Many years ago I read an article by the conservative columnist, George Will, which has always stayed with me. It began with a parable, roughly as follows:

A monk and his abbot are in a monastery walking to the chapel for afternoon prayers. The monk reaches under his robe for his cigarettes and asks the abbot if it was allowable for one to smoke while praying.

The abbot, taken aback, explained that smoking during prayer was “not only NOT allowable—It would be blasphemy!”

A few weeks later, the monk and abbot again find themselves walking together, heading to afternoon prayer. This time the monk reaches for his cigarettes, lights one, and as the two approach the chapel the monk asks, “Father, is it allowable for one to pray while smoking?

The abbot thought for a moment, then replied, “[Not] only would praying be allowable while smoking, my son. It would be admirable!”

The lesson, Will shared, was that “[m]uch is important about the way an idea is explained.”

I was reminded of that story some years ago after a series of interactions with a new client who had been the sole-owner of a second-generation business.

The gentleman had grown the business significantly after succeeding his father and had been attempting to transfer operation of the business to his adult children employed by the business.

The process of transfer of responsibility, the patriarch explained, had not been going well. It became clear to me that in addition to tensions arising amongst the third-generation siblings and their spouses, the patriarch had been exhibiting classic signs of being unable to cede operating control.

During our initial meeting I suggested that the company had likely reached a tipping point. I explained that if I were correct, the form of organization and style of leadership that had worked so nicely to bring the company to its impressive level of revenues were not the same qualities that would propel the business to greater heights.

I also suggested that the conflicts the family was experiencing might be considered developmentally appropriate for a growing business, but also a signal that, with the advent of the patriarch’s children as business partners, a new manner of decision making would be necessary.

When the patriarch asked how decision-making needed to change, I explained that “systems of governance” for the business and the family would need be developed and implemented.

The patriarch’s response was not positive. In fact, he was quite dismissive. We were retained nonetheless, but only because the family was in considerable pain and the patriarch was willing to give the engagement a try as a precursor to what he anticipated would be the real answer to his family and business strife: sale of the business.

Several months into the engagement, having gained credibility and the trust of the patriarch, we returned to the discussion of governance—in particular, the benefits of adoption of a non-fiduciary council of advisors.

In a rare moment of vulnerability, the patriarch confessed that he had no experience with such matters and shared his fear that he would not know how to manage or utilize such a group of advisors. He wasn’t really sure, therefore, how these advisors might help.

The patriarch’s disclosure brought me back to our first meeting in which I’d received his knee-jerk, dismissive response after I’d recommended that “systems of governance” would be the answer.

It was now clear to me that the patriarch had had little practical idea of what I had been talking about. But he had yet to feel comfortable enough with me to share that he didn’t know what “systems of governance” meant, what it might look like for his company, and why it would be helpful.

How an idea is reacted to often depends on how the idea is offered.

Professionals have their own jargon, and sometimes shorthand, to efficiently describe complex ideas with other professionals. With 20-20 hindsight, rather than explain the solution as being “systems of governance” I might have said:

“Some changes are needed in process, which will result in:

  • increased quality of decision making in the company;
  • the arrival at the table of some outside experience to augment the family’s home-grown experience;
  • enhanced discipline in the conduct of the business;
  • new measures of accountability and responsibility into the operation of the business;
  • a distinction drawn between the father’s roles and obligations as owner of the business, on the one hand, and patriarch of the family, on the other;
  • minimization of the disruption of having family issues invade into the proper functioning of the business; and likewise;
  • minimization of the disruption of having business issues invade into the proper functioning of the family. “

So, when raising the issue of governance with your clients, remember your audience and Will’s lesson that “[m]uch is important about the way an idea is explained.”

Had I known to heed Will’s advice, like the abbot, the patriarch might have responded in that awkward first meeting: “[not] only are such changes allowable, my friend, they are admirable.”

Until next time…smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!

The Owl

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