by Dr Susan Massenzio &

Dr Keith Whitaker

Understanding Family Wealth is a journey. There follows nine lessons that we have learned from consulting with families over many years.


  1. The work of living well with wealth is every day and lifelong. It is about character. Character shapes how we treat others and how we treat ourselves. To this point, we quote a proverb in Complete Family Wealth: “If you’re planning for the year, plant rice. If you’re planning for the decade, plant trees. If you’re planning for the century, grow men and women.”

  2. Families are made up of individuals, and our first task is to know ourselves. Only if you know who you are can you begin to contribute effectively to the happiness of those around you. To this end the book includes various reflective exercises.

  3. Many people we meet are focused on preserving financial wealth. They have heard the proverb “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” But this proverb isn’t exactly accurate. If structured well, money can linger in families for a long time. But those families do not necessarily flourish. To achieve that end requires focusing on, preserving, and growing the family’s non-financial resources, its human, intellectual, social, and spiritual capitals. That is why we developed the Family Balance SheetTM.

  4. No community lasts unless the greater part of its members want it to last. Families who last have members who affirm each other and enjoy spending time together. Whatever their financial wealth or estate plans, such families have the motivation to succeed within themselves. That is why we spend a great deal of time, in print and in practice, focused on the design of true family meetings, where family members can come together to get work done but also to learn about and enjoy each other.

  5. What makes a family? At the end of the day, it is not just law nor biology. It is the presence of shared stories. Stories give a family a home—and furnish it. To this end, we encourage families to use their family meetings to share stories—about their ancestors, about their successes and failures, about their individual lives’ journeys—and to adopt rituals (such as welcoming new family members or remembering those who have passed) that give shape to their shared journey.

  6. If stories are a family’s lifeblood, then communication is its circulatory system. The greatest obstacle to communication is assuming that it has taken place. This assumption happens all the time in families, especially around difficult topics. Most of our time with families is spent helping communication happen. To that end, to hold effective family meetings, we encourage families to establish ground rules, so that everyone feels he or she has a chance to speak. We also help couples and other family members go through the “Three-Step Process” to make sure that they have 1) clarified their own views, 2) truly listen to each other, and 3) look for common ground. And in family meetings we often facilitate what we call the “Intergenerational Dialogue,” in which each generation has a chance to tell the other 1) what they would most like to share and 2) what they would most like to learn. Just think of how healthy that circulation would be if you could communicate like this on a daily basis!

  7. Conflict is natural to families, and the potential for conflict grows with the presence of significant financial assets or an operating business. We have found that a great resource in resolving conflict is the famous “Three-Circle Model,” by which family members can clarify when they are acting as managers of the enterprise, or owners of shared assets, or members of the family. While these three areas inevitably overlap, each comes with its own skills and responsibilities.

  8. The number one question family members ask us is, “How do we begin?” Oftentimes the beginning is the hardest step. That’s because this work involves parents and children speaking with each other about difficult topics: money, death, control, conflict, hopes and disappointments. And that is why we developed the Family Executive SummaryTM process. In it we interview each family member to understand his or her goals, strengths, and areas of concern. We then share a thematic summary of what we’ve learned back with the family along with recommendations on how to proceed, often towards a family meeting. This process helps the family feel they have the important topics “on the table” and that they have made a practical step forward. They have begun.

  9. We have seen families do magnificent things with money—in business, philanthropy, and public policy. We have also seen the work of managing family money take over people’s lives, leaving them poorer, in a spiritual sense, than they would have been without it. This is perhaps the greatest tragedy of this field: that some could have so much and yet so little. That is why for the families we work with we focus on the true keys to living well that go far beyond money.

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