Family Firms and Independent Boards

There is something about those of us who prefer freedom to security, and who build businesses with freedom to enjoy our work as a foundation stone. We don’t want folks looking over our shoulders, and we often translate that to mean we don’t want boards, and we certainly don’t want independent board members. It’s not uncommon to hear privately held company owners and CEOs talk about the painful experiences of trying to put advisory or governing boards together or to realize the benefit. What is uncommon is for those same owners and CEOs to recognize the problem may just have been centered in their inadequate recruitment, preparation and participation.

A highlight of this year’s CEO Summit at Convene, was a presentation by David C. Bentall, who shared the painful story of a substantial, family-owned business empire torn apart by the very people who grew it, blind to their own deficits until it was too late. Bentall has now devoted himself to helping other family-owned businesses manage their succession with greater aplomb. His book, Leaving a Legacy: Navigating Family Business SUCCESSion, is an excellent guiding resource, especially for family businesses moving into a second generation of leadership and beyond.

A centerpiece to it working well, according to Bentall, is a compensated, governing, well-prepared and independent board. This is very different than recruiting cronies and family members exclusively.  And…when such a board is in place, regular and high-priority meetings among family members, and their spouses, are also a must.

Pushing for this often brings the rolling of eyes and verbal protests. And yet, the burden of proof rests on the protestor. In lieu of following these best practices, how are they living as a steward of the company they are building? How can they claim to be so wise when they keep foregoing the laying of the long-term foundation to guide a company beyond their leadership?