Sarah Frost (one of IMI’s Master Trainers) and I just returned from a memorable family meeting in Costa Rica.
I’m often asked what happens at a family meeting. For many people, an image that comes to mind is of gatherings around a conference table at which someone—often a patriarch—gives a business report, someone else gives a talk about a new investment instrument or some other topic that is supposed to be relevant to the family, and after that, if they’re lucky, they might have dinner together. If the meeting goes well, dinner could be a warm, friendly affair. If there has been bad news or unresolved conflict (stated or not), the meal may be more of a “grin and bear it” ordeal.
That was not the experience we had in Costa Rica.
Happily more families are getting creative about family meetings—using their gatherings to imagine and realize BHAGs: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. These are goals that galvanize people to reach high and contribute their best to realize a big vision. Those of you who remember Jim Collins’ book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, will recall his notion that those companies routinely imagined and sought Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals. Landing on the Moon was NASA’s BHAG. The iPhone was Steve Jobs’ BHAG. These big visions are so exciting, so reality changing, that people line up to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s the task Great Families set for themselves these days—developing a mission and goals that are so exciting, so engaging, that family members show up for the family meeting with joy and anticipation, not just a sense of duty or dread.
And that was our experience in Costa Rica. I won’t describe the whole meeting—it was after all a private family meeting and discretion is required. But two stories may inspire other families to ratchet up the scale of their family vision and re-imagine the nature of a family meeting.
The first is that of the family vision. I review a lot of family mission statements. Usually they cover an intention to do good, to maintain the integrity of the family, to sustain wealth, etc. All good goals, but nothing you would call a BHAG. This family has two BHAGs: to raise a new generation of mindful global citizens and to make a difference in real human ways.
To raise global citizens this family knows they have to do more than talk. So they have committed to one international trip a year. That is no small feat—it’s expensive, it requires a commitment of time, and it means a lot of time spent together. Anyone who has tried to travel with a best friend or just one or two other family members knows what a challenge it can be to survive a long trip! But in this family, 20 people, ranging in decades from under 10 to over 70 traveled to Costa Rica to experience what was probably more akin to a National Geographic tour or a Kellogg Fellows Study Trip than a conventional vacation. Though we had the advantage of beautiful surroundings and extraordinary service, the emphasis was on learning the local culture, not just traveling as tourists.
Because we believe that financial fluency requires international awareness, we provided the 20-and-under group with a model that can be replicated anywhere in the world and introduced them to tools that help them connect to, understand, and experience local culture, wherever they are. This is not the challenge it may seem to some families. Pre-arrival we had connected to a local school. The children learned the village school was free to students, but many students can’t afford basic materials for learning (paper, pencils, calculators, crayons, etc.). So the children of this family, using their own donor advised fund, purchased and filled backpacks with school supplies that were then taken to the school during one of our afternoon trips. Some of the grown-ups were a little apprehensive: how would this work? But we purchased a soccer ball on the way to the school, and it took half a nano-second for the kids to tumble out of the bus and into the school yard for an instant international match!
Eventually a little order was restored, and the children, fast friends with their new mates, shared the full backpacks and got letters and drawings of thanks in return. The school was “adopted,” and the children, blossoming global citizens, have a human connection to the lives of their peers in another country.
The second story is of lessons that came home. We had invited conservationist and thought leader Alvaro Ugalde to visit with the family to share the story of how Costa Rica’s National park system grew to encompass 25% of the country’s land. Ugalde spoke directly to the kids, never once talking down to even the youngest among them. His story was about the power of one.
Widely regarded as the father of Costa Rica’s park system, he described his epiphany when, as a college student studying biology he realized the country only had about 15% of the land still in forest; the rest had been cut down to accommodate ranchers growing cattle. 40 years ago, at age 22, Ugalde decided he needed to spend his life “saving the rainforest” and reforesting the land, or else there would be little left for biologists to study. Shifting his focus from cells to the macro policies of land use, Alvaro Ugalde became a force for preserving parkland in Costa Rica.
Today, concerned that the land around the parks is deteriorating from continued deforestation, Ugalde and his colleagues have set a new goal—foment a new consciousness about water and the importance of the watershed.
We’ll see how this session impacts the consciousness of the children as they grow, but this was an afternoon that provided a powerful role model for leadership, exercising passion, and making a difference. And the lessons about water that the children took away may well be part of their next “make a difference” projects at home.
As family meetings go, this was a model well worth replicating!