This week, Prof. Dr. Alain Laurent Verbeke, a partner in
Greenille by Laga, discusses the role conflict has to play in
A smart businessman
Recently at a dinner, a captain of industry shared some of his
worries with me: "With my children almost graduating from
University, I've become nervous over the last couple of months.
And yet, I shouldn't be: the business is flourishing and my
kids are really kind and smart. My fear though is how to connect my
kids with the business in the coming years and decades. How can I
make sure there will be no conflicts and they continue getting
along? Talking with friends (all established Belgian business
leaders) has only made me worry more".
He continued: "The thing is, Alain, they all claim that
they have dealt with the issues efficiently. They have worked with
an advisor who had three 2-hour meetings with the entire family,
their wives and children (and sometimes even the in-laws) and
discussed family values.
"Based on a list of some 50 values, all family members were
asked to tick up to 10 of their top values, which they then
discussed. They followed the same process for the mission
statement; the vision of the family regarding the business and
wealth. They discussed rules about who might work in the family
business and under what conditions. At the third meeting, the
advisor presented the concept of the 'family charter'. Mom,
Dad and all the kids agreed to it, toasted and that was it. Problem
solved. But is that so? Moreover, one friend who did this
'family charter stuff' five years ago now has big conflicts
within his family.
"So Alain, what is your advice here?"
No quick fix
These questions come from a smart businessman with great
He sensed that intense human interactions, emotions and
conflicts cannot be settled with a standard top-down
document, drafted in two or three meetings. A family
charter created so briefly may give family members the impression
they have arranged everything once and for all. However, this can
be an illusion, for at least two reasons:
Firstly, life is dynamic. Conflicts can be the very essence of
human interaction; they are likely to always be there, in the best
and most loving or caring families. Secondly, conflicts cannot
completely be resolved through the creation of structures or
governance rules, but primarily by the people.
Whilst one can draft a hundred charters, conflicts between
family members will never disappear. The problem is not the
conflict per se, but how it is dealt with. Conflicts
fulfil an important and constructive role in our interpersonal
relationships, provided that we handle them in a positive and
effective manner. Hence, a family striving for sustainable family
harmony should start early on with a bottom-up growth
process of open communication, learning to deal with
Families building an open communication culture into their DNA
can be in a far better position to collectively and constructively
cope with difficult and delicate questions relating to the
ownership and management of their business interests. Respecting
the underlying interests, concerns and feelings of each family
member, with the involvement of everyone, the
family engages on a journey where all learn how to constructively
channel the tension between assertiveness and empathy.
(Grand)-parents as well as children are taught to formulate their
own views in a clear and respectful manner while, at the same time,
learning to listen to each other's views with true empathy.
We see this work best when it is a dynamic
process, which proceeds at the pace of the priorities and
wishes of the family. The family decide together on the issues to
prioritise, and through open dialogue they reach, at some point,
family agreement. Together, these family
agreements constitute a truly living and dynamic
family charter. It is the result of an organic process,
bottom up, evolving and transforming according to the family's
ever-changing circumstances and lives.
Proceeding together as a family, listening to and talking with
each other, can be essential in family governance, often much more
so than formally drawing up documents like family charters,
constitutions, and regulations. These may only be useful if
they follow naturally as a result and product of a
family dynamics growth process. Those families that have not passed
through this intense learning process with one another, but do have
a charter, may find that their family charter appears to be a
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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