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Leaving The 'Firm?: What Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's choice to separate from the Crown means for family businesses

By Dennis T Jaffe

The Firm? We learned from Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey that is what the royal family call their family business. It’s a very appropriate term. As a family business, they own and manage land and castles, some of which they rent out, support multiple charitable ventures, play an extensive public role in the UK drawing on multiple publicity avenues to support its image and brand, and employ scores of employees who are valued for their loyalty and commitment. It's a huge and complex business.

The “product” of this family business, from which royals derive their wealth and income, is being a visible symbol of the spirit and essence of their nation and their global network. Whoever they are as persons, a royal family member also embodies the presence and history of their nation and culture.

Family members must do far more than live the royal life. They are full-time executives responsible for multiple public appearances supporting the brand, facing never-ending scrutiny. To enjoy the benefits of a luxurious life, a “royal” plays a huge public role; 24/7 work submitting to strict discipline, behaviour and policies. While they have private lives, they live on a stage with endless performances and speculation about their private thoughts, feelings and behaviour. They aren’t movie characters; yet their life is the product that defines the brand. Being a symbol means that there is little room for personal modifications or self-expression. Behaviour is valued for how well it embodies royal symbolism.

This strange situation makes Oprah’s interview so riveting and consequential. It was a rare public exit interview, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle illuminate their personal decision to quit the business. They are now free to share unedited, deeply personal, extremely painful accounts of their family, officially separating from their prior roles as professional family members. Free now from royal control and discipline, they can be candid as they air grievances.

Their painful dilemma illustrates how being part of a public family is so difficult, and the point at which private family matters have to be expressed openly. In doing this, they find themselves wounding their family business. As an observer of family business for many years, their experience shows how the royal family business falls short on features that are necessary to be both a successful public business and a successful family.

Demanding role

Being part of a family business usually means giving up some individual freedom in order to be part of something grander than anything you could not do on your own. In joining the royal family, Meghan signed up for extreme restrictions over every part of her life. She was on a stage, playing herself entering the royal family, to a global audience that tunes in every day. It is The Truman Show, but royals know they are the show and can never break character. Meghan’s account of learning to curtsy is about whether she is meeting her future grandmother-in-law or meeting the Queen of England. She is doing both at the same time.

Family businesses often make demands on family members in relation to their public roles. When you marry into a family business you are expected to respect the traditions. But in Meghan’s case this was complicated by racist mindsets carried by the staff and the institution. Was it part of the deal to just accept this? In a family business there are times when one’s integrity does not allow acceptance. When confronted with abhorrent racist treatment, Meghan and Harry raised the issue and when it persisted, they reached a point where they had to consider their own well-being in relation to their role. Harry said that Meghan’s distress made him aware that he could break loose from royal captivity. He could now see his role form Meghan’s perspective; she did not make him leave, but seeing the family through her eyes changed something for him.

This is the point where the royal family business was not able to rise up and do what was needed. A family business, especially one that has been in existence for generations, with huge wealth, tradition and demands, needs to deal with these painful dilemmas before they become hurtful and destructive. The royal family does not appear to have developed structures to internally manage change, adversity and conflict. When personally hurt by negative press Meghan and Harry reached out to the family for support and help.

Competing values and interests

A family business contains three groups of “stakeholders” that exert influence. In the royal family, these groups have competing values and interests that were not reconciled.

The elder generation, or “owners”, want to preserve their traditions and legacy that have been successful in the past. They delegate the tasks of running the business, and some authority, to employees.

The employees are non-family members, working under the oversight of the family “owners”. Inevitably, they also have their own agendas. They want to keep their jobs, and they have their own bonds to the media.

And finally, there are the members of the younger generation, who have different life experiences, values, and in the case of Meghan, different national and racial culture. They bring a fresh and new perspective to both of the other groups, and it is that of the future.

Each of these groups has its role and place, but for a family enterprise to be resilient, they have to respect each other, and actively listen to and address their differences. The royal family fell short of listening to and respecting their children, out of excessive concern for the past.

A family business is only successful if there is respect and continual engagement across generations. The future of the enterprise rests with the new generation, and they are facing a world different from that of their parents. They have to listen to each other. Meghan talked about being silenced, and not heard or supported when she was in pain. Such lack of respect is often the trigger for family splits and break-up. The younger generation is the future, and they have other choices. The family business has to be able to accommodate the younger generation and their views, or they will not be willing to remain. Today, as individuals grow up with a deep conviction that they should be heard, they are less willing to be silenced or to inhabit a role which does damage to their personal identity and integrity.

Power and accountability

While the Queen is the chief executive of the royal family, the family does not appear to have its own governance group to deal with family issues. Meghan and Harry were not able to meet with family, separate from firm employees, and talk about their personal pain and the difficulties they were feeling in their public role. Most importantly, they did not get the visible support of the family for their struggle.

A successful family business is organised to conduct the business of the family as well as the business of the business. For a family, that means that family members must get together frequently apart from their business employees and actively engage family differences. Due to its public nature and deep connection to its legacy, the royal family does not seem to understand the need to engage and listen to their children and adapt to the future. To preserve the past, they are sacrificing their future. This is their current tragedy.

In a family business, this is a point where the dissident member has to choose. With Meghan’s support, Harry concluded that his personal family could not live with how they were treated. After growing up in the royal bubble, now he had a clear issue and a choice. Most large business families have a mechanism whereby a family member can leave the business and remain part of the family. In the royal family, given that membership is based on their performance as a family member, they could not just step back. They had to leave, and in such an overwhelming family, the only way to do that was exile. In the past exile was a form of punishment; today, in a global world, it can also be a source of renewal.

Meghan and Harry have chosen wisely and caringly for their own family. Following this path was not intended to hurt or damage the family business though that has happened. The crisis occurred not simply because they were hurt or affronted; it was because of deficiencies in their ability to be a family separate from the family business and its demands. When a family cannot address the hurt or the personal damage that is done to a family member, it often becomes public because of the attention that is paid to an influential family. Many people hope their cry for help can lead to a new respect within the royal family, but they fear the damage may cause the “business” to fall apart, as happens to so many business families that do not know how to listen to their children or adapt to change.

Republished with permission from Forbes.

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