Right now, the news reports say that the Murdoch bid to buy Dow Jones will be successful. Some are already musing or agonizing about the changes likely to occur at the Wall Street Journal.
Looking back, are the Bancrofts and their family business unique? Unusual, perhaps, but hardly unique. It’s undoubtedly been a challenging few months for the Bancroft family and the management of Dow Jones. As the New York Times summed it up today: “For a private, reserved clan that had long frowned on confrontation or aggressive involvement in the company’s affairs, it was a long, uncomfortable conflict, played out with the news media attempting to dissect their personalities and rivalries. And for much of that time, shareholders and executives at both companies [Dow Jones and the News Corporation] could do little but watch and wait as the family labored to reach a conclusion.”
Of course, not every family and not every business captures the media’s attention the way that the Bancrofts and Murdochs and their companies do. And few family businesses involve some forty different trusts with ownership interests, as Dow Jones does. But many family businesses treasure the privacy of family members and their interactions, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid conflict completely.
Any family and any business can benefit from facing challenges in a proactive manner. In some situations, conflict over those challenges may be impossible to avoid. Yet, the way those affected deal with the conflict is within their control. When the conflict threatens to do damage to the family or the business, mediation can help those involved deal effectively with difficult conditions and decisions.
You may have seen this quote from Crawford Hill, a member of the Bancroft family currently struggling with the decision whether to sell Dow Jones & Co. to Rupert Murdoch. Hill’s lengthy letter, containing this memorable phrase, was sent to his many relatives and printed on the Wall Street Journal website, www.wsj.com, on July 27. He says that the family has not been actively involved in running the family business in decades.
Despite the recent talk about “legacy”, says Hill, “Our real legacy was an inherited lack of awareness as to what it takes to nurture and pass on an effective legacy about what is really required to be responsible, engaged and active owners of a family business.” He says that “strong efforts to promote family dialogue” in the 1990′s “did not translate into a family wide acceptance of questioning, debate, tolerance of disagreement and strategic thinking — in short, the kinds of things that successful family owners have ultimately always had to figure out.”
In Hill’s view, for many years the business climate for Dow Jones, management decisions, and board decisions were enough to ensure the success of the company — whether or not the family took an active role as owners and directors. But over time, conditions changed and the family ownership structure did not change effectively to deal with new realities. Thus, he says, the Bancrofts are “actually now paying the price of our passivity over the past 25 years.”
Hill is quite frank about how past efforts by some in the family to deal with difficult issues were seen as “unacceptable by most in the family” and “heretical by more than a few.” Perhaps dealing with internal conflicts as they arose in a measured and careful fashion could have avoided the rancor, public sniping, and risk presented now.
Lots of newspapers, and other media, have covered the bid of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation to buy Dow Jones & Company, including the Wall Street Journal. Today’s article in the New York Times, “A Family Meets Today to Hear the Complexities of a Bid for Dow Jones”, highlights the difficulty of the business decision faced by the Bancroft family. The family is reportedly deeply divided over the issue and unquestionably large in number, with eight members in the oldest living generation and more than two dozen in the next, with some of those family members having adult children of their own.
As the Times aptly sums up the challenge: “Money will not be the only issue on the table today, as the family considers its century-old legacy and the prospect of The Journal being in the hands of a company and an owner whose newspapering many members dislike.”
Although most closely-held businesses do not wrestle with decisions involving quite so many dollars and family members, with quite so much interest from the public, the issues here are not unique to the Bancrofts and Dow Jones & Company.
The division of money among family members of different generations, priorities, and passions, an attachment to a valued business legacy, and a deep concern about the future of the enterprise are a constellation of issues that many businesses can face and which can lead to conflict.
Mediation can help to ease difficult communication, to foster creativity in crafting the best solution possible, and to preserve family relations through a challenging time.
ABC World News recently ran a story about elder mediation, “Love, Care and the Inevitable Arguments: Mediators Can Provide a Welcome Rational Approach to Realities of Elder Care.” (You can read about the story at www.abcnews.go.com.) The story — even its title — captured some of the key points about using mediation in this context. The challenges really are about love, care, and reality checks.
The effect of family dynamics that have developed over decades, or that became frozen in time before anyone moved out of the family home, are impossible to ignore. But for some families, even acknowledging the existence of these family dynamics is difficult. Opinions voiced and actions taken are viewed by some through a lens that others don’t share.
The mediation process can help families address necessary decisions with sensitivity and with recognition of the different and perhaps contradictory perspectives of adult children (and their own families), an aging parent, a spouse of the parent (who may or may not have raised these now adult children), and others with a genuine concern for the aging parent’s well-being. The privacy and flexibility of mediation can foster discussions of difficult topics with as little pain as possible.
Perhaps most valuable, a mediation process can lead to creative solutions to vexing problems. Although many families face similar issues, each family must deal with its own set of circumstances. Through mediation, unique problems can be addressed with unique solutions.