MANAMA, BAHRAIN. I am writing this article while waiting for my plane bound for Europe. It is a short 4-hour flight but it allows me to reflect on a lot of initiatives related to my role as an advisor to family enterprises based in this part of the globe. Due to the pandemic that has ravaged many economies all over the world during the last two years, my visit, a first in two years, is long overdue and I could not wait to finally re-energize family members in person and tackle important concerns that have been sidelined because of the crisis. 

Volatile Interaction between the family and the business

Family-owned businesses face major challenges in working through ownership and management succession, and family members, especially its leaders, acknowledge that there are problems that need to be addressed. At the first sign of family conflict, families would typically attempt to resolve their differences amongst themselves. However, when the conflict escalates and leaders, usually parents, sense that despite their intervention, many issues continue to simmer (sibling rivalry, intergenerational conflict, in-law issues, leadership dynamics, ego, pride, etc.), the family scrambles to engage a family business consultant to facilitate family governance. In cases like this one, the usual end goal is to diffuse the tension, promote family unity and use the family constitution as a platform to manage conflict and regulate behaviors of working and non-working family members. When the family signs and promises to implement the rules, it looks doable in theory but can be daunting in reality. So the mindset of continuous improvement must always be top of mind for all members. 

Governance is a Process, Not an Event

Families must recognize that the journey does not stop when families sign and enthusiastically show their expressions of support to abide by the rules of the constitution. The signing simply signifies that it is just the beginning of another process. What's worse is that families stop short of implementing what was agreed upon. It is also rather unfortunate that when the consultant is no longer around to help in the process of internalizing the agreement, the problems return with a vengeance. 

Why is this happening? That was the question raised to me by a founder many years ago. They engaged a different consultant and, immediately, right after signing the constitution, they disengaged his services. Six months later, the conflict returned.  

Why is it extremely important to energize family members by way of providing post-constitution family council oversight? Was subjecting the family to a long and rigorous exercise of drafting family agreements like the Code of Ethical Conduct and the Covenants, and in most cases, completing the process of getting them to adhere to the terms of the agreement sufficient enough? It is not enough.

The Dangers of DIY Governance

In my years advising families in Asia, I have noticed a natural tendency for family members to "slack off" right after the agreements have been signed. In some cases, families would even lean towards a Do-it-Yourself (DIY) type of governance for the flimsiest reasons... "to take a break from months of governance session as they want to prioritize and focus on earning money, cost consideration, and the 'feeling' that the family is talking again." When this happens, the likelihood of compliance takes a backseat and gets derailed. The "old practice" of mixing family and business issues is likely to resurface, and family members would only react when a major conflict or incident ensues. By that time, the family is already gripped in a state of emotional tension and another round of escalating conflict is already taking shape. By that time, intervention may be late and litigation lawyers are now being floated by warring members.

After pursuing the DIY route and disaster ensues, business owners are forced to call in the professionals to clean up their mess out of desperation. Unlike a typical DIY TV show where the show's producers cover the DIYers' costs, the costs of fixing a legal DIY disaster rest solely on the business. So, when we are called to intervene, we usually decline 90% of the time and turn it down with a "See, I told you so but you never listened" response.