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Consulting and working as an advisor to family businesses are awesome responsibilities. The interventions and advice we give will in some instances have an impact on a family for generations. As a result, it is critical to understand what factors create success as well as failure. In most instances, understanding our failures provides the richest opportunity to create future benefits for our clients. Accepting this challenge of learning from our mistakes requires courage and leadership to explore and understand our own depths and the five common shadows facing family business consultants and advisors. For those of us who take the risk and accept the challenge, the benefits are enormous--not only for ourselves and our profession but more importantly for our clients who are the recipients of our work.
Working with family businesses as a consultant is one of the most awesome responsibilities I can imagine. It deals with issues and concerns of both the family and the business and how the two interrelate. The impact of choices made by a consultant can have far-reaching effects for both the family and the business for generations.
As the field of family business consulting evolves and more and more practitioners and other professionals, such as lawyers, accountants, and insurance people, work with family businesses, more discussions about "client failures" should take place. From the consultant's perspective, these are situations where, in retrospect, the choices made in regard to assisting the client did not achieve the desired result--in terms of either the family or the business issues.
Though success or failure may be easy to recognize in retrospect, they are elusive and difficult to define conceptually. In a chapter entitled "Failure: Our Bold Companion," David Keith and Carl Whitaker quote Rudyard Kipling's famous line: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same ..." (Keith & Whitaker, 1985).
I can look back at my own consulting practice, at the times when an intervention or a suggestion to a client was inappropriate. What has enabled me to evolve and, I hope, be more effective is the opportunity to meet with my study group to analyze and understand what went wrong and what I could do differently.
Self-Examination and Growth
Fritz Perls is often attributed with saying that we only learn from our mistakes. Len Hirsch, one of my mentors, often said that clients never make mistakes; they're always the responsibility of the consultant. For me, being willing to talk about these mistakes or failures takes great courage, in addition to candor and humility Those who do so willingly expose their professional work, consulting mistakes, and something about themselves in the public analysis of their failures.
I have tremendous admiration for those who willingly did just that at a recent Family Firm Institute conference. Their courage to assume this daunting task and expose themselves, their philosophies, and choices demonstrates the kind of leadership I think is important for the continued evolution of family business consulting. It takes leadership for practitioners to publicly examine their work and take the responsibilities that are part of working with families in business.
In his chapter …