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A Practical Family Dynamics Offering: The Art and Architecture of the Family Meeting

Susan P. Rounds
Senior Vice President, Senior Director of Planning
Wells Fargo Private Bank

It’s a fact of life—most families have sticky issues. For instance, we all know that siblings can push each other’s buttons like no one else can. Most likely because the siblings put the buttons there in the first place! Advisors working with families of wealth often view family issues, or family dynamics, as land mines to be avoided at all costs. A big part of the reason that these family issues seem so insurmountable in the eyes of advisors is that money acts as a magnifier, making the issues seem more grave and threatening to family harmony and to the survival of the family as a unit over time.

There are many practical tools that can be used by advisors when working with financial families in the area of family dynamics. A great first step is to institute periodic family meetings. In working with financial families, both those involved in managing a family business and those involved in managing the family wealth, it has become evident that communication is key. Communication is the critical ingredient in maintaining the family as a cohesive entity as it grows and changes across the generations. Family meetings, when properly designed and run, allow such communication.

The Family Meeting Defined

A family meeting is a formal gathering of multi-generational family members for the specific purpose of discussing issues affecting or concerning the family. These meetings are designed to go beyond the normal periodic review of investment results and are not intended to be the same as a family reunion; although, a reunion element is certainly a welcome fit. While a reunion is more social, a family meeting is a business meeting where the family can discuss a wide variety of matters, such as financial issues, family relationships and the family legacy.

Your Role as an Advisor

One of your responsibilities as an advisor to a financial family is to assist the family in the development of a strategic direction. The process is important because it can strengthen your relationship with the family and also their relationships with each other.

Introducing the family to the concept of family meetings is an excellent opportunity to bring value-added services. Sharing the following reasons to hold family meetings is a great way to prompt interest in starting regular meetings, or for improving meetings already in development: Defining the family lore and passing it to the next generation, identifying shared values, developing a common vision for the future, establishing a form of family governance, understanding each individual’s role in the family, providing a safe and open venue to discuss tough issues, and providing a forum for next generation education.

Why Should We Do This?

A family matriarch or patriarch may question why it is necessary to go to the trouble of actually planning a meeting. They may feel that the family is close enough to just pick up the phone to talk, or to drop by and visit about important issues. The answer is that as time passes and families grow, the risk of familial and financial dissolution grows as well. Family meetings are one of the most important tools a financial family can use to preserve and perpetuate a healthy legacy – they serve as the method by which the family can develop and maintain itself across time.

Well run family meetings can provide for communication, education, and decision making. Good ones provide a forum for sharing news, concerns, opportunities and challenges leading to an atmosphere of collaborative deliberation and decision making. Younger family members can learn about the basics of family finances and family traditions, and the interplay of generations is a great way to model and develop family leadership. All families face major transitions, some common and some unique. Family meetings give members an opportunity to celebrate these transitions, or to help each other through them. Examples are marriage, divorce, births, death, dealing with substance abuse and spendthrifts, the sale of a family business, leadership succession, and disability of key senior members.

The ultimate goal is for the family to view itself as a unique, yet united entity. By sharing significant information the family can prepare for the future of the family, illuminate family history for current and future generations, create or perpetuate family traditions, identify shared values, understand the genesis of the family wealth along with plans to manage and distribute that wealth, understand the family business and the transition plan for the business, discuss family leadership issues and create a system of family governance, and ascertain charitable aspirations. Families have an opportunity to learn about each other and from each other and can identify who is responsible for various family duties. As a result, the family can create a unified family vision—the family legacy—and prepare to pass the baton years hence.

The Family Meeting as an Event

The family meeting is a special event and should occur in a special place when possible. These meetings become part of a family’s communal memory and tradition and are likely to be viewed as a positive pivot point in the family’s development. Note that even if the family chooses not to travel for the meeting, it may be important to choose a neutral location. Meeting at the family home or at the site of the family business may bring up unhappy memories, feelings of jealousy, or just be uncomfortable for some family members.

