What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

‘You’ve Become One of Them’ – Fifteen Rules for Directors

director photoNote: This was originally published in the March 2015 issue of Private Company Director Magazine. Reprinted with permission of the editors.

“You’ve become one of them.” That’s what a fellow Director (“MoneyGuy”) said to me after one of XYZ Company’s regular board meetings. MoneyGuy was from XYZ’s lead investor group and the majority shareholder. The ’them’ MoneyGuy was speaking about was XYZ’s management team. From his tone, I knew MoneyGuy wasn’t giving me a compliment; I was being admonished because I ‘sided with management’ about a particular matter that was pivotal to the future of the company.

What had I done wrong? To find the answer, you’ll need to read the following fifteen “rules” on how to work with owners.

These rules apply to different ownership structures of private companies. In general, the shareholders in private companies are either families, private equity/venture capital groups, management/founders, or a combination of these. The rules are indifferent to the stage of the company (early stage, mature, in decline, whatever). Hopefully you will see why these distinctions don’t alter how I work with owners.

Here are my fifteen rules:

1. Remember your role as a fiduciary. MoneyGuy knew I had a fiduciary responsibility to the corporation, not just to him and his private equity firm. They put me on the Board to be ‘an outside, independent voice.’ Somehow that slipped his mind! This brings me to Rule #2…

2. Don’t be a rubber stamp. You can get rubber stamps at Staples. MoneyGuy or any other majority shareholder should realize that you are not on the Board just to be another automatic vote for them. Another Director friend told me: “There is a fine line to walk as an independent director when those sitting around the table own the company and you are effectively their invited guest.” If management knows you are truly independent and not there to throw them under the bus, this will help build trust with all.

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What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 5): The Sacred Cows

cowI know you’ve run across Sacred Cows (“SCs”)…we all have in our business careers or personal life.

Dictionary.com defines a Sacred Cow to be: “an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning”.

This is the final post in my five-part series that explains how 5 particularly disabling conditions can negatively impact the value of a family-owned company. I saved this particular subject for last. I find that the presence of ‘bad’ Sacred Cows is the most emotional and highly personal of all of the previously discussed performance inhibitors found in this series. 

Good SCs, like a popular brand or an established, competitive business practice, are legacies that should not be messed with. However, ‘bad’ SCs:

  • are difficult to change
  • are hard to eradicate
  • can’t be spoken about
  • can have a profound, severe impact on operations

A family-owned company’s bad Sacred Cows wander around these pastures:

  1. People
  2. Products (or Services)
  3. Places
  4. Past Behavior

People: unqualified family members with significant roles

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What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 4): The Bubble

Bubble

I recently returned from my college reunion… swept back in time to the days when living in my college bubble was a secure yet liberating environment.  Those were happy personal times – times of discovery, growth, socialization, and empowerment.

Based on my experience working with ‘stuck’ companies, executives caught in a company bubble might not be having as much fun. Operating in a company bubble suggests you are isolated, cut off from outside perspectives.  Is your company operating in a bubble?

This is Part 4 in my multi-part series that explains how 5 particularly disabling conditions can exacerbate family business underperformance.

If there is a weak independent board of directors/advisors, or one doesn’t exist, then governance and decision-making at the top of a family owned company is concentrated and insulated.  Due to the historical, generational ownership structure, there is a tendency that a family business could be prone to operate in its own unique bubble. If this is the case, does the addition of weak governance to the mix cause a family company to live in a double bubble?

What’s the significance of the ‘no governance’ topic? Many privately-held companies do not have any formal board of directors/advisors.

I’ve seen first hand where the lack of solid governance makes a difference. Similar to the other issues covered in this ‘Pesky Plights’ series, the absence of good external, independent governance could have negative implications on company execution.  Weak or no governance may prevent the family shareholders from facing up to and dealing with a myriad of challenges within their company.  Carefully assembled boards bring accountability, seasoned advice, realism, objectivity, innovative ideas and often inspiration.

Consider the situation at an established – but flat and stuck – family-owned manufacturing company with no outside board (let’s call it BubbleCo).

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What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 3): The Handoff

HandoffI ran outdoor track both in college and high school. Since I was a fast runner (back in the day) I always ran one of the legs of the 4×100 and 4×200 relay teams. Our relay teams practiced daily on perfecting the handoff – passing the baton. We had the relay leg transitions down pat. Unfortunately family owned businesses may not plan for a leadership transition and may bungle, delay or simply avoid the handoff to the next generation of family leaders or to non-family executives.

This is the mid-point in my multi-part series that explains how 5 particularly disabling conditions unique to a family business can exacerbate business underperformance.

