Last month, I had the opportunity to walk through a city that’s connected as much by its bridges as by its land.  In the dim grey winter light of Scandinavia, I found yet another metaphor to shed light on how to improve relationships in families and the private wealth management industry.  In today’s column, I’ll discuss what we can learn by viewing an archipelago as a model for healthy relationships. 

Stockholm, the  “Venice of the North,” is a quiet, unpretentious gem that combines medieval charm with 21st century efficiency.  It’s hard not to marvel at the ways in which old and new connect across islands that stand independently while, at the same time, remain interconnected.  It’s a healthy place, even in the darkest winter days.  Indeed, Stockholm is known for being one of the healthiest cities in the world, both for the environment and the people living there.  The city proper consists of several islands that form the core of an archipelago that stretches across thousands of islands into the Baltic Sea.  The islands themselves, their inhabitants and their dwellings span multiple era and generations.  This configuration aptly represents the healthy ways that families and their advisors tend to function, including:

Independence.  Just as each island is secure in its own place, healthy families understand the importance of respecting each individual’s goals, dreams and identity.  Rather than focusing solely on  “family wealth” and subordinating individuals to the dynastic dreams of the few, healthy families find a way to support the uniqueness of each of its members.  Their advisors encourage this kind of thinking, rather than imposing the views of the few on the many. This is reflected in the estate and financial plans they recommend and implement.  Not only does each generation have some say in its destiny, but also individual members of a generation have space to develop their own respective paths in the world.  Healthy families tend to have multiple productive family members within each generation, rather than  “stars” and followers. 

Inter-connectedness.  Family systems theory posits that a healthy family has an appropriate balance between  “family” and “individual.”  If family members can rely upon each other without having to risk losing themselves in the process, they’re more likely to thrive as individuals and as a group.  In Stockholm, the strong bridges—some long, some short—connect the islands for commerce, exchange and a variety of purposes.  They even do so with beauty and grace.  The private wealth management industry could emulate this model by acknowledging the intrinsic inter-connectedness of the issues and people involved in all matters. While lawyers might feel constrained by the ethical issues of client-advisor relationships, they must also work collaboratively with a team to ensure that each family member’s goals are met.  Professionals in different disciplines must learn how to identify issues and bring in others with complementary knowledge and skills.  The connections in a family may be, and in fact most likely will be, primarily emotional, but these should be neither overlooked nor ignored as new legal relationships are created.  Advisors must identify and work with inter-connections in ways that benefit, rather than limit, the lives of family members.  Some of the questions that are rarely asked, but perhaps should be more asked often, include: Is this a connection that will promote the well-being of this client?  What’s the likely impact on other persons who will be brought into this new relationship?  How will this affect existing relationships/connections?

Diversity.  No two islands are the same, just as no two individuals in a family are exactly alike.  Professionals must respect and reflect the diversity of family members, especially in the variety of their interests and aptitudes.  Diversity takes many forms and may be as simple as varied communication styles or values, as well as cultural differences.  An individual professional might relate better to some members of the family than others.  In that case, the professional might explore how to find someone with a complementary personality, skillset or cultural fit to join in working with the family.  In the future, as diversity increases, the need to attract and retain a wider variety of professionals will become more important.  More profoundly, the very definition of  “family” will need to evolve to better match the reality of client families.    

Family Archipelago

A private wealth advisor can’t work with an individual client without having the exercise being affected by other family members and professionals.  To paraphrase the words of 17th century poet John Donne,  “no advisor is an island, entire of itself.”  Similarly, no individual family member functions in isolation.  By viewing existing and future relationships as an archipelago, it may be easier to support the inter-connectedness, as well as independence, of each person involved.  Further, a diverse family archipelago is more likely to be a healthy one.