How business owning families can adapt to manage a crisis

  • Written By: Rupert Phelps
  • Published: Thu, 14 May 2020 15:30 GMT

Generations Y (millennials) and Z are not just used to working with technology, it is truly embedded in their daily lives. Few of them would understand the notion of being online or offline, rather acknowledging rare moments when they are not attached to a connected device (e.g. scuba diving). How might these intrinsic skills be captured for the benefit of business owning families?

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Everyone is now being forced to work with technology to a far greater degree than that to which most are used to, or perhaps even comfortable. Working from home (WFH) is now a universal reality for people of all ages, every day, every week, a far cry from doing it every Friday or for the odd period. We are all learning how to be productive and, hopefully, being pleasantly surprised. This will have a transformative effect when some semblance of office routine returns, since this will not be a reversion to what was ‘normal’. Technology-enabled efficiencies will be broad and substantial and next generation family members will be in an especially strong position to participate in this way. For some it may offer a new and enticing entry-point to engaging with family concerns.

There is also a question of balance in looking at all members of the family who may be able to contribute in any manner. This includes the oldest, as well as the youngest generation.

Families may want to consider creating a Council of Elders, and so tapping into a collective source of intellectual capital and experience that may assist in guiding the family and its business through these challenges. A calming ‘hand on the tiller’ can help ensure that energy and activity are channelled in the optimum direction.

Many families have discovered that a blend of inputs, from all generations, will harvest the most beneficial utilisation of the individual human capital of their members. Clearly, each person needs to be engaged and contributing, but those who have less to say and may be shy to say it, might still have a valuable perspective if unearthed by careful chairing of family meetings.

It should also not be assumed that the youngest generations are always very tech savvy and the ‘elders’ generation (older than the governing generation of those probably in their 50s or 60s) technology luddites. There are plenty of exceptions to this, especially with the elders. What matters is that each family member has the opportunity to be included and involved, and that constructive challenging of ideas and strategy is encouraged. This is a fundamental governance point, that ideas and plans need to be examined and ‘stress-tested’ in debate. This is readily accepted in the corporate sphere, and just one reason why differing experience and perspective of board members is essential. Families might garner valuable insight and practices from the commercial environment of a family owned or influenced operating company, just as they will offer back similar lessons when well governed themselves.

Technological devices and platforms have enabled infrastructure, connections and business to continue to a remarkable degree. From now on, there will be a necessity to blend technological efficiencies with family governance. Both need to be accepted and embraced. Private family websites, perhaps incorporating secure archiving of some content for reference, can be an effective and flexible starting point.

Tools and environments evolve, with that process usually being accelerated and intensified in times of emergency, as seen this Spring. Enabling technologies might be a necessity or creator of efficiency, and their champions might be the youngest group in a family. This may be the trigger for the first such involvement and enrich the dialogue between family members. Where the family forum, virtual or actual, is inclusive of all members and suitably guided, then the resilience that builds through training will accumulate.

It is not families that avoid conflict who survive through generational change. It is those who learn to anticipate, address and progress through it in as collective a way as possible.

Where families learn how to practice managing disagreement and conflict in calmer periods, their future-proofing will be enhanced for times such as these.


Please remember investment involves risk. The value of investments and the income from them can fall as well as rise and investors may not receive back the original amount invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.

By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Details correct at time of writing.

Smith & Williamson is a leading financial and professional services firm providing a comprehensive range of investment management, tax, financial advisory and accountancy services to private clients and their business interests. The firm’s c1,800 people operate from a network of 11 offices: London, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Dublin (City and Sandyford), Glasgow, Guildford, Jersey, Salisbury and Southampton. Smith & Williamson is part of the Tilney Smith & Williamson group.

Ref: 49220lw

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