Thursday, October 30, 2014

Family Harmony as a Planning Priority -- Part 1: Distracted by Shiny Objects

Why is it that when we focus on money, we overlook things of greater value? 

In the midst of abundant wealth, it is easy for us to lose sight of what matters more than money.  The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke in unison warn us that a single-minded emphasis on riches may rob us of things of far greater worth.  “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

This human tendency to concentrate on shiny financial objectives at the expense of more lasting priorities is an occupational hazard for professional planners.  Sometimes, with our own abundant technical knowledge, and surrounded by our clients’ abundant wealth, we professional planners focus too narrowly on laudable but lesser planning priorities and end up causing inestimable human damage

We sometimes sacrifice lasting worth on the altar of “tax avoidance.”

We are inclined to destroy long-term value in the quest for “asset protection.”

In the name of facilitating our clients’ “control” of their wealth, we may create plans that cheat our clients and their loved ones of soul-deep pearls of great price.

In my 35 years as a planning professional, I have observed that one of the most serious and frequent casualties of money-centric planning is family harmony.  Too often, the unintended but long-term result of our planning is to pit brother against brother, parent against child, and grandchild against grandparent.  Not only do our planning tactics not reduce discord and tension, we actually increase family strife and contention by the way we structure our clients’ affairs.

That may turn out to be a blunder of epic proportions.

Referring to the well-documented failure of over 90% of wealthy families to survive past the third generation, Courtney Pullen wisely observed:

The tragedy of this statistic isn’t the loss of the money; it’s the loss of the family that goes with it.  As the wealth dissipates, so does the connective tissue of the family, whose members often end up disconnected and embroiled in conflict.

Alex Haley, the author of Roots, put the significance of the family in perspective when he wrote: “In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.”  I concur with Michael J. Fox, who said:

            Family is not an important thing. It's everything.

And with Serena Williams:

            Tennis is just a game, family is forever.

I agree with Buddha when he said that our highest priorities should be “to enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one's family, to bring peace to all.”

The issue of promoting good health is a topic for another day.  But as for bringing true happiness to our clients’ families, and bringing peace to all, I feel certain that we need to re-think our planning strategies and processes. 

Please don’t think I am suggesting we need to become family therapists; I am saying nothing of the sort.  In certain cases, those specialists may need to be a part of the collaborative team.

What I am saying is that in our work AS PLANNERS we need to recognize the damage we may be doing or the opportunities to promote family harmony we may be missing as we craft estate plans, financial plans, philanthropic plans, or business succession plans.

We should have two major aims:  First, we must see that we don’t harm family harmony either intentionally or accidentally.  Second, we need to learn how to proactively improve family harmony as we work with our clients.  My next articles will address these objectives.

Next month:  Family Harmony as a Planning Priority — Part 2: First, Do No Harm

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Learning by Giving

As a student of generosity and philanthropy, I have consistently observed that:

1.      Thoughtful giving changes the giver from the inside out.

2.      The process of thoughtful giving teaches important life skills.

Consequently, family giving is a key ingredient of the SunBridge 3-GEN Planning model.   In the quadrant known as “The Academy,” we invite multi-generational families to consider questions such as

·         What makes us come alive?

·         What causes are we passionate about?

·         How do we teach our family the joy of giving, serving, working together, and finding their passion?

In The Academy, we are inspired by this quote by Howard Thurman:

“Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

In The Academy we learn two of life’s sweetest ironies: the secret to finding ourselves is to forget about ourselves; and the key to improving our family is to think beyond our own needs and focus on the needs of others. 

Many multi-generational families launch a family giving project with an idea of changing the world, only to discover that the most important changes they’ve effected are improvements in their own attitudes, their own character, and their own relationships.

These principles also form the foundation of Main Street Philanthropy, which sprang from our work with multi-generational families.  At Main Street Philanthropy, we use thoughtful giving to change students from the inside out and as a vehicle to teach important life skills quickly and seamlessly.  Visit

This week we received a touching testimonial from a South Florida mother whose son had recently participated in the Main Street Philanthropy program in his high school.  She eloquently described how her teenager had been changed from the inside out as a result of the thoughtful giving he experienced in the Main Street program.  She wrote:

The conversation my son and I had the day his Main Street Philanthropy group visited the charities they selected to help was one of the best and at the same time most heart wrenching conversations I have ever had with him.  He was moved to tears telling me all about the people served by those charities. 

