Family Business Wiki's Town Square

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This is not an article about being a better family business consultant, a more successful family business or even a more respected family researcher. Rather this is an article challenging some of our assumptions and appealing for increased collaboration between researchers and practitioners. Despite years of consulting to family businesses, our knowledge of what really works in practice is in the elemental stages and we all need to be aware of our own assumptions, biases, orthodoxies and not mistake them for facts. Our ‘best practices’ have generally been borrowed from other professions such as management, family therapy, and organization development. Some widely believed ‘facts’ are as yet unsupported by data: (1) family councils improve family relationships; (2) outside directors improve firm performance; (3) it’s always healthy to express and vent emotions; (4) earlier experiences have a greater influence on personality than adult events; and (5) empathy is always a good thing.  (*See footnotes below)


Yet we practitioners continue to use the term ‘best practices’ and offer advice freely without even a nod to what data exists. Likewise researchers are more often than not driven by holes in the existing research, academic-career concerns rather than practical questions or needs. This gap is costly to our clients.


In the May 2011 Smithsonian Magazine James Gleick discusses memes (first described by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene), units of information or ideas, not necessarily factual but assumed true, that spread like viruses, infiltrating the metaphorical DNA of our perspectives and discourses. Many of our own memes float in and out of our conferences, publications and conversations.  A perfect example of one of our most persistent memes has been ‘shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations’ which was recently challenged by the Joe Goodman longevity study.  (Hats off to Joe Goodman and the researchers at the STEP project at Babson College.)


As long as practitioners see research as largely inaccessible, impractical or irrelevant and researchers assume that practitioners ignore their work or worse consider them to be only concerned about getting clients and fees, this will continue. But there are some examples of collaboration beginning: (1) In 2005 FFI formed the Family Advisory Committee to “provide advice and commentary to the FFI Board and management and to challenge and respond to objectives brought forward by FFI from the family business owners’ point of view. (2) Family business forums invite consultants to present and be challenged by their members; and (3) Research forums like FERC and IFERA welcome practitioners.  But there is still a huge gap in effective collaborations and much to be done. I offer a few suggestions here. (Some of these came from the participants at Pramodita Sharma and my presentation at the 25th FFI Annual Conference in Boston this year, “Persistent 5@ 25”):


For Practitioners:

  1.  Keep up with the research.
  2.  Appreciate the practical applications of the research and use it in practice directly or indirectly by letting clients know how this is important.

     3. Participate in research conferences, communicating ideas and questions for future research.

      4. Collect hard data on your own practices, both successes and failures


For Researchers:

  1. Keep up with practitioners’ experiences and their latest ideas
  2.  Having ongoing conversations with practitioners regarding what’s relevant to them and questions they have.

     3. Attend practitioners’ conference and participate actively, speaking up and sharing what’s supported by      research and what’s not.

     4.  Develop research projects that challenge the myths, memes, and assumptions in the field.


In conclusion, in order to narrow the gap between practitioners and researchers, we need to begin to talk to one another on a consistent basis. We need to comment on each others’ work, give objective and critical feedback, and take time to understand each others’ challenges. If we believe that the gap is costly in the long run to family businesses, then, it’s time we all took a more active role in understanding and supporting each other in this most challenging of endeavors.




  1. Family meetings can improve family relations and build cohesion, but the jury is still out on Family Councils.
  2. Outside directors improve board performance but there are inconclusive results with relationship between outside directors and firm performance.
  3. Certainly chronic suppression of feelings is unhealthy but whether or not it is healthy to express emotions depends on many factors: the situation, the people involved, and how the emotions are expressed. In fact, the ‘venting’ may at times make things worse since old trauma sits in the limbic area of the brain and words are not enough.
  4. With the new findings of neuroscience, the brain we’re born with is not the brain we die with. Throughout our lives, due to the brain’s plasticity, it changes constantly as a result of conversations, experiences, and relationships.
  5. The key is knowing when empathy is called for and when it is detrimental, that is, when gets in way of cognitive problem solving. We need balance especially when working as professionals with our clients. (There is some evidence that building empathy helps with conflict management.)
                        ---Jane Hilburt-Davis






Views: 109

Comment by Emma Su on January 24, 2012 at 7:42pm

These are great insights! Yes, family business consultants and researchers should interact with each other more often. I agree many concepts and " best practices" promoted in the practitioner field are yet to be verified by the researchers, e.g., the benefits of "family meetings," "independent board of directors," " multi-disciplinary team advising" etc. These concepts are yet to be supported by research data.


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