Finding Your Safe Space

Interview with Francesco Lombardo, author of Safe Space™: Governance in Action

Image courtesy of Francesco Lombardo

For any Family Business, risk and jeopardy can be found at just about every turn. Often, it can be found in the least likely places. It could very well be that the greatest risk to a family enterprise’s success is not found in evolving technology or direct competitors but rather from within the family itself. Dysfunctional and unhealthy family dynamics can sometimes be the X factor that stands in the way of long-term growth and success.

Nobody knows this better than expert and author Franco Lombardo whose latest book is called Safe Space™: Governance in Action. Lombardo is also the Managing Director and Coach at Veritage Family Office. Veritage is a Vancouver-based advisory firm which specialises in helping families to understand how their feelings about money impact their relationships with each other and the family wealth.

Veritage guides families in developing a governance model which holds the individual, the relationships with each other; and their wealth accountable to a set of guiding principles set out by the family for the family. 

Recently Tharawat Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with Franco and discuss how his personal story of overcoming trauma was transformed into a successful career of supporting family businesses around the world to feel safe.

To purchase Safe Space™: Governance in Actionplease click here. 

Welcome back to another episode of the family business podcast brought to you by Tharawat Magazine. Today, we have a special guest Franco Lombardo who is the author of Safe Space. Welcome Franco.

Thank you, it’s good to be on the podcast.

You wrote, Safe Space Governance In Action over the span of how many years? How long did it take you to publish this work?

Well, the original thought came to me when I was facilitating at Scone Project, (a next-generation program I co-created and co-facilitate) because all the participants were talking about the need for safe space. Then I attended and spoke at a conference at The Institute for Family Businesses in London and again, the participants were talking about safe space, particularly the next-gen. And I realised that was going to be a theme for the book. The idea came to me in May 2016, and I published in August of 2017.

I know that this work is actually a bit of an intermingling between your extensive experience in helping family businesses or business families to resolve internal issues and to structure themselves better around their wealth and around the governance. But it’s also deeply linked to your own journey as anyone who will be buying this book will be able to tell by the preface. Can you tell us a little more about how the safe space discussion reflects on yourself and why it resonated with you so much? 

So, growing up I rarely felt safe as a little boy. I was sexually abused by a teacher when I was 11 or 12. My father used to beat me because he was very jealous of how my mother treated me which wasn’t exactly appropriate. And I was bullied as a child at school, so I never had any place where I felt safe. What I fundamentally believe is one of our basic human needs is just to feel safe. We want to feel safe in our environments, we want to feel safe in our relationships, and we certainly want to feel safe with our wealth. What I realised was that in the work I was doing in serving family business globally was most of the families and family offices that I worked with had the traditional governance in place. And that governance is typically focused on the technical side. So it’s governance for the ownership decisions and the management decisions of the business.

But yet those family members within the business which the governance was supposed to look after didn’t feel safe with one another, and that saddened me. When you have families of wealth where the typical issues of money are a non-issue, and yet they still can’t get along because they don’t feel safe, it bothered me. And that was the inspiration for the book, and that’s where the concept came out, and it resonated with what I heard from Next Gen. I want to share my learning with others as to what’s really possible would we go inside and do the work for ourselves, how we can create the safe space within ourselves.

The title of the book itself is quite revealing. It’s called Safe Space Governance In Action. Tell us how we’re able to integrate these two aspects with each other. Both the building of the governance structure and the creation of safe space for the family members within that governance structure.

As I said earlier, when I look at the current structures of governance, I believe they’re not as efficient and effective as they could be. They are very well drafted documents with the right intentions but at the end of the day, those governance documents are meant to govern over human beings. And human beings are these wonderful creatures that can be magnificent and horrible at the same time. It’s not until these human beings feel safe within themselves first, and take accountability for themselves, take responsibility for their actions and the impact their actions have on others, those governance documents aren’t as effective and efficient. So, the idea of Safe Space Governance in Action is once I feel safe within myself, I can then govern myself based on how I feel safe. The idea behind Safe Space for business families is rooted in three stages. Individual safety, relational safety and ultimately familial safety. Once these stages are developed, then can Governance in Action take place within each of the phases, because all the individuals/humans in the system will feel safe within and with themselves and with each and be governing themselves accordingly.

