Family businesses have always been an important, if not the most critical constituent of any economy across the world. This is particularly so in emerging economies where family businesses of all sizes drive their economic destiny. However, it is only in the past two decades that they have started gaining attention, and more importantly, respect in the eyes of various stakeholders.

Most consultants used to assume that business strategy was influenced by the resources and capabilities of the firms and their link with the external environment. They, like others, did not realise that they were ignoring the most important stakeholders, the promoter family that directly and indirectly controlled the business strategy and performance. In short, there has been a crying need for expert guidance to almost all family businesses on managing their family side. Let us remember that nobody likes fights, bloodshed, and wealth destruction. They need guidance, badly, to remain prosperous and happy.

One of the major challenges of family businesses is to take note of the changes happening to their family relationships over a period of time, especially as they transcend across generations with new members added and the business operations becoming more complex. Even if some, if not all, family members take note of the drift away from a harmonious co-existence, they would not know what to do to arrest the drift. In most instances, it starts with some dilemmas about the way things are happening and, if not addressed, there will be further deviations leading to differences and disputes that eventually result in the destruction of everything. Most family members, particularly seniors, would like to believe that everything is fine with their families, failing to ask questions to themselves on the goings on.

Filling the void

Untangling Conflict makes a significant contribution to fill this void. Notably, the authors belong to one of the largest global business consultancy firms. This is particularly welcome as it reflects their keen interest and commitment to serve this market segment that is gasping for high-quality advisory service. Spread over 243 pages, the eight chapters provide a detailed guide to families and other key stakeholders on building healthy family-controlled businesses.

It is obvious that conflicts are a consequence of lack of policies, rules, processes, and accepted traditions. Conflicts exist for want of preventing and coping mechanisms. Conflicts arise out of ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ issues or a combination of the two. Without the aid of any conceptual framework, the book discusses sources and consequences of emotionally-laden conflicts that obviously are based on soft issues. Another source of conflict is the lack of clarity and consensus on ownership-related issues that the authors classify as ‘hard’ issues. Yet another area of discussion is conflicts related to business strategies. Unlike most books in this area, the authors have devoted a lot of space to discuss issues from the perspectives of external partners and employees.

Chapter three on ‘Emotionally-Laden Conflicts’ is one of the best contributions of the book. Building on a single major case discussed in the book, the authors provide practical insights into soft issues that lead to family conflicts. It elaborates on the various dimensions involved in preventing conflict. Like other chapters, the authors raise questions for reflection by readers. If treated seriously, these questions can be used as checklists for assessing the emotional balance prevailing in a family.

The key question is how families can start noticing any drift that finally becomes a conflict. Family businesses need to ask several questions to themselves. They need to introspect and constantly find answers or at least start exploring. Untangling Conflict is doing exactly that. Right through the book, the authors raise several very important questions that are often not addressed by families in the normal course. Unlike most books on family business, the authors have refrained from providing answers. Rightfully, they say that each context is different and there cannot be standardised answers but there can be standardised questions. As indicated in the title of the book, the book compels the reader to introspect on most of the important areas concerning success and sustenance of family business.

Impact of case illustrations

While we recognize that a book of this type cannot cover everything, there are certain areas that could have made it richer. It is true that generalisation is not possible based on case studies, but case illustrations have a huge positive impact in imprinting the implications of any action or inaction of a person. The single case study of the Srivastava family creates an initial impression of the case references to follow but that is short-lived. The authors could have attempted to weave in the Srivastava case as an anchor and several short caselets to reinforce their messages. This is particularly relevant to lay readers who are not used to self-learning by asking questions to themselves. Most family business leaders are trained to ask questions about their business that is logic based but not the family side that is a bundle of emotion and logic.

While issues can be discussed under soft and hard categories, in reality, many of them are closely interconnected and dynamically change their shades as conflicts build up. In most cases, logic takes a back seat and emotions multiply hard issues that go beyond ownership to include family involvement in business operations.

The book is rich in providing a lot of tips to non-family professionals (by the way, the book fails to explain that there are family and non-family professionals and it is incorrect to consider all ‘professionals’ as non-family!).

Family businesses are undergoing a major transformation and need a lot of guidance, especially in these days of turbulence. Untangling Conflict has brought a new dimension to the discussion on building lasting family businesses harmoniously. We need more such books and many more advisors.

(The reviewer is Professor of Family Business and Entrepreneurship, Thomas Schmidheiny Centre for Family Enterprise, Indian School of Business)

About the book

Untangling Conflict – An Introspective Guide for Families in Business by J. Sinha, C. Liao, R. Kimura and B. Montgomery

Penguin Random House India

Pages: 268

Price: ₹416

Click on the link to check out the book on Amazon.

social-fb COMMENT NOW