Guest post by Andrew Pitcairn, G4 Family Council Chair of Pitcairn
Marrying into any family has its challenges. At first, new spouses probably won’t get the family’s inside jokes. They may find family relationships and alliances puzzling. Then there’s the thorny question of where to spend holidays. They say when you marry your spouse, you also marry your spouse’s family.
Welcoming New Members to a Legacy Family
That is never truer (nor more daunting) when a family has substantial wealth. It becomes even more complicated if a family business is involved. The new spouse wonders how he or she will fit in and the family worries about how the newcomer might change the family dynamic and even affect its legacy.
If there’s a family business, there may be wealth structure issues. Furthermore, original family members may fear the possibility of an “outsider” gaining ownership rights in the business. These sensitive topics come up time and time again during “’Family to Family” round table discussions at various conferences I attend.
Family members have questions such as:
- What can or should I tell my spouse? What is confidential?
- How can I help my spouse become part of the family?
- How involved should my spouse be in family decisions?
- What do we tell our kids?
New spouses may ask themselves:
- Who is this “Family” I married into?
- Is it okay if some information is kept private from me?
- Will I have a voice in family decisions?
- Is there someone I can talk to who will understand? Is there a support group?
- And again, What do we tell our kids?
Where’s My Welcome Packet?
Whenever a newcomer joins a legacy family, there will be unique questions and solutions. Let me share an experience from my family and the process we use to help new family members become comfortable. Though your own circumstances and process will almost certainly be different, you may find our approach helpful.
At a shareholder meeting a few years back, the new wife to a fifth generation member of our family quite literally stood up and asked “Where’s my welcome packet to explain what this family is all about?” Not one to miss an opportunity, I approached her the first chance I had and asked what she meant. It seems that even though we already had a lot of information about our family, it wasn’t “collected” in a way that made it easily accessible or useful to someone new.
Family Council Clarity
We had no formal “welcome packet,” but we did have a platform for communication between family members – our Family Council. Established in 1982 and one of the first in the nation, our Family Council has been an avenue to educate family members about our family’s history and business, identify and prepare future employees and trustees, help family members meaningfully contribute to the family’s cohesiveness and keep family traditions alive by passing down values and stories. Consequently, the Family Council seemed the perfect place to address this concern about how we welcome our new arrivals and what better way than to invite the new bride and her husband to be part of the Council.
It’s important to remember that this is not a one-size-fits-all process. Families have to make a real effort to define their own goals and how they see their mission. Still, communication goes a long way and if you’re willing to listen, I bet people will be willing to talk. Here are a few topics we identified as being important to family cohesiveness, acceptance of new members, and the harmony needed to sustain a family, generation after generation:
The Family’s History
- Patriarch, matriarch and the who, when, and why
- Lineage. Where did we come from?
- Family legacy, values, and beliefs
- Your spouse’s family history – their family is important as well
The Family Today
- Updating of the family legacy, values, and beliefs
- Family structure – how are decisions made and disagreements handled
- Lineage – how does the structure change as the family grows
- Family functions and gatherings, formal and informal.
If there is an operating company…
- What does the company do?
- Who owns it and why/how?
- Who can family members talk to if they want learn more?
- Protecting it – who can I talk to on a professional level?
- Common concerns – lending money, prenuptial agreements, Financial Do’s and Don’ts
- Opportunities – making the most of the family network
- What is private? Who can I talk to confidentially?
Family Member Responsibilities
- Asking questions – educating yourself
- Educating younger generations about the family
- Passing down family stories
- Passing down family values, beliefs and spirituality
- Decision-making positions in the family
- Philanthropy/community involvement
This is just a partial list of the many topics that may arise as families embrace new members. Focusing on how our family welcomes new members has been a tremendous learning experience. In addition, it has helped each of us clarify and deepen our own knowledge and understanding of our family, our business, and our personal relationships. I encourage you to take this journey, uncovering the past, defining the present, and looking to the future. It will give you a sense of clarity and the confidence that you have the tools to connect your family not only with new members, but all new generations to come. After all, those who marry into the family, are family.