Ombudsmanship and The Family Business

In my “other practice” I just completed an 8 month-long “turnaround” of a small family owned manufacturing and distribution business.  Key to the final success was the smoothing out of a bumpy road at the beginning of the project by utilizing ombudsmanship with stakeholders by the owners. I’ve written in previous articles and defined “ombudsmanship”. Ombudsmanship is being asked for more and more in job descriptions and is similar to “sportsmanship” in that it’s a “soft skill” or quality that the individual brings with them and is aware of at all times in their functional responsibilities of their role or position.  Ombudsmanship is usually delivered “incognito” by the individual utilizing ADR style skills with individuals, teams, groups both intra or inter organization in terms of the individual and group dynamics.  In this business “case” I’ll go over some of the key methods and techniques where ombudsmanship was utilized as part of the engagement and was the “key difference” to success versus the absolute collapse and loss of a three decades old family heritage.

My role was as a business coach, consultant, ownership advisor and conflict management coach to owners. I’m also very aware, from mistakes I made in my “apprentice” years that focused only on the financial bottom line, that changing any business culture is more about conflict management than just business “metrics” and that focusing on conflict management as a priority in all “engagements” will get the metrics or results needed “indirectly”.  It’s a “given” that in any organization there is a culture with regards to the dynamics of intra and inter personal relationships that employees have based on their personality characteristics.  This is even more so for a family business operating for three decades.  So the balance to be struck is to use the inherent culture of the business and resulting conflict as the OPPORTUNITY to “shift the paradigm” towards a consistent “in the black” financial outcome while PRESERVING stakeholder relationships critical to function and revenue.

My point of contact was the oldest son with some ownership meetings with the mother and father who also worked day to day in the business.  The son had worked the business for many years and had an accounting degree, but now, parents had declared they wanted to “retire someday” and make the transition.  Unfortunately they made this declaration one full year AFTER the “economic collapse” began and the books started going “red” in gross revenue.  They tried for one year, all of 2009 to get back in the black, but couldn’t and turned to their son.  This “set the stage” for some real conflict and drama on a daily basis and is most likely the same for thousands of businesses today.  Armed with a business case history interview we began.  Some, not all, of the concise steps below:

  1. Put it on the table that there is going to be a shift in the culture of the company to “survive” and that there will be conflict in the chaos that will result in profitability IF “management” can apply new methods in functional systems CONSISTENTLY day to day.
  2. Map the organizational “dynamics” and structure for purposes of awareness in an informal internal family operating environment.  Recognizing that there are functional business structure as well as informal familial, age and gender dynamics evident where older employees and newer younger staff conflict (generations) where employees are treated as family; and where formal education is replacing informal apprentice style training and applying of skills, knowledge and wisdom.
  3. The map had intra-organizational structure of: son and both parents core administration, manufacturing and distribution department, marketing and sales with external road warriors and internal sales staff.  This map was typical in that manufacturing and sales rarely socialized or communicated “intra-department”.  Each employee was subjectively “assessed” for personality characteristics at the beginning and during ongoing changes so as to provide situational awareness and decision support regarding “status” and needed outcomes.
  4. The map had inter-organizational structure with partners, vendors, suppliers, stakeholders in the immediate community.  The “linkage” or nexus was identified again for purposes of situational awareness on identified potential conflict as changes unfolded.
  5. Provide conflict management information and coaching of the son as the new President and General Manager including keeping a journal of conflict events as they arise.
  6. Discussion of “applied” techniques and emotional support for management including identification of incremental successes, though they may appear to have a “negative” outcome.  This included KNOWING when to let events play out with employees, immediate intervention versus “sleeping on it” daily cycles and then observing over two week increments the decision results.
  7. A very favorable “ad hoc” look at results where several staff simply left the company in the exact departments and slots where the “next generation” of educated employees could fill gaps and form new “blended teams” with long established family business “members”.
  8. Key was incremental success with recognizing conflict is in the moment, to let it play out, identify employees who cannot adapt and work with them on “what they wish to do”. Identifying employees as “champions of change” and giving them influence roles. Adopt formal communication, cooperation and coordination cycles in the form of projects and monitor individuals behavior.  Getting confirmation from “parents” that the chaos has turned out well at various stages and the company is evolving while the bottom line returns to profitability again.  This provides “confidence” in the son to lead and was directly discussed and kept in focus with relation to “desire to retire someday” as a goal while demonstrating “real life” favorable bottom line outcomes.

In conclusion it’s important to note that the business related methods and solutions were not discussed here, but that the constant awareness for the potential for conflict in key functional positions would “trigger” emotional events.  We also gave owners the message to constantly motivate employees is that, “we have to do this or there won’t be a company anymore and thus a job either”.  I’m certain “variations” of this message were constantly given, including recommended “memos” with each employee signing off that they acknowledge the gravity of the situation in today’s economy.  Keeping this as the ‘prime goal’ for employees to focus on at all times, while monitoring conflict related to implementation of solutions that forever changed the organization resulted in 13 jobs saved, 2 new jobs (one in each department), 1 outsourced function, restoration of 4 figures “in the black” net profit monthly within 2 months of launch and new-found “confidence” for EVERYONE in the company as to what they achieved is a favorable end result… is it not?

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