Lesson for Family Advisors: “Not all pain is harmful”


Two brothers, Andrew and Dave, started a health-related service business in Dave’s basement. The year was 2003. Twelve years later, revenues topped $60 million, employees exceeded 240, and Dave and Andrew occupied large corner offices in their national headquarters.

During that profitable run, Dave became CEO, and nine vice-presidents, including Andrew, reported to him. But despite the company’s soaring growth, all was not well on the senior leadership team.

Over time, Andrew’s incompetence was repeatedly exposed. His bad decisions led to lost business opportunities. Morale deteriorated among his direct reports, and Andrew became a gossip topic among his peers. Two VPs tried talking to Dave about the problems, but Dave wouldn’t hear of it.

“He’s my brother!” Dave screamed in one memorable episode, pounding his fist on the conference room table. “He’s been with me since the beginning. We spent many a day licking and stuffing envelopes. I don’t want to hear anything negative about Andrew. We wouldn’t be here without him.”

When one of Andrew’s mistakes cost the company $250,000, Dave realized his own reputation would be jeopardized if he failed to address the problem. Awkwardly and abruptly, Dave terminated his brother. Not long after this turn of events, Dave and Andrew’s wealth advisor met with them separately. When she asked Andrew how he was doing, Andrew’s response was telling: “Relieved,” he said. “The pressure was getting unbearable for me.”

The advisor learned that Andrew had been suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, driven by anxiety. He said: “I knew I wasn’t performing, but where else could I make that kind of money? Besides, I didn’t want to let my brother down.”

Consider the many types of avoidance that showed up in Dave’s relationship with his brother:

  • Avoiding accountability.
  • Avoiding honesty.
  • Avoiding challenging conversations.
  • Avoiding coaching.
  • Avoiding discomfort.

Are these not all-too-familiar themes in our work as advisors and consultants to family businesses?

Sometimes—for our clients and for ourselves—an interaction ventures too close to a sensitive issue, eliciting an immediate “I don’t want to discuss it.” We see the signs: fidgeting, subject-changing, deflecting through humor, redness in the face, or “shutting down.”

This is tricky territory for an advisor. When is it invasive to pursue an uncomfortable topic, and when might that discussion be important, or even life-defining, to broach?

When the stage is set for families to discuss succession, or unacceptable performance, or compensation, or the transfer of wealth, how often do we see dodging, delaying and side-stepping in order to preserve comfort?

The comfort trap

It’s not just the family owners who duck issues.

Advisors commonly tell me that they back away from delicate topics, defaulting to their own comfort levels. One of the biggest triggers for an advisor’s uneasiness is the detection of a client’s discomfort.

Several years ago I had a one-on-one coaching session with Gaston, who co-owned a food products business with his sister, Anna. He told me, “As far as the culture around here, I don’t see things the way Anna does.”

I asked, “Is this something you’ve discussed with her?” “Not directly,” Gaston said, “but she knows how I feel.”

I could tell Gaston was uncomfortable with the prospect of confronting this issue with his sister. Noting his uneasiness, I found myself hesitating to push forward – the avoidance virus was alive and thriving!

But I proceeded with a squirmy question: “Gaston, is sidestepping this conversation based more on what’s best for your business, or is it more about your discomfort with Anna?”

Was that invasive, or was I practicing strategic courage? While uncomfortable topics don’t always warrant discussion, avoiding them can bring dire consequences. This brings to mind the wise motto of a physician friend: “Not all pain is harmful.”

For Dave and Andrew, avoidance caught up with them. For Gaston and Anna, my role as an advisor was to offer a timely, if somewhat uncomfortable, intervention in order to prevent difficult consequences. As a result, the air was cleared, and Gaston took helpful action with his sister.

Among the issues advisors and their family business clients tend to avoid, I view three as the most common:

Relationship conflicts

Conflicts among family members, or between a family member and a key non-family manager, often start small and are fed by avoidance over time. That’s bad for the relationship and bad for the business.

When family members don’t get along, advisors can unwittingly fuel avoidance by erring in one of two directions: over-involvement or abdication. Over-involvement occurs when advisors take responsibility for a client problem by getting stuck in a relationship triangle between the bickering parties. Whenever an advisor assumes responsibility for the relationship between two others, the parties usually stay stuck as a result.

In contrast, abdication or burying one’s head in the sand occurs when the relationship problems are not addressed because family members and their advisors are more comfortable focusing on projects and tasks.

Smart advisors try to find the middle ground, staying involved from a healthy distance, challenging the feuding individuals to look at their own part in the drama, coaching each party to work at sensible connection.

Succession planning

Who will take over for me when I leave? What conversations must we have now in order to prepare for that transition? Business owners avoid succession discussions for a spectrum of reasons. Perhaps they are not mentally ready to move on, or they have not chosen a successor, or they don’t have faith in the successor they’ve chosen.

Potential successors also avoid bringing up the topic, worrying that they will be perceived as greedy or impatient. “I don’t want my dad or mother to think I’m putting him or her out to pasture.”

Sharp-minded advisors initiate open discussion about the future and invite their clients to do the same. If leaders are not clear about their desired future or about how to prepare their successor, the advisor might refer them to an outside coach who specializes in facilitating such discussions.

Money tensions

Compensation discussions between partners, among family members and with employees often raise anxiety in all parties. The same holds true for decisions surrounding the transfer of wealth to the next generation. Whose contributions are more important to the business? How will each individual’s value be measured? How do increased financial assets affect personal initiative and self-worth?

It’s not uncommon for such conversations to be continually put off, or for family leaders to say things they later regret in an effort to avoid conflict. The best advisors won’t let that happen.

Goal: Avoiding avoidance

Advisors should fight the natural tendency to duck sensitive topics. Why? Because refusing to address an important issue often inflicts more harm on a client and the business than the emotional discomfort of facing it.

Nerve-wracking anticipation of discussing an uncomfortable topic is usually more taxing than the discussion itself. Having a plan for avoiding avoidance can help. Here’s something every advisor can do regularly: For each of your family business clients, invite the owners and key leaders to make a list of the issues they have been avoiding. Ask them, “Are the consequences of not addressing this issue more harmful than the emotional discomfort of discussing it?”

As advisors, we are like Andrew’s brother, Dave. We are there to help those we serve and to promote self-clarity, to work in their best interest, to flash a yellow light when something doesn’t sound accurate, or a red light when a client is about to make an ill-advised decision. As advisors, it is part of our job to step up, ask penetrating questions, and broach tough topics. That might feel uncomfortable, but in the long run it usually delivers high value.

About the contributor

 John Engels is president of Leadership Coaching, Inc., in Rochester, NY, which he founded in 1996, to deliver cutting-edge, science-based leadership and relationship management strategies to top-level leaders of family businesses and professional firms. The firm is based on the integration of three cutting-edge research disciplines: neuroscience, Bowen Family Systems Theory, and the evolution of leadership in non-human species. He can be reached at [email protected].