Creating Interdisciplinary Teams


Chicago Bears, Mahler’s 3rd, leading from behind, jousting for position? What do these all have in common? More than you might think. To find out more, read these companion articles from Henry Krasnow and Jamie Wiener on “When Family Business Advisors Join Interdisciplinary Teams.”

Henry Krasnow

Family business advisors often discuss “how to create an interdisciplinary team?” As with many questions, the answer sometimes becomes clearer when the right question is asked.

Interdisciplinary teams have been successfully functioning since lawyers and accountants were first invented. Virtually all family businesses with enough money to have a family business advisor have an interdisciplinary team already in place that is made up of its lawyer, accountant, banker and insurance broker. Others may also be on this team—life insurance broker, specialty lawyer (labor or tax) or investment banker.

The question for family business advisors might not be, “How do we create an interdisciplinary team?” but rather, “What can I do to persuade the business owner to let me be part of that team?” or “Now that I am a member of this team, how should I behave?”

When the question is posed in this fashion, various challenges become clear, even if their solutions do not. And, ultimately, one’s ability to answer questions and successfully meet challenges is enhanced by correctly defining the problem.

The challenges of creating an interdisciplinary team are much different than those of joining an existing interdisciplinary team. Simply put, working with an interdisciplinary team that you are fortunate enough to choose, is much simpler because the members of that team perceive making you happy as one of their goals arising from their gratitude to you for having chosen them. Everyone may pretend otherwise, but the chances are good that your satisfaction is important to them because you put them in the position they value.

However, the challenge of joining a team that is already in place requires very different skills and requires answering very different questions. Such as:

“How do I persuade the business owner to put me on the team?” Of course, if there is a crisis, the business owner will not need much persuading. He or she will hire someone they hope can solve what they think is the problem that led to the crisis.

To get hired, the family business advisor is sometimes competing against others with similar backgrounds whose names have also been given to the business owner. The problems of persuading the decision-maker to hire one of several relatively similar professionals is one that lawyers, accountants, investment bankers and family business advisors have struggled with for years. There is no right or wrong answer. Some people stress their education, others their experience, and still others the value of the tools they have available.

Many would suggest that the best way to persuade a business owner to hire them is to articulate how they can uniquely help the owner make more money. For a family business advisor, this can take the form of suggesting:

  • I can help keep the minority shareholders happy. Being a minority shareholder in a business in which much of the net worth is illiquid and you have no real voting control or veto power is a very questionable investment. Keeping the minority shareholders happy with their investment is not an easy task, and a family business advisor can add great value by fulfilling this role. The great economic advantage of family businesses occurs when there is a high level of trust and “patient capital.” I can help increase the level of trust between the owners and enhance their patience.
  • I can help train those in leadership positions and future leaders to be better leaders.
  • I can facilitate more efficient and effective communication among the senior management team, thus leading to more effective decisions.

As a new member of a team, how should I behave? This is a question for which there is no “one size fits all” answer. The services offered by a family business advisor are dramatically different from the services offered by the other members of the team. In fact, many of the other members may not welcome the new advisor who has skills that the others may not respect. Overcoming that hurdle is not easy.

And, in many instances, the existing “team” may not think of themselves as such or may be dysfunctional. It is not uncommon for these “team members” to be competing with each other for work, for respect or for the coveted “most trusted advisor” status.

Sometimes, the business owner who puts together the existing teams may either knowingly or unknowingly appreciate the fact that they do not operate as a team. That business owner often feels that he or she has more control by keeping these team members separate from, and hostile to, each other. And, some team members may not share your perception of their dysfunction. What you see as dysfunction, they may see as normal and, as always, their perception is their reality.

The problems of working as a member of a team that the business owner put together are often made more difficult because these team members have economic incentives that are different from those of the family business advisor, are trained to use tools that are different from yours, have a perception different from yours on your ability to be effective, and may perceive that your goals are not necessarily in their best interests. Choosing a path to follow in this confused and ambiguous situation is not easy, and there is no right or wrong answer.

Of course, success sometimes does occur to people acting intuitively. But, their batting average and chance of success will increase by their more accurate and nuanced understanding of the incentives and motivations of all of the team members. A new team member must often choose between being perceived as corrosive or as constructive. Developing a strategy for accomplishing the goals of a family business and fulfilling your own perceptions of good teamwork may also conflict with the goals of the other team members and their perception of their role.

Jamie Weiner

Recently the son of a successful entrepreneur approached us with his concerns about the family’s business team. The core, the attorney and accountant, had been onboard for as long as the son could remember. At least since his father promised that the business “would one day be his.” That was twenty-five years ago.

