Fun and the family business

At times it is difficult to stress that working in a family business need not be a life sentence and that laughter and some actual F-U-N is highly recommended. This is not to say that a family in business needs to hire corporate clowns or conference room jesters. A family that works together can actually have fun without going overboard.

A few somewhat zany brainteasers can breathe new energy into a family board meeting and at the same time teach, encourage, lessen tension, fire up brainpower and build bridges between family members from different generations. In addition, having an informal, fun event before a meeting can become a major educational tool that teaches teamwork, using time effectively, managing without a lot of direction, sharing, getting along and other aspects of running a family business. Fun is OK!

A family is fortunate if there is at least one family member who is willing to put together some kind of interactive event that everyone will enjoy. Often several relatives will volunteer for this task, but don’t be surprised if only one person steps forward the first time. Even if it isn’t a roaring success the first time, when others see that the organizing isn’t too strenuous and that the family business members get pleasure from playing together, it becomes easier to get activity volunteers.

The activity can be as simple as reserving seats at the ballpark the day before the board meeting for “food, fun and fastballs” as one family advertised to its members.

One family that works together stages a “family camp day” with the founders, their children and their grandchildren at their summer home in Idaho. Ranging in ages from 3 to 66, this family’s camp day is part of a summer tradition when they get together. They also include in-laws and invite the in-laws’ parents so that no one is left out. This family cherishes being able to gather as their lives become busier, and they carefully schedule when they can all convene for a minimum of three days. One of the days is dedicated to the shareholders’ board meeting and family council meeting, and the third day is free play for all.

In addition to hiking, fishing, tennis, horseback riding and board games, family camp day is filled with plain old-fashioned sack races, egg tosses, three-legged races, tug of war and skits. The fun-filled day ends with singing songs around a bonfire and s’mores. Having fun together in a relaxed atmosphere seems to make the board meeting and family council meeting that follow much more pleasant and congenial — good practice when a conversation surfaces about compensation and qualifications to lead the business.

Another family in business for three generations has the tradition of doing a community service project together each summer. This family decided that the activity needs to be simple to provide practice for working together on a project that no one in the family has ever undertaken and one that has minimum directions. The most recent high school graduate in the family gets to select the project, budget for it, line up the materials, organize it and lead it, but not overdirect it or try to control it. In June, this family put together equipment for a neighborhood playground, and the teenager in charge cleverly designed instructions similar to those provided by IKEA to assemble IKEA furniture.

This family’s objective is to teach about active philanthropy by having fun and sharing the family’s good fortune — good practice for younger family members who could eventually join the family foundation board.

In advance of their annual family council meeting, a family in the Midwest held a scavenger hunt at the resort where the family was meeting. Junior and adult family members were put randomly on teams, given a video camera and a list of items to find in a half hour. The resort guests had been told of this event and participated as best they could by helping the teams locate items such as a golf tee, an umbrella from a tropical drink, a Frisbee and similar items that could be found at this resort. The younger children learned how to meet and talk politely with resort guests, be innovative in their search and keep track of the time. The older team members learned how to trust and let the younger children lead the way — good practice for the management succession process.

A family in Maine challenged its members to play “Family Business Charades” in which extremely familiar family stories from their fourth-generation family business were portrayed. Once each team knew what story they were to act out in mime, they put together their own stage play. One of the family’s famous stories was “The time when grandma was pushed into the lake when grandpa was fishing and she kept talking.” No one was allowed to bring props or costumes — rather, they had to devise these things from what they could find at the hotel where their meeting was held. Items such as tablecloths, silverware and tables turned this activity into quite a production, I am told. It's good practice for presenting a business plan or a new product idea at a future formal board meeting.

One family in Bakersfield created collages of family history out of magazine cuttings and poster boards that a 13-year-old granddaughter had collected a year before she came to her first meeting. It's good practice for the day the family is faced with a tough decision that could warp the family’s values.

Playing together — whether it is board games, riding bikes, tossing water balloons, or painting panels to brighten a local hospital waiting room — rekindles family connections. The family also learns that you can have fun while doing good works. The family experiences the sheer fun of laughing, sharing, good-natured competing, innovating, challenging, congratulating, cooperating and celebrating what makes the family so special and worthwhile.

By working interactive events into your family meetings, family members will be more inclined to attend, participate, care and share, even when it comes to deciding who will be the next CEO. Although the “dog days of summer” are upon us, it’s not too late to plan for some fun in your family business.

Eddy, CFP, is president of San Diego-based Creative Capital Management Inc. and co-founder of the Family Business Forum at USD. She can be reached at Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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