Although he was very happy that his philanthropy group was able to help these people in a small way, he was also distraught that there were children who, through no fault of their own, found themselves and their families living in the Pat Reeves Center for homeless families. 

My son told me that his experiences that day made him realize how much he took for granted that he had a roof over his head, his own bedroom to sleep in each night, and a kitchen always stocked with food.  He felt very guilty for what he had, in comparison to the people he saw that day. 

He was deeply moved by the experience and vowed to make a difference in the lives of people less fortunate than him.   He said the Main Street Philanthropy class was the best experience he has had in his 3 years of high school.

I have seen such profound transformation repeated again and again in my work with multi-generational families and with Main Street Philanthropy students.  It is a rewarding part of this approach to planning.

The other transformational aspect of The 3-GEN Planning Academy and the Main Street Philanthropy program is the ease and speed at which important life skills and values are acquired by participants.  As teenagers and young adults are challenged to make thoughtful gifts using funds from self-created fund raisers and from generous donors, they organically acquire important tools for thriving in today’s world.  Some of these include:

         Financial Literacy
         Written and Oral Communication Skills
         Confidence and Self Esteem
         Community Awareness
         Interpersonal Trust and Communication
         Identification of Personal Values & Purpose
         Group Collaboration
         Group Decision-making
         Creative Fund-raising
         Understanding the Tax System
         Investigation & Evaluation of Organizations

In the Main Street Philanthropy program, we require participants to write about what they are learning during the ten-week program, and we measure their transformation during the process.  One of our students from New Jersey wrote this at the conclusion of her Main Street Philanthropy experience:

Wow… Main Street Philanthropy is actually over.  Looking back on the past ten weeks, it is so incredible to see how much we have learned and how much of a difference we made in our community.  Never did I think that I, as a high school student, would be donating money to organizations of MY choice and experiencing all that I have within these ten amazing weeks.

It has been such an honor working alongside my fellow MSP’ers- I don’t think any of us could have gotten through the program without each other.  I am so grateful that I chose to be in Main Street Philanthropy.  What an AWESOME program!

Today’s graduation was very nice, and it made me very proud to know that I made a difference.  My public speaking skills have just been improving day by day; I talked on stage without feeling any nerves!  The fact that I have grown so much through this program is just unbelievable.  I feel that I can tackle anything with the skills I have learned and developed.

Overall, today was just another amazing experience in my collection of amazing experiences through Main Street.  It’s been such an indescribable journey, but one that I plan to continue living out in my daily life.  Thank you again and congratulations my fellow MSP grads!!! :)

You can read more about the impact on these students at  

Parents and grandparents who make thoughtful family giving a part of their family culture will equip their teenagers and young adults with the tools and skills they will need to thrive in a challenging and constantly changing world should.  They will outfit their family members for a lifetime journey of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.

Many of these families will turn to their professional advisors to show them how to do this.  I’m happy to report that SunBridge Advisors and Main Street Philanthropy Ambassadors are prepared to be a catalyst for changing individuals and families from the inside out.  I invite other readers to join them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

G-1’s, Black Holes, and Gravitational Slingshots

Once again, John A. Warnick’s PPI Rendezvous in Denver provided inspiring conversations and provocative presentations.  The highlight for me was Jay Hughes’ keynote address, “Giving Voice to the Rising Generation.”

Based on his upcoming book, The Voice of the Rising Generation, available in September, Jay’s presentation described the difficulties faced by later generations growing up in the shadow of parents or grandparents who built the family fortune and founded the family dynasty.  In our practice, we refer to these founders as G-1’s and members of each succeeding generation as G-2’s, G-3’s, G-4’s, etc.

