As older members of the Baby Boom generation were reaching adulthood, I spent many an hour watching the bevy of TV shows that were focused on the ways that the American family was evolving in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The fact that I was especially drawn to these shows could have been the first sign that I was destined to pursue a career working with this fascinating subject matter. The Brady Bunch was particularly intriguing and introduced me to something that I now spend much of my professional life planning and running: that is, the family meeting. Even to my young eyes, the way that Mike and Carol Brady pulled together all members of their blended family to discuss difficult issues seemed like a very healthy way to work together. Several decades later, I’m now pleased to see that awareness of the usefulness of family meetings has taken hold across the private wealth management field. As family meetings grow in popularity, it’s a good time to reflect on what they can and can’t do for a family and how an advisor can help make them effective.
You don’t have to be a blended family with a bunch of teenagers under one roof to need a family meeting (though it could certainly help if that’s your situation). They are especially useful for families in business together, with jointly owned assets, and those who are addressing estate-planning decisions. Any family seeking to enhance its relationships could benefit from a family meeting; in fact, they’re helpful for families of all shapes and sizes.
What Is It?
While the term “family meeting” is used for a variety of purposes, I’m using the term here to describe a formal gathering with an agenda of specific issues to be discussed, ideally created by the family itself. The meeting doesn’t have to be held in a formal place, but there has to be a sense that it’s not just a social gathering. There should be a chair, who can change from meeting to meeting, and it’s helpful to take minutes to be distributed afterwards. A family meeting should not solely consist of an investment or estate-planning presentation. Those are important, and may consist of part of the meeting, but there are plenty of other opportunities to cover those issues. Just as family wealth is now understood to be multi-dimensional, so should the meeting be an opportunity to work on all the aspects that make up the family's wealth. It can provide an opportunity to develop relationships with open communication and transparency. A simple start for a family meeting would be a gathering focused on family history and legacy goals. It can also be an opportunity for older family members to seek input and learn from younger family members on their own dreams and goals. Family meetings can also be an effective forum to begin discussions of how the family relates to society at large, and what role it plays in its community.
The sign of a successful first family meeting is having people show up for the second one. This is more likely to occur if family members feel they have had input into the topics covered and if one group doesn’t dominate the interactions. “Command performances” to appear and be "talked at" are unlikely to engender commitment. The environment should be set up to be respectful of the interests and communication styles of various family members. While there’s no set schedule that ensures success, it’s helpful to set up some consistency so that the family can gain momentum as it works through issues together. In the beginning, several family meetings per year may be needed so the family can get up to speed (for example, to better understand the business or get to know each other). Over time, an annual family meeting might suffice. Rather than theoretical exercises, it always helps to have actual work to be done, as well as some deeper discussions. The family can get practice working together—a great way to prepare everyone for the inevitable crises that will occur. You don't want the first family meeting to take place after the death of an important family member or the sale of the business.
The Advisor’s Role
An advisor must be honest about personal skillsets before taking on the task of leading a family meeting. The most important skills are the ability to facilitate dialogue and listen to all sides of a discussion. While expertise in technical areas, such as tax or finance, is helpful, they don’t always translate to being an effective leader of a family meeting. The advisor's ability to “check one’s ego” at the door and suspend judgment of other's views, will go a long way in setting the right tone for the family. A productive family meeting can have a profound impact not only on the individual family members who attend, but also on all those they interact with afterwards.