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As consultants to family businesses, we use different tools to assess levels of functioning in the business and in the family. A few examples of the tools we use are personality and team profiles, communication and conflict management tools, and assessment of things such as organizational culture and leadership styles. Another tool we use is the genogram.

People often ask us “what exactly is a genogram?” A genogram is a tool that was developed by intergenerational family therapists, and it originated primarily based on the work done by Murray Bowen, one of the pioneers of family systems theory. A genogram is a graphic representation for drawing a family tree that records information about family relationships typically over the course of 3 generations. In using a genogram, we really look at, and work with, the family as a system. The concept of a system refers to a group of people who interact as a part of the whole. Therefore, anything that happens in one part of the system impacts all other parts of the system.

Genograms can be very useful tools as families tend to repeat themselves from one generation to the next, and often the same issues impact the family through a series of patterns of interaction and behavior. In a family business, where we have the intertwining of 3 systems (business/family/ownership), these family relationship patterns can have significant and powerful influence on business planning, functioning, and decision making.

Because the family is the most powerful system that an individual can belong to, the influence of the family on the business system should not be underestimated. The inter-relatedness of family members is present in all areas of family functioning, i.e. social, physical and emotional, and this can have far reaching impacts regarding business decision making and success. In addition, family patterns tend to repeat themselves from one generation to the next, and can themselves be very powerful forces of influence.

The life cycle of a family is punctuated by key transitions that need to occur. When family members need to move from one phase to another (which often means a restructuring of relationships), that is when the family is under great amounts of stress, and as a result, symptoms or problems may develop within a family. Examples of some life cycle transitions are children leaving home, marriages, divorces, the birth of a child, a spouse retiring. Similarly, the business needs to go through different critical stages and be able to successfully master the business transitions such as business start-ups, growth and expansion, succession and leadership transition.

Relationship patterns in families can be multifaceted and varied. One key pattern has to do with the closeness or distance between family members and there may be many things that impact and regulate the levels of closeness. Similarly, patterns around communication and conflict develop through the years, and can become very powerful forces in keeping things stuck when there are high levels of stress and anxiety within the family system. In addition, the behaviors of family members often involve action and reaction, or move and counter-move which can create and preserve certain patterns, such as irresponsibility on the part of one family member being complemented by over-responsibility by another.

Due to the complexity of family businesses, we believe that “best practices” in working with family businesses requires not only technical expertise but also process consulting skills. This is why the ideal team for working with family businesses should include expertise in the areas of both management science and behavioral science. We believe these are as a key to understanding the emotional/relational issues and long-standing patterns in the family and the business, so that successful change can happen for both the family and the business.

Written by Shipra Seefeldt, © 2019 Strategic Solutions Consulting LLC

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