This post is about companies with non-existent succession/transition plans. When owners can’t or won’t let go, four of the 9Stucks (Ditch, Moment, Slow Lane, and Another World) get really amped up and push the stuck company into a deeper hole.

Family company leaders often stay in their roles too long.  But staying too long is not the problem; being in a zone of leadership indecision creates troublesome ripples throughout the entire company.

FamilyCo was one of my stuck manufacturing clients. I was hired by the company/family to do a ‘fresh eyes’ assessment of their business. The company wasn’t in trouble but it had hit a wall and was stagnating. It didn’t take me long to figure out there were issues with the senior team, the company’s competitive position and a number of important operational functions.

Some facts:

  • Jack (second generation) was the CEO and the son of the founder; at age 70 he worked full time at FamilyCo
  • Jack’s 2 children (son and daughter) both worked for the company. The son (Bill, age 42) ran operations (manufacturing and engineering). The daughter (Susan, age 40) was head of marketing. Bill and Susan worked well together.
  • Sales was led by a non-family member and he reported directly to Jack. In the last few years, the sales team had experienced significant turnover.
  • The CFO was also a non-family member and had worked for Jack for many years. He was nearing retirement. His duties included many administrative functions and human resources.
  • There was no Board of Directors/Advisors

The children told me: “Dad was the driving force to get the company to where it is today, but now we think he has blinders on; he doesn’t acknowledge all the changes in the industry, the shifting customer demands or the need to upgrade our facilities, systems and equipment. He is living in the past. You (me) need to talk to him about letting us run the company.”

Okay…now what?

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What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 2): The Strategy Freeze

PolarBearsFightingInnovate and grow or maintain the status quo?

The process of making this basic strategic choice can be an exciting journey forward, or a source of conflict in a family-owned company.

Why? What causes a family company to be frozen in its tracks over this fundamental question? And what can be done to thaw the ice, or better yet, prevent the business from becoming Stuck in the Moment?

You may be thinking…’Conflict among the shareholders of a private company over strategic direction is common and good.’ You’re right! Debate over the best go-forward strategies and tactics can be healthy and productive. In companies that are not family owned, the conflict tends to resolve itself in a timely and orderly way. This is especially true in companies with outside institutional investors who don’t tolerate indecision for extended periods of time.

In some family-owned companies, the strategic discord festers and lingers. A ‘strategic fog’ permeates the boardroom, family gatherings and the company’s hallways and cubicles. Critical decisions are delayed and significant opportunities ignored. The disagreement can go dormant but then suddenly explode. This can be debilitating to the business and to the shareholders.

What has always intrigued me is not the presence of a rift over the strategic direction of a family business. My question is why the conflict becomes so pervasive and common.

My experience points to 10 ingredients:

  1. History and nostalgia
  2. Personality traits of the family shareholders
  3. Knowledge disparity
  4. Background noise
  5. Breakfast table scrambled eggs
  6. Cash (see Part 1 of this series – The SeeSaw)
  7. Mood of the day: comfort, fear, fatigue, ambivalence
  8. Age
  9. Lack of trust
  10. The family stew – a simmering salmagundi of any of the above

P.S. #’s 8 and 9 are smokescreens [Read more…]

What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

5 Pesky Plights Hurt A Family Business (Part 1): The Seesaw

SeesawFamily-owned companies are plentiful in number and unique in character. Like any other type of company, these businesses are not immune to being infiltrated by the 9Stucks. In fact, a family business is fertile breeding ground for a unique 9Stucks mix that is often configured with a twist and a flair for the dramatic.

One blog post can’t do justice to these ‘pesky plights’ so I’ve created a 5-part series. Each post describes one misstep of family business leadership that can exacerbate the 9Stucks.

  1. Family needs vs. business needs: They are strikingly out of balance. (This is Part 1: The Seesaw)
  2. Strategic direction is stymied: Conflict over growth vs. maintaining the status quo freezes the business in its tracks. (Part 2: The Strategy Freeze)
  3. Transition/succession plan is non-existent: The owners can’t or won’t let go. (Part 3: The Handoff)
  4. Governance and decision-making at the top is concentrated and insulated: There is a weak independent board of directors/advisors, or one doesn’t exist. (Part 4: The Bubble)
  5. Sacred cows graze in the company’s organizational pasture: Top leadership spots are based on birthright or longterm ‘family favorite’ status rather than skills. These sacred cows crowd out talented non-family leaders. (Part 5: The Sacred Cows)

One caveat: This series is not intended to be a detailed discussion of all the intricacies and nuances related to management of a family owned business. There is considerable published content focused on all aspects of the family business: research, writing, business groups, websites, and magazines.

I simply want to help identify and evaluate these 5 disabling conditions – and suggest ways to get rid of them.

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