Profile of Aron Pervin in ffi Update
ffi Update – An electronic newsletter for members of the Family Firm Institute, Inc. – Volume XIX, Number 4, April 2004
Aron Pervin says that he "fell into" family business consulting, but he did it quite deliberately.
With his science and engineering background, he was working as a consultant on operational problems in the late 1960s, but kept finding that his best efforts were often confounded by something quite intangible. "Human issues were getting in the way," he says, "especially relationship issues within the families that owned the companies I was working with. I found it irritating."
Aron turned that irritation into an exhaustive multi-disciplinary pursuit. By the mid-1970s, he was focused on organizational development and behavior. By the mid-80s, he had become a certified management consultant, and had also completed programs in business, psychology, sociology, family therapy and family mediation.
"I believe very strongly that the family business consultant needs to have as many clubs in the bag as possible," says Aron. "While you can't be everything to everybody, these are business families and they are dealing with complex intensely private matters. It's hard enough for them to open up to one person, much less a team, at the onset."
For that reason, Aron took the unusual step of collaborating with other experts in their disciplines who would join the assignment when the business family was ready. "Sometimes, the only way to get the 'right' help," Aron explains, "required me to start the process and then bring the people in who really practiced in that discipline."
According to Aron, "the family business clients I see are successful, but they're stuck. They need to change the way they relate to each other and the business. It's like a kaleidoscope. You collaborate with the client to move the pieces around until we get the right picture."
Over the years, Aron has developed proprietary methods of dealing with second, third and fourth generations within family businesses – ways of helping them to make decisions "that benefit everyone and not just those with the most shareholding power."
Aron has two achievements of which he is most proud. One is the collegial work at the FFI Body of Knowledge committee developing the core learning constructs. The other is the coining of the term "accidental partnership" to describe the lack of choice in the sometimes unwilling alliance of family members in a business. Aron values this descriptive phrase because it struck a chord with clients who saw it as an expression of their helplessness and frustration. "It confirmed to them that their feelings were valid," says Aron, "and they were in a predictable and manageable situation that could be dealt with. There was hope."
Aron's advice to others embarking on family consulting practices points mainly to the personal challenge of advising on pragmatic resolutions to the highly emotional and volatile problems of family businesses.
- "You've got to know yourself." Family is an exclusive group, he says, and if you're not in it, you're an outsider. Family members may not want to tell you everything, but you need to find out enough to do your job. "Your self-knowledge will go a long way to building trust – between family members, and between them and you." He also cautions, "As a sole practitioner, you can lose yourself – consider having a "life line" – a mentor or supervisor who can help you maintain perspective.
- "Know the players and who the client is." It's not necessarily the first person who calls, says Aron. It's typically the business family whose membership should be explored. "Test for family altruism", Aron suggests. "It's an important clue to a successful outcome."
- "Build confidence in change." Celebrate what they do well. Then tackle the problem.
- "Enact expectations." Set goals and carry them out, says Aron. Model appropriate behavior for them, because they often haven't worked in outside business settings where they could learn another way. "Work through what is a good process so they have a template to work with."
For Aron, the role of the family business consultant was encapsulated in a tense meeting between members of a religious family in which two brothers were battling so intensely that they were no longer speaking to one another. After private agreements and resolutions had been gathered, Aron laid out a plan for change. While still at the meeting table, one brother was suddenly able to reveal new information and express himself to his brother – and the two began to hug and cry. Soon, everyone was hugging and crying, even the hard-nosed father.
"I got a great 'thank you' note and a testimonial – and they never called me again," says Aron. "You have to live with that. You're working yourself out of a job. You're transferring your skills to them so that they won't need you anymore. It's not your family."
For more information on The Family Firm Institute, visit http://www.ffi.org/