Spotlight On Consulting Issues
The Family Business Shared Interest Group
Mark I. Sirkin, Ph.D.
The Family Business Shared Interest Group (SIG) had its first meeting in Pasadena, CA at the 2004 Mid-Winter Conference.  Its mission is to support those Society (Division 13) consultants who are, or would like to, consult to family owned, or controlled, businesses.

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Family-owned businesses (FOBs) are as old as business itself, reaching back beyond the beginning of recorded history.  The oldest known FOB, continuously owned and controlled by a single family, is a Japanese construction company well over 1,400 years old.  The largest FOBs are well-known brands such as Wal-Mart, Ford, and Motorola, to name a few.  It is estimated that there are over 6 million family-owned businesses in the U.S. alone, and many more throughout the world.  However, considering that only 27% of these enterprises survive to the second generation, they are strong candidates for consultation services. Consulting psychologists are uniquely qualified to help these enterprises meet the challenges of balancing financial, organizational, and family dynamics.

Any family business consultant will tell you, on a good day, the work is a heady combination of high risk, high profile, high stakes consulting opportunities.  But not for the faint of heart, because on a bad day, the complexity of the challenges, the height of the passions, and the multi-disciplinary needs of the business can be overwhelming.  Family business consulting is a specialty within a specialty for those psychologists who have been willing to take up the challenges.  Spotlight focuses on four experienced family business consultants.  I posed a series of questions to each of four Society members:

Bernard Kliska is a family business consultant with the Family Business Consulting Group in Chicago, IL.  He is co-chair of the Society’s Family Business SIG.

What led you to become a family business consultant?  I began my professional career as a psychologist in Los Angeles. After being in private practice for 8 years I got a call from my wife’s family. They owned a business in Chicago (glass and plastic containers). There were no family members who wanted to work in the business and they asked that I get involved.  I remained at the firm for 23 years, eventually becoming Chairman of the Board.  Our 2 sons joined the business. Our daughter, although not interested in working with us, felt an entitlement to ownership since the business had been in existence for 90 years and other family members had stock in the company.  We went through the usual succession and ownership issues that most family businesses address. We hired a family business consultant to help with these challenges. This is how I learned about the family business consulting profession. When I left the company I was asked to join the Family Business Consulting Group.

What are your biggest challenges?  The biggest challenge in consulting with a family in business is to be able to separate oneself from the pressure and anxiety of the family. One must know what tools one needs and how and when to use them. It is also most important for one to have a clear understanding of the culture one is entering.

What are some of the rewards of Family Business consulting for you?  I have found that over the years of working with family businesses, more and more women are getting involved. This has given me an opportunity to help them achieve goals that were not possible in the past.  What I find most rewarding in working with families is seeing positive change taking place and seeing that families are not destroyed because of the business or businesses are not destroyed because of the family and knowing that I played a part in helping them meeting their challenges.

William (Bill) Criddle, Ph.D./MBA has a private consulting practice based in Seattle, WA.  

What led you to become a family business consultant?  As I surveyed the business landscape, I was struck by the sheer number of family businesses out there. The high potential for problems (almost guaranteed in fact!) in these businesses, with the extra layer of family dynamics in addition to the many non-family business issues made them good candidates for my unique combination of clinical and business skills.  Also, the non-clinical professionals such as lawyers and accountants didn’t want to deal with the highly charged emotions in a family business that is struggling, while my clinical colleagues felt unprepared to deal with the very real business issues that these families faced.  I felt that the necessity of clinical skills and experience to effectively handle these issues would give me a competitive edge with my background in clinical work and business.

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of your work with FOBs?  One of my first referrals after finishing my MBA and starting my practice as a Management Psychologist was a family business comprised of three brothers who had been left owning equal shares of a major agricultural firm and were having intense and emotional battles in attempting to work together.  This assignment, which  lasted 10 years with the senior brother finally buying out the other two, was really gratifying. It was with this client that I witnessed a phenomenon, which I have subsequently seen elsewhere, of family members – in this the case the three brothers – who are battling it out in the boardroom, yelling at each other, accusing each other of not pulling their weight, even name calling, for month after month.  Then, when a personal crisis or tragedy happens to one of them (the death of a spouse, a divorce), one or both of the other siblings takes off his business cap, puts on his brother cap, and goes out of his way to be supportive, offering comfort, and spending time with the brother in pain, willing to put the animosity aside for the time being.

