The Most Trusted Advisor and the Subtle Advice Process in Family Firms


The Practitioner is very pleased to feature the last of the five articles in the historic September Special Issue of FBR on Advising Family Enterprises. This executive summary by Karen Vinton, assistant editor of FBR, focuses on Vanessa Strike’s article “The Most Trusted Advisor and the Subtle Advice Process in Family Firms.” The full article can be downloaded here.

In the 20+ years of research in the family enterprise field, very little has focused on the role, expertise and influence of the advisors and consultants. What do they do? How do they do it? And…does it work?

The September issue of FBR begins to clarify the role of advisors and how they work. Much in the same way that the other professional fields have for years critiqued and evaluated the interventions of their related professional.

This article, “The Most Trusted Advisors and the Subtle Advice Process in Family Firms,” by Vanessa Strike of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, begins to demystify the role of the most trusted advisors. This study examines nine most trusted advisors in six family firms to develop a grounded theory model of how advisors capture attention, how they become attuned to family firm members to influence attention, and how they aid family members to collaboratively interrelate and mindfully govern the firm in order to facilitate an environment of collective attention.

(Figure 2 in the article shows the process model of facilitating collective attention that was developed and Table 3 has supporting quotes for the various attributes.)

A summary of the various components of the model is as follows:

Attributes to capture attention – how well the MTA gained the right to be heard.

  • Voice –  self-awareness; true to his values; trustworthy; best interest of the family and business at heart
  • Weight – depth of competency; past experience with family firms and breadth of competency

Attuning to influence attention – the subtle processes that MTAs use to become attuned to family members.

  • Self in relation to others – understanding how group members relate to one another
  • Self in contribution to the whole – providing independent objective advice; acting with suspicious trust; quarterbacking; encouraging multiple advisors
  • Decision bias to others – accepting and supporting the decisions and goals of the family

Facilitating collective attention – how the MTA facilitates an environment that connects family members with one another.

  • Collaborative interrelating – MTAs help family members work together through (1) helping family members develop their own competencies, (2) helping family members focus on what is good for the group, and (3) helping the family make decisions together.
  • Mindful governance – MTAs encourage family members to slow down, stop, reflect and think about the various consequences of decisions.

Whether you are an advisor, consultant, MTA, family business owner, or researcher, you will find many salient points when reading this paper.

For example, advisors can learn about how to:

  • Develop voice and self-awareness, building on their personal strengths
  • Gain broad experience and knowledge
  • Focus on understanding family dynamics, emotions and ability of family members to deal with multiple issues
  • Assist the family that wants to stay focused on the goal of family unity

MTAs can gain insights into the role they play with the families, the businesses and the other advisors that provide counsel to the family enterprise.

Families can gain new insights into the role an MTA plays in their family and business and the importance of having all their advisors work with the MTA.

Whether you are involved in the overt role of the MTA or the underlying subtle, sophisticated advice process, this article will provide a window into and deeper understanding of the MTA and the advising process that has remained largely unknown even to scholars and business people within the inner circle of family firms.

About the Contributor

Karen L. Vinton, Ph.D. is a 1999 Barbara Hollander Award winner and Professor Emeritus of Business at the College of Business at Montana State University, where she founded the University’s Family Business Program. An FFI Fellow, she has served on its Board of Directors and also chaired the Body of Knowledge committee. From 1997 through 2011, Vinton served on the editorial board of Family Business Review, and is the current assistant editor. Before retiring, Vinton served as director for her own family’s business (negotiating its eventual sale) and had her own family business consulting practice, Vinton Consulting Services. Karen can be reached at [email protected].

Stay tuned next week for another issue of The Practitioner.

Yours in Practice,

The Practitioner