. We encourage parents to act as sponsors, rather than as family leaders in these meetings, to give their next generation family members room to show what they’re made of.

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Remuneration, Rewards and Benefits

Few issues cause as much conflict in families as perceived unfairness in the distribution of rewards and benefits. Problems can relate to current remuneration, rewards or other benefits, or things that happened long ago, as in: “You were always the favourite, you got the new tricycle!”

Parents get themselves into a lot of trouble with the simple mantra: “I love my children equally, therefore I’ll reward them all equally – it’s only fair”. The reality is that “equal” is often not “fair” when one family member puts in more effort than others, or is more needy, or has put more effort into obtaining relevant qualifications, or appears more deserving.

Equality then creates resentment, and resentment leads to conflict.

Some family members get very worked up over perceived inequities, often things that have built over many years: financial support (handouts); housing support; car purchases and expenses; clothing; education subsidies; holidays etc.

Sometimes the only way to defuse these situations is by creating a “Red Book” of benefits received over the years, and then sharing what they reveal – so any real problems can be addressed and resolved – sometimes through the “advance on inheritance” stratagem.

Some parents are very good at unconsciously maintaining a level of sensible balance, even if it’s not in entirely financial terms. Others effectively lose the plot and provide excessive support to needy children which, almost inevitably, makes them more dependent on their parents over time and even more needy. This can become a downward spiral that gives rise to major guilts and causes serious pain.

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Knowledge, Confidence and Skills Development

One of the primary aims of the harmonisation process is to increase levels of capacity, self-sufficiency and confidence within the family through a mixture of learning and doing. Because the process unfolds as a journey, it presents many opportunities for experiencing and learning along the way.

The knowledge and skills most commonly required fall into the “human skills” area – increasing personal and collective effectiveness and professionalism. We provide tailored training, coaching and mentoring in all of these areas:

  • Strategic thinking.
  • Problem solving and decision making.
  • Communication and Dialogue.
  • Facilitation and meeting management.
  • Career planning.
  • Difficult conversations and conflict management.
  • Leadership and people management.
  • Professionalism and business behaviours.
  • Confidence and personal effectiveness.
  • Emotional resilience.
  • Time management and task prioritising.
  • Parenting adult children.
  • Life skills.

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Harmonisation Process Stages

1. Background Factfinding – information gathering on individuals, the family, the business and the issues that need to be addressed.

2. Family Diagnostic and Plan – assess the outcomes from Stage 1 and create a suitable plan in response.  Design a process that’s collaborative, inclusive and participatory, so the process itself models some of the key learning objectives.

3. Problem Solving / Mediation – resolve urgent and significant issues, including conflicts, to at least a level where constructive communication is possible.

4. Clarity – Values, Visioning and Goal Setting (workshop).  Everybody should understand and agree what you’re trying to do as a family, why you’re doing it, and what their role and responsibility is in the process.

5. Structures (1) – establish a Family Council (peak governance and decision making body for the family – like a Board of Directors for family issues).   Agree processes for making good decisions and obtain relevant training and facilitation as required.

6. Strategies – develop a Family Plan (big picture) and supporting Family Action Plan (detailed objectives, milestones, timelines, resources, responsibilities and accountabilities).

Family Plans require personal commitments in the areas of: individual roles and responsibilities; financial plans; succession plans; wills; and estate plans.

The family needs to decide how transparent it wants to be with its members (including spouses and partners). This is a good conversation to have – openly discussing and agreeing the flavour and style of what’s to happen now, and in the future.

7. Structures (2) – create a Family Constitution, Charter of Mutual Obligations and other relevant agreements for and between family members.

8. Systems and Skills – throughout the process we reinforce concepts, words and documents by designing, adopting and implementing appropriate systems to get things done.  We also ensure that everybody has the skills to perform their allotted tasks well.  If anything is lacking:  we teach, model and develop those skills.

9. Commitments – summed up in the mantra: “execute, or EXECUTE!” At every stage on the family’s journey expectations will be raised and commitments made. Trust is built on performance – by honouring commitments made. Trust is quickly destroyed by failing to keep your word.

We try to entrench the concept of commitment and accountability, through actual performance, to confirm the importance of family integrity and discipline to overall family harmony, at all levels.

Regular family meetings provide forums for family members to practise: communication skills, problem solving, collaboration, positive attitudes, supporting each other and making decisions together. They also reinforce personal and collective commitments, when family members hold themselves and each other accountable for doing whatever they’ve agreed to do.


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