Book recommendations

Family Business Advice Fit for a Godfather

By Larry Gennari
Boston Business Journal

Last December, veteran filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola released a new version of The Godfather Part III, the last chapter of the iconic crime-family movie series. Coppola is a cinematic genius and the reimagined ending allowed him to paint the characters and overall story in a new light.  He may even do it again. That has me thinking: What if, for another version, maybe for CEOs, he could incorporate helpful tips for “family” businesses, especially those wishing to succeed without guns, violence, political payoffs and equine decapitations?

Hmm…for that kind of reimaging, he would need to turn to a few good books.

Let’s start by reexamining the oft-repeated principle from Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.” Sure, this advice might work in the short run, but over time, a ruthless priority of profits over people inevitably breaks down. Just ask management experts Josh Baron and Rob Lachenauer, authors of the new Harvard Business Review Family Business Handbook, which chronicles how families easily can derail their businesses and vice versa. With family businesses representing 5.5 million U.S. businesses and 85% of the world’s companies, the insights on decoding family dynamics, navigating tricky transitions like marriages and divorces, and managing conflicts fraught with emotion, are must-reads. As a consigliere to some family businesses, I certainly can validate the smart, practical tips and checklists, especially on separating family members when “it just doesn’t work out.” Maybe things could have ended better for Michael’s brother Freddo at the end of Godfather II?

That so many business conflicts feel personal most definitely is worth examining. We often invest way too much in defending our long-held opinions and hunches instead of embracing honest disagreement and healthy intellectual tension. So argues Adam Grant in his phenomenal new book Think Again, and he advises us to listen like we are wrong. That sounds impossible, but Grant’s examples, which include how to use “genuine” and “coaxing” questions to get Red Sox fans to rethink — and possibly like — Yankees fans, are compelling, memorable and fun. Many CEOs will find his easy-to-follow tips on becoming a more “persuasive listener” incredibly valuable. I’m actually re-reading the book for a second time now and highlighting even more turned-down pages. If Michael Corleone had read Grant’s book, maybe Sollozzo and McCluskey could have enjoyed an after-dinner drink with him instead of getting their just desserts, ruining a perfectly good white tablecloth.

Finally, I think all family business participants should read Connect: Building Exceptional Relationships With Family, Friends, and Colleagues, the new book by David Bradford and Carole Robin from Stanford Business School based on their incredibly successful long-running Interpersonal Dynamics course. Building trust and knowing when and how to bridge personal and professional topics with business colleagues is challenging, especially now, with more email and remote work. I really enjoyed the material on avoiding “pinches and crunches” in relationships and much of it felt uncomfortably familiar, which is likely the point! Stated expectations are paramount for stable relationships. One example: “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”

Great movies entertain and thoughtful books inspire. If we can combine them to think about the things that matter: family, relationships, and business, well, that might just be an offer we can’t refuse.

 Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival.  Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.

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