Rising Gen Roles in the Family System: The Challenges and Opportunities

Date: Jan 28 2021

Mindy Kalinowski Earley, Chief Learning Officer of Family Office Exchange

My colleague, Heather Abramson, and I had the pleasure of leading the FOX Rising Gen Forum in October 2020, which brought together family members in their 20s, 30s, and 40s to discuss the issues they face as part of the next generation. The challenges we heard them express fell into five categories:  

  • Defining Future Roles in Family
  • Communication Building Between Generations
  • Family Dynamics
  • Leadership Development
  • Investment Strategies

The discussions in these areas focused on how the participants could gain clarity and some concrete direction around each. And honestly, achieving “solved” status for each of the above only comes through a lifetime of learning and lived experiences. Those experiences include meeting participation, trial and error, effective communication, defined family education programs, and intentional learning experiences.

Seeking Clarity

A recurring challenge, and opportunity, we hear from all generations and stakeholders, is how to integrate rising gen into the family system, operating company, and meaningful family roles. We are often asked what are the best ways to educate, prepare, include, and steward rising gen involvement? When should you start? What should you expect?

At FOX, and with our member families, helping rising gen with Defining Future Roles in the Family is a core part of rising generation preparation. It is part of a responsible ownership and wealth stewardship discussion, and the reason we created our Rising Gen Leadership Program. Most importantly, it’s top-of-mind for  the families we serve at FOX, given the frequency we hear these questions and the number of consulting projects we’ve produced that include rising generation education and development.

There is an overlap between what the leadership generation (or parents) is asking and what the rising generation (the up-and-coming family leaders) is asking. Each group seeks clarity, and asks similar questions, but from their respective lenses.  

The leadership generation asks (of the rising generation):  

  1. What role do they want to play in the family system?
  2. What work do they want to take up?
  3. How do they want to get involved?

The rising generation asks (of the lead generation or parents): 

  1. What is expected of me?
  2. What pathways and options exist for involvement?
  3. How can I become prepared for the roles I will take on?

Each generation asks about engagement, learning, and preparation. Working with families of significant wealth over the years, I’ve learned rising gen consistently seek one thing: more clarity and greater understanding around expectations. They want options and the ability to choose their future, but with guardrails so they feel guided by the previous generation. They want to know what skills to develop for the roles they’ll need to fill and what skills to build for the positions they may wish to have. They don’t want platitudes, encouraging them to "find their passion" when there are family expectations left undiscussed. They are respectfully acting in deference but ready to contribute where needed.

Clarity-Creating Actions

At FOX, we encourage the following to engage the rising generation and create a purposeful family participation structure. There is no exact starting point. It is not a requirement to have clearly defined roles and a specific pathway. These structures help, but they are not necessary. Start small, knowing this work takes years to create and implement.

  1. Have transparent, multigenerational discussions centered on achieving next generation inclusion. Ensure opportunities for all voices to be heard, ideally at an all-family meeting. Break into groups so the more introverted can speak up, finding their opportunity to contribute. Include other feedback mechanisms like surveys and live (anonymous) polling.
  2. Make a list of roles available to the rising generation. If feasible, include learning tracks or suggested steps to prepare for each role. These steps can be as simple as actions to take, meetings to hold, and books to read. Our Rising Gen Leadership Program (coming up on February 24-25, 2021) prepares future family leaders to be  credible, and contributing family members and would fit easily into a family’s role preparation path.
  3. If you aren’t clear what roles may be available for your rising gen, have a family meeting to brainstorm positions and responsibilities needed for the future. This brainstorm should include forward-thinking roles the rising gen can fill based on their education or work experience. Let rising gen know you value each person for their unique skills and talents, from the graphic designer working on a family history project to the finance MBA serving on the investment committee, every role is essential. Families need family champions, annual retreat event planners, photographers, etc.
  4. Be clear about how positions are earned or establish a transparent structure to make such decisions. Does election to the family leadership board go through a nominating process? What are the selection criteria, and how are decisions made? Will every family member have a vote? Allow rising gen to have a say in who will represent their generation in the family governance structure.
  5. Ask yourself the critical questions
    1. What can we do to encourage next-gen involvement and engagement? Has our process included their voice and their requests?
    2. Is the rising gen clear that no matter what, there will be a role for them to fill in the family office, governance structure, operating company, or family enterprise? Don’t assume they know this. Help them understand there’s an obligation and expectation, however large or small.
    3. Consider how you reward participation and work. Is it simply "what is expected," or will you compensate them to attend committees and serve in official governance roles?
    4. Does a structure exist for them to understand pathways to engagement? While "if you build it, they will come" may not always be right, if the rising gen doesn’t see a starting line, they will not join the game.
    5. How does this work fit into the family learning program?

These are big, speculative questions that require lengthy discussions, a strategic approach, all-family inclusion, and most of all, a careful look at where you are and where you want to go as a family. At FOX, we have identified Heightened Commitment to Family Learning one of the top ten dynamic forces facing family offices in 2021. We are committed to supporting your learning goals by providing rising gen programming and leadership preparation. Attending a FOX program is often a motivating factor to increased family engagement and the beginning of a peer community relationship. William Butler Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." FOX is here to help fan the flames and ignite the fire inside your family.