Starting Fast and Moving Slow, Overcoming Resistance in Family Systems Conversations

Steve Legler MBA, FEA, CPCC is an independent Family Legacy Coach based in Montreal.

He grew up in a business family, destined to take over the company his father had founded before he was born. After an unexpected liquidity event that occurred while he was still in his 20’s, he ended up managing their family office instead.

In 2013 he stumbled upon the Family Enterprise Advisor (FEA) program, which turned into a career-changing calling for him. He now works with family clients as a facilitator, and sometimes as a mediator. He also does individual coaching with family members from every generation.

He is the author of SHIFT your Family Business (2014) and Interdependent Wealth: How Family Systems Theory Illuminates Successful Intergenerational Wealth Transitions (2019)

He is a member of the FEA Council of Family Enterprise Canada (FEC), a member of the faculty of the Family Firm Institute’s global education network program (FFI-GEN), and also one of the hosts of the Let’s Talk Family Enterprise podcast for FEC.

 Cindy (00:05)

Welcome to the Tamarind Learning Podcast. I am your host, Cindy Radu, Chief Learning Officer of Tamarind Learning Canada. Tamarind Learning is an online wealth education platform forum that develops practical foundational learning programs for families, beneficiaries, and their advisors to help them prepare for responsible stewardship of wealth.


Cindy (00:26)

As part of the Tamarind Learning Platform, I have the privilege to speak with experts on topics relevant to families of wealth and family offices. And in this episode, I look forward to a conversation with our guest Steve Legler to talk about family systems. Steve grew up in a business family, but when that business was unexpectedly liquidated in his 20s, he shifted his plans from taking over the family business to managing his family's family office.


Cindy (00:53)

About ten years ago, Steve had what he refers to as a career changing calling, and he now works with family clients as a facilitator and mediator, as well as doing individual family member coaching. I came to know Steve when I reached out to him after reading his second book, Interdependent Wealth How Family Systems Theory Illuminates Successful Intergenerational Wealth Transitions. This is a great book that offers guidance and a deeper dive on our topic today.


Cindy (01:24)

Steve, welcome. It's great to have you with us as our podcast guest. And let's start with what family systems actually means and how you explain family systems to families.


Steve Legler (01:36)

Well, first of all, Cindy, thank you for having me as a guest and for reading the whole long title of that book, which has a very long secondary title, but all those words were chosen very carefully. So what is family systems? I mean, I remember when I first heard, okay, the family is a system, I thought, Okay, I guess that makes sense. But then upon further reflection, I decided to do a little more digging. And that's when I discovered Bowen Family Systems Theory. And I actually did a lot of studying of that, both at a place in Vermont and then in Washington, DC at the Bowen Center, where I was surrounded by a bunch of people, many of them social workers, therapists, and clergy people who are all there to kind of learn what makes families tick. And I was fascinated by this because when working with business families and families of wealth, there's always a lot of stuff going on that is hard to kind of put your finger on. And so I think that the simplest way to describe what it means to think of a family as a system is that all the people are interdependent, meaning one person does something, it actually affects everyone else.


Steve Legler (02:46)

And I know people who are part of families, they're looking out for number one, and they're thinking of themselves. But really, in order to understand the family, especially as an outside adviser, when you come in, it's not so much the people in the family, but the relationships between the people. And that's where I'm always concentrating. When I come into a family, I want to get to know the people, of course, but I'm always looking for how does this person relate to this brother, relate to mom, relate to cousin Joe? How do they relate to each other? What is the relationship like? Because a lot of times when things aren't working the way you want, it's easy to kind of blame one person, but it's a little deeper than that, and it's how what one person did affected something else, which then ended up affecting someone else. So it's kind of like more how the pieces move around than the individual pieces themselves.


Cindy (03:38)

So it sounds a lot like a chess game in a sense.


