Challenges Facing High Performing Families
An interview with John Messervey
Since John Messervey counseled his first family business in 1980, he has studied the behaviors that enhance or inhibit the long term growth of families, enterprise and wealth. John’s ability to “connect the dots” and address the real issues limiting family wealth are well known among his clients. One client recently shared, “John is engaging, he is personable, he understands, he has a sense of humor and he is very good at what he does.”
John believes that building a business and/or accelerating your family wealth can be one of the most nourishing experiences in life, if many of the mistakes that plague family enterprise are avoided. He believes that many families slowly become stuck, avoid difficult conversations and then repeat common patterns of behavior from generation to generation.
His approach is a rare combination of business savvy and practical family advice. Known for accepting many of the most challenging cases in the field, John’s clients are among the highest performing families across the globe. He has little interest in the amount of wealth a family has accumulated; his focus is on helping families make better choices.
After working with more than 350 families over 30 years, John admits that there are few surprises in his work. He is often viewed as a family resource for a generation or more. He is currently working on his first of three books, LESSONS LEARNED; How America’s Leading Families Create and Sustain Their Wealth.
In this brief interview at his Lake Forest office, he responds to our questions.
TL: What are HNW families concerned about now?
There is a fair amount of anxiety about the future. I am more optimistic. We know we are entering new economic territory. It is critical to deal with the reality of the situation. Despite some recent solid returns in their portfolios, a number of my clients are concerned that we are not heading in the right direction. The values that built prosperity are under siege. This anxiety is fertile ground for change and growth.
Among the older generation, global and domestic economics, fitness/health and personal security are frequently mentioned.
The younger generation, is moving from big bricks to small clicks. Entrepreneurship, particularly in tech, medical, entertainment and education is high on the list for this cohort. Similar to the idealistic 1970’s, ambitious young people want to invent something to change the world. However, the bell curve of talent and motivation within this generation of millennials is wide.
TL: Tell us more about families that are stuck.
From time to time, all families become stuck. How they get stuck is not as important as their urgent need to get unstuck. Often there are unspoken or unresolved differences about risk, strategy, growth, compensation, fairness and much more. A facilitated conversation can unlock the issues at hand and move ahead. Too often, families wait too long to have that discussion. Then, the fear of the “Thermonuclear” discussion becomes very real. Families need more frequent smaller disagreements to avoid large painful upheavals. Some family members operate on a subliminal level of exasperation for years. I would rather see families who own businesses compete in the marketplace rather than compete with each other.
TL: We often hear the term, “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” in three generations – is that still a concern?
Absolutely. That phrase has been translated into at least eighty cultures across the globe. It is a very real concern among the families that I see. Family wealth dies from within. Even Jack Donaghy (a character on NBC’s Thirty Rock) has opined, “The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things; the next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation makes snowboards and takes improv classes.”
TL: What are some of the most common lessons learned?
You can’t get around the reality of the situation; there is no substitute for basic honesty in resolving the matters at hand. Everyone in the family has a voice and must be heard. One task is to find a way to get all family members in alignment over goals, values and risk. Families need to tell future generations the story of their wealth; the “good struggle” if you will. Every family has a great wealth creation story – they need to pass it on.
Wealth should have a purpose; a powerful, compelling vision that connects in some way with making life better on this planet. Often it is about accelerating opportunity for others, or solving difficult problems. Attaching values to your wealth is well beyond private jets, bigger yachts, court side seats and getting your name on plaques.
The truly wealthy are quiet about their money. They treat others with dignity and respect. They are humble and often tell me that they are blessed. All inheritance is a gift; say thank you!
“You can’t get around the reality of the situation.”
TL: Is parenting in affluent families really different?
Absolutely, parenting is almost always their biggest concern. Too often parents rush in and overwhelm their children with their snowplow/helicopter approach. As a result, the child learns few problem solving skills, “street smarts” and often becomes permanently dependent upon one or both parents. We know these dependency relationships create resentment down the road. Unresolved, this dependency becomes fertile ground for years of conflict. We also know that there is a clear link between various styles of parenting and marital harmony.
