Four Key Elements to Make Your Family Meetings Better Than the Royals'

The glue is gone. She held you together as a family for so many years.  She was the reason you came together.  In honor to her and the family she built, you tried to put on the brave face, the happy face, the game face.  She was the source of calm for you when your sibling or your dad, her son, honked you off.  Her wisdom and humor defused tension and brokered understanding.  But now, she’s gone.

Whenever we lose the matriarch (or patriarch) in a family, whether The Queen or the “queen,” a shift occurs.  When the last of the generation passes, the shift can be seismic.

The questions now faced are, “What is my new role?”, “How do I behave now?”, “How will the others behave?”

And “What chickens will come home to roost?”  Family meetings, where we cover the most important topics on how to move our family and the business forward, are now rudderless.

The Royal Family is experiencing this moment with the entire world watching.  Every micro-action is being scrutinized, interpreted, and projected for consumption.  Thank goodness the rest of us don’t have to endure such oversight and invasion into these moments in our life.

That said, there are aspects we can learn from as we observe the ultimate family business, the Royal Family Business, as they chart their new waters.

Royal Observations

  1. There is a contingency plan

Well before the Queen began ailing, the contingency plan was mapped out and known.  Protocols and expectations were set for how the business of the monarchy would continue without her at its helm.  Most of us don’t have the precedence that the Royal Family relies on, which may be a blessing in disguise.  But it doesn’t diminish the fact that when the bell tolled, everyone knew what they had to do.

  1. Succession lines are clear

The world has known who was next in line for decades – Charles.  As Charles ascends to the throne, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex ascend to Prince and Princess of Wales.  The teams of people serving them in their prior roles undoubtedly have clarity in what new roles they will assume, or not.

There is power in knowing what to expect, whether one agrees with it or not.  With the decision and succession lines mapped out, people intimately involved in the family business accept the direction of the business, prepare for and develop in their current and future roles, and contribute to its success.

In most family businesses, selecting the next leader is not mapped out the way it used to be where the first born is the natural heir.  (Thank goodness, as birth order and/or gender are not strong predictors of capability.) This decision is often met with hand wringing and is delayed as emotions and fears of family discord keep us from making difficult choices.   The lack of clarity breeds confusion and competition, which can become unhealthy. It is impactful to have a plan and communicate it, even if the plan is well constructed to ensure the business is strong enough to consider multiple options for its future.

  1. But are they?

While the succession lines are clear within the monarchy and technical roles are defined, it is likely that members of the Royal  family have entered their own twilight zone when it comes to what succession truly means.  It’s been reported that Prince Charles struggled in his own right defining his role as the Prince of Wales. He is not his mother and, no doubt, has been thinking about his approach to the role of King for many years.  Compared to his mother when she ascended to the throne, he is (or should be) well prepared.  She was thrown into it at age 25.  He’s had decades to prepare.

Consider the next generation of Royal.  How prepared is Prince William to assume his roles?  He steps into the role of Prince of Wales and, potentially, King.  Given Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s longevity, one might assume that Charles may have a couple of decades as King.  Should that be the case, Prince William too will have plenty of time to prepare.  However, fate may have other plans.  Would he be ready – personally, emotionally, and professionally?

Further, Prince Harry is still a member of the family but stepped out of the family business.  Various interviews suggest that the decision to leave the business was because he and his family did not feel supported as they faced the requirements and chronic challenges of being in the business.  Tradition and “that’s the way it’s always been” overruled any opportunities to stretch the family’s thinking and approach to roles and support systems. The chickens had come home to roost. Such stagnant thinking forced Prince Harry and his family to make painful choices. 

Successful succession is more than the org chart.  Communication, support, empathy and connection are key.  The business and the family are navigating new terrain.  Without the Queen, they will redefine their roles within the family business as well as their relationships with one another.  The question is whether they are able to advance as a family and a business.  The each have a decision to make.

  1. Deciding What Family Means

The Royal family is under enormous pressure and are likely white knuckling through their not-so-private/public mourning.    Without the glue, Queen Elizabeth, to hold the family together, there is a risk that the tensions between the generations will bubble back up.  Conversely, it may also prompt a reconciliation.  Time will tell.

Whenever a generation passes. family members need to answer those questions about their role, their behavior, and their commitment to their relationships within the family.  It presents an opportunity for the family to redefine their vision and goals for the future and the family.  “Family” may broaden or narrow depending on the strength of relationships and willingness to adapt.  The willingness to communicate with one another about challenging topics will influence how family is ultimately defined. 

But how do you do it?

Family Meetings As the New Glue

A technique that many families that own a business use, particularly when multiple family members or multiple generations are involved in the business, is family meetings.  Family meetings are different than management meetings and are not the same as shareholder meetings.  These are events where the family gathers to discuss how they are going to advance the family and the business.  At the same time certain topics such as succession and ownership may come up, family meeting events bridge how to bring up the next generation in the enterprise or navigate issues facing the family ranging from governance, codes of conduct, and how to support one another in family and professional roles. 

A strong family meeting program is on-going, mixing business and with some family fun.  It’s not a one-and-done.  Well designed, the program helps enhance understanding and communication across all members of the family, resolve disagreements in more constructive ways, and provide supporting frameworks to help the family through good times and bad.

Four critical elements belong in a family meeting process including:

  1. Ensure that there are no surprises. There’s a vision and consensus as to why the family meetings are an important and valued part of the family enterprise.  Family members know what to expect in a meeting, including the issues to be discussed and the decisions to be made
  2. Consequences of decisions are clear. If folks are being asked to weigh in on a decision, transparent on the pros and cons of the decision need to be clearly shared.  What rewards or negative outcomes could play out?  Family members deserves to know.
  3. All members of the family are respected. Rank, gender, marital status, generation, age – doesn’t matter.  Every person needs to feel that they are respected and heard.  Processes around how you plan and conduct the meetings need to ensure this.
  4. Hold the right meetings at the right time. Be sensitive to participants’ readiness for various conversations.  Particular knowledge, experience, or understanding may need to be developed before tackling an issue or topic.  Certain topics or decisions belong in the management meeting or the shareholder meeting and not at the family meeting.  (Otherwise the family may feel emboldened to micromanage or confused in terms of what their decision-making rights are.)  Conversely, family relationships and their impact on the business don’t belong in the management meeting.

One gets the sense that the Royal Family missed the boat on constructing their family meeting initiative and process.  Perhaps that’s an advantage we mere mortals have over the Royal Family.  We can so something about it without the whole world watching.  Let’s do this!  (If you want a copy of the full ten Guidelines for Family Meetings, visit https://rebrand.ly/fam-mtg .

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