Downtime is important. Since many families do choose to travel to exotic locations, be sure they have time to take advantage of where they are. Depending on the length of the meeting, allow time for recreation to promote bonding. Include shared meals as well as games, sports and places to hike or walk. Family members need to feel good about themselves and each other to get through rough patches that may arise throughout the course of the meeting. Have something for everyone and be aware of the needs each “family” within the family including individuals such as teenagers, singles, couples without children, golf fanatics and children. Childcare is an important consideration and there needs to be a place for the younger generation to follow through with their activities while the rest of the family tends to business.

Guard the privacy of the family. For example, don’t allow a hotel or other rented venue to display placards with the family name. Hotel staff should be kept away from sessions that involve sensitive material.

Who Gets a Seat at the Table?

Who participates in the family meeting depends on a number of factors. Participation is typically dictated by the issues to be discussed at the meeting. Your RSVP list may include multi-generational members, spouses and in-laws, a financial planner, investment advisors, attorneys, CPAs, trustees, family business executives, family foundation executives, a family business consultant, and if you suspect trouble is brewing, a psychologist or similar professional who specializes in wealthy families. Spouses and in-laws can be a hot button. As an advisor, you must be sensitive to the many issues that can arise here. Family business and foundation executives may be spouses or in-laws.

There is often a split about inviting the younger family members. The danger, on which we are all well-versed, is hindering the development of the younger generation by revealing too much about the family wealth because they may not feel they have to work or become productive members of society. That being said, many advisors agree that it is a good idea to invite the younger generations into the process in order to learn about philanthropy and the family finances. In addition, many family advisors agree that children should be included in some portions of the meeting to create a sense of belonging to the family. Some say that children as young as 10 should be included, while others point out that children under the age of 12 or 14 may find it difficult to sit through a lengthy family meeting. It is a good idea to have separate activities for children or teens, for example learning certain money skills, doing a group charitable project or even just going on a hike together.

Golden Rule: Invite all those who will be affected by the decisions made at the meeting. Meetings intended to cover technical issues should include advisors for the necessary portions.

Rules of the Road: Governance of the Family Meeting

The family should institute a form of governance for every meeting. This can be voted on ahead of time, or all or most of the first meeting can be used to map this out. If a family member will be running the meeting, rather than an advisor, the family member should be prepared to keep things on track, but not act as a dictator. Often, the family member elected to run the meeting is the one who is used to acting as the mouthpiece for the family. Sometimes other members may feel they need a chance to speak, too. Reliance on one or a few family members may put the family at risk if a leader becomes incapacitated. It can also limit the family to the thinking of one generation or even one individual.

The ground rules are critical. As in any family, members can behave one way around the family, yet be completely different everywhere else. Sibling rivalries may erupt and some adults do have a tendency to engage in “teenage behavior” around their parents. Respect should be the guiding principal. A family meeting can be very emotional at times; every family has tensions and a family meeting can certainly be an occasion for conflict as wealth turns up the volume. The rules should engender a safe forum where all are free to speak on issues affecting the family.

Once established, the ground rules must be upheld. Let’s face it, it can be tempting to ignore protocol in the heat of an impassioned discussion, but that could lead to the impression that the family is not sticking to its decisions and result in the breakdown of communication and the entire process itself. Ensure that everyone is asked to live by the same rules to avoid a perception of entitlement for some and resulting resentment.

Other policies to consider – elect someone to act as Secretary and keep notes, include a family historian, appoint one person to handle calls from childcare providers (avoids everyone constantly checking for messages) and elect subcommittees for selected issues where warranted (gives the shy ones a chance to speak up too).

Frequency and Timing

The family’s current needs and state of development should dictate the frequency of meetings. Most experts agree that the minimum should be once per year. When the family is first getting started and formally addressing issues for the first time, quarterly or semi-annual meetings may be needed. If there is a family foundation or business, more frequent meetings may be necessary. In between meetings, subcommittees may continue to work and prepare to report at the main event.

