Ombudsmanship and The Family Business

15 May 2011

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?


An Ombuds Success, Mary Greenwood & Apology and Thank You

16 June 2009

Just some quick and timely observations today on three topics.  First, Ombudsman ADR: The 6 C’s of Sociocratic Peace Building is the most popular article on this OO Blog.  It got a big push months back from Tom K at Ombuds Blog and now John Ford, the editor at  I’ve submitted this article and others “without success” to other professional organizations.  John Ford has been very “inclusive” here if you view this article in context of their “traditional” offerings.  Indeed, “dad is proud” and this article and system has received positive commentary and accolades for months now.  It’s also the top “link back” article on the OO Blog gaining broad popularity and circulation.  Take a look now as the home page changes frequently.

Finally, I admit it, it’s long over due and over looked by me.  Mary Greenwood is the author of How to Mediate Like a Pro a very concise book with a multitude of awards.  It features 42 good guidelines for successful mediation through negotiation.  My review here is that this book has been very valid for me, 9 months into my formal ombuds career, and my favorite rule is #5 or Mediation is not Therapy; Mediation is not legal advice.  Mary Greenwoods process is to “functionalize” negotiation into a mediation process that has relevant and broad application for all forms of “true”  ADR Mediation.  Often I get an email asking something like, “how did you decide to be an ombudsman and how do you get started?”  For many of “us” just starting our “formal” practice, this is a good first book, concise, to the point, about 75 pages total.  You can’t go wrong.

Next, most recently I’ve followed the Palin/Letterman “conflict” being played out on the commercial media.  Last night David Letterman demonstrated his true character with an open apology for a “distasteful joke” that offended Sara Palin and family.  More important, David was “very genuine” with this apology if you caught it live.  If not, it’s worth a look to find a “clip” on the Internet as, my opinion, ‘this is how it’s done’ when giving a sincere apology.  Now, will mom Palin be gracious and accepting and openly say “Thank You”?  I am a big believer in the Apology as a tool to resolution of conflicts.  Most recently the Mediation Channel has had articles and comments on this and Mary Rowe has long advocated this “technique” with years of observed success.  Now, the “Thank You”, I believe, can provide equal heart felt “reciprocal” healing or neutralizing of “hard feelings”.  My observations on life is that once I gave an apology or watched someone else give one, I hoped for “validation”, but often “we just don’t know” how it was accepted.  For me, if an “Apology” is given and genuine, I think the complainant should demonstrate their true feelings too with a “Thank You” to the offender.  How about you?

The Gordian Knot: Gay Marriage, Alternative Medicine & ADR Mediation

19 March 2009

I’ve picked just three topics, Gay Marriage, Alternative Medicine and Alternative Dispute Resolution Mediation and placed them in the Gordian Knot category of ongoing and “polarizing” modern day issues that cannot and will not ever be resolved… legally or with legislation.  I enjoy this type of debate very much and what is prompting me to write about this now is the recent “discussion” on another blog in relation to certification of mediators in the ADR, CM & Ombudsman professions.  My own “ombudsman” sword now falls on the Gordian Knot of these 3 “modern problems” while holding to the independent, neutral and impartial cornerstones of my professional “best practice”.

  • Gay Marriage – you cannot legislate away the rights of any individuals under the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, period.  Gay people can marry if they want to in a form of both legal marriage and faith based marriage.  Don’t expect though to force anyone else to recognize your gay marriage from a traditional “faith based” perspective as freedom of religion allows “like faith” practitioners to worship as they see fit too.  Create your own “church”, you have the “right” and then form an LLC in Maryland, California or Oregon where  “domestic partnership” for gay couples is legal and contract for employment benefits (medical insurance etc) through that entity.  There, everyone happy?
  • Alternative Medicine – the freedom of choice regarding the form and type of medicine that you wish to use has long been suppressed by the American Medical Association which has always leaned towards allopathic versus homeopathic or naturopathic forms of medical practice.  It’s been a slow process, but it wasn’t too long ago Chiropractic “medicine” was illegal.  Now you can go to a DO on your health care plan or even go to an “old school” bone cruncher if you “choose” it.   Cut the knot, let “freedom ring” and let anyone use the type of medicine they wish.  All that matters is that informed and educated decisions to make a choice be empowered and enabled for each individual; and the respective professional associations can contribute to that.
  • ADR Mediation – Certification is an attempt to “push competition out” of a market place and make your groups self interest “the only choice”.  The legal profession and associations  with money, political power and “leverage” have increasingly positioned themselves as “the final authority” over other professional associations in the field and leveraged their “nation of laws” into every aspect of life in America.  Drop the sword firmly on this knot and allow freedom of choice again to have anyone mediate that you choose as long as the professional mediator presents their credentials so you can make an empowered and informed decision.  An “inclusive” approach works since the main forms of mediation from the legal and ombudsman perspectives have the place and value concerning specific applications towards “positive” outcomes.  If we all hold to ombudsman ethics and standards we will, upon initial consultation, be able to provide feedback for the client in selecting which form is best for them.  The basic two choices, two edges of the blade, are legal ADR or Ombudsman ADR where legal ADR can progress to arbitration and litigation and Ombudsman ADR refers the case into formal legal arbitration if informal mediation and self directed problem solving fails.

