Planning and Conducting Productive Family Meetings

Robert Balentine|Brittain Prigge
December 12, 2019
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While our other posts in this series examine some of the very intimate, very universal challenges and opportunities associated with wealth and legacy, this post turns our attention toward the highly practical topic of family meetings. In the course of working with clients, we routinely advise on why and how to conduct family meetings, and we’re often privileged to play the role of facilitator or co-facilitator.

Perhaps you’ve already established some routine with family meetings, or maybe they’re something you’ve only considered in passing. Regardless, it’s important to understand the purpose of family meetings and why they matter. We believe routine, thoughtfully planned family meetings are essential for several reasons, as they:

  • Foster trust and transparency, and provide a venue for open communication free of judgment
  • Provide a meaningful structure for educating the family’s key wealth stewards on various topics
  • Serve as a prompt for ongoing dialogue around family values
  • Provide an ideal occasion to gather and engage family members who may be geographically dispersed
  • Present an opportunity to create memorable experiences for the family

Countless experts in the field of wealth and legacy agree on the importance of what one might call the almost-sacred ritual of the family meeting. Dennis Jaffe, a sociologist and leading researcher and consultant in family wealth, has built a career studying what he calls the “100-year family.” These are families who have successfully maintained wealth across three generations.

What does Jaffe see as the common thread across these families? They stay united by being better at communicating than other families.

He observes that they focus foremost on investing in the family versus the business, they create learning opportunities within the family, and they routinely conduct family meetings that are facilitated (or at least attended) by highly trusted outsiders. In a recent New York Times piece he explains: “To keep this entity together, they have to develop a respectful, positive, useful way of working together. They have to collaborate because there’s going to be conflict and stress.” And we believe family meetings can be one of the most powerful manifestations of collaboration.

While the logistical details—the agenda, the location, the players—certainly matter, what matters most is to begin with the intentions of advancing trust and open communication. With that as your guide, the details will present themselves more readily. If you’re not sure where to start or if you’re looking to refresh your approach to family meetings, we’ve found the following guidelines can provide a helpful starting point.

Think about a cadence that works best for you and your loved ones.

Depending on the nature of your business operations, the location and age of your family members, and other factors, a certain schedule may naturally work best for you. For instance, an annual meeting might be too infrequent, whereas quarterly or semiannual might be ideal. We have one client who conducts a family dinner meeting each Sunday. That works well for him, but for another family unit, a weekly meeting may not be sustainable. For most families, a weekly family meeting is impractical except when everyone is still living at home. But for families with children who’ve not yet left the nest, this is an excellent way to instill the importance of open communication from an early age.

Call upon an objective facilitator to help plan and moderate the meeting.

Ideal candidates may include your wealth advisor or other trusted advisor, or a certified facilitator well versed in areas such as family governance, family dynamics, intergenerational wealth, family business, or similar. It’s also important to consider how they’re perceived by others at the table, and whether they can truly be unbiased. Regardless of whom you choose, we don’t typically advise that it be someone in the immediate family or the head of the household. That said, we urge clients to be mindful about which parts you delegate. For example, opening or closing remarks or segments of the discussion that are more personal might be best handled by you personally—so that you’re not seen as outsourcing the heart of the conversation.

Do some prework by speaking with individual family members before you finalize an agenda.

Ask each of them how much detail they want to hear at the meeting. You can also get their input on the ideal location and agenda. This information will help you and the facilitator tailor the topics, and it gives each person a voice in what will be covered. This step ensures the agenda is not a surprise, and it can go a long way toward creating a more open and meaningful gathering—whether it lasts three hours or three days.

Choose a neutral setting and activities that foster trust and a sense of fun.

While it may be tempting to meet in your office or home, certain family dynamics can make this problematic or even intimidating for some of your participants. We suggest a fun, relaxing, or even educational setting that’s viewed as neutral territory. The most fruitful family meetings include elements of fun and downtime, during which no money or business matters are discussed. This could be anything: a hike, a movie, an outing to a museum, an improv lesson, an art project, an interesting speaker. The possibilities of “how” are endless; it’s the “why” that matters here.

Plan ahead if you expect conflict or an imbalance in the power dynamics.

While you can’t always prevent or control conflict, we believe it is possible to anticipate and channel it. There are several ways to manage this. A few examples include:

  • Drawing on your “connector” personalities if needed. These are your peacemaker types who have a natural knack for closing the divide between members of your family.
  • Setting some ground rules at the beginning of a meeting; you can even build these together. These might include rules such as “assume noble intent” or “try to avoid cross-talk.”
  • Borrowing tools and tactics from mediation and conflict resolution pros. These can include stepping out of the meeting to talk one-on-one if things get heated, or providing structured, uninterrupted speaking time during which each attendee gets a few minutes to share what they want from the meeting and any hopes or concerns they may wish to voice.

Consider creating a series of meetings across key topics.

If one longer meeting isn’t your style or isn’t feasible, consider planning a series of meetings around specific topics such as mission, values, investing, governance, estate planning, etc., and bring in a subject matter expert for each topic. Consistent opening and closing elements across each meeting can help them feel like part of a cohesive whole.

Get creative.

This can apply to the invitations, the content, the follow-up—virtually any aspect of your meeting. Sometimes we use fun icebreakers, quizzes or games, or an inspiring video. Perhaps you can start with a personality quiz that reminds each other of your unique thinking styles. Another option is to consider a guest speaker who will resonate with attendees. For instance, if your family is particularly involved with a given cause, invite a guest speaker who has expertise in that area. If your family is interested in sustainability, invite an expert in ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing. If several of you love art or history, ask a curator or history expert to break up the weightier business and financial content. If you love movies or books, take a few minutes to do a “go ‘round” and share recent favorites. The possibilities are endless, but the primary goal is to create trust through improved communication.

No two families are alike. However you choose to approach them, family meetings present a unique opportunity to bond and get all members on the same page with equal information about your wishes and functional aspects of the estate. Whether you’ve already hit a good stride with family meetings, are looking for a way to get started, or need help structuring an agenda, our team is happy to provide suggestions tailored to your unique needs.

Continue to Part 4: Complex Constellations - Managing Wealth and Legacy between Siblings, Blended Families, and In-laws

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