The digital age
With Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, text, email and smartphones, it seems it’s never been easier to stay in touch. But despite this, finding the time to talk face-to-face and really build relationships has rarely seemed so difficult. It’s a cliché, but for good reason: we spend so much time talking in the modern world that it can be hard to hear what’s actually being said.
And yet, we know that communication is critical for family businesses. Healthy, frequent, honest conversations are the closest thing to a ‘silver bullet’ entrepreneurial families have for dealing with a variety of thorny issues, and encouraging proper communication is especially important when working with next generation groups.
Younger family members tend to have a greater reliance on digital methods of communication than older members, both within their friendship groups and when talking to their family. Of course, these digital skills can be of great benefit (consider a next gen studying in America using a video-messaging app to keep in touch with their grandmother in India), but the danger is that online communication is prioritised at the expense of quality face-to-face interactions. Equally, while apps and websites can be very useful for maintaining existing relationships, they are often less useful for building meaningful new ones.
I was reminded of this recently when working with the future inheritors of a seventh generation family business to assist with their induction into ownership of the business. Not surprisingly for such a large ownership group, the cohort of next generation cousins did not have particularly strong relationships, and in many cases had not met before. Compare this to a family business being inherited by a group of siblings, who at the very least are likely to have been brought up by the same parents, in the same house, with similar values.
Our recommendation in the seventh generation case was simple: before holding workshops on vision and values (as would normally be the case), providing business courses, or discussing their business in any real detail at all, we organised a series of events and away days to allow the next generation group to simply get to know each other and start to build trust. Meals, outdoor activities, and time spent sharing personal backgrounds and aspirations: each helped this group become friends and learn to communicate. One day, they will co-own the business, and establishing the foundation for good communication today will assist them in making collective decisions in the future.
Technology as a tool
Having built the in-person relationships, technology can be used to maintain them and organise events. The next gen group mentioned above now use a WhatsApp group to give feedback on previous get-togethers and arrange new ones. In another example, I know of a family where a group of siblings share executive responsibility and use apps to communicate when urgent decisions are needed and they are not in the office together. In each case, the foundations of the relationships are personal, and technology is used as a tool.
Putting it into practice
While any communication is better than no communication, nothing beats in-person dialogue. Whether this is a holiday for family bonding or meeting up in a board room to make decisions together, verbal communication is less likely to be misunderstood and helps build rapport in a way that ‘e-dialogue’ cannot. And while anyone can talk, effective communication evolves between people through experience and time – learning what works for each other and what doesn’t. Therefore the sooner you get the group together on a regular basis, the better.
Working in an office environment, we’re often told to get up and talk to colleagues around the corner in person, rather than sending an email, instant message or giving them a call. Follow this advice in your family for a head start on family communication: just get everyone together and in my experience, very often the rest will follow.