Bringing professional bias to the family business

By George P. Bukuras
BridgeTower Media Newswires

In my career I have had the opportunity to do business in China, where I was introduced to the ancient art of chengyu, the use of idiomatic phrases to convey figurative meaning - a type of shorthand Chinese mythology, if you will. Consider, for instance, the words frog, well, turtle, world. For one experienced in chengyu, the four words might very well conjure the following story:

Once there was a frog that lived in a well. One day, a turtle climbed to the top of the well and spied the frog, far below.

"Why don't you come up from the well, frog?" called the turtle. "There's a whole wide world up here to enjoy."

The frog looked up at the turtle and replied, "Why would I want to leave the comfort and diversity of life in my well? The world you live in is only a small, empty blue circle."


The sum of our experiences

As licensed professionals, attorneys, CPAs and others typically begin their careers in a very structured way. After spending much of academic life preparing to enter a profession of choice, then sitting for a challenging examination, they join professional practice firms as first-year staff, much as a new private enters life in the military.

There is initial training, a proper way to dress, and an introduction to rules and processes. There is also a respected hierarchy as well as formal periodic evaluations, plus abundant mentorship opportunities.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand - called to the magic of creation - often start out with little structure or organization, and without the kind of mentorship that occurs in a more mature environment.

In fact, structured organization and governance are understandably anathema to the founding entrepreneur, whose task is creating something from nothing.

Just as the early disciplines of professional life remain second nature to the seasoned professional, the early leanings of the entrepreneur likewise remain second nature, perhaps in a diluted way, later in life, when she finds herself at the helm of a business that has attained some mass.

If each were asked if he understood the concept of organization, both the professional and the founding entrepreneur would answer in the affirmative; however, just as people from two different religions might answer affirmatively when asked if they understood the concept of worship, what the professional understands about organization and what the entrepreneur understands are likely vastly different.


Projecting bias

Although the level of organizational maturity and training, and the processes and disciplines, of professional practices do not typically exist in the growing family business, as professionals we may nonetheless unconsciously project onto these businesses our own senses of structure and organization, as we have come to understand such dynamics based on our idiosyncratic experiences.

Because of this reflex of unconscious bias, we risk misapprehending the environment in which a client's issue exists when the client's problem is set against the backdrop of an organizational environment very different from our own.

We may be blinded to organizational and/or governance matters that contribute to the client's pain.


Perils of meeting problem at its own orbit

Aside from misapprehending the client's environment, we as professional advisors may find our perspective further distorted by the manner in which the client articulates her problem.

A client often presents as the "problem" something that is really a "symptom" of a larger issue beyond the view of the client. By analogy, a patient presenting to his doctor with leg pain is often surprised to learn that the leg pain is a secondary symptom to a back issue, often disc disease.

The specifics of the pain that these family business clients report are often described in terms of interpersonal conflict involving both family members and nonfamily employees - e.g., My employees don't show adequate initiative. I'm constantly putting out fires. My family doesn't worry about the business as much as I do. Everyone looks to me for all the answers. My son and daughter in the business don't get along. My spouse is always advocating for my kids, etc.

A message of caution for trusted advisors is to be on guard for two misconceptions that may be at work: the unconscious environmental bias on the part of the professional advisor and the faulty self-diagnosis coming from the symptom-focused client.

These misconceptions can create a perverse algebra resulting in a "negative problem-solving synergy" between advisor and client.

In attempting to address the symptom presented by the client, the advisor unknowingly affirms the client's misdiagnosis of the real problem, which may be left unresolved. Imagine, for instance, if the doctor in our analogy prescribed physical therapy to attempt to address the patient's leg pain, oblivious to the real problem: the patient's disc issue.

When next you are presented with a client experiencing pain, it might be best to pause and consider that the symptoms may have as their genesis issues of organization and governance. Here the trusted advisor can add real value as educator.

As with the frog in the well, there may be a solution the entrepreneur client may be unable to fathom, due to inexperience and perspective.


George P. Bukuras, a lawyer and CPA, is founder of Milestone Business Associates, a family business advisory firm.

Published: Thu, Oct 10, 2019