A safe pair of hands

Tuesday, 01 April 2014
Ken McCracken of Withers Consulting Group, and lead author on the STEP Advanced Certificate in Family Business Advising, considers how families themselves see the role of the advisor, and the importance for advisors of becoming ‘professionally ambidextrous’.

The term ‘most trusted advisor’ is used to mean many different things, but advisors will be interested to know about recent research into what the term means to the owners of family firms.1

The author of the research, Vanessa Strike, of the Erasmus Centre for Family Business at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management, explains ‘…that family firms require a unique advising approach and that family firm advisors require effective skills to manage the sensitivities that are distinctive to family firms’. Family businesses are not the same as other types of business and advisors who seek to be among those who are ‘most trusted’ need to become ‘ambidextrous’, which means having the ability to navigate both business matters and the concerns of the family, because these are always interconnected.

This point gives the lie to the view that the best way to approach the complexity of a family business is to separate the interests and advise the family as a family and the business as a business. Families generally do not think this is even imaginable, let alone feasible; they know that the only workable solutions must balance the interests of both the family and the business.

Strike confirms this reality when explaining that advising business families means working with family members ‘at different life-cycle stages, and who have multiple and often conflicting emotional interests and goals’. This poses interesting challenges for advisors from different professions in relation to key questions, such as: ‘Who is the client?’

The STEP Advanced Certificate in Family Business Advising is designed to help advisors who want to work more creatively with business families. It covers models and frameworks from the family-business body of knowledge that advisors need to know in order to become professionally ambidextrous. It is a highly interactive course that helps advisors achieve a competitive advantage when working with family firms, which even now could reasonably be described as the largest unrecognised sector in the economy.

The May sitting of the course is being offered in London, Miami and Zurich, and will add to the 94 practitioners who have already completed the Certificate. Later in 2014, the intention is to offer the course in Singapore and Hong Kong. Based on feedback from previous delegates, the course is of practical value to anyone working with a family business, whether a lawyer, accountant, financial planner, private banker, wealth manager or family office executive.

There may still be a view that advising family firms involves no more than a combination of ‘hard skills’ – an advisor’s chosen technical specialism – and ‘soft skills’ – a phrase used to describe an indistinct cluster of personal characteristics that enable advisors to interact more effectively with clients.

The Certificate programme, however, takes the view that advising family firms involves a combination of distinct knowledge and skills that need to be learned and then mastered through practice. It is not about being a better advisor through learning effective listening and communication skills. It is about understanding the challenges that arise in a complex system – the family and the business – as these change over time, and how such changes affect a range of vested self-interests.

Business families are becoming increasingly aware that they face distinctive challenges, and the market for advisory services is moving beyond the stage where it is good enough for advisors to say: ‘I have always worked for family businesses.’ This is an exciting new area of knowledge and practice that is emerging as a distinct specialism in itself.

For details on the course, visit the CLTI Family Business page.

  • 1Vanessa Strike, ‘The Most Trusted Advisor and the Subtle Advice Process in Family Firms’, Family Business Review 20(10) (2013), 1–21
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Ken McCracken

Ken McCracken is the joint Managing Director of FBS Global Ltd, a specialist consulting and training group that works with family businesses and family offices. He is the Lead Author on the STEP Advanced Certificate in Family Business Advising.

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