“In our family, we call them outlaws, not in-laws”
The quote above emerged during our diagnostic interviews with a large and successful third-generation family business as we began work on a process for developing a path forward into the fourth generation. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard a similar sentiment – and in this case, it presented a challenging dynamic for the family to overcome.
This family had a history of some in-laws creating trouble for the family. Because of this legacy, all in-laws in the third generation were being painted with the “outlaw” brush. While there had at one point been some justification for the family’s skepticism about the trustworthiness of certain in-laws, the prevailing attitude among the second generation towards in-laws was making it quite difficult for the fourth generation to establish a positive connection to the family business. As we heard in our interviews with the older members of the fourth generation, it is “hard to connect with a system that can come across as disrespectful to one of my parents.”
We first had to meet with the second-generation family members and make sure they understood the risk that this presented to the long-term viability of the family business. It’s never an easy conversation to have, but one that we have found possible to undertake constructively if it is approached with empathy, compassion, and a lack of judgment.
With the support of the second generation that something had to change, we then identified the family governance structures as the appropriate mechanisms for manifesting the desired changes. This ended up taking the form of a subcommittee to the family council, which was assigned the responsibility of planning a two-day family retreat and preparing the materials for that retreat. This work created meaningful roles for all G3 in-laws.
One of the most impactful projects was creating a book of the family history and presenting that to the entire family during the retreat. Seeing the entire second and third generations come together in this way, and take pride in telling the story of the family business was extremely inspiring to the G4 family members. Everyone ended up enjoying a fun, educational, and emotional family retreat that went a long way towards changing the dynamic in the family regarding in-laws and paving the way for in-laws to ultimately join the family council and take on meaningful roles in the family’s businesses.