Application of Bowen Family Systems Theory in Consulting to Family Businesses, November 2011
“So much of what gets decided in business is based on relationships.”
On November 12, 2011 Kathy Wiseman presented a day of her thinking about how she uses Bowen family systems theory in her work as a family business consultant. She encouraged the audience to think about how they go about their own work. The goal was to stimulate thinking about the field of family business consulting as seen through the lens of emotional process. Ms. Wiseman told the audience how she came to her interest in emotional process, Bowen theory, and family business through her own family history and from her experiences in the field. She showed a video documenting the natural history of a family business succession through the lens of emotional process over a period of ten years.She talked about the challenges and outcomes of her consultation experiences with several family business foundations and outlined her approach to consulting. To demonstrate a principle for productive family meetings, she led the audience in an exercise of thinking in groups that are structured to protect and promote individuality.
Four Themes in the Application of Theory to the Family Emotional System in Family Business
The Family Business Succession Case Study
Ms. Wiseman took a research posture in the family business succession case study. She began the project to see if she could track succession as an emotional process. The emotional process in succession, even between a mother and a daughter over holiday dinners, can be very significant. Understanding succession as emotional process might help with the question of what is the help that helps?
The video of a father and son over ten years in a process transferring leadership in a national company involved interviewing them separately and together. They reflect on their relationship and the struggle to define and separate their roles and responsibilities in the company. The son was experienced in business his own right and he learned the family business from the father. As the son struggled to take leadership, his father struggled over relinquishing it and they differed over how to go forward.
The study was not a study of consulting or coaching, but of just observing the very emotional nature of succession. The neutrality of the interviewer may have been important in the thoughtful and reflective way both the father and son described what they were struggling with and their candor may have been important in the response the video has elicited from audiences.
While some react to the emotionality and want the interviewer to do something to fix it, it is interesting how many others focus on thinking about emotional process in their own lives rather than on what’s right or wrong with the consultant or the family.
Some questions raised in discussion were: Would the family have been better off had the son not entered to take over leading the family business or if he had left it sooner? If the level of differentiation in the family is low and the fusion is high is it wise for a family to be in business together? How do people end up in their family’s business–is it a motivated or a reasoned process, or is it a very automatic emotional process driven by the larger system? What about the positive value of the many opportunities for differentiation of self that emerge for family members in business together? How much success can be expected from prescribing administrative solutions if the underlying emotional entanglement is what gets the process stuck?
Consulting and Coaching
The consultant strives to think systems as much as possible and to identify where the anxiety is in the family, and in the consultant, as well as how patterns can be interrupted. Here is an outline of the process Ms. Wiseman uses:
Consultation Cases of Transferring Wealth to the Next Generation
Three cases were presented of families with foundations trying to plan the transfer of assets to the next generation. These cases illustrate some of the variations in family emotional process and the associated problems families face in decision-making for the future. The consulting project varies accordingly.
In a family where there were multiple marriages with children, the parents were trying to decide how much money to leave to a family foundation and how much to leave to the children. The parents wanted to talk about it with all their children together (which is wise since this reduces the potential of legal challenges later after the parents’ death). The first family meeting the family tried to do blew up emotionally. The consultant had put the meeting together based on a togetherness orientation in which family members expressed feelings to one another without clarity about the purpose of the meeting. The second consultant put in a whole lot of work and called in a second consultant to help cover all the bases before the next attempt at a family meeting. The goals for the meeting were to clarify its purpose-–for the parents to hear the children’s thinking and the children to hear the parents’ and one another’s thinking before the parents would go about making the decisions–and to learn enough about the emotional process in the family to manage it effectively in the meeting and throughout the consulting effort. Additionally, the principle of protecting and promoting individuality in the way the process of the meeting was structured was key to the success the second time around.
In another family, the parents were stuck in their estate planning over the issue of how much to leave to the children and how much to the family foundation. In this case, the answers for them emerged through a number of steps that took place over a number of years. The adult children gradually defined themselves in relationship to the family foundation and in doing so altered the foundation and its mission to be consistent with their life goals. The children’s life goals also developed in new ways as a result. The family foundation advisors provided some creative structures the family used such as a family bank, but they mostly supported the process that unfolded in the family as their thoughtful interactions with one another gradually produced a very satisfying outcome for the family members and for their foundation.
Another case involved a family foundation where the younger generation did not have the capacity to take it over. The foundation leadership was passed from father to a daughter who found herself in the difficult position of surveying the young people in the family and not seeing a capable successor. The consulting principle was to simply continue talking with the daughter as she considered her options such as to spend the foundation down. The question for the daughter was how to best honor the legacy left her that she was no longer willing to carry on her own and was unable to transfer in the family.
Ms. Wiseman ended the day with a personal story. In a clear state of mind about emotional process after the Bowen Center symposium, she is with her 8 year old grandson at the park and he confides to her that he is shy and is bothered by not knowing how to get in the pickup soccer game his older brother just joined. Instead of advising, Kathy indicates to him that she understands because she gets shy at cocktail parties and can find it hard to know what to say and do. Pretty soon he was actively trying to join the soccer game and he ultimately succeeded.
“When people need to think about complicated things that are emotional triggers for them, very aggressive suggestions are not as helpful as just being there and having a way to think about it. I watched him figure it out. I think that was an interesting lesson in how you consult when people are in very emotional territory.”
“I was trying to think what made me so energized after the conference. I came up with a few thoughts. 1. Kathy led us into her work, as she presented it, with the curiosity and enthusiasm, and the thinking out of the box that had led her into it. 2. Kathy encouraged openness and questioning both in her work and in how she led the audience. 3. “The individual-thinking-in-a-group” ended the session by adding an additional powerful way to be one’s self, express self in the process of being one’s own self, and hearing others still being one’s self and hearing with openness.This was the way I perceived the day. Hope that makes sense.”
“The day was very rich and thought-provoking for me. I struggled to write a summary that would reflect why the day was useful to me, and yet also be intelligible to others. As an alternative, I’ve included some “best hits” from the day for me:
“Some Thoughts Stimulated and Regenerated by Kathy Wiseman’s Meeting on November 12, 2011.
Kathy Wiseman, MBA, CEO of Working Systems, is a family business consultant practicing with the Learning Space and is on the faculty of the Bowen Center in Washington, DC.