Steve Legler (03:42)

Yes, there is a lot of and so, really, the important thing and I'm glad you mentioned that, because if you were a pawn on a chess board, the way you look around at the other pieces, you can't really see over everybody. So it's important to detach yourself and look at yourself as a chess player, looking at the whole chess board where you actually have a better view of who could and should move where. Whereas if you're on the board yourself and you're one of the smaller pieces, it's really hard to try and figure out where you're supposed to go next.


Cindy (04:15)

Oh, that's a fantastic visual. Thanks for sharing that. So I think in my experience, and I'm sure especially in your experience with the type of work that you do, there's a lot of anxiety among families when they start talking about family wealth, transition. And I would be interested in your thoughts on what your experiences and some of the main causes of that anxiety.


Steve Legler (04:39)

Oh, there's definitely plenty of anxiety and allowing me to be a bit sarcastic or facetious it, but you're going to be talking about money, talking about love, talking about death. What's to be anxious about? Of course, everyone loves to sit down and chat about these things, so it is a potential hornet’s nest.


Steve Legler (04:59)

There's always people that are realizing that they are not going to live forever. There are decisions that have to be made about who's going to do what and who's going to get what. And then, so there's the anxiety of oh how's is this person going to feel about the fact that I decided to leave this to so and so. There's always worrying about certain people's feelings. And so it's always much easier to just kick that can down the road and say, we'll deal with this some other day because I don't really have the stomach for it now. And the problem is too many families don't get into the important discussions until they're forced to because of some medical event or something that happens. And now it's like, oops, we better start talking about this. We've put it off long enough. And I'm always trying to tell families, try to start earlier, start the discussions when you don't need to have them. It's a lot easier than you've done some of the work when you actually need to do it. You've already learned how to relate to each other better. You've already started to sort of pave the road a little bit to where you need to go.


Cindy (06:06)

Which is, all great points. So for me, I think always the challenge is you say, when I have the chance to talk to families and tell them about starting early. The problem is getting in front of the families to tell them to start early. And a lot of families are really hesitant, as you say, it's, that kick the can down the road sort of mentality. So with our listeners, what can we share as some opportunities to be aware of to get this process started? When families are, and I think generally families are hesitant to start doing this kind of really important foundational work.


Steve Legler (06:45)

They're hesitant to get started, but once they get started and they see that it's not nearly as scary as they expected, they're glad that they started. So a couple of things that I always think about is don't try to get everyone on board from the word go. So if there's mom and dad and four kids, don't think that you need to have all six people saying, okay, yeah, we're going to have this meeting. Start with some smaller conversations with smaller groups of people to sort of get some momentum going and then hopefully you can enlist other people later. The other thing is, starting early really gives you the most good options as time goes and you get closer to somebody's eventual exit date, whether as selling something or dying, as the time winds down, you end up with less good options. So I'll say you always have more options now than you will a year or two from now. So start now and then hopefully you can start to work your way towards some good solutions.


Cindy (07:52)

Can you maybe give us an example from a family that you've worked with on something like that?


Steve Legler (07:59)

Yes. There was one family I worked with where they had the four rising generation offspring, three of them coming into the business, and one of them was going to run the family foundation. And they hired me to work with them to start to make sure that the sibling group knew how to work together. They didn't have any pending stuff, they didn't have anything urgent. They just realized they had heard that it's important to have somebody work with your rising generation group. And for four years I worked with them. And only after a couple of years did we actually start a family council and start having formal family meetings with both generations. But the work that I did with the sibling group to get them to start to learn how to work together, to learn how to share responsibility, to learn how to make decisions democratically, those were important steps that later became very important when we were looking at more formal governance to create the family council.


Cindy (08:56)

And I would think that, that skill development is not something that happens overnight, that it's really important to build and practice and become aware of the skills, learn about how in yourself to use those skills, observe what other people are doing and continue to practice that so that in your family systems, you get really good at this.


