This isn’t a very useful question in my view. It’s one that can lead us down the wrong path and even to erroneous decisions that generate conflicts that could have been easily avoided.
It reminds me of another inane question that I’ve seen adults pose to young children: Who do you love more, Mom or Dad?
The family has intrinsic value and so does the company. I don’t see the need to pit them against each other: on the contrary, the key lies in discovering how each can enrich the other. They are complementary.
A cohesive family ownership supports the company’s long-term continuity by providing stability. For the family, the company serves as an important driver of job creation and social wealth, giving purpose and meaning to a legacy for future generations.
The 4 keys to peace
To bring the requisite stability to the firm, the members of owner families must be at peace. In this sense, the words of John Paul II may serve as inspiration: “Peace requires four essential conditions: truth, justice, love and freedom.”
“Peace requires four essential conditions: truth, justice, love and freedom.”
– Pope John Paul II
Truth implies transparency and accountability to all. Communication. No hidden agendas. Justice, on the other hand, requires the absence of rancor. It requires cleaning out the past to start anew and build a better future.
This demands forgiveness, and as Professor De Dou points out, not only emotional forgiveness, often difficult to control, but also intentional forgiveness, which implies a decision based on will.
Then there is love, which implies affection and respect within the family unit and among family members. Getting along with family shareholders doesn’t require holding the same ideas or opinions on everything; mutual respect and love are the only requirements.
And finally, we need to focus on people and their freedom. Family businesses can’t be gilded cages; they must offer a context where people – whether they are shareholders, directors or managers – can become the best versions of themselves and contribute value to their specific roles.
Putting the spotlight on people
Naturally, challenges arise in family businesses: disagreements, negative emotions, and in some cases, a lack of cohesion and commitment. The search for solutions to these problems never lies in asking Who comes first: the family or the firm? The answer is people:
When we prioritize people, we’ll get it right! People are the ones who are motivated to make and implement the right decisions. And, when necessary, to rectify mistakes. Here I should mention an important caveat regarding mistakes since one repeated more than once is a decision.
The Family Council is an excellent prevention mechanism to help owner families navigate these difficult waters and support family members in their specific roles, but to be effective, it must be grounded on a serious and professional framework.
To ensure sufficient objectivity, emotional management requires rigor, combined with adequate resources and tools. And, above all, let us judge actions, not people. In this way, we will find the optimal solution to each personal situation, which will also promote peace within the family and stability for the company.
Some years back, the founder of a large family business confessed that, in his old age, he had discovered he had a family and wanted me to help him recover it.
Let’s not fall for the trick question “Family or firm?”
People are the priority.