Many families thrive by establishing a roadmap for navigating wealth, business, and legacy transitions over time. As families evolve and successive generations wonder how they can become contributing members of the family’s business, wealth, or philanthropy, family leaders often find a benefit in putting basic guidelines in place to govern how the family will work together and resolve potential conflicts in the future.
These guidelines can take the form of a family constitution – a document that sets forth the family’s values and principles, defines the objectives of the family, and outlines how the family will make important decisions.
Family constitutions can address a variety of situations, including:
In fact, any family who wants to set forth a system of shared values, mission, and history and/or a decision-making framework can benefit from the process of creating a family constitution.
Within the context of a family business, a family constitution can be even more crucial in smoothing transitions over time. A family business constitution can help the owners and employees of the family business understand its competitive advantages and what makes its culture unique and sustainable. It can also address and define the various roles of individual family members, both inside and outside the family business. However, many families struggle with how to do this. Here, we outline our recommendations for creating a family constitution to enable seamless business and wealth transitions.
Process over Product
Many families interested in a family constitution may believe that the implementation process is as easy as a call to the lawyer to get a constitution drafted and in place. Family constitutions that have been drafted without sufficient input from the family often create more problems than they resolve.
A family constitution is not a one-size-fits-all set of dos and don’ts, but instead, a uniquely personal document that reflects a deliberate, thoughtful process that must occur within a family. In the most successful cases, it is the process of discussing, debating, and ultimately enacting the family constitution, rather than the end result, that produces the most enduring benefits to the family.
Creating a family constitution provides members with a wonderful opportunity to come together, identify and articulate their values, and set forth a roadmap for future generations to follow in preserving and honoring the family mission and goals. The process of drafting and establishing a family constitution can bring a family closer as participants learn more about each other, the family’s history, and shared motivational values.
Although formulating, drafting, and finalizing a family constitution is a significant undertaking, it invariably proves to be a rewarding process that pays dividends for generations to come. A strong family constitution can help anticipate potential problems and provide a set of guidelines to address obstacles when they ultimately arise. Because of the careful deliberation and time invested in creating a family constitution, the document can also become an incredible source of family harmony, love, and pride going forward.
Most effective family constitutions exhibit several common principles:
A Focus on Clarity and Values
Traditional governing documents such as shareholders’ agreements, company bylaws, and even estate planning documents are characterized by technical language necessary to achieve desired legal, tax, and administrative results. This language is not appropriate for a family constitution, which is not legally binding.
Instead, the family constitution should have accessible and personal language. Even in the context of a family business, a family constitution should put the family first and focus on continuity and harmony over the long term. Family constitutions that attempt to insulate a business from family feuds by removing the personality and color that defines a family often end up fueling strife. Instead, the family’s philosophy and values should be the cornerstone of the document.
If the family constitution’s theme is that consensus building and core values are paramount, the family will collectively support the success of the business.
A good way to put the family first in the family constitution is to include an entire section discussing values. After all, how can future generations be expected to uphold the family’s values if the family does not take the time to articulate them? It is the family’s values or mission statement that will serve as the balm to new and unanticipated challenges in the family and its business in the future.
An Emphasis on the Family History
Bush Brothers & Company (of the Bush’s Beans fame) provides a simple, concise example of its family’s values at the end of its corporate mission statement: “Together, we will live by the values of integrity, responsibility, trust and caring as exemplified by our founder, A.J. Bush.”
Bush’s values statement is powerful not only in its clarity and brevity, but also because it identifies an important historical figure within the family. Recalling and memorializing the family’s meaningful characters and stories are effective means of identifying and investigating the sources of its core values.
Rooting the family values in history and personalities can produce a far more meaningful and enduring statement of those values than simply asking each family member what his or her values are and why. Discovering and documenting the family’s common values is a logical first step in the process of creating the family constitution. While each person’s sense of the family’s values may be different, families are often surprised by the common threads that arise once they take the time to engage in an open discussion about those values.
It is important to keep in mind that enacting a family constitution can be a long, process-oriented endeavor. For some, talking about how to make decisions and creating mechanisms for resolving conflict is not “fun,” so adding an element of family color and history can enliven the conversation and prevent family members from becoming disengaged with the process.
Adrienne Penta, the executive director of the Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH) Center for Women & Wealth, recently addressed the topic of opening the lines of family communication around values and shared history. As she notes, “Your family wealth story can elucidate why you make the choices you do about spending, saving, investing, and giving. Attitudes about wealth are framed by the messages delivered to us – whether intentional or unintentional – by those who came before us.”
A Framework for Making Decisions and Changes
No family can predict the future, and no family constitution can accurately address all the obstacles and changes the family is likely to face. Rather than creating a set of rules that aim to prevent conflict or strife, a well-drafted family constitution should instead set forth a process for developing policies, making decisions, and managing conflict.
In creating the family constitution, the family should test-drive various methodologies to make decisions and resolve difficulties. For example, the family could anticipate a problem that might arise in the future and engage in a mock implementation of the proposed decision-making framework to see how successful it is at resolving that particular issue. This process will help the family adjust its processes to reach the best result.
A family constitution could address how a family is to make decisions in any of the following areas:1