For some, family meetings look like a commercial for a lifestyle brand – in the morning the multigenerational family walks on the beach laughing and holding hands; then they sit down for a productive discussion about the family’s future; and they end the day gathered around the table for a lively dinner al fresco. If you are that family, you can skip this article and plan your next family retreat in Tuscany.
But for others, family gatherings can be messy. Some are intended to be mostly social, but the discussion turns to the business or the wealth, and tensions appear. Others are meant to be about the wealth, but the focus shifts to family issues, and conflicts erupt.
Then there is everything in between – the gathering that is too often unprepared, unwelcome and unpleasant. As a next generation family member once told me, “I don’t know why we have so many meetings in my family, because we always end up talking about the same issues, we make no progress and it never ends well…”
It doesn’t have to be that way. There are opportunities to optimize family meetings, to make them fun yet productive, structured yet inviting, respectful of the past yet focused on the future – in short, representative of the families they bring together. Having helped many families organize meetings, we are happy at the Institute for Family Success to share six questions that will help you create successful family meetings and make them part of the traditions your family will value for generations to come.
The first question that you have to be prepared to answer is “what is a family meeting and why do we need one?” While meetings vary depending on the family’s situation and culture, the common objective is to gather family members for the purpose of advancing the family, the business, and the wealth. The goals are far reaching and include developing family unity, implementing the family vision, fostering communication and trust, educating family members, making decisions, and having fun. On the other hand, families who don’t meet, lack the appropriate forum to address issues inherent to the wealth as they emerge. Over time they tend to fester and generate the two main foes of wealthy families: apathy and conflict.
And even families who have made it a tradition to gather regularly should reflect on why they need to have their next meeting. Especially as the family grows, each meeting should have a purpose that remains attractive, challenging and meaningful.
Who should be included raises the sensitive question of your definition of family. I know families who only invite the bloodline, others who include spouses but no children, and some who open it to anyone over a minimum age. But the modern family today looks quite different from the traditional family that your grandparents and even parents had in mind.
Think of it this way – who you invite to the family meeting is who will feel included and committed to contribute to the family’s success. I have seen clients adopt a narrow definition of family, and they inevitably ended up with a narrow level of family engagement.
Keep in mind that a diverse group comprised of multiple generations, of people born with and without wealth, of individuals with various personal and professional experiences, is much more likely to be good at problem solving and decision making. As I have observed many times, new perspectives on an issue often come from those who are not involved with it day-to-day.
Finally, there is the key question of whether to hire a non-family member to organize and run the meeting. In our experience, the first few meetings can be challenging to put together and you only have one chance at making a good first impression, so we recommend retaining a facilitator. Over time, some families go up the learning curve and decide to run their own meetings, while others prefer to continue relying on a neutral organizer.
Setting the right agenda is a critical step in the process. It should be inclusive, having been developed with input from all participants, and not focused on only one aspect, like the family business or financial assets. The topics should vary over time, but also be repetitive as many family issues are evergreen and need to be revisited frequently. They must be thoughtful and purposeful, to be worth the time that is invested. Finally, no one likes to be surprised and participants need to come prepared, so the agenda should always be shared in advance and set clear expectations. Attendees should know if some sessions are FYI only, for educational purposes, for discussion or for an actual decision. I remember a client complaining about a disastrous family meeting where “half the family thought that we were gathered to vote on the issue, and the other half had been told that no decision would be made at this time.”
And, just like for any meeting, you want to ensure that they are productive, otherwise it’s only a matter of time before people stop showing up. Therefore next steps need to be clearly articulated, with specific deliverables, responsibilities and timelines.
Because family meetings have an important social component, plan the fun part as seriously as the rest of the agenda. If there is an afternoon for play, ensure that there are activities for everyone – from the little ones to the grandparents. And try to include family activities that can become traditions over time, like sharing family stories.
Most family gatherings are at least annual and many take place in the summer, when it’s easier for everyone to participate because students are out of school. But it’s important to survey family members on the most appropriate timing, to maximize the chance that every family member will attend.
There are a broad range of options when it comes to where the family should gather. If it’s in person, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. You want the location to be private, so participants can share confidential information. It should also be neutral – don’t pick a location, like a home or business, where some family members don’t feel as welcome as others. And the setting needs to allow focus, so ensure that there are no distractions by planning for babysitters if needed and asking for phones to be turned off. Finally, if you want to mix work and fun, which we highly recommend, it needs to be near social activities that the whole family will enjoy (e.g., hiking and dining).
And then there is the option of virtual meetings. With Covid, families have had no choice but to turn to Zoom gatherings. Last year, all the family retreats we facilitated were virtual and they were very effective and well received. The sessions need to be shorter, as it’s difficult to keep people engaged in front of a screen for a long time. They lack the social and fun element of a traditional family retreat. But they can be an attractive option, especially when the family is scattered across the US or the globe. Most likely, virtual family meetings will remain as a complement to in-person gatherings, in the form of 6-month updates in between annual reunions for example.
It’s important to focus on process and not just content. Deciding how the content will be presented, discussed and decided upon requires careful planning. Some families communicate well, trust each other, and like to keep things informal. Others benefit from rules of engagement to make sure that everyone is heard, no one hijacks the meeting, the conversation stays on topic, etc.
This is where having an outside facilitator can be extremely valuable – to help the family plan what happens before, during and after the meeting. It’s often easier for a non-family member to ensure that the meeting isn’t perceived to have a hidden agenda, points of views are shared, decisions are made, next steps followed up on, and that responsibilities are assumed.
While the first meeting is critical, you also have to learn how to sustain family meetings over time, especially as the family grows with the arrival of married-in and grandchildren.
Typically, the early years are less formal and evolve to be more structured over time, with a greater need to pay attention to family engagement as the family grows. So it is imperative to keep seeking feedback from participants, so you can continue to adapt your meetings to your evolving family.
If you want to explore the opportunity to have your first family meeting, or to enhance your next one, reach out to your advisor to learn how the Institute for Family Success can help or join our upcoming webinar on “Creating and Sustaining Successful Family Meetings”.
Join us Thursday, May 20 as we share six questions that will help you create successful meetings and make them part of the traditions your family will cherish for generations to come.
Joline Godfrey is a Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Family Learning & Programming of Hawthorn, PNC Family Wealth®. She is part of the Hawthorn Institute for Family Success℠, which is dedicated to preparing families for their wealth. In this capacity, Joline develops and delivers a series of products and services for nurturing financially mindful children and thriving families.
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