Steve Legler (09:28)

Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned that, because really there's a skill development of all the individual people in the family, and then each one is figuring out what they're really good at. But then there's the working together with each other and supporting each other and recognizing that my sister is really good at this. She's better at that than I am. And so if there are opportunities that bring in that skill set, they are more appropriate for her and learning how and learning about each other with each other, cocreating what they want to build together. See, the whole idea, these parents, they realize that, okay, someday x decades into the future, we won't be here, and all the wealth that we have created is going to be managed by this group of the four kids that we had. Yeah, we don't want them to fight over it. We don't want them to screw up the wealth. We don't want the wealth to screw up the family. So how can we start to have them working together? And of course, they each had their own development plan of what they're good at and what roles they would follow in the company and grow in the corporate sense. But they also wanted to make sure they learned to work together. And it's sort of like a bricks and mortar thing. So they were each their own brick. But I was charged with trying to help them build a wall with that and figure out how the bricks all need to work together.


Cindy (10:52)

That's fantastic. I love that. Okay, so we've talked about we don't need to get everybody going all at once. Just sort of get the momentum going and kind of getting the skill building done started and that training. Are there any other opportunities that you think are important to mention?


Steve Legler (11:14)

Well, what I like to say is hurry up and get started so that you can then go slow. It's a little bit counterintuitive because I'm saying hurry up, but the whole point of hurrying up is hurry up to start, so then you can take your time. It's one of those it's about the journey, not the destination. Too often people look at things that they need to do in this area of preparing for a transition. They look at it as like a checklist, I got to do this, I got to get this thing done with my lawyer, I got to get this thing done with my accountant, and I can't wait to finish off checking off those boxes. And it will be done, and I don't have to think about this anymore. When we're talking about the human side of it, it's more about the journey. It's more about learning to work together. It's more about learning to cocreate and be able to understand each other and be part of what you're building together for when your generation will be at the top of the heap. And so not talking about things doesn't make them go away.


Steve Legler (12:15)

And so let's start talking about them. Let's start planning around them. Let's forget about the fear of oh my God. When we bring up the subject, it's going to cause there are people out there that are experts in coming and helping families talk about these things. And we've seen these things before. And conversations with just people in the family around the table often do go sideways because someone brings something up in a way what they hadn't considered how somebody might take it. So yes, there's reason to have a bit of anxiety, but there are ways around that. Starting slowly, bringing in a facilitator, doing some coaching of the rising gen group, having the rising gen do some learning on their own to improve their own skills. There are all kinds of things you can do and they are all additive. So you start with one and then you say, hey, let's bring in this. This is going well, we're getting some momentum, let's keep going.


Cindy (13:12)

That's fantastic. So I really like this working together theme and bringing in, what I really like is this skilled advisor. And as we know, it takes a village to do this kind of work. So maybe shifting gears a little bit, picking up on that theme, what do you think families should really look for in their family systems advisor team? What kinds of skills experience should they be looking for in their advisor? And should they also, sort of a leading question, but should they also be expecting their advisor team to be working together?


Steve Legler (13:56)

Yeah, you could learn a lot about people by watching them. And if you're thinking about engaging someone to work with some other professional and then somehow you see that they're not able to manage their professional relationship, well, that might be a red flag. My biggest thing, it's important to look at people's credentials. You wouldn't want to just hire someone off the street. But more important, assuming that everyone that you end up talking to sort of meets a minimum of experience and education and all that, I think the most important test is the chemistry test. It's like, how do we get along? And I think the most important thing there is evaluating how much and how the professionals you're thinking of engaging actually listen to you. And I mean by listening to understand before coming in there and talking about how great they are and how they have all these great solutions, there are plenty of solutions and they don't all apply to your family. And so too often there are a lot of professionals that work with families that have done something for 90% of the families that come to them. And so they assume that, well, 100% of the families need this and I'm really good at it.


