Over the years, I have heard many family office professionals, advisors, coaches, and others who work with wealthy families bemoan the lack of participation or engagement by family members. These complaints take many forms: “They won’t respond to emails”, “they aren’t really active in planning the family retreat”, “we can’t get them to engage in family governance.” These concerns are often directed at younger, 20- and 30-something family members, who may be even less connected than their parents.
Recently I asked a 20-something for topics for her family’s annual meeting. (I’ll call her Cheryl here, just for convenience.) The first thing she came up with–not sarcastically, but entirely seriously–was: why should I (or we) care?
Something in the sincerity in Cheryl’s tone stopped me in my tracks. It was as if I were hearing this question for the first time. Perhaps it was that she asked it so genuinely, with just a tinge of resignation or sadness, as if to say “I’d really like to care about these family issues, but I’m not sure how, or why, or in what way it would matter to me. What am I supposed to care about? What, ultimately, are you all asking of me?” I’ve been thinking about the question–and how to respond to it–ever since.
The first thing I have to mention before moving into any substantive discussion of these issues is that really listening to these kinds of questions is the most important “answer.” This advice may seem trite, and if handled in a trite way, it will be so. Any advisor, trustee, or family office professional can “look like they’re listening”–we’ve all been to enough communications courses to fake it.
The challenge of really listening to a family member raising some version of the “why should I care” question is that the question is unlikely to be as genuine and clean as the one I received recently. Instead, the family member may coat the question in sarcasm, condescension, anger, frustration, or other emotion; the context may be full of triggers for both parties; and the conversation may not happen between a family member and a professional, but instead between two family members (e.g., child and parent) that have unhelpful communication patterns already.
And yet … if the question can be stripped of these layers and heard as a genuine inquiry, it can be transformative for all involved. Why should the family care, indeed? What is being asked of them–or, more importantly, what are they asking of themselves and each other? These are generative and constitutive questions: they can create energy and momentum for change and growth, as well as reconfigure the relationship between the asker and the receiver. But only if you really listen, open to the possibility of changing your own views as much as learning about or influencing the other person’s.
What Should I Care About?
After reflecting on Cheryl’s question, I realized that at a certain level she was really asking “what should I care about?” Cheryl had been to a family meeting previously, and understood that the family office was beginning an educational program for the family’s “next generation.” All of it seemed a bit overwhelming to her. More than that, her question revealed that all of it seemed very vague or unclear. What was the family asking of her? What was she supposed to be learning or focused on? Was she supposed to learn how to invest the family’s financial capital? Or how to read legal documents? Or how to understand a balance sheet? What was she supposed to care about?
I know many family advisors and family office professionals that have awakened to the new paradigm that has swept through the family enterprise world in the last several decades: that human capital matters as much or more than financial capital; that family meetings shouldn’t be only or primarily about financial updates, but should instead focus on the growth of human capital and the flourishing of individual family members; that “family wealth” is not about dollars but about lives well lived.
And yet … and yet meeting agenda after meeting agenda, family members are subjected to financial updates, legal updates, governance updates — and very little in the way of real focus on them as individuals, their needs or growth, their dreams, hopes, and fears. Meeting after meeting, the pressing financial, legal, or governance needs of the “system” in which these families live are given priority over the topics, issues, and concerns of the family members themselves.
And we wonder why Cheryl–or any family member–begins to distance themselves or stop caring?
So often, the implicit (or explicit) message to a Cheryl is that she should care first and foremost about the family’s money–and only secondarily about it’s real source of wealth: it’s people. The purpose is to “keep it (the money) in the family.” The purpose is to “keep the family together (so that it can better grow its money).” The purpose is to “be responsible stewards (of the money).” The purpose is to “avoid entitlement (about the money).”
None of these are purposes or messages that Cheryl can relate to. Her life is not centered around or dedicated to money–most people do not, in fact, organize their values, aspirations, and dreams around finances. And so she feels disconnected, because she is being asked to care about something that she just doesn’t care about all that much.
Connection With Integrity
What does Cheryl care about?
She cares about herself and her children, and the development of their potential as human beings. She cares about her community of friends, and its growth and sustenance. She cares about her town, its institutions, and its people, particularly the less well-off parts of her community that are struggling. She cares about the environment, about climate change, and about the world at large. There are a lot of things that Cheryl cares about. The question is, how do any of those deeply felt personal commitments connect to her family, her family’s enterprise, or her wealth?
For a family member to participate fully in family meetings, governance, or business leadership, they must be able to do so with integrity. They cannot be asked to leave a part of themselves at the door. They must feel as if they can show up with their whole self.
Family office professionals and advisors should strive to find ways to help this happen–to create opportunities for connection with integrity. For Cheryl, this might mean that the agenda could include some discussion of individual work each family member is doing in their community, why they value that work, and how they feel that that work contributes to the family’s good name and legacy. It might mean including some conversation about the environment, impact investing, or community development. It might mean a facilitated discussion of how to individuate in the context of family wealth, neither over or under identifying with that wealth but developing a healthy relationship to it with integrity.
These are bridges between the organic commitments that a person like Cheryl might bring to her enterprising family, and the family itself. Between her needs and its needs. Between Cheryl’s cares and its cares.
This is not to deny that at times a family learning process or family meeting needs to focus on things of priority to the family as a whole, or the family’s enterprise or governance, or that Cheryl’s interests should dictate the agenda. That would oversimplify what being in a multigenerational family enterprise is really all about: a constant give and take between one’s own needs and priorities and the “stewardship” or larger “family needs and priorities.” But I am struck by how often–still–conversations with family advisors or family office professionals get stuck in the blind spot of assuming that people will care about “family issues” just because in some abstract sense they “should.” If you want to create connection, start with where they are … not with where they should be. Only then will family members feel that their connection has integrity–and will therefore be enticed into increasing engagement.