So, let’s come to the definition of safety. Is it something that you have been able to define or is it something that you see varying from one individual to the next?

It’s really a definition that applies to every human being. Our definition of safety is competent in one’s abilities. Intellectually but also emotionally. Confident in one’s abilities, intellectually and emotionally, particularly and their decision-making. Understands their gigs and the gigs are the default mechanisms where we get triggered. We all have ways we behave when we get triggered. And these behaviors will fall into one or a combination of six, what I call “gigs”. These are:

The avoider, the people pleaser (want to make everybody happy), the rescuer (come in and want to save the day or people) , the manipulator (withhold information to gain favor), the victim (its never their fault) and finally the right fighter (fight to be right, must have the last word). Understands their Money Motto ™ which is their emotional relationship with money. And the impact that has on their financial decision-making. And finally, is comfortable dealing with conflict in a healthy manner.  Recently a colleague of mine, Vincent Valeri and I created a three-circle model which is Individual/Relationships /Wealth, and this has been diagrammed. So the individual has to feel safe within themselves based on that definition. The relationships and these include obviously parent-child, siblings, cousins, shareholders, and outside advisors. The relationships have to feel safe with one another. And then finally, the wealth needs to be safely positioned to manage and serve both the individual and the relationships at the same time based on a formula that we use.

You were talking about gigs and gigs are triggers. You have this whole chapter dedicated to behavioural risk which is associated with these gigs that trigger us really and make us behave in a certain way. So, tell us more about the gigs and how to recognize the gigs, not only with other people but also with ourselves.

So, every human being has a story a narrative, a lens through which they experience and see life from. Something that event occurred to us in the past. I’m going to use the sexual abuse story. I was sexually abused as I mentioned earlier and the story that I told myself was that I’m not valuable, I’m not worthy, and I’m quite disposable. Whenever our stories get triggered, we will behave in a certain way which is our coping defence mechanism and I call those the gigs.

Now, as I mentioned earlier there are six very specific ones. One isn’t better than the other. It’s like saying I prefer vodka martini over a beer over a Pinot Grigio. It’s just our preference. So there are six of them, so as I think of these, think of which are your top two. So the first is the avoider, they avoid things. There is the people pleaser. They want to make everyone happy because they can’t handle anger and emotions. There’s the rescuer. They want to come in and save the day on their beautiful white horse. There’s the victim. It’s never their fault. It’s the lunar cycle or the rain, or the snow or the scarves are too tight. There’s never any accountability. There is the manipulator. They withhold information to gain favour and the upper hand. And finally, there is the right fighter. They fight to be right. They have to have the last word. So, when a human being gets triggered, their humanness shows up as their gigs. And there’s usually one or two of those that show up and get in the way of the relationship.

Inside the process of getting inside a safe space, what is the role of recognizing this about yourself? Where does that put me? How does that help me in anticipating the next situation?

I created what’s called the safe space equation. So, if you write on the left side of the paper the word Belief which is your story and a little arrow to the right and write the word gig. Another arrow to the right and write the word mask and then another arrow to the right and write the words safe space. So, this is how we do life effectively. We have our core story or negative belief. It triggers and the gig show up and then the mask is the lie we as human beings tell ourselves to perpetuate the negative beliefs and to justify the bad behavior or the gigs.

So, in business families the mask will be things like: “that’s just the way they are”, this is how we do things around here”; a common mask/lie next generations members tell themselves is: “I don’t have what it takes to takes over OR I am ready to take over”; even though they may not be ready or be fully prepared/trained to take over leadership let alone ownership responsibilities. So we’re justifying the negative side of the humanness. Now on the other side of the mask is this concept of safe space. And safe space is, simplistically enough, what we wanted more as a child and crave more as an adult. In my case, safe space is safety because I never had that as a child. That’s why it’s my personal purpose to want to create safe spaces and the medium I choose to do it through is business-owning families. Because I believe if individuals and families feel safe, and relationships feel safe, and then the family feel safe, and then the businesses feel safe, then we can really impact and change the world and make it feel safer.

Is it possible for an individual to feel very safe in one area of their lives and then to be extremely unsafe in another?