At that time, the advisors were chosen because of their allegiance to the patriarch and CEO, his father. Grateful to be a part of the family business the son never thought to question the choice or wonder how this team of advisors would serve his needs. From time to time other advisors were added to the team: the banker, insurance broker, and occasionally industry specialists to help guide the growth of the business, however they did not join the core members.

You probably have encountered similar teams. Brought in for your professional expertise, you felt you could add value. In meetings, you are introduced; you present a good case for how you will overcome a business problem or create a way to increase growth. The prize is getting hired. Or is it?

Once hired you find yourself puzzling to behave in order to fit in with the existing team. Logically, your success is based on the ability to help make the owner more money. While this may be the reality of how most advisors become a part of interdisciplinary teams, the next step, jousting for your position, is the reason that advisors in our field spend so much time discussing “how to build an interdisciplinary team.”

Those of you who follow sports know that a competitive group of athletes is not necessarily a “team.” Imagine for a moment, joining one of the sports teams that engenders the support of its fans in spite of its inability to win a pennant. Of course, if you are on the roster, it may not matter as long as you get rewarded for your efforts; and, of course, it does help if other members are also benefiting.

Being Chicagoans, we are known as loyal fans. Even while we complain that our sports teams are less than stellar inter-disciplinary teams.

Recently several families, who have long-standing relationships with their interdisciplinary team of advisors, engaged us. One was the adult son who was “promised the business one day.” He finally pressed for a plan. His father responded by drafting a document that gave him shares of the stock, minority ownership. Both the attorney and accountant knowing the father well (after all their years on the team) advised the son “Sign the agreement and don’t make any changes.” They counseled him, “You know your father. Your choice is between accepting his offer or not getting any interest.”

While their comments were directed toward the son, the same advice holds true for the professionals who themselves managed to remain part of the family business team. They know that the other need of the founder, even beyond profits, is control. Another second-generation member of a family business is clear: “Everyone on the team is also on the payroll.”

Most practitioners understand that it is the same human characteristics driving someone’s success that cause them to control both their business and personal lives. It is no surprise that these leaders build teams that do their bidding. In contrast, we recently spoke with a father thinking about his plans for his next gen. He began the conversation by sharing his awareness that he controls everything. Far more difficult for professional advisors are those founders and patriarchs who believe they have everyone else’s interest at heart while rendering ultimate control.

Any stressor to family, ownership or management exerts pressure to both the stake holders and their professional team. Succession issues are among the most problematic for those who like having their control on the rudder. It is most important for a team to be a team when the system faces challenges.

At these points it is important to remember that:

  • Motivations are not purely financial. Self-interest on the part of stakeholders and advisors often determines outcome. Just think of the deals that seem to make logical sense that are stalled because of non-financial concerns.
  • As in the cases mentioned in this article, it is a challenge to figure out how to go beyond one party’s interests and look at the bigger picture, including multigenerational issues.
  • As a potential member of an interdisciplinary team, it is important to determine whether you are beholden to the founder or patriarch or to the best outcome—and make your decisions accordingly.

Recently the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. While most people would not look at an orchestra as a team, it might be the best example of an interdisciplinary team in Chicago. Conductor, vocal soloist, children’s choir, woman’s choir and the largest collection of musicians that I have ever seen performed seamlessly for 92 minutes, no intermission.

Mahler retreated into a private house as he created. He was the founder and CEO of his musical creations. The first movement was written after all the other movements because that was what he felt the piece needed. When performed, he wanted it to sound the way he had envisioned it. While we don’t think of artists as profit-driven they do desire tangible success.

Like an interdisciplinary team, the mission of the musicians is to bring Mahler’s vision to life. It is unlikely that Mahler ever imagined the performance as we heard it that evening. Considerable individual and collective effort went into the success of that night. Perhaps the biggest irony is that the leader, the conductor, led with no actual control over any of the sounds that were heard that evening. Mastering interdisciplinary teams for family businesses requires that we figure out how to help grow profits but it also requires that we consider how we respond to the personalities of those involved.

About the Contributors
krasnowHenry Krasnow is a lawyer in Chicago with the firm of Krasnow, Saunders, Kaplan and Beninati, LLP who has written and spoken widely about solutions to the legal problems facing family businesses. He is the author of Your Lawyer: An Owners Manual, a book for business owners on how to evaluate and get more value from their lawyer. Henry is the outgoing chair of the Practitioner Editorial Board.

weiner, jamesDr. James Weiner is co-founder of Chicago-based Inheriting Wisdom, a specialty consulting firm that designs Legacy Plans for families, and provides training on legacy issues for their wealth. He is co-authors of The Legacy Conversation: the missing gem in wealth planning, and Conversation Starters, a card game for families to begin their legacy conversation. Jamie is the incoming chair of the Practitioner Editorial Board.

Stay tune next week for another issue of The Practitioner.

Yours in Practice,

The Practitioner