How can the Society be most helpful to family business consultants like you?  Basically just by keeping the challenges of working with family business on the agenda for workshops, presentations, sharing of experiences and things that work and don't.  I’d like to see more articles in the journal about working with family businesses.  Also, I would like to see one event on the agenda every year at our Mid-Winter Conference related to working with family businesses since there is so much potential in this area for psychological consultants to businesses.

Christine A. Maginn, PhD, MBA has been a consultant to employee assistance programs and with senior executives, managers and support staff, as well as, family businesses and entrepreneurs.  Her offices are in Glendale and Irvine, California.

What led you to become a family business consultant?  My decision to become a family business consultant came about as the result of the convergence of my background, training and experience as a psychologist and MFT with my passion for business that arose out of growing up in an entrepreneurial family.  Over the years, I have worked with entrepreneurs, small business owners and organizations.  Much of that work has centered on executive coaching and leadership development, as well as providing training and EAP consulting to corporations.  I found that many of the skills that I have acquired over the years are transferable to the “soft skill” side of family business issues.  In an effort to gain greater knowledge and credibility in the business arena, I decided to return to graduate school and earned an MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business.  Having an MBA has greatly improved my ability to better understand the gaps between the people skill side of running a successful business and the bottom line profitability that companies must achieve in order to survive.  

What are some of the typical challenges that you deal with in your work with FOBs?  When individuals within family businesses get stuck and cling to the past way of doing things, inter-generational conflicts are often ignited.  For example, when senior leadership resists the need to integrate a new technology platform that is necessary to compete in today’s global marketplace, the continued success of the business is threatened.  The inability to adapt to the ever-changing demands of an industry can lead to the ultimate demise of a family business.  However, working with multi-generations of family members as they move through the various lifecycles of a business in such a way that helps them develop greater flexibility in their thinking, adapt more readily to the ever-changing global marketplace, and align their core values and strategic objectives, consultants can help families create a sustainable business model.

Is there anything unique about your approach that characterizes your work with these families?  Family business is inherently risky business.  According to the Family Firm Institute, family businesses comprise between 80 and 90% of all business enterprises in North America.  Within the next five years, the leadership of 39% of family-owned businesses will have changed hands.  Only 12% of family owned businesses will be viable into the third generation and 3% into the fourth and beyond.  I have outlined some of the critical factors that I, and other family business consultants, can and should  address where appropriate to help families move from being stuck in certain areas to refocusing and implementing best practices that help facilitate their success.

What leads to failure and success of family businesses?  Below is a framework that I have found very helpful in working with clients:                                                                         

Risk of Failure                    vs.

Keys to Success

Secrecy           

Open communication

Rigidity                                               

Flexibility

Rivalry & confusion                           

Teamwork & collaboration

Antagonism                                         

Mutual respect for differences

Legacy mindsets                                              

Creativity & innovation

Fragmented values & goals

Alignment of core values and strategic objectives

Leadership with a myopic vision

Leadership with a clear vision

Lack of depth of new leadership        

Mentoring program

"Some day" mentality Succession planning

Disempowering acts    

Empowering acts

Antiquated business model

A business model that fits with the developmental phase of the business

Random strategies & tactics   

Implementation of best practices

Promoting family members to positions well beyond their current abilities

Acquisition of necessary business skills that fit job requirements & a willingness to hire talent outside the family when necessary

Consequently, there is a growing need for family businesses to hire consultants that can help families successfully resolve conflicts and maneuver through the sometimes sensitive issues related to succession planning and transfer of power.  Consulting psychologists have many transferable “soft skills” that can help individuals within family businesses work to improve communication, resolve conflicts, address inter-generational differences, enhance leadership skills, help families align their core values and strategic objectives, build effective teams, and work together in a collaborative manner, in order to enhance the sustainability of their company and thrive in today’s global marketplace.

Everett Moitoza, EdD, MBA is a licensed psychologist with a nation-wide family business consultancy based in Rye, New Hampshire.