Steve Legler (15:20)

And so they'll walk in and they'll say, hey, you should do this because I'm the best person in town to do this and this might not be something that your family needs. So has this person taking the time to ask you the questions about what is your situation? And maybe if they did ask that, they'd realize that that solution, that usually their plan A really doesn't fit and they shouldn't even be talking about it. But if they keep going back to it even after you've realized that that's not what fits for my family, there's another red flag for you.


Cindy (15:54)

So I just want to pick up on this theme a little bit more, because this listening thing is really important. And I think that well, I'd be interested in your thoughts on if the advisor coming in should have enough self discipline as well to say, you know what? I think there's bigger things going on in this family as they listen to those really those initial conversations and who they're having those conversations with, but to just say, before we kind of start going down the path of whatever tool I have in my toolkit, I should bring in somebody like a Steve Legler. I'd like to introduce you to a Steve Legler to start doing some kind of foundational work so that as we move forward, we're actually integrating these more technical plans with something that's going to be conducive to where the family wants to go.


Steve Legler (16:53)

Yes, absolutely. One of the things I lament about this kind of work is, very often, by the time I come to a family, they have already taken a number of concrete steps on structural solutions, because when they a year or two or five years ago, whenever somebody advised them, go see this person. You need this estate freeze. You need to create a trust. You need to do all these different things. And not knowing any better, that family just went and followed this great advice, which they ended up with one big brick that might be a really good brick in a lot of walls. And then they realized that, oh, you know, what have we done? A little more discussing of what it is we actually need for our family. We might have constructed this a little bit differently. And so I'm very used to having to walk back different things and see how flexible are those plans that were only built because we may have to change them.


Steve Legler (17:54)

Ideally, families come to someone and sort of, let's figure out what we need as a family. What does our family want? What's important to our family, and then say, okay, because you want this and this now you should go see this professional and say, this is what we want. Please draw up the legal agreements for that. Go and see this account and say, this is what we want. Please draw up the structures for that.


Steve Legler (18:16)

Too often, people see the shiny object of, okay, if you do this move here, you will save $2,486,201.16. And so, of course you're going to do that, right? Because it's clear and, yes, it's very enticing, and it can be very difficult to say, no, I don't want to do that. But there are always yes, but with that comes what? What are the restrictions? What are the things that then won't necessarily play well among the family members who have to live with these structures afterwards? So I'm always about, let's talk about what we want to set up that makes sense for our family. And then it's actually pretty easy to find professionals who want to do the right work for the family, but usually the family doesn't know what they want, so the professionals are making suggestions based on other families. And that's where sometimes it's like digging a tunnel from one end through the mountain and one of the other, and they don't always meet in the middle.


Cindy (19:20)

Yeah, I like that analogy of building the tunnel. So I think really the message I take from that is really this idea of a collaborative team where people are coming in, working together on the advisor front, but among themselves, figuring out, hopefully the right order. And it sounds like they're really getting a lot of this family systems work done sooner is better than later.


Steve Legler (19:52)

Figuring out what "our family" wants and what "our family" needs before accepting recommendations from professionals who have worked with lots of other families. But those families are not your family, and you may very well want and need something much different than the Jones family across town.


Cindy (20:13)

That's excellent, Steve. Thank you very much for your time today. I'd like to wrap up with maybe one or two of your key takeaways for our listeners.


Steve Legler (20:23)

Sure. You know what? They're platitudes a little bit, but if you're thinking about it, is it time to start talking about this? If you're thinking that it might be, it probably is. It probably was already a year ago or two years ago. And then the old adage of when is the best time to plant a tree? The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today. So you cannot go backwards. But let's start today, and then in 20 years, someone will be sitting under the shade of that tree, even if it's not you. And then I think that fits with what we're talking about with a lot of these families were concerned with today.


Cindy (21:12)

Steve, it was great to have you on our podcast today. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and joining the Tamarind Learning podcast.

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