Again, I debate this type of thing all the time with people, but it becomes very clear how the sword falls on the knot if we keep in mind that we are all human beings, we live in a free society, free to make choices and create the pursuit of happiness for ourselves.  Any authority that wants to certify or license someone needs to do so only in that they “govern” those of like mind and that they do not deny rights of individuals who don’t.  The moment a group takes it upon themselves to be “the authority” over “all the land” and others, polarization begins.  Gays do not threaten or deny traditional marriage or move to legislate it away.  Homeopathic practitioners do not deny or advocate rights to use and practice allopathic medicine and sometimes refer out to it if needed.  Legal mediators and professional legal associations cannot deny, legislate or govern “in total” the mediation profession and ombudsmen so as to form a monopoly and deny “freedom of choice” and the power to self govern in a non-polarized, informal and peaceful way.

The Chronic Complainer

25 January 2009

I recently took a phone call from a prospective client.  The immediate topic of discussion wasn’t about “chronic complainers”, it was singular, about a “chronic complainer” that he wanted to discuss.  As the conversation unfolded it was clear he had, once again, had a “heat of the moment” encounter.  Realizing, on my part, not much gets accomplished in such moments, I instead began to “practice what I preach” and listened fully to his complaining about a complainer.  It also became obvious to me that he himself was going to follow the same “dysfunctional pattern” of “asymmetrical communication” that enables the constant cycling of “emotional stuff” over and over.  Finally, I asked him, inserting myself just a bit assertively, “can I give you some tips?”.  “That’s what I called for!”, he affirmed.

o     Listen to the complainer with awareness.

o     If you hear a “rational point”, affirm it and paraphrase it verbally back to them.

o     Move towards getting the complainer to write a formal complaint.

o     Once you have the written complaint analyze it and develop a solution.

o     Contact the complainer and collaborate with “concession points”.

o     Document it, have them sign off on it, with words like “I’m glad we are finally closing this out”.

o     “Give it to them.”  The rational points and concessions from the process.

This is an asymmetrical approach for “simple issues” and informal circumstances.  Yes, I agree, it does not take into consideration “both sides” of a most likely  one-sided issue and may even disregard published policy and procedure of an organization or company.  Many times “complainers” simply like to be “verbal” and not “write” their words down and the “resolution process” breaks down.  It can though, help a “chronic complainer” personality to move on and the receiver of the complaint to provide resolution; and make changes if needed. If it’s beyond this, the situation persists and you feel “stalked” after the attempt, consider professional intervention.

Before You Lose Your Job

21 January 2009

In today’s economy our position in life is uncertain, fearful and even chaotic.  Even “the best” people, or so we are told, are losing their jobs.  As an Ombudsman it’s not up to me to make judgments about an issue, but rather to “mediate” on behalf of both sides after ALL of the information has been gathered, organized and reviewed by a team of at least 2 members.

I have seen situations that persisted for years and the employer made “concessions” to keep the employee contributing, but at the same time suffering loss or damages in other areas.  The employer would say they have “considered” the “burden rate” versus what the employee actually earned for the company and it stayed favorable.  In other circumstances though, that little edge or “differentiation” that kept them employed erodes and looses leverage over time and in a variety of ways.

In this case, the employee can contact an Organizational Ombudsman and ask for “a second chance” in hope of a reprieve.  In this scenario, who pays for the service needs sorted out because most often the employer will contract us, but in the above circumstance they may not.  Our job is to simply first get communication started, initial conversations to see if both sides are “open” to reconsidering what is “immanent”.  If this is possible and confirmed verbally, by say HR, the immediate “manager” and the employee, we get “permission” to move forward.

In this circumstance statistics are from the 90’s era, but more than half the time an OO is successful in resolving the issue.

Be careful out there if you think economic circumstances could “force” an employer to let go of “lesser” people than those top performers with millions in “parachutes” and severance packages.