Your job managing the family business did not come with a crystal ball. As the person in charge, you may know your company’s future and finances down to the nickel, but these numbers were likely based on projected income from 2019 planning sessions. Now, in April of 2020, you are getting calls and emails from family members, employees, vendors, suppliers, city officials, the local press, and never-before-heard-from stakeholders about what is going to happen to the enterprise that supports so many. Per Shakespeare in Henry IV, “Uneasy lies the head of he who wears a crown.” No one can know right now how this saga will end, but there are some things we do know that can help us hold steady and get us through it.
First consideration: it is not the best use of your time to spend hours of your day answering emails and phone calls from people asking and opining on the best thing to do next. Second consideration: it is critical that everyone connected to your business have honest and transparent updates about company decisions. I suggest you appoint an ombudsman.
Ombudsman. Now there’s a term not heard so much recently, but the position has been used in government and in business for a few centuries. The word itself is Swedish in origin and means “representative.” Historically an ombudsman (or perhaps, an ombudsperson) was an independent official whose job it was to investigate complaints against a government, or against any entity designed to be responsible to a group of people. Since the Industrial Revolution, the position has also taken on the role of intermediary and liaison for communications between officials or owners and those to whom they are responsible. In these times of instant information, an ombudsman position should be designed to establish Truth as the foundation for rational decision making and rational behavior. This person can stop and/or prevent distortions. I have used it successfully in large families who owned businesses and were under great stress.
Here are the steps for setting up an ombudsman position in a family business:
- Appoint a widely credible person as the Ombudsman.
- Inform extended family members, employees, etc. that this person has been appointed to do this task.
- When describing the role of Ombudsman, be certain to emphasize it is being created to be certain everyone hears the truth.
- Explain that if a family member has a question or concern, they are to call the Ombudsman. If the Ombudsman knows the answer, he/she will respond on the spot.
- If Ombudsman does not know the answer, they agree to get back to the questioner within 24 hours with the answer.
- Guarantee that all questioners will remain anonymous.
- Just the facts are shared. The Ombudsman does not give opinions or directives. They stick with verifiable facts.
Keep the structure in place until the crisis passes or the calls for information stop.
Just as you would navigate any tricky business venture, I believe that now is also a time for “slow and steady wins the race.” Take some baby steps to get stabilized. Focus on those elements of this current situation that you can impact. Give your empathy to those many others whose livelihood depends on the success of your family’s business. Be open and honest about what you can and cannot do—but give yourself the time to do the work, knowing that you have an ombudsman who is directing communications both into and out of the company. It is not Public Relations. It is not about company image or brand perception. It should be a straight and flawlessly honest communications effort. When you establish the norm of everyone getting the truth, anxiety will diminish.
If you would like more information about this, or any other family business matter, please reach out to David Bork in one of these ways:
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