Timing within the meeting is a central element. The meeting may be best set for an afternoon, a day, or several days depending on the agenda and its complexity and the size and dynamics of the family. Set time limits for each issue. People can’t manage more that about 20 minutes of sustained attention. This period will be even shorter for younger adults, seniors, or those with medical or learning difficulties.

Allow frequent rest breaks. These can last from a few minutes for a “bio-break” to longer recesses that allow time for a walk, a nap, or exercise. Whether good news or bad, what is heard at the meeting can be very emotional. Give everyone a chance to process what they hear so they can react and respond.

Finally, build in time for participants to check on their children. Even with a designated point person, family members may want to visit with their kids periodically. And yes, childcare expenses should be part of the meeting budget.

Creating the Agenda

Like all successful business meetings, a successful family meeting must have an agenda – a road map so all attendees understand the course the meeting will take. A family can’t expect to have a meaningful meeting if the plan is just to gather and see what comes up. Some sample agenda topics: family wealth and encompassing wealth transfer philosophy and plans; the family business and expectations for family members entering the business; family history or lore; identification of shared values; and, the vision for the family legacy.

Financial disclosure at the meeting will be dependent on how much information the wealth creator or senior generation desires to share. On the other hand, some financial disclosure is often dictated by state law. This is an area where you can really help your clients understand what information can be demanded (for example from a trust administrator) and what can be withheld. This knowledge can be beneficial when establishing just how much will be shared at the family meeting itself. Financial disclosure also hinges on whether assets are separated by family branches and who is in attendance. It may be appropriate to have separate break-out sessions among the branches for certain portions of the meeting.

Setting the Stage for a Good Meeting

The goals for each family meeting should match the family’s needs at that time. As a family advisor, you may already have ideas on what should be discussed, or perhaps other advisors have made you privy to their concerns. The family members should be consulted as well. A series of questions should be developed and either discussed with at least one representative of each branch, or sent out to everyone in questionnaire form. Ask about current challenges and successes and look for a consensus targeting the biggest challenge the family is facing now, or will be facing in the near future. Another area to explore includes the family’s current educational needs – for example next generation education on good financial stewardship. These questions serve to get the family focused and excited about the meeting.

Materials may be needed to support the agenda, such as financial statements, investment reports, foundation grant reports and recommended readings. Subcommittees may be formed to prepare or gather these items and also to research and report on other topics. When formatting information to be presented keep in mind that people learn in different ways—some find it easiest to pore over large amounts of text or numbers before the meeting, while others may be visual learners who would benefit from flip-charts or illustrated charts. Most people digest many smaller portions of information more easily than trying to take in large amounts of data in an extended sitting.

A crucial ingredient of a well-run family meeting is the skillful management of the process. It should be about education, guidance, conflict management and fellowship. The meeting should reflect who the family is as a whole. If it is a religious family, reflect the shared faith. A family specific ritual or practice can liven things up and avoid a cookie cutter experience. For business owning families, be sure to balance tradition with business.

Summing Up

As an advisor to a family contemplating a family meeting, your role is critical. You must be able to orchestrate the unique blend of hard and soft issues that is a family meeting. In preparation, be ready to meet with family members or at least confer on the phone; create and present the results of questionnaires as appropriate; identify a reasonable outcome – don’t be too aggressive with what can be accomplished; assist with the choice of venue; proffer the selection of agenda items; be cognizant of complex family discussions that may arise; recommend advisors such as a psychologist who can attend if advisable; and, be ever mindful of privacy issues.

You can make the difference between a well-run family meeting and chaos! This type of support ties the advisor to the family and insures that the business of the family remains with the advisor for years to come.

Wells Fargo Wealth Management provides products and services through Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. and its various affiliates and subsidiaries.