HR & Management

How to talk about the family business during holidays

7 min read

17 December 2018

For some families, the holidays are a “no fly zone” for conversations about the family business. This needn't be the case, according to Rochelle Clarke.

Right now, kids are jingle belling, well-wishers are spreading good cheer, and family members are gathering to enjoy what Andy Williams styled “the hap-happiest season of all”.

But amid all those happy meetings and holiday greetings, there’s one conversation topic that’s likely to rob the glow right from your loved ones’ hearts: the family business.

There’s something of a perennial disagreement among us and our colleagues in the family business consulting space. For some, the holidays should be a “no-fly zone” for conversations about the family business.

Let family time be family time, they say. Don’t let the business creep in and pollute these pure moments of family comradery.

We get that, and we agree that the holidays are an important time for families to come together as families. But at the same time, we can’t help but contend that refusing to talk about the family business during this time represents a huge missed opportunity.

Why not talk about the family business?

For one thing, such talk can feel exclusive for those who aren’t personally involved with the business.

For those family members, nothing is worse than watching the dining room turn into a cozier version of the conference room down at the office.

Fair enough, but that’s not what we’re after here. We’re not suggesting you trade your coffee for eggnog and bring the Monday Morning Huddle over to Aunt Margaret’s house.

Instead, we’re after something much more profound, with the potential to bless you and your family business for the entire year to come.

Tell the old, old story

Wherever you fall on the belief spectrum, the holidays are rife with symbolism drawn from stories. For Christians, Christmas itself represents a story about a baby, a manger, and the light of the world.

For Jews, Hanukkah, the Festival of light, commemorates the re-dedication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. But the power of these stories —or any other, for that matter—isn’t in their telling but in their hearing.

The stories we love the most are those in which we find ourselves, the ones that help us find our place in the world.

Every family business has a story, and that narrative is often the glue that holds the organisations together. This isn’t just sentiment; a team of strategists in the U.K. has detailed the strategic power of narrative in supporting family business succession.

Stories unite rather than divide. That give every family member at the table something to grab on to — whether they’re “in” the business of not.

If you want your conversations about the business to be fruitful, start there. “Grandpa’s” story about opening up a store and “accidentally” becoming a pioneer in coffee blending—to take Lavazza as an example — is about more than the start of a business.

Grandpa is Grandpa — this is his story. And because it’s his, it’s ours.

How to intentionally frame story time

If your family is assembled at a formal gathering like dinner and you’re the host, we suggest you set a simple set of tracks for the conversation to run on, beginning with something like Michael Hyatt’s “one conversation rule”.

The rule is simple: only one conversation at a time. No side chats allowed — period.

This may sound strict, but a rule like this one will ensure that everyone can be heard and feel validated. That’s how real connections are forged between family members. It’s also how you keep the non-business members of the family from tuning out.

Next, give the conversation a historical frame by focusing on the past, present, and future. You don’t have to ask these exact questions, but do use them to guide your time:

Where did we come from? Getting in tune with their origins can help family members recover a common core of vision and values — a necessary element in establishing cohesion, especially if family business succession is on the horizon.

Where are we today? You’ve talked about where you’ve been; now it’s time to talk about where you are. Again, this isn’t a board meeting, so leave your spreadsheets in your briefcase. Instead, focus on the personal elements of everyone’s experience in and around the business.

Where are we going tomorrow? Family businesses who fail to plan for the future are planning to fail. The beauty of this part of the conversation is that you can use it to open up a hopeful, non-threatening opportunity to dream about what things might look like when future generations take over the business.

Conclusion

Not to put a damper on the happy season, but the cold, hard fact is that 70% of first-generation family businesses will fail to transition into the second this year. And one of primary reasons they’ll fail is because of a lack of communication.

But if you can use the holiday season as an opportunity to come together and retell the story of your family business, you’ll turn the holiday into a wonderful season of renewed unity and vision. More importantly, you’ll create a precedent for open and honest communication between relatives — a rare commodity in many family-run businesses.

Here’s to a wonderful holiday season, and the longevity of your family business.

Rochelle Clarke is founder of Succession Strength.