Challenges of multi-generational family businesses

Geographic separation & family connection


Even before the coronavirus required physical distancing, enterprising families were dispersing around the globe- typically making it harder for families to stay united. How does a family maintain strong ties and alignment when physically separated?

For the last half century, enterprising families have been dispersing geographically, which is challenging the unity of next-generation family business owners. It is difficult for families to maintain unity without in-person connections. Yet, the trends of geographic mobility among enterprising families are here to stay. Families must find ways to build and maintain long-distance family relationships.

Trends in the geographic mobility of families

There is a myriad of reasons for this geographic mobility.

Since the 1980’s, as globalization has increased the internationalization of family companies, we are seeing more members of enterprising families move abroad for family business purposes such as to open new operations for the family company or lead posts like a regional sales office, foreign manufacturing, or other operations. The challenge for families is to keep the distant branch of the family connected to and feeling a part of the original family, and to keep the distant operations well-coordinated with headquarters.

Global high net worth families

Another type of enterprising family has emerged in the last twenty years: high net worth families that leave their country of origin and shop the world for the safest neighborhoods and best education. Individuals in these families can reside in multiple jurisdictions. These families become less aligned with any particular country, and the jury is out on how their migration will impact their family unity. It could be that their common immigrant story could help to increase their alignment on purpose and values.

For the last half century, enterprising families have also been increasingly dispersing geographically due to individual exploration. The pattern over the last half century has largely looked like this: next generation members attend university, or travel for pleasure or work, to another part of their country or to another country.

They like this new place and different culture, and settle there. They marry a local, have children, enter a different line of work than the family business, and visit their original home periodically. The challenge is to maintain close family relationships with the big family, and to stay informed about the family enterprise.  

Technology has recently opened wide the door on remote work and schooling, allowing employees to work from anywhere and students to attend classes on their laptops. Technology could make it less important where people reside to do certain work, and this might increase the number of family members who choose to live in distant countries.

Most recently, we have experienced a different kind of family physical distancing, forced by the coronavirus pandemic that has isolated us physically from one another. In this condition, even family members who are geographically close could feel as distant from one another as those living in different countries. Technology and social media have become the great equalizers in many families who report greater frequency of interaction with family members through technology than they achieved pre-Covid.

Though the pandemic lockdowns have eased, the trends described are continuing. Families will continue to become more physically separated from each other. The traditional notion of a family living in the same city for generations has become outdated. Families are on the move and this will likely continue.

How does geographic separation affect family unity?

What binds an enterprising family is a common purpose and shared values. Family unity is measured by members’ alignment on and commitment to their mission (or purpose) as a family, and their approaches (or values) to achieving their mission.

Alignment and commitment are easier to build when there are shared experiences, and felt trust, respect, and caring among the members. Unity is built through several factors (see Building Family Unity), most of which are nurtured through shared, in-person experiences. Think of celebrating birthdays and holidays, gathering for Sunday lunch at grandmother’s house, a weekly tennis match between siblings. These activities strengthen relationships, build family pride, provide a space for needed conversations, and build collective memories—all activities that help to unite a family and provide a sense of shared identity.

Maintaining close family relationships and a shared identity with one’s family of origin is more challenging when a family member is geographically separated. In the next generation, especially, family members can have little understanding of, identity with, and ability to contribute to the interests and priorities of the original family, including the family business. Outside of financial benefits and a proud history, their association with the original family can become a “nice to have” but not something that is pivotal to their life.

Unity is difficult for families to maintain without in-person connections. This is one reason that family unity tends to decline over generations. You’re more inclined to talk with people who you trust and get to alignment if you trust them, respect them, and like them. Building that trust, respect, and liking usually takes some lengthy periods where you spend time together, communicate and collaborate, support each other, and learn to quarrel and make up.

How unity can affect the success of the next generation of family business

How, then, does an enterprising family maintain a shared experience while physically apart? At the most fundamental level, how do you keep a growing and geographically cleaved group of family members connected to one another and to the family business?

Consider these areas where family unity can weaken or deteriorate because family members are geographically distant:

  • Family bonds:

    How do you strengthen relationships and build friendships among relatives when family members did not grow up together and do not have opportunities to socialize?

  • Owner alignment:

    How do you align owners around strategic decisions when they have limited time together and don’t see each other on a regular basis?

  • Family connection to the business:

    How does the family stay connected to the business when the business is located somewhere that family members rarely—and may not even like to—visit?

  • Family alignment around mission & values:

    How do you keep family members aligned around the enterprise’s mission, vision, and values when they have developed different individual interests and priorities due to living in different locations?

