There is no shortage of words on how to communicate well in family business. Enter the words “family business communication” into a Web search engine, and you get more than 96,800,000 links. And yet, family business communication is rarely mentioned as a factor in success. This makes sense. The topic of family business communication is broad and complex. With the advent of social networking, it is easier than ever before for family business owners and executives to lose track of the simple communication actions that all family businesses should employ to communicate well. Dr. Gordon Adler, Managing Director of Adler Way, a communications consulting company in Switzerland, elaborates on family business internal and external communication – its importance, its format, and its success.

“Select your words carefully. Spoken words may have positive or negative effects, depending on the manner and timing of your speech. A man’s worth and value is measured by his words.”

Abdurrahman Bagdadizade Paksoy to his sons Paksoy Tic San A.S., January 24, 1951

Communication in family business is especially important because of the family dimension. When non-family members work alongside family members, unspoken conflicts may affect the work environment. Non-family member employees may feel threatened by family name holders. When communication fails, conflicts can flare up, commitment and motivation may drop, and business performance may suffer.

Further, when the family business reaches a certain size, it needs to get many, often hundreds or thousands of non-family members on board. These non-family members need to “know their place” for their own success and, ultimately, for the success of the family business. But they cannot “know their place” unless the owners and management communicate with them openly, fairly, and often. One message is never enough.

To improve their chances of success in family business, family members need to understand several things about their communication and behavior bearing in mind that non-verbal communication is also communication. They need to understand their power, how their behavior affects others, and understand themselves. They need to apply these understandings to all their communications. They need to develop a communication mindset: work to get the right messages to the right people in the right way at the right time.

The world of family business offers a plethora of examples of family businesses that appear to understand communication and do it well. Companies likeTetra Pak, Lego, Beretta, Hermes, Barilla treat communication as a vital business function. Vital to resolving business problems and family business problems. They go to great lengths to communicate the family mission and values, ethical principles, succession matters, the roles of both family and non-family members, and all the other major events in company life that call for well-engineered communication: results, new products or services, mergers, acquisitions, significant change, to name but a few.

In 2002, during the research for the book, Sharing Wisdom, Building Values, we learned that a number of successful family businesses, regardless of size or turnover, take communication seriously. Family members who work in Mulliez, Algar, Muragappa and SC Johnson communicate “heart” and “ethics.” Shiseido, Maus, Frescobaldi and Henkel “treat their employees, family and non-family, shareholders, clients and suppliers consciously with “great respect” and communicate it. Miele and Paksoy communicate to transfer values from one generation to the next. And others, like Al Khonaini and Strauss, solve conflicts through a strongly communicated sense of love and togetherness.

These companies teach us that communicating well is a matter of choice. They choose to communicate well. They articulate a clear vision and values and define a communication strategy. They nurture a “communication attitude.” What can other family businesses learn from them?

At the risk of oversimplifying, family businesses would be well advised to take a strategic, long-term view of communication — orchestrate company communications according to a plan. There is no one best way to do this, but all effective communication in family business needs to distinguish between the messages relating to the business of the family and those that relate to the family that owns the business. And, for any message, the person responsible needs to know the audience and the purpose of the message, adjust the content and channels accordingly, and get the timing right.

The Art of Communication: Key Questions

Who is our target audience?

Communication is difficult because in today’s networked organizations, there are so many audiences. The idea of “one message for all” rarely works. More useful is to segment the target audiences and messages, especially during succession or generational transition. These segments should be ordered by priority, for example, according to which ones can have the biggest impact on the transition. Clearly, a distinction must be made between family-member employees and non-family employees. Within each group are many subgroups.

Trying to communicate to an audience you do not understand well is like trying to sell a product to a customer whose needs, desires, beliefs you are unaware of. The result? Ineffective communication that erodes trust in the owner and, by extension, the company management, often family members, perhaps even its products. The age-old political truth is apt here: It’s not what you say, it’s how you’re perceived. During a transition or major change, for example, the family business owner must be perceived as a trustworthy partner, manager, supplier, customer and member of the community.

Any transition plan involves many stakeholders. In the middle, of course, is the family business owner. He can, for example, make sure that the company will be managed according to his vision and wishes. Maybe he wants to keep jobs in the region, hold on to the company name, or get the highest possible valuation for his company. Regardless, he needs to be clear about the messages he sends to all the parties who could conceivably be interested in the fate of the company.

