Hubler For Business Families

Sometimes the Magic Doesn't Work - Part One

What to do when client families won't follow your advice

Key Takeaways:
  • If client families aren't willing to address their business and interpersonal challenges, then no amount of consulting or advisor magic can help them.
  • Star employees - whether family members or not - can be toxic for a business if their personal issues are not dealt with head-on.
  • No family business owns its niche forever. To be successful, it must keep nurturing talented employees and developing new products.

Conversing with a Lakota medicine man who was a fellow participant at a conference I attended in Taos, New Mexico, I described my current frustration with a client who owned a family business. I told him the work wasn't going well. He replied, "You know, Tom, sometimes the magic doesn't work." It got me thinking.

Is there magic in the work? Does something unique happen to each project that generates an "Aha!" experience for the client? If a project doesn't work out the way I envision, is it the client's fault? My fault? Is it a function of my limitations, even after decades of experience and hundreds of cases?

Is it really anything akin to magic? To me, magic is a one-way association: the expertise of the consultant enters the heart of the client. If the consultant is as surprised as the client by the outcome, it isn't magic at all. And if the consultant is never surprised by an outcome, it isn't magic but sleight of hand.

Some "magic" is involved because we are dealing with individuals and emotional situations that are tied up in misunderstanding and unspoken fears. In my own practice I realized that a less-than-optimal result can occur when the family has a history of drug or alcohol misuse. Let me illustrate with an example.

Real-world example*
The elder generation of the Rivas family is Robert and Elena, in their 70s. Their three sons - Robbie, Marcus and Adam - work in the family business. The father, Robert, has transferred ownership to his sons. His only function now is to referee conflicts between his sons. The three boys get along fairly well but often countermand each other's orders. This confuses employees because the three sons meddle in each other's areas of responsibility. There is no firm hand on the tiller.
* READER NOTE: Fictitious last name based on a real case

Robbie is the president and runs production but does not regularly supervise other related responsibilities such as managing the sales and marketing function, the financial function and the general operation of the plant.

Marcus is the corporation's top salesman - and a good one - but regularly throws temper tantrums. He can be explosive and abusive to his brothers and the employees.

Adam, the youngest, is multifaceted and exceptionally bright. He is also responsible for some sales and runs the HR department, but he has a reputation for underachieving.

When Robert ran the corporation, he had a reputation as a womanizer and a drinker. Robert considered drinking a part of the company culture, part of their industry. He enjoyed boasting about his exploits.

Robbie has a similar pattern of drinking and carousing - like father, like son. Robbie's wife, Monica, confided to me that she had placed a GPS device on Robbie's car so she knows when he's lying about his whereabouts. Robbie binge-drinks regularly. He commonly drinks a 12-pack of beer every night. Substance abuse is a powerful opponent when it comes time to bring a family's problems to light.

In addition, the sons' spouses do not get along with each other. Adam's wife, Becky, scorns Marcus' wife, Marie, and regularly vilifies her behind her back. Before I was brought in to help, the family was a dark pool of anger, mistrust and mean-spiritedness, swirling around the alcohol abuse beneath.

The business was also entering a stressful period. The corporation owned its industrial niche, but some of its proprietary products would soon be losing patent protection and the company had no research and development function to develop new product. However, the business was still extremely profitable despite the abuse it was taking.

When the best laid plans go awry
I conducted and completed interviews with individual family members and created a report that was delivered at a family business planning meeting. I labored with the family to address issues and to create an action plan that included proposals to help resolve the differences among the three brothers and the differences among their spouses. It included a pathway to correct some of the business issues and continue the corporation's success. The heart of the action plan addressed concerns about Robbie's drinking. It provided the means to have him participate in an alcohol use assessment. On paper, everything looked great.

And then denial set in. The brothers took my suggestion to meet regularly and work with their internal consultant about organizing the corporation. Then they ignored every other recommendation. They went to a "safe" spot by looking at the business but not the family. They would not align personally with the project's initial goal to resolve their differences and nurture a happy family. I did not have sufficient emotional leverage with them to bring up Robbie's drinking. Even if Robert had supported me, I don't believe I could have effectively addressed the alcohol-related issues. The magic just wasn't there.

Clearly, the Lakota medicine man brought me up to the wall so that I could see over it. If the magic isn't there, it's likely the goals and expectations were never clear. That's the subject of Part 2 of this article.

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