G-1’s have a unique, almost superhuman talent for turning an idea into a dream, and that dream into a vast financial fortune.  Both the dream and the fortune exert a huge gravitational pull on anyone and everyone near their orbit, especially family members and advisors.

Jay compared the G-1’s oversized influence not to a supernova but to a black hole.  Jay said the black hole nearly always sucks the life out of the younger generations and their own dreams as they struggle to live up to, carry forward, or rebel against the founders’ dream and fortune.  They usually lose their voice and go on to live stilted, stunted lives.  In short order, the family and its wealth are dissipated.  Hence the proverb:  “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”

Jay’s central message to the advisors at the Rendezvous was to resist and deflect G-1 gravity by standing with the rising generations and helping them find their own voices.  He urged us to act as a shield or buffer for them and thereby give them space and courage to live their own dreams.  From my experience that is almost always what good 3-GEN Planning entails.

But Jay’s description of the G-1’s stuck in my craw a bit.  The impression he was giving, at least to me, was that G-1’s are so helplessly egocentric that they are oblivious and powerless in the face of their own super-humanness, and thus cannot help being a destructive force in the lives of their descendants.  Their single-minded focus on living and expanding their own dream inexorably cuts the legs off their children’s and grandchildren’s dreams.  Being so self-absorbed, they were incapable of changing that pattern
When he called for questions, my hand went up immediately and he recognized me.  What I asked him is, is it not possible for G-1’s to recognize the damage inflicted on family members by their gravitational pull and choose to change?  Are they incapable of seeing the harm to their loved ones caused by their behavior, and deciding to reverse course?  To repent and turn over a new leaf?

Jay responded from the lectern and then again later in a one-to-one conversation that among hundreds of families he has worked with in his many years of experience, only two G-1’s were able to change.  His tone was rather pessimistic.

However, I take a different point of view.  I think it is possible for Superman to change and to use his super-powers to bless his loved ones, not damage them.  If there have been two in Jay’s experience, then surely there can be more!  The exception proves the possibility!

In my years of work with Mike Cummins and Mary Tomlinson at Legacy Planning Associates, we have found that the senior generation can come to recognize the negative impact of their overbearing control and then can choose — usually with substantial behind-the-scenes work with us — to become a positive force in the lives of their children and grandchildren.

Even in the first chapter of Jay’s new book, he mentions as an exception to his black hole theory the case of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.  In raising his son, “Senior” not only created financial boundaries for him and taught him important financial skills, he also

gave him space in his choice of career, his philanthropic efforts, and his decisions in raising his own children.  Nothing would have been easier for Senior — who was no shrinking violet — to dictate to his children where they should work, whom they should marry, and how they should raise their children.  But Senior did not do so.

The pattern modeled by Senior has become part of the Rockefeller culture and as a result, their family has escaped many of the ravages of other wealthy clans.

Change is possible, even for G-1’s!

I say, as advisors let’s study those cases and figure out how they happened, so we can catalyze those kinds of changes more often.

SunBridge 3-GEN Planning is built of this premise:  by engaging three generations together in the planning process, we can build a better plan.  I have found that, for the most part, grandparents love their children and grandchildren.  They see those children and grandchildren as a key — perhaps THE KEY — element of their dream and their legacy.  When a caring and patient advisor helps them see how their behavior may be damaging their legacy, most want to change and they become quite coachable. 

My view is that it is possible to not merely avoid harming the rising generation, but in fact to help them be better than they would have been.  Not only can we stop the damage, we can use the huge amounts of influence and wealth at our disposal to make exceptional leaps forward.  If we can channel the G-1’s gravity in ways that are positive and productive in the lives of the rising generation, we can make enormous changes all around.  

While I’m no rocket scientist or astrophysicist, I am aware of certain tactics in interplanetary travel that are metaphorically applicable to working with multigenerational families.  They’re called the gravitational slingshot technique and the powered gravitational slingshot technique

The gravitational slingshot technique uses the gravity of a planet or moon to change the speed and direction of a spacecraft traveling nearby.  In a typical example, a spacecraft being sent to a distant planet is aimed so as to fly close to a nearby planet or moon.  As the spacecraft passes near the moon or planet, that body’s gravitational pull flings the spacecraft at a higher speed and in a different trajectory toward the distant target.  In many cases the overall travel time is greatly reduced.

