In the last half-century, the pace of change and the many innovations that have reorganized our behavior in no way compare with the unanticipated situation we now face from the coronavirus pandemic. We simply have no precedent for how to plan for what may come next, or for managing the pace of the upheaval. And yet every day we must act – even making tough choices – without much information about the best direction to take.
Family businesses and wealth are under threat like never before. With family members unable to go to work, it’s hard to imagine how to go back to some sense of normal once we get the “all clear.” That uncertainty and inability to be in command of business operations makes us anxious. And when we’re anxious, we do impulsive and short-sighted things.
In times of crisis, feelings of anxiety and loss cause people to draw inward and focus only on how circumstances directly affect them. That explains the lines at grocery stores and gun shops. Similarly, the individualist model of most businesses ownership is a lone wolf. Rather than seek help, owners make the tough decisions on their own.
But a crisis can also present the opportunity to lead more openly and plan together how to respond. By sharing the specifics of their dilemma, they are more likely to receive help and to also be available to each other.
The owner of a small family business has no idea of what will happen next. He or she must deal with anxiety in family members, employees, customers and suppliers, and the community. What was built over time is suddenly threatened. Rather than deal with these issues alone, the legacy owner is better off using this opportunity to bring others in and develop a shared response.
For example, within resilient family businesses, owners are not just together to make money, but to share values, responsibilities and a commitment to future success. These family businesses are able to act collaboratively.
Family business owners will want to act on these principles when responding to this crisis:
1. Shared family responsibility.
Family members have grown used to the security of the business. Even with its ups and downs, they’ve learned to depend on you. Rather than give false reassurances, it’s time for transparency and open discussion. This is a time to share the challenges regarding fixed costs, debt, obligations and the cost of doing business. A family discussion of what’s actually happening and the difficult choices that need to be made can actually provide more assurance and confidence than empty promises.
Use this opportunity to talk to younger generations in the family about business operations and the trials ahead. Describe what you are doing, and ask for help and ideas. For example, the family might decide to create an austerity plan and talk about how to cut expenses. The family can also discuss its underlying values and how, especially in this time of social hardship, how to look beyond their own self-interest and use their wealth to help others.
2. Transparency with employees.
Local businesses are trying to stay afloat while doing their best to virtually carry out essential services and responsibilities. Many have had to reduce operations, and some have been forced to let staff go. Family business owners need to be open with their employees, transparently communicating information and concerns. They must ensure that everyone across the company, not just employees, shares in the burden. The response must recognize financial reality, but also sustain social capital by respecting all stakeholders.
Collaboration, defining and maintaining underlying values, and ensuring open communication are qualities that will allow family businesses to bounce back after a crisis.
About the Author
Dennis T. Jaffe, Ph.D., a leading architect of the field of family enterprise consulting, is an acclaimed speaker in programs for business families and financial service firms. Dennis leads the 100-Year Family Enterprise Research Program at Wise Counsel Research. He is also Family Business Scholar at the Smith Family Business Program at Cornell University, a faculty advisor at the Ultra High Net Worth Institute, and a regular contributor to Forbes Leadership channel. He was awarded a special commendation for Outstanding Contributor to Wealth Management Thought Leadership by the Family Wealth Report. His new book is Borrowed from Your Grandchildren: The Evolution of 100-Year Family Enterprises (Wiley, 2020). Learn more at dennisjaffe.com.