by David Bork

Thanksgiving is an important holiday, celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November. It has officially been an annual tradition since 1863, when during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26. As a federal and popular holiday in the U.S., Thanksgiving is one of the major U.S. holidays of the year. The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated to give thanks to God for guiding them safely to the New World. The first Thanksgiving feast lasted three days, providing enough food for 13 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. The feast consisted of fish (cod, eels, and bass) and shellfish (clams, lobster, and mussels), wild fowl (ducks, geese, swans, and turkey), venison, berries and fruit, vegetables (peas, pumpkin, beetroot and possibly, wild or cultivated onion), harvest grains (barley and wheat), and the Three Sisters: beans, dried Indian maize or corn, and squash. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”—days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.

Together with Christmas and the New Year, Thanksgiving is a part of the broader holiday season. It has morphed from the original intent, to an opportunity for families to gather and honor their values and traditions. It is estimated that 43 million Americans traveled to be with family and friends for this day alone.

While the original purpose may be different, all around the world families chose to gather. Whether it is centered on holy days such as Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah or father’s 91st birthday, families want to gather for food, drink and re-establish their sense of connection with one another. Family connection is the subject of this column. It give persons a sense of security and connectedness to have these gatherings. They are a re-affirmation of the values of the family.

When we are fully connected to our families, we experience solidarity with our roots, the qualities of our ancestors that define who we are as a people. There is a symbolism associated with taking nourishment together and telling the stories that make the family unique. In some families there are unwritten rituals about who does what at the gatherings. Sometimes the ritual is who prepares a special kind of food. It may be that grandfather always tells the story of immigration from a far off land and the challenges of that experience. There is always something special that happens. Perhaps everyone sings a special song; it might be the order in which family members are served the meal or some other unspoken behavior that is unique to the family. Whatever the ritual, it is part of the glue, the connection between and among family members.

In some families, they always have an argument when they get together, as if the bickering and fighting serve as the bond among the members. I know of one family in Northern Minnesota that always goes for an early morning duck hunt as part of their ritual. These rituals referenced are, for most families, annual or occasional events.

Then there are family gatherings of families in business. When being in business with your family works well, it is one of the most wonderful things you can experience. Daily, or at least with great frequency, you have an opportunity to re-connect with family
members, the people who are important to you. In the days when cultures were mostly agrarian, families worked in the fields from pre-dawn to dusk, then at some point in the day, all joined for a main meal. Over the meal, the tasks of the farm, the weather, the children and other topics of interest were discussed. I know of modern Turkish families in business that have the ritual gathering on a weekly basis where the conversations are not much different than those agrarian families.

These kinds of conversations serve the purpose of renewing the bonds as well as provide an informal setting for business discussions. As a family grows and there are more individuals involved, there is a need for establishing a protocol for when substantive business matters will be discussed, how decisions will be made and who will participate in making them. There are stories of owners of a family business gathering for Thanksgiving and getting into such heated arguments that they had to take an intermission in the meal. Finally, they made a rule that no business matters could be discussed in that setting. In effect, they created a Family Business Protocol.

Family Business Protocol

The author of this column is a very strong advocate of written, legally binding agreements. It has been said that, “The faintest ink is better than the best memory.“ A written record of agreements serves to hold people accountable. In my world, a person is only as good as his/her word. You must do what you say you will do. There are many dimensions of a family business protocol. Some are many pages long and included definitions, procedures, accountability and consequences. There are some common elements in all of them.

Here are some important ones:

Concept or Element Purpose
Purpose of the business By defining the nature and purpose of the business, you set the stage for what it will be and what it will not be. All well run businesses have a clear focus. This kind of focus helps all members direct their energies to achieving the goals of the business.
Ownership Who owns what? What are the privileges and responsibilities that go with ownership? What is the process for transfer of ownership? Under what conditions can ownership be transferred?
Valuation of Shares What is the agreed upon process for placing a value on the shares? How often is this process applied so that owners can make decisions on how best to maximize their asset?
Who is responsible for what? There must be a clear, agreed upon hierarchy, and organizational chart with a Board of Directors, Chairman, President, heads of sections or strategic business units (SBU) — all carrying a clear definition of responsibilities and accountability for budgeting and performance of the SBU.
Mediation The best family business protocols include a clearly spelled out process for mediation of disputes. Differences of opinion are going to surface — it is a given, for that goes with living life. Having a method for resolving these differences keeps the overall focus on building the asset and provides an avenue that does not undermine the family relationship.
Arbitration Sometimes people get so attached to their ideas or a position that they refuse to compromise or budge from them. A good protocol includes mediation and then, should it not work, binding arbitration where the matter is turned over to a wise person who will make the final decision. When this aspect is in the protocol, it provides a strong incentive to reach agreement either in normal decision-making or at the mediation level. Further, when you have this provision, matters rarely reach the point of having to use it. If YOU DON’T have it, sooner or later you will wish you did!

While this list is by no means complete, it outlines some of the basic elements of the necessary Family Business Protocol. It is important to point out that the protocol does not take the place of effective interpersonal relationships between and among family members. Relationships are dynamic, ever changing. There is a need for continuous nurturing of the relationship. It is imperative that it be based in fundamental respect for the other person, who they are as an individual and what is important to them.

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