A powered gravitational slingshot is the use of a rocket engine at or around the closest approach to a planet or moon. The use at this point multiplies up the effect of the pull of gravity and creates an even bigger change of trajectory and velocity. 

The Voyager deep interplanetary probes are prime examples, as they used these techniques to change trajectories several times in the outer Solar System, and as a result, were able to go farther and faster than their own momentum would allow.

In the same way, the gravity of the G-1’s can be employed in a positive way to assist the growth and development of the G-2’s and G-3’s.

This is the potential of SunBridge 3-GEN Planning: to use the tremendous willpower and resources of the G-1’s as a source of positive energy in the lives of their children and grandchildren.  It requires a skillful advisory team and a certain amount of patience, but it is definitely possible.  When planning becomes something we do with our family, not to it or for it, it is possible to go “to infinity and beyond!”

Friday, July 11, 2014

3-GEN Planning and Transformation

In their groundbreaking book The Experience Economy, authors B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore pontificate at some length about how to turn work into theater and every business into a stage.  The aim, they say, it to give customers an exceptional experience.  In their “Progression of Economic Value,” creating experiences is “the fourth economy,” the first three being extracting commodities, making goods, and delivering services.

Yet in Chapter Nine they acknowledge that “Experiences are not the ultimate economic offering.”  Notwithstanding the title of their book, they recognize there is something even more valuable than creating client experiences: 

“Transformations are a distinct economic offering, the fifth and final one in our Progression of Economic Value.”

Pine and Gilmore cite a number of interesting examples of businesses already in the transformation business, including martial arts instructors.

Perhaps martial arts teachers are the first experience stagers to realize the transformational powers of their offerings.  Many parents allow, encourage, or even force their children to join such programs as karate, kung fu, and tae kwon do [because] they desire to instill the proper respect and self-control in their offspring.  Masters of martial arts promise not only to teach the skills of their ancient pursuits but to provide a set of rules by which students must live.  As the business manager of one such establishment declares, when parents come for enrollment they’re saying, “Fix my kid.” (p. 167, emphasis added)

The authors make a compelling case for moving toward the apex of economic value, the Transformation Economy.

While commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable, transformations are effectual.  All other economic offerings have no lasting consequences beyond their consumption.  Even the memories of an experience fade over time.  But buyers of transformations seek to be guided toward some specific aim or purpose, and transformations must elicit the intended effect.  And this change should be not just in degree but in kind, not just in function but in structure.  The transformation affects the very being of the buyer. (p. 172)

People value transformation above all other economic offerings because it addresses the ultimate source of all other needs: why the buyer desires the commodities, goods, services, and experiences he purchases. (p. 172)

With transformations, the customer is the product!  The individual buyer of the transformation essentially says, “Change me.”  The company’s economic offering is neither the materials it uses nor the physical things it makes.  It’s neither the processes it executes nor the encounters it orchestrates.  When a company guides transformation, the offering is the individual. (pp. 172-73, italics in the original)

Once the Experience Economy has run its course, the Transformation Economy will take over.  Then the basis of success will be in understanding the aspirations of individual consumers and businesses and guiding them to fully realize those aspirations. (p. 173, emphasis added)

So what does this have to do with SunBridge 3-GEN Planning?

SunBridge 3-GEN Planning addresses glaring weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the business models of estate planners and asset managers, namely that fact that 90% of multigenerational estate plans fail, as evidenced by the dissipation of the family’s wealth and the loss of family solidarity by the third generation, and the further fact that professional wealth advisors lose the management of their client’s assets upon the client’s death 98% of the time. 

The solution to these problems and the underlying premise of SunBridge 3-GEN Planning is a simple, readily-observable fact of human nature: PEOPLE BEHAVE BETTER WHEN THEIR GRANDCHILDREN ARE IN THE ROOM.