It’s definitely a family of origin thing. I have a client of mine, very successful, a very, very wealthy individual. One of three siblings. His story is I’m not lovable. What happened was his parents never really taught the three siblings, who are now in their 60s and 70s, how to be brothers and sisters. They were never taught that. it was a father who was out there building the business. Mom had her humanness because parents do the best they can with what they have, they’re human beings too. Everybody has a story, their narrative, the lens they look at life though, and his was I’m not lovable. So the gig was he was a rescuer and a people pleaser. He wanted to make everybody around him happy and he would use his wealth to protect people from agony and pain and try to make them happy. His mask was money allows me to ease the pain. Yet by easing others pain, he was allowing them to grow and learn the lessons they needed to learn on their own. His safe space is connection. He desperately craves connections, it’s what he wants. Every one of us, every human being has that equation going. The key is to uncover what our story is. As Galileo said, all truth is easy to understand, once uncovered, the key is to uncover them.

What do you do once you uncover them? Ideally, when I’ve gone through the equation it suddenly makes sense, where does that leave me as an individual? What do I do with this information?

Sure, so the work that we do is coaching individuals to help them find individual safety. Family members are going to have conflicts with each other, it’s just part of being a family, particularly siblings. Once we uncover your safe space and your sibling’s safe space, and you are both able to take accountability for your story and the impact the gigs have on yourself and each other, we will bring you together and have what we call a safe space conversation. We’ll have you guys clean the deck, take accountability for your stuff. That’s the governance in action piece. Governance in Action is being honest with yourself about your story, your narrative and the lens you look at life through; taking accountability for the gigs you play with yourself and others and finally taking responsibility for your actions and committing to change and operate in Safe Space™ The key, as we tell our clients, is this new method of governance takes practice and time to implement.

I think this goes very deep into explaining why governance, as you say, can be crafted on a piece of paper but doesn’t work at the implementation stage. Because this very important conversation is very rarely being held in combination along with the governance conversation so it’s fundamentally important to supplement governance discussions with this kind of conversation.

A colleague of mine who is the originator of the three-circle model said to me, the industry and advisers have been focusing on systems. The family system, the business system, and the ownership system. We seem to have forgotten that those systems are made up of human beings. And human beings, as we said earlier in the podcast, have this great way of being human. They have this gregarious and this fun side and then when their story kicks in, they get mean and angry and their humanness shows up. So as families, we should consider having a system in place and what we call a rule book or what we called cultural governance. Which is how do we as human beings agree to behave with one another moving forward. 

This is a difficult conversation to have with yourself, with your family even more so. How do you deal with resistance?

What often happens is every family has a champion and that champion is the one that says we’re facing these issues, we’re not avoiding them. They’re realistic, they see what’s coming down the pipe and they’re willing to put themselves out there first and go down the journey themselves. The gentleman that did the forward for my book, he’s a champion because he went first 11 years ago. We fast forward to now, and I work with most of the family. I continue to work with that gentleman and his sons because he was a champion. I have a lot of families that I work with that start with one individual and as they start to find their safe space, and here’s the thing that’s fascinating is, when they find their safe space, they physically change. People notice a change in them. And it’s because they’re operating with his resonance of safety. That’s how other family members get engaged. As the champion starts to operate in their Safe Space™, others are drawn to want to find their Safe Space™. There are three stages, the first is finding ones Safe Space™, the second is creating it, and finally maintaining one’s Safe Space™.

Depending on the family culture, that can be a difficult conversation to have for families. Is it easier when other family members observe the new change in the champion or is there sometimes resentment?

The truth has a certain resonance about it that people just can’t ignore. So, they operate from a place of truth and integrity because they started to be integral with themselves, they have been operating in Safe Space™. A big part of safe space is having personal integrity. The story, our narrative is not who I am, it’s something that happened to me and as a result of that event, I have engaged in certain behaviors that haven’t served me. Moving forward, I choose not to engage those behaviors because what I really want is something else. I want safe space. So, they start to operate with a greater sense of emotional integrity and people pick up on that.

If you share this with the family member and they were allowed to hold you accountable for that story if you’re falling back into old patterns, that’s a very difficult thing to do. How have you seen people cope with that? That’s a shift in the relationship.

