In the midst of the global pandemic and all its thunderous noise, came the highly controversial upset of the interview of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka Meghan Markle and Prince Harry) with Oprah Winfrey. The interview garnered a lot of attention – and opinions. Members of the public and media spoke out about how they felt, their take on what was going on, and what thought was appropriate or not. In the grand scheme of things, the Duke and the Duchess as individuals were entitled to make their own choices. No matter how we may feel about a person’s actions, when we are not a part of their experiences or in their family, we are merely on the outside looking in –and perceptions may differ depending on which angle you are looking in from. In this case in point, many were looking in from a judgemental vantage point. And the conflict in this family business can be viewed as a cautionary tale.
You may be wondering what this has to do with a family office or family business.
Well, it starts by being centered on family. The Royal family is probably one of the longest-standing family businesses in the world. It has had a family office for over a thousand years and it is in its umpteenth generation, and the pressure for the next generation to take the mantle is obvious. Being a multi-generational business, it has a myriad of family members and traditions it hopes to uphold going into the next generation. So it goes without saying that this family business is familiar with conflict.
What people seem to forget is, it didn’t start here. It started at the height of the lockdown in February 2020 when these two members of the working royal family decided to step back and take a break. The choice made by the Sussexes, or rather most of the choices, were a show of next-generation paving a different way from the previous traditions. They chose not to remain part of the family business as working members. This in itself did not take away their membership in the family, or their ownership, if they have any. It just excluded them from the day-to-day requirements or benefits of being a part of the working family business. As with any family, this choice was not easy to accept and so began the early signs of conflict within the business.
Additionally, this shift began soon after their marriage and we now know there was a series of events that led to this decision, and the biggest amount of blame was given to the new family member, Meghan. As we have also learned, when someone new joins the family, there can be complications in integrating this new member, especially when this person comes from a different background to that of the family. Following marriage, a transition period takes place where the new couple starts creating their own identity, which may not always sit well with the greater family. In the case of Meghan and Prince Harry, we saw a part of the episode play out in public and it was humiliating for the family because no one wants to have private issues discussed on a public platform.
How do we resolve this? How do we protect our family from experiencing the same issues? Here are a few ways to meet this head-on and navigate it for your family.
One way is to listen and create safe spaces for the next generation to talk about their experiences. Merriam-Webster defines hearing as the process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specifically: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli. Listening, on the other hand, means ‘to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention, and to give consideration’. Hearing is much easier than listening because hearing is an involuntary physical ability, no conscious effort is required. Listening is hearing what someone meant – not just what they said. This means to pay attention, be understanding and focused, and respond appropriately – especially when a family member is sharing something difficult. In many cases, we hear what people say to us, but the ability to listen is what will help create an environment where family members feel safe and that their presence is acknowledged.
Publicity is a cry for help.
In Africa, two proverbs speak to this. The first being when a mother or woman is aggrieved, she is known to strip in public as a way of bringing shame to the perpetrator and showing the gravity of the disgruntlement. The other is a Shona proverb that says “mbudzi kuzvarira pavanhu kuda kutandirwa imbwa” loosly translated to ‘for a goat to give birth in front of people, it ensures that the people will chase the dogs or jackals away”. So, when the Sussexes went public, it could have been viewed as a cry for help. It’s not that they wanted to harm their family, but that they wanted their pain and experiences to be heard and for people to recognize and acknowledge this. And though other avenues could have worked, they chose one that could not be ignored. It is not always the ideal situation when this happens and at times we may not be able to stop it from happening. Either way, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, try to find ways to validate the experiences of the family members and try to reconcile them. It may not be an easy journey, especially after a public onslaught, but family will always be family, and finding ways to rebuild bridges is one of the best resolutions.
Mental health is wealth.
When we think of a family office, we think of it as a tool for managing wealth. Equally so, we need to look at managing mental health as a tool to preserving and growing wealth. Mental well-being is essential for the growth of the family and its multigenerational transitions. The family is the human resource that contributes to the building of wealth, so the mental health of family members is important. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. If family members share that their mental health is impacted, take this seriously and be supportive in whatever steps they need to take to ensure they find solutions that work for them. Looking at the Sussexes, the topic of mental health came up and was discussed in that same, very public platform. This made the world revisit the life and death of Prince Harry’s mother, Princess Diana. No matter how big or wealthy a family may be, the strength of a family lies in the hands of its members.
Put family first.
After everything is said and done, we must always go back to where we started. Our first community, or experience of life –and that is family. Putting family first means ensuring that the right channels and protocols are in place for handling private affairs and that we respect our differences as much as we embrace our similarities. Next-gens live in a different world and at times may feel that the family business is not where they want to be. It is important to allow and accept this. No matter how well-known or famous a family is, they are not public property and individual family members may choose to go out and venture into the wilderness of life alone. It’s not the first or the last time this has happened. It’s only the most public example where we have seen a private matter play out. This is not to say it was a public matter, we only got to see what they as a family chose to share. Let us always remember that family always comes first and that the failure of one may be the failure of all. This family conflict, if left unresolved, will go on to affect the business, as well as the family itself.