By including clients’ grandchildren in the estate planning or asset management process, SunBridge 3-GEN Planning can get grandparents and grandchildren (and of course the in-between generation, the children) working together, learning together, discussing together the big issues that should be talked about but usually aren’t.  Through this approach, we can overcome issues of secrecy and control and the objectification and infantilization of the clients’ children and grandchildren, troubling issues that have overshadowed the traditional planning experience and ruined it for everyone.  Involving all three generations together changes the planning experience entirely!

But beyond that, I have seen that having the grandchildren in the room creates a very real opportunity to transform the family.  If our clients are crying out in their hearts “FIX MY KIDS AND GRANDKIDS, PLEASE!” — and they usually are — the SunBridge 3-GEN Planning model creates an environment where real and lasting change can be effected.

I see this approach to planning as a grand opportunity for estate planners and financial advisors who want to be the catalyst for valuable and long-term transformation.  I have found great personal and professional satisfaction in facilitating significant shifts in family relationships and cultures and in helping clients navigate tricky business and family transitions. 

It requires a new mind-set, new skills, and new tools to operate in this environment, but most of those are already available through the SunBridge Network.  I invite you to join us in this work.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Beautiful Questions from SunBridge — A Whole New Breed of Workshop

I’ve long been a student of the art of great questions.  Several years ago I coined the term “Story-Leading Questions” to describe queries that lead to sharing narratives.  My friend and mentor Nancy Kline has taught me about what she calls “Incisive Questions,” and explained that “the human mind works best in the presence of a question.” 

Flying back recently from teaching a “Family Generosity Day” in Albuquerque, my good friend and multigenerational planning partner Mike Cummins introduced me to Warren Berger’s fascinating new book, A More Beautiful Question.  I just finished it and I highly recommend it

Berger’s most compelling achievement in the book is his description of the “Why — What If — How” sequence of questions.  He describes these three types of questions. 

Why? This question lets you confront a problem, articulate the challenge at hand, and try to understand it better. Why does a particular situation exist? Why does it present a problem? Why has no one addressed this problem?

What If? While why questions help us understand our present reality, what if questions help us envision what might be. What if I come at this problem from a different direction? What if I tried some combination of X and Y? What if I borrow an idea from an unrelated area?

How? Now you begin to turn speculation into reality. How questions tend to be practical and actionable. How can I get this done? How might I take the first steps? If my idea isn’t working, how can I figure out what’s wrong and fix it?

He employs a wide variety of examples to explain how innovators go through this three-question pattern on their way to breakout thinking.

As I read Berger’s book, I found myself in familiar territory.  Although I had never articulated what I had been doing like he does, I recognized the pattern from my own experience.  Here’s what I mean:

A.    Why?

At SunBridge, we provide training, tools, and support for two different but sometimes overlapping groups of professional advisors:  estate planners and asset managers.  For each group, I have been wrestling for years with a very troubling “Why” question that profoundly affects the long-term viability of their businesses. 

For estate planners, I’ve been wondering:

Why do 90% of multigenerational estate plans fail, as evidenced by the dissipation of the family’s wealth and the loss of family solidarity by the third generation?

This is a critical indictment of an entire industry.  If a surgeon told me that his surgeries were unsuccessful 9 times out of 10, I doubt I would go under the knife.  If a pilot told me there was only a 10% chance we would land safely at our intended destination, I absolutely wouldn’t get on the plane.  With those odds, no wonder most adult Americans have done no estate planning.

For asset managers, my “Why?” question has been:

Why do professional wealth advisors lose the management of their client’s assets upon the client’s death 98% of the time?

98% is about as close to ALWAYS as you can get.  I’ve told wealth advisors for many years, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that their most serious competitor is the undertaker — because Mr. Mortician will win 98% of the time.  With some $30 trillion shifting down through the generations in the next three decades, the success or failure of most asset managers will likely turn on how well they can swim upstream against that 98% current.

To me, these are life and death questions for these two industries.  Certainly the status quo is not acceptable.  Why does it have to be this way?  What can we do about it?