It’s difficult at first, but after a while, it’s like when you learn to ride a bike. You know you’re going to fall off for the first little while. This is a new capability, we’re teaching families a new language. One of the very first things we do with our process is we uncover what are their guiding principles. These are the things that we’ve agreed to how we’re going to behave with one another moving forward. An example of a guiding principle is family first-individual second. What this means is the family makes decisions on behalf of the entire family rather than just as an individual. And if you and I are having a conversation, I’m thinking of you first rather than me. So, it’s always a case of how can I put this into action and how can I start living it?

And once a family has been living it for a while, it just becomes the new way of being. Our process takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months because families need to practice this new language.

It’s a very hard thing to do. You have to unlearn patterns you’ve learned for decades I imagine. Have you seen cases where the majority of the family would come on board with the process but there are family members who had to be left behind?

What happened once is I got brought in for a family and one of the siblings got kicked off the reservation because of poor behavior. I continue to work with that individual, but he wasn’t involved with any of the ownership or operational decisions. He was still part of the family circle, but he wasn’t involved in business or ownership conversations, but I continued to work with him. Once he took accountability for his actions, then he was welcome back into the fold.

The other challenge that business families have is they don’t have any boundaries. As a dear friend of mine said a family business is the last bastion of tyrannical leadership. There are no proper boundaries. Part of what we do is we help the human beings create boundaries with the other human beings before we throw in the complexity family dynamics. We start with the basic human piece first because that’s the common denominator. The biggest risk to a family enterprise is behavioural risk of the human being. And those human beings have these funny things called feelings that get in the way when they get triggered.

Timing-wise, when is it a good idea to have this conversation? Is it when they first started working in the business? Is it when they find out their governance structure isn’t working? What would be your ideal point in time where a business family member picks up this book and starts this process with themselves?

Our business is all based on referrals, so we get families referred to us by private bankers, accountants, lawyers. So, it’s really when the concept speaks to you, when it resonates with you. And that could be at any particular juncture in the lifetime of a family or individual. The concept of safe space is people are drawn to it. It doesn’t go to you. I have a family that I got introduced to about two years ago and they recently engaged me. Just because the timing was right.

This work is, I wouldn’t call it hard, I would say requires a lot of courage and personal integrity. But the reward is so amazing. It’s just incredible, I look at the families that I work with and how they operate today compared to where they were in the past, and they’re able to have safe space conversations all the time. They’ll say your gig showing up, there’s no judgement. It’s is that your gig or is that your money motto. It’s just observing. It doesn’t make them less emotional, it takes the judgemental emotion out. So, it makes it safe to have conversations. Isn’t that what every one of us wants in a relationship is to be able to have those conversations?

I know that question was rhetorical, but I would say yes. Another question I have is how can these families, based on the book, start their own mini journey? These are people who read the book, but they won’t be able to get a consultant to help them. What can they start doing today to get them closer to where they’re honest with themselves and get to the safe space? 

They can answer the questions at the back. Just be as honest as they can with themselves and take the time and ask the questions. Share that with someone who they feel safest in their family and encourage them to do the same. It’s difficult to do the work by oneself. I have not become the guy I am today on my own. It’s because of the work that I’ve done with my dear, dear friend and mentor of 12 years, Dov Baron. He is the guy who is responsible for where I am today. Every one of us needs a coach or a mentor, someone who can hold us seriously accountable and sees what possible in us before we even see it Because we’re stuck in the story, we don’t see past the story. The key is to start the journey.

What is your wish or your desired impact and having put this book out there? And by the way, guys there’s a link here below the podcast where you can go and get Franco’s book which we highly recommend. Have you only just gotten started? Tell us, what are your future plans for this?

This is my 5th book so the process has evolved. My wish is to transform an industry. Right now, we have a 70% failure rate of transitioning businesses from first to second generation, and the numbers are appalling if you further down the path. I want to transform that to a 30% failure rate. Number two, I want to transform the way governance is perceived. I think the current state of governance and most business families and most public companies are not as efficient and effective as it should be. And finally, I want to fulfil my life purpose to create a safer world. The medium I choose to do this is business families. For I believe once the individuals, then the relationships and ultimately the family itself feel safe, together we can change the world and make it a safer place for all of us.

And we believe very much in the fact that you’re going to be achieving your vision. Thank you very much for being on the podcast with us today, Franco. We hope to be speaking to you again not only when you publish your next book but again about safe space in the near future. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a real pleasure.