In the circle of the owner are other stakeholders. The family business owner may have to depend on the collaboration of these stakeholders if he wants to reach his succession goals. A son or daughter wants to take over the business. Suppliers want to keep it as a customer. Customers want to keep it as a supplier. Company managers want to guarantee their futures. Employees hope to keep working for the company. If they are insecure about where the company is going, there is the danger that they will look for alternatives and perhaps go elsewhere. Or they sense a breach of trust, and spread bad news about the company. These days, bad news goes around the world in a blink.

The public and thus the media are interested in how the company will be managed in the future. But the owner cannot satisfy all these expectations, and surely not in the same way. So communication to each group needs to be tailored to its expectations and needs, but also serving the needs of the owner for a smooth transition.

The lesson here is simple: the messages addressed to the employees in the family business may be different from the messages addressed to the family business owners, but both sets of messages must be carefully targeted to the needs, desires, expectations and questions of the two audiences. They must also be well orchestrated and timed for maximum strategic effect.

Why are we sending a message to this group?

Managing your messages is even more critical in family business than in a public company because of the complex structure. Essentially, two “systems” run every family business: the family system and the business system. The needs of the two are often in conflict and can lead to management and communication dilemmas. It often is the family dimension that adds a complexity. To get around potential complications, communication channels need to be defined, and processes for communicating through them need to be formalized. This is particularly critical when a family business reaches a certain size and the need to get large numbers of non-family members on board.

Imagine the example of family business succession. Family business succession is fraught with choice for the family business owner: let a member of the family take over, sell the family business to the current management, sell it to new management or to a strategic investor. Many questions come up about management, tax, financing, legal issues and other precautions, to only name a few. These challenges can so consume owners and management that they send too few messages, unintentionally send a mish-mash of conflicting messages, or none at all. Family business owners would be better advised to build a communication concept into their succession plan, make someone responsible for putting it into practice and measuring its effects.

The purpose of every communication should be defined. Here, specificity is everything. It is not enough to say that the purpose of a mass email to employees is to inform them. What will you inform them of? How do you want them to react to the news of the transition? How will you engage them to support the transition so business can go on as usual? How can you make them feel they are part of the business, even if they are not part of the family? Most key messages about change or transition are intended to influence people: you want audience buy-in, you want to persuade the audience to act.

How do we package our messages?

“The customer is still king.” “We value our employees.” “This acquisition will give us robust networks of strategic assets that will boost our speed and flexibility.” Who has not been the victim of such grandiose, and yet often meaningless clichés? Key messages should be simple, precise, well structured and supported by facts and examples.

Every message must be articulated with great care. The owner must sign off on each one. Single words can make a big difference. As the well-known American writer Mark Twain once said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

 How do we send our messages?

Especially as the family business grows from generation to generation, it needs to formalize its communication channels. Important is the choice of message channel. For every target audience a channel needs to be identified. Use new media, Blogs, SIMS and MMS, Podcasts, Webcasts, YouTube uploads, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Wikis, instant messaging, ROSS feeds, Town Halls. Also face-to-face meetings, press releases, media events, television appearances, company publications, internet and intranet, management meetings, employee Town Halls, to name a few. Tap into audience emotions, find an authentic voice, and prepare for dialogue. You should remember that your succession messages will be countered with “anti-messages.” Be ready to respond quickly.

When is the right time?

Family business news is often communicated with a “big bang.” After that comes silence. Isolated messages will not influence opinion or build understanding and engagement. Avoid the big announcement followed by the long silence. Inform each target group in doses, and only when they need information. Inform the recipients that the message is new: “This message is different.”

Other events when the timing of messages needs to be master-minded with great care are announcing company results, employee incentives, shareholder dividends, the appointment of family members to new positions in the business, alliances with other family to co-invest in new markets, new products or services, expansion into new markets, major investments, acquisitions.

Build a master plan

Create a master plan for your messages. To borrow a musical metaphor, this is the “score” for “orchestrating the symphony of messages the company needs to send to its audience. Stage-manage your communication in phases, and with high-points. Seize every chance to repeat your news.

Managing your family business messages does not happen in one speech, meeting or piece of writing. Much more, it is an ongoing, dynamic process—much like any change process. Ironically, at the beginning of all good communication is listening. Take the “communications pulse” in your most important stakeholder groups over and over, and ensure that your messages are received as intended. In the family and in the business.

So what?

“The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions,” said Paul Watzlawick, the communications expert and psychotherapist in the 1960s. Whether intended or not, the communication of messages is just as unavoidable as it is irreversible. Managing family business messages is not a luxury; it is a necessity. To borrow from a well-known family business quote: Start building a strategic communication mindset in your family business now… the children from whom you borrowed your business will be grateful.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 4, 2009