The flight home took 16 hours, nonstop. Once home, I slept for 14–not a drowsy wake and sleep, wake a sleep, but deep, prolonged slumber, a dream state that gave me access to the sights, sounds, people, and experiences that overwhelm the senses when you travel to a part of the globe where camels ride in pick-ups, buildings compete to touch the stars, and men in white are both national identity and fashion forward. For days my dreams were a tumble of indecipherable symbols and images.
Dubai is life though a kaleidoscope: space age towers and ancient water taxis; girls in revealing dress and women seen through eye slits; boys in Armani and men in elegant robes and headdress; an avant garde art scene and a scene of material consumption so staggering it renders an organic girl speechless. But my sensual, visual memories are not the most important thing I brought home–the treasure was the time spent with families we were privileged to meet. And the best gift came in the form of a simple question.
The CEO of a multi-family office in Bahrain had invited me to speak at a conference for families from UAE countries. Abdulmohsin Al Omran is a visionary. While wealth in Dubai is often measured by the height of buildings and the gold and oil in your portfolio, Abdulmosin brought us to Dubai to discuss human capital. “Families in the UAE,” he told me the day before I was to present…
“…are often living beyond their means–even though their means are generous.
…worry about declining wealth as they watch the next generation consume without thought of creating wealth.
…believe it’s too late to make a difference with their family.”
“Ah, issues we face with families everywhere,” I thought, as he described his hopes for the next day. And the next day confirmed his observations.
The men and women of the audience, parents with children as young as 2 and as old as 42; people from Bahrain, Saudi, and Kuwait seemed open and eager to talk. When I asked if the phrase “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” in three generations resonated in any way, one woman laughed and said, “Yes, here we speak of ‘fire to ashes’: the grandfather starts the fire, the next generation keeps it burning for a while, and the third let’s it cool to ashes.”
Only a small fraction (about 2%) of family businesses worldwide make it beyond the third generation with their assets intact. Abdulmohsin’s vision is to address those issues–to help families develop their human capital with the same fervor they attend to developing their financial capital–and to help a larger percentage of families keep the fire burning–or at least give the next generation tools to kindle a new fire.
As we jumped into a practice version of IMI’s Human Capital Audit, one woman said, “I had no idea this is a way to look at family!” Each of the participants seemed excited by a tool that would help them rethink the nature of wealth in family. It was, I thought, a great session and things were going well. Then one man asked, in as respectful a way as possible, “What do you know about families from this part of the world?”
His question was clean and direct. He caused me to pause, but in the moment, processing stimuli coming at me at warp speed, I gave an only adequate response.
But now, dreams and days later I know what I should have said: “Nothing. I know nothing about your families. Just as I know nothing about any family I first encounter.”
Twenty plus years, hundreds of families and many countries into my work one thing is clear: every family has its own unique makeup. Like a fingerprint, each family comes together in a way that is not replicated again. Entering a family anywhere on the planet, regardless of culture, religion, politics, age or generation requires mindful attention, an open attentiveness that allows us to SEE families as they are–without prejudice or assumption. When we can achieve that clarity of vision, we have the best shot at being genuinely useful. We have to enter each family humbled by the knowledge that we know nothing of their individual values, their experiences, their human capital. We know nothing about what matters in their heart or what their individual and collective worries are. That’s the information each family must teach.
And yet, there are universals that show up in family after family; country after country. Most families, if they are at all functional and have the privilege of basic well-being, financial security, and safety, at some point focus on the future of their children and of their families:
- how do we help them care more about purpose than stuff?
- how do we sustain and create the capital and assets that give our children and their children a financial safety net, options, independence?
- how do we make a contribution that has meaning?
I’ll have good stories from Dubai to share over dinner for a long time. But the man who asked, “what do you know about us?” made the trip really count. As long as I remember that we know NOTHING about any family on first encounter, I have a shot at hearing and seeing the most important aspects of every family, regardless of where they live or who they are. Before the week is out I’m going to write and tell him what his question helped me remember. That’s a gift you can’t put in a shopping bag.
A race to the stars