I’ve attended lots of high-powered conferences in which a bunch of very smart people spend days wringing their hands over these twin problems.  Unfortunately, nothing I’ve heard so far in the way of answers seems workable.  Most of the proposed solutions are just flat-out wrong, don’t go nearly far enough, or are much too unrealistic or esoteric to ever be implemented. 

On this subject, I agree with Dr. Seuss.  “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”  Notwithstanding all the conferences and all the books seeking to explain and answer those problems, I felt there was something really elementary that could fix both of them.  I asked myself, “What are we assuming that is stopping us from seeing the simple and obvious solution?”

That’s where, months before ever reading his book, I unwittingly employed Berger’s second step, the What-If question.

B.     What If?

As it turned out, to find that simple answer I knew was lurking just around the corner, all I had to do was ask myself a simple and obvious What If? question.  The answer was staring me in the face.

In my 62 years on the planet and my 35 years in the business, I have observed time and again that PEOPLE BEHAVE BETTER WHEN THEIR GRANDCHILDREN ARE IN THE ROOM.  

They are more kind.  They are less selfish.  They are more flexible.  They have greater patience.  They are more playful.  They have more energy and creativity.  They are more likely to forgive.  When grandchildren are in the mix, people take a more thoughtful and longer-term point of view.

They have more love.

And aren’t those the kinds of attitudes we want our clients to have when we’re working with them?

 Thus, I arrived at a simple and obvious question:

“What if advisors included clients’ grandchildren in the estate planning or asset management process?”

With that, my mind was off and running. 

I could see grandparents and grandchildren (and of course the in-between generation, the children) working together, learning together, discussing together the big issues that should be TALKED ABOUT but usually aren’t.  And who has more at stake in all of this than the children and grandchildren? 

It all seemed to fall into place. 

Finally, we could overcome issues of secrecy and control, the objectification and infantilization of the clients’ children and grandchildren, troubling issues that have overshadowed the traditional planning experience and ruined it for everyone.  Involving all three generations together could change everything!

And then in the midst of my euphoria, my mind landed on the third question:  “How?”

C.     How?

How, indeed!  How could advisors include grandchildren (and children) in the estate planning and asset management process?

What changes, large and small, would make a difference in the long-term success rate for multigenerational estate planning and multigenerational relationships for asset managers?

And that’s where the new SunBridge 3-GEN Planning Retreat fits into all this.

The SunBridge 3-GEN Planning Retreat in Orlando on June 26-27, 2014, will address those two worrisome problems faced by professional advisors: 

Why do multigenerational estate plans fail 90% of the time? 

Why do professional wealth advisors lose their clients’ assets-under-management business 98% of the time upon the clients’ death? 

It will next take up my “simple and obvious” What If? question:

“What if clients’ grandchildren were included in the estate planning or asset management process?”

Then we will pose the How? question and search for answers together. 

Professional advisors who are comfortable wrestling with difficult questions and probing for answers, not just being spoon-fed by the teacher, are encouraged to attend.

I have some ideas I intend to share during the workshop that involve using existing SunBridge tools like Priceless Conversations, Angels & Heroes, the Family Philanthropic Adventure, the Time to Think Council, and others to answer the How? Question.  We’ll experiment with them and learn from those experiences.

But beyond that, I think the roomful of advisors who will show up on June 26 and 27 in Orlando will create a far richer and more diverse set of answers than has ever been seen before. 

I think when we start thinking together about how to flesh out this 3-GEN Planning model, the sky’s the limit.

I trust that when the right people get together with a great set of beautiful questions, magic can happen.  Therefore, I have faith that lightning will strike in Orlando on June 26 and 27, 2014.

While SunBridge has a reputation for producing dynamic and eye-opening workshops, I believe this brand-new SunBridge 3-GEN Planning Retreat will set a new standard for energy and creativity.

If the idea of creating something amazing by working with an outstanding collaborative of very bright and engaged advisors appeals to you, I hope you will join us. 

What will you add to the creative chemistry of this gathering?  What answers will you help us discover that we wouldn’t find without you?  What breakthroughs will we achieve with you there?

This much I know for sure — it won’t be the same without you.

For more information please visit