John Tucker is Director of the International Centre for Families in Business, University of Gloucestershire.
I am not an accountant or a solicitor. I do not deal with technical issues. I work with people, their fears, their dreams, their wants, their needs and their emotions. And, guess what, I have as many fears, dreams and and emotions as the clients I work with. The work I do as a family business consultant is up close and personal.
So I want to get up close and personal and share with you a story that led me to a greater understanding of my relationship with my eldest daughter and at the same time introduce you to the most skilled family business consultant I have ever worked with. Some three years ago I was contacted by a family business consultant by the name of Steve Swartz; Steve is an American in his late sixties. He spent most of his career as a very successful corporate lawyer and in his later years was head of a family business consulting unit, within a large accountancy practice. A well-known UK family business had contacted Steve and asked him if he would come to the UK to work with the family. At this point the family were having relationship issues that were impacting on the business. Steve was starting to find the travel a bit problematic and suggested they find a UK-based adviser. The answer came back: they had tried all the avenues open to them, including their own lawyer and the two leading accountancy family business experts. The family could not understand the issues and wanted to find technical solutions to what quite clearly were emotional issues. Steve undertook to find a UK collaborator and to cut a long story short, he found me. I worked with Steve and with the family. There were eight immediate family and two non-family shareholders, (also executive directors) in the business. It was a very privileged place to be, working with the consummate professional and recognising my own limitations.
During the process I spent a week with Steve in his own backyard, at a time when I was experiencing real conflict with my eldest daughter. Lesley was living and working in Indonesia and we had fallen out badly and not spoken for three months. I was sitting on Steve's porch one morning, musing and reflecting and he asked me if everything was OK? I asked him why he was asking and he said: "I'm curious why you have not been with me for the last ten minutes, and I reckon there is something going on?"
I explained. No, it wasn't an explanation, it was a diatribe, a rant, a defence and it must have gone on for 20 minutes.
During this rant, Steve said nothing, just simply listened and when I finished he simply said:
"Have you finished?"
"May I make an observation?"
"My guess is that you need to take a risk, you need to go to Indonesia."
"What!" Off I went again: ranting about how awful my daughter was, how selfish, how uncaring and you "expect me to go to Indonesia?"
"No, I don't expect you to go to Indonesia, but I think you need to go"
With that he walked off, not another word. I sat for 10 minutes and sent a text message to Lesley.
"Can I come to see you in Indonesia?"
"Because I need to see you."
"I need to say some things."
"I need to say things face to face."
And so it went on until I said…
"I love you."
The reply was, "I love you too dad and I am coming home to see you".
I sat for ages, tears in my eyes, not knowing what to do or what to say. Steve came back, saw the tears and said,"Are you OK?"
I said: "I'm not sure what has happened" and I told him what I had done and the outcome. He simply said: "Good result".
On reflection he had used all the skills he brought to his consulting work to help me to help myself. He had used his innate curiosity to ask questions, he had listened and became an advocate of risk by offering his observations. He was acutely aware of my need to solve my issues with my daughter.
Steve shared with me his thoughts about the skill set needed when working as a family business consultant and the personal traits he believes are important. In a short space of time he gave me the opportunity to learn about being an effective family business consultant. More importantly he taught me about being a father and the awesome responsibility that role brings. The relationship between parents and their children is the most complex of all family relationships. Parents usually love their children more than any child will ever know, until they themselves become parents and feel that same love for their own children. Whether you are working with family business clients or you are family in a family business, do not underestimate the power of the love between parents and their children, it will transcend most sensible decision-making processes. What Steve did not know that day in his backyard, because at that point neither did I, was the profound effect his words had on my relationship with my daughter.