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May 9 2012

In-Laws: Are they In or Out?

What is the role of spouses or partners who “move in” on family meetings?  Common wisdom offers words of caution or stories about how spouses can disrupt family harmony, muck up the business, or create dissension.  Thus, business families are sometimes encouraged to “keep the spouses out” of Family Council meetings.

This fearful perspective is a self-fulfilling prophesy:  If spouses are not involved in Family Council meetings, they may well cause problems!

Early in my work with business families over the last 20 years, I learned the far-reaching impact and value of including spouses in “adult children” family meetings. While spouses sometimes initially think “it’s weird” to be invited into this process, they are often honored and contribute immensely to the health of the family business.

So why do I strongly encourage spousal participation in Family Council meetings?  For starters:

  1. Spouses are full-fledged family members.  Even though they may not share DNA, spouses are chosen by a family member to join the family.  The family then ideally comes together in new ways to prepare the next generation for success.
  1. Spouses need family business education.  It is vital spouses understand the natural complexity and intermingling of family and business.  For example, what are the “rules” about how family members enter and exit the business? What is not discussed is often assumed, creating confusion, conflict, and sometimes entitlement.
  1. Spouses have a lot at stake.  Decisions and policies developed by “the family” will impact not only their future but the future of their children.  Spouses play an important role in shaping the expectations of the next generation as well as their spouse.
  1. Spouses are positive resources.  The different perspectives that spouses bring shed new light, new solutions.  Sometimes spouses help get the “real issues” on the table when their partner cannot or will not raise them.

In summary, while spouses (typically the wives) are not involved in management and shareholder meetings, they do belong, benefit from, and contribute to family meetings.

The healthiest families we work with include their spouses regularly in their Family Council process, and some (like the Brubacher family who own Brubacher Excavating, Inc.) elect in-laws to lead, yes lead, the Family Council. To read more about the Brubacher family’s experience, read the article entitled “Leading the Family.”

What are your family’s practices with involving spouses/in-laws in Family Council meetings?  How have your practices impacted the health of your family and the business?

In-Laws: Are they In or Out?

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