What led you to begin working with family owned businesses?  Almost twenty years ago a successful businessman from Boston’s Italian North End called me on the telephone.  His voice resembled Marlon Brando.  I thought, “This has got to be a joke!”  It wasn’t.  He was calling about problems in his third generation family business. He and his two brothers were having a great deal of conflict and trouble deciding how or if they should expand their family food business.   Each had different ideas.  And their wives, adult children and even grandchildren had still other ideas, goals and objectives – some honorable, some not.  They were experiencing more conflict and impasse than usual and the newly hired non-family chief operations officer (COO) and his wife had told them about me.  At that time, she was taking a graduate psychology course in family/systems therapy that I was teaching in Cambridge. They had spoken and thought that my particular way of blending cross-cultural psychology and family systems could be helpful to this business-owning family.  So one of the brothers called to see if I could help.  He warned me that the brothers sometimes yelled a lot when they argued.  He wanted to know if that would bother me.   I said that I myself was of second generation Azorean Portuguese descent and that as long as they waved and spoke with their hands while they yelled, I would probably be fine and understand most of what they said.  And as they say, “The rest was history.”  I fell in love with the brothers, their family, the business and their food.  I relished the emancipation from my consulting room environment.  Walking arm-in-arm with the family patriarch, being introduced to multitudes of community members on the street, and occasionally stopping at both the church for “a visit” and the corner tavern for “a little taste” gave new meaning to my personal and professional life.  I was hopeful that this consultation experience might be my professional and personal “mid-life crisis.”  It was.  During this work I began formal studies for an MBA, and launched a new career as a family business consultant.  

What are some of the services that you typically provide as a family business consultant?  While generational succession drives seventy-five percent of my engagements, a sample of some of the work I do with client families might include any, or all, of the following:  Succession planning and implementation; Strategic business and family planning for future; Assistance with development of communication skills; Conflict management and negotiation skills; Executive coaching; Development of family and non family Senior Management Teams; Realignment and resolution of various sibling problems; Assistance in family estate planning; Assistance with hiring and firing; Consultation to the Human Resources department of the company; Assistance with compensation issues; Development of effective governance structures to business and family; Developing family councils to assist as an internal family management tool; Bridging cross-generational beliefs, ideas, values, goals; Developing and facilitating retreats for the family and the business; Helping non-family employees in the business understand and negotiate the complexities of the business/family they work within; Assist various departments with organizational development problems/issues; Assistance with merger and acquisition issues re: organizational culture, fit and process; Developing performance measurement instruments for family and non-family members – to mention a few of the activities in which I get engaged.  

In reality, all of the work I do is custom-fit for the family and the family business.  Both the strategic needs of the business and the developmental needs of the family and its members dictate what services I will provide.  Often I am initially contracted to provide a relatively small service - like assisting with sibling selection for an executive position which develops into a series of discrete consulting projects that may last many years.  

Any words of advice for someone thinking about entering the field of family business consulting? Training and supervision are required of psychologists when they enter new specialties and family business consultation is no exception.  While an MBA is certainly not necessary, an organized training and supervision sequence that follows outlined ethical practices, an organized sequence of skill development, study and supervision are strongly recommended.  Personally, I have also found that understanding basic cross-cultural variables, as they pertain to family values, beliefs, ideas and behaviors, is invaluable. Generational transitions and overall decisions about change are greatly impacted here.  

The excitement of helping families and their businesses, while complicated and demanding, is tremendously satisfying and enjoyable.  The consultant can be more self-disclosing and have a bit more personal relationship with the client.  Boundaries remain necessary, but not impersonal.  Psychologists who enter this arena will need to enjoy business travel, be comfortable with action-based interventions, be decisive, be directive, understand basic business language, thinking and finances, and like to be themselves with their clients.  Oh, and playing a decent game of golf, or in my case Bocci, doesn’t hurt either!


Mark Sirkin, Ph.D. began his professional life helping his brother assume control of the family business after the sudden death of his father. An academic clinical psychologist and family therapist for many years, he completed certification in Organizational Consultation and Development in 1992. He developed a specialty in working with family businesses which he brought to his work at RHR International in 1994. He has had his own consulting firm and is the founder of a start-up information services and human capital development company. He has recently joined the Hay Group as a consultant in the Organizational Effectiveness and Management Development practice. He is the author of The Secret Lives of Corporations, soon to be published by New Chrysalis Press, in which there is a chapter on family businesses. He is founding chair, and current co-chair, of the Family Business SIG of the Society of Consulting Psychologists (Division 13 of the APA).

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