Watching Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s interview with Oprah earlier this spring, I could not help but wonder how the Royal Family felt while watching the interview, or even how they felt when first hearing of its existence. If I had to venture a guess, their emotions likely spanned anger, frustration, confusion, retribution, indifference, or…all of the above. Meghan could not have spoken truer words than, “Perception and reality are two very different things. We are judged on the perception and living in the reality.” So, what went wrong within their family?
Take a moment to consider: who controls your family’s perception, and who creates their reality in the ever-present age of overexposure and decentralized communication via social media? We can arrive at the answer by, first, understanding the influence a married-in has on their new family, how families control their narratives, and what it means to communicate effectively both in- and outside the family walls.
As we heard Meghan describe to Oprah, marrying into (and assuming a professional position within) the Royal Family came with countless expectations – some of them expected, while others, wildly unexpected. Yet other than being under the world’s microscope, does Meghan’s experience differ from what all families in business face? I think not.
High-powered and HNW family businesses are successful because of their commitment to a collective set of beliefs, values, philosophies, and business practices. This is reflected in something as simple as, “In this family, everyone goes to church together on Sundays. No matter what.” It can also surface in weightier situations, like, “when [insert your most embarrassing or challenging issue] is made public, we expect [every family member to respond this way].” Married-in’s are expected to share the values and commitments of their new extended family, but what happens when things change along the course of the marriage?
Married-in’s enter their new families with their own set of values, traditions, and problem solving skills. And when they enter that family office as well, typically, those same values, traditions, and skills accompany them. When their behavioral norms don’t immediately align with that of their new family’s, and their approach to business, that once (self-described) harmonious group can orbit into uncharacteristic dysfunction, unwanted crisis, and premature transitions. Restoring a family’s harmony (or never losing it to begin with) starts with the family and the married-in coming to a mutual understanding—really taking the time to listen and understand their unique perspectives. Since changing people is usually not an option, the only real way for families to unite is to embrace their different vantage points and diversity of thought.
Lost in so many family businesses is the family members’ ability to share their respective points with clarity. This requires both understanding your audience, as well as clearly framing your point—otherwise known as communicating. It is rare for i3 to begin working with a family-in-business without translating what one family member is saying to another. After months of practice, each family member finally begins to understand the other (if multiple generations are involved, with multi-married-ins, it can take even longer—but, we get there).
Communication goes beyond one party listening and the other party talking. Both parties need to be able to communicate their wants, needs, and beliefs in a way that resonates with the other party. And even more important, is knowing what a married-in needs once they marry into a family. Oftentimes, a married-in is against their new family, with the spouse as their only bridge (AKA: an impossible role for a spouse). Understanding the beliefs of all individuals who have married-in to a family serves as the foundation of successful ongoing communication. This means, they can work to control their narrative together, or even just settle on Christmas dinner plans.
Nothing is more enticing to the media (and to all of us, for that matter) than chaos in any Camelot. Controlling your family’s narrative is so important. Most families in business do not employ the media team that The Royal Family has in place, and yet, the narrative of those seemingly-immortal folks spun out of control. Unwanted narratives are born out of dysfunction, crisis and/or transition so, as it relates to married-ins, take the time to understand their beliefs and values or you may be reading about them in the news or, even worse, watching them on TV, telling Oprah your family’s secrets! Regardless of the difference in beliefs of a family and their married-ins, the narrative they create together is far better than what they might generate independently.
In my twenty-plus years of assessing a family’s needs and advising on a range of issues, avoiding the question, “What went wrong?” starts with understanding each other’s backgrounds and beliefs. Trust me when I say, this is no easy task; it takes time, commitment, open mindedness – and often a 3rd party. It is not enough to listen. With understanding (and acceptance), a family can communicate with respectful boundaries. This does not mean everyone gets along, but it does mean that there can be harmony. When family members understand each other and communicate effectively, they, as a family, will control their narrative—leaving very little difference between outward perception and internal reality.
My hope for The Royal Family, is that what we watched on TV was for “ratings”, and that behind the scenes, they are just like any other family business, trying to figure out how to ‘make it work’ with new behavioral dynamics. This, is of course, my hope for all families-in-business, after all—there is a bit of The Royal Family in us all.
J. Kevin Heaton is the Founder and President of i3, LLC. Started in 2007, i3 is a family advisory practice providing family governance, global family asset reporting, and private asset management services to high net worth families and families with high profile lifestyles.