Many parents tell me, “I just want my child to be happy.” I am not really worried about the happiness of the next generation. Just help them find something that they are truly enthusiastic about, and the rest will take care of itself. That may mean not going to an Ivy League school or following dad or mom’s footsteps. I often use the “c” words to describe goals for our children; confident, content, compassionate, curious, committed, competitive – you get the idea.
Rather than a tall bucket of crabs (where no family member can leave the bucket), the ideal family needs “separateness within autonomy.” Identity, individuation and independence within the family are paramount.
TL: How does marriage affect family harmony and wealth continuity?
This is a big, often overlooked topic; marriage is the foundation of long-term wealth. While no marriage is perfect – and many are far from that ideal, this critical pairing is the model for what lies ahead in parenting, financial security and family harmony. Marriage is the model of behavior for children to absorb. We marry people who, in general, allow us to continue our behaviors. It is an old adage in psychology that two people, over time, act toward each other with each other’s permission. Most couples have the same 4-5 arguments over the life of their marriage.
TL: Do you advise prenuptial agreements?
In today’s litigious environment, absolutely. Divorce can be a certain wealth killer. And, there is an increasing number of “sexual entrepreneurs” out there.
TL: Should spouses be involved in family meetings?
Yes, for three reasons. First, they are going to hear about the discussions anyway, but usually in a filtered and shortened summary. Second, they have an important role in balancing what they heard at each meeting with their own experience. Finally, spouses come from another family of origin so they have a valuable outside perspective. For family members, we often ask, do fish see the water they swim in? Unfortunately, I see too many in-laws either scapegoated (to preserve family unity) or serving as the “hired gun” (to do battle with the parents).
TL: It must be difficult for families to change.
Diagnosis isn’t really difficult; the challenge is in crafting and implementing the solutions. I like to take it one step at a time. There are no quick and easy answers, silver bullets or magic cures to all that challenges affluent families. Problem solving takes commitment – enormously rewarding, but it is work. There is nothing “soft” or easy about it. At the right moments, a sense of humor helps…
TL: What are some of the best practices that high performing families use to build harmony and wealth continuity?
Trust must be cultivated at every level. The highest performing families avoid improprieties or any appearances of impropriety. If you can’t find trust and predictable outcomes within your family, the world can be a very scary place.Every family member needs to learn to manage their negative impulses and curb their aggressive behaviors. Positive by nature, high performing families have a fundamental optimism that enriches every aspect of family life.
My clients are the alpha wolves of capitalism. If wealth creation were a sport, they have become very, very good at the great game of business. I help them remove the family obstacles that inhibit their wealth creation and continuity. If wealthy families, with all of their resources and smarts, can’t accelerate their wealth and create family harmony, what chance does the poor family on the west side of Chicago have?
TL: What are the most common obstacles to wealth continuity?
The list is long, but here’s a start: taking wealth for granted, unresolved control issues, entitlement, dependency, narcissistic fathers or mothers, destructive sibling rivalry, addictive behaviors, incompetent advisors, conflicts of interest, unethical or illegal behavior, family litigation, reckless investing… shall I go on?
TL: If you had to describe an ideal family of achievement, what would you share?
High performing families have a powerful vision of opportunity. They share lifelong learning about family wellness, investments, parenting and philanthropy. Little things matter; they have a high awareness of the needs and limitations of others. They are empathic toward each other. Finally, the next generation receives plenty of coaching and mentoring. Collectively, they hang in there until the problem is solved. They don’t try to change each other. Paradoxically, when they stop trying, real and lasting change can occur.
“Positive by nature, high performing families have a fundamental optimism that enriches every aspect of family life.”
TL: Do family retreats offer a place for solutions?
Properly structured and facilitated, family retreats are a powerful opportunity to build harmony, review wealth strategies, engage advisors and educate the next generation. It is not the place for personal ambushes, emotional drama or dad’s glory stories. Outside facilitation is critical to success. Managing the expectations of each generation is also essential. Despite a beautiful setting, no family has ever solved a generation or more of unresolved issues in an afternoon at a Four Seasons Hotel.
TL: If you have one best piece of advice for a family, what would it be?
The healthiest families have an unspoken rule that despite all of the challenges (large or small) they steadfastly believe, “we can work it out.” That commitment to each other is a hallmark of our highest performing families.