  • Resolution of sensitive issues:

    How do you resolve conflicts and heal past wounds between family members when you aren’t near enough to meet and talk in-person?

  • Family care:

    How do family members show support for one another, especially in times of need, when they are not nearby?

Is digital connection a sufficient replacement for maintaining long-distance family relationships?

While modern communication technologies often feel like an antidote to the challenges described above, research across the social sciences has repeatedly demonstrated how email and videoconferencing cannot replace in-person contact. For instance, meeting face-to-face, when compared to virtual replacements, has been shown to more effectively build empathy, enable difficult conversations, and prevent miscommunication. Research also shows that face-to-face requests were 34 times more likely to garner positive responses than emails.

In-person communication is simply more persuasive and effective. Meeting together physically improves creativity and strengthens friendship. These are helpful elements in building family unity. Families should make every effort to meet regularly and, when possible, in-person.

How to build unity in a multi-generational family business?

For the reasons described above, meeting face to face is not always feasible for families. But it is still possible to stay connected and maintain unity when physically distanced from one another. Below are 10 practical actions for enterprising families to try as they work to strengthen unity while physically apart. Some of these require meeting in-person; others can be effective online. Likewise, some can be followed without violating social distancing guidelines; others are suggested with a post-Covid-19 environment in mind.

  1. Unify around mission, vision, and values.

    Remind the family what brings you together. For example, lay out what it means to be a member of this family, what the family wants to achieve together, its purpose for being together, and why it is important to maintain connections and support the work it is doing. Don’t assume people have this in mind, but instead make it an explicit exercise. Virtual or in-person workshops work well for this activity.

  2. Convey messages of geographic inclusion.

    Actively articulate to the family: “We are all in this together. No matter where we are in the world.”

  3. Broaden the geographic scope of family activities.

    Expand the geographic boundary around family activities to engage more family members. For example, redefine the social issues that the family’s philanthropy addresses by selecting regional or global issues. Organize ways for the family to respond philanthropically to a crisis or disaster in geographic areas where family members reside, as this can be a unifying and inclusive activity.

  4. Actively engage distant family members.

    Families should be particularly deliberate in engaging family members who are far away or isolated. Stay in close touch with them. Help them feel connected and help them contribute to the enterprise in productive ways. Assign someone in the family to serve as their “Sherpa” so they have a go-to person they can ask questions of or receive updates from, allowing them to stay in touch with the family enterprise. You don’t want to risk these family members becoming disengaged, uninformed, apathetic, or alienated. Don’t forget to reach out to in-laws (spouses) and non-marital partners, either. Their participation can be essential in the pursuit of family unity.

  5. Develop a caring culture in your family.

    A feeling of being cared for is a critical force in unifying families—it is part of the foundation on which unity must rest. Develop a caring culture in your family. Appoint family unifiers who pay attention to the shifting winds of relationships and who work hard to assure they blow warmly. Unifiers are responsible for bringing people together and recognizing people for their personal achievements.

  6. Meet in person whenever you can.

    Devote a substantial amount of time and resources to bringing the whole family together in-person every year, preferably for extended periods. These events should balance pure diversion—a vacation somewhere—with a formally structured retreat. The focus should be on collaboration, joint learning, team-building, shared experiences—and being a family together.

  7. Facilitate ways for family members to rngage socially together.

    Participating in interesting social activities together is a wonderful way for family members to get to know each other, build bonds, and connect meaningfully. Make it easy for family members to participate in experiences by providing encouragement and resources. Come together to celebrate milestones and holidays. Also make it a habit to participate in novel experiences: take trips together, host community gatherings together, create something new together, be adventurous together.

  8. Pay close attention to relationships among the next generation.

    The next generation needs time alone to build relationships, learn about the family enterprise together, and work together. Develop projects for the next generation to work on together so they have a reason to coordinate and communicate. For example, have them work on a philanthropic activity together, or develop a business plan for an entrepreneurial idea, or present something that they’re passionate about. It is effective when the senior generation unites to support and provide these opportunities for the next generation.

  9. Visit each other

    —on holidays and for no reason at all.

  10. Survey the Family

    Ask the family’s input on what each individual would find beneficial to stay connected and united around the mission, vision, and values of the family and enterprise.

In closing

In the end, a family enterprise can only be as strong as the family behind it. In the face of trends and currents driving families apart, both socially and geographically, families need to actively build a sense of connection and unified purpose. The suggestions above are a place to start, but bear in mind the pursuit of unity is, and always will be, a process. Like a fire, it needs steady stoking and care.


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