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The "G" Word: Creating and Managing Governance

An excerpt from the book “Effective Family Office: Best Practices and Beyond” 

by Angelo Robles

Some families shy away from the term “governance.”  It can bring to mind long lists of onerous rules, regulations and policies. But at its core, governance is nothing to be scared of—it’s really nothing more than a set of rules that define how an organization will make decisions, large or small. For governance to be effective, owners, overseers (the board of directors or advisors) and management must be informed; understand their respective roles, rights and responsibilities; and operate the organization accordingly. Once your SFO is established and your leadership team and people are in place, you’ll need to turn your attention to either creating or rethinking your governance.

Families of wealth need governance structures—such as a family council, family meetings and boards of directors—that determine who will be included in which decisions. Governance structures may also determine who will work with or at the family office, factoring in how the family wealth is owned (in varying trusts, operational companies and philanthropic foundations).

One of the most common reasons that SFOs fail is that they lack a defined family hierarchy for making decisions and don’t have direction and leadership within the SFO. A family with significant first-generation wealth has the clearest path to decision-making. The patriarch and/or matriarch call all the shots.

Legendary investor and founder of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, explains his approach to effective decision-making: “I believe that [the decision-making committee] should be an odd number and less than three.” That means one decision-maker: him. While the wealth creator is active, it may make sense for the founder to serve as chairman of the SFO and for the founder and his or her spouse to make the decisions.

As the family expands and rising generations come of age, the founding generation may lose interest, control or, eventually, become disabled and die. This complicates and often compromises decision-making. When the family encompasses many adult beneficiaries, benefactors and rising decision-makers, it’s time to establish a three-person family board and choose one of those board members to be the chairman and final decision-maker. It’s best to agree to a term limit for the board members and the chairman and to specify those limits in governance documents.


Each person in a large multi-generation family likely brings his or her own desires and conflicts. In-laws can further complicate family decision-making, as they can bring in potentially conflicting family cultures, values and beliefs.

A simple and clear path to decision-making about the direction of the SFO requires creating governance documents that outline guidelines, due process and a means to resolve conflicts. Governance and constitution systems vary from family to family. Some allow family members to elect the board members and the chairman. More consensus-centric families create an odd-numbered board with three or five, allowing majority votes to determine key directional decisions.

Governance has long been a focus of corporate investors, but until recently less attention has been paid to how SFOs are governed. An SFO that intends to serve a family for generations would be wise to encourage the family to develop and implement effective and appropriate family governance structures. Doing so can significantly improve the longevity and success of the office and the family it serves.

The SFO needs to clearly delineate how communication will flow amongst all interested parties.

This should be a collective effort marked by complete transparency and should focus on delivering excellence on the core goals of the SFO.


One of the challenges of SFO governance is that the needs of the organization may change radically over time—sometimes very suddenly. Governance structures must be robust yet flexible enough to withstand family conflict, generational transitions and cataclysmic changes in the investment environment, whether anticipated or unanticipated.

Commonly, a successful individual will create an SFO following a liquidity event of some sort. The founder will build the SFO structure to suit his own needs and interests. As with any business run by a controlling owner, there isn’t a great need for formal governance. At this stage, the owner is fully informed, understands the goals and objectives of the SFO, and handles the critical roles—ownership, stewardship, oversight and management—by themselves. Unless the controlling owner has a formal governance mindset, they generally will prefer to run the SFO “lean and mean,” without a lot of staff or formal structure, making decisions on the fly in accordance with their intuitive assessment of what’s needed at the moment. The controlling owner will often rely on a key advisor or staff member who knows how to implement the controlling owner’s plans, who understands what is needed and does whatever is necessary to make that happen. This sort of organic, first-generation governance generally works quite effectively, at least in the early years. The office runs, makes investments and provides other financial and non-financial services.

However, when the SFO comes to be managed for a wider group—typically, upon the controlling owner’s death, when the assets pass to descendants or trusts for their benefit—the absence of established, articulated policies creates a power vacuum. Without the founder around, suddenly no one really knows who’s in charge, what needs to be done, who’s responsible for doing it, or how that performance will be measured or compensated. If the members of the next generation haven’t been prepared for their new roles, there may be a struggle for dominance, or the opposite: fearing conflict, family members may simply abdicate. The SFO may slowly collapse, or a non-family member may come to fill the vacuum, for good or for ill.


Here are some of the more common types of governance structures that can help involve, educate and improve communications within wealthy families:


Family Board of Directors

Family participation on the board and in the chairman’s role can add value. These individuals should evaluate and vote on the SFO’s major strategic direction and policies.

Family Constitution

This is a document that expresses the family’s shared legal, financial, emotional and spiritual ideals, values and responsibilities: everything the family deems necessary to create and preserve harmony and health. This document can be drafted by the Family Council members, and then ratified by all adult family members.

Non-Family Family Advisory Board

This entity should be filled with non-family members—often CEOs of more significant businesses in a variety of industries. While advisory board members lack voting rights, they must aim very high and be paid to ensure that the SFO receives the widest possible range of perspectives.

Family Meetings

These events provide a time and place for the extended family to share information about the SFO’s progress, to educate younger family members about family wealth and values, to discuss family philanthropic direction, and to strengthen family bonds through fun activities.

Family council

Often, a group of family members, representing different branches and generations of the family, meet to discuss issues and concerns that impact the entire family, such as employment of family members, involvement of in-laws, educating the rising generation about family wealth, financial values, and shared vision and mission.

Family Committees

These involve engaged family members who embrace a deeper purpose than simply being a beneficiary-benefactor. Committees can be formed to focus on human, cultural and social capital. They should be inclusive and transparent. A tax committee, directed by the Chairman and/or CEO, can be comprised of family members as well as external (to the SFO) tax and legal professionals, who can offer shared ideas and resources to help the SFO achieve the best tax outcome for the family.


Strong governance structures ensure that the SFO operates in accordance with the family’s mission and values over multiple generations. The following are key types of governance activities that families can undertake, as needed:


Mission, Values, and Vision

The family has articulated its mission, values and vision for the future, and the strategic plan of the SFO is built around that core. What will be the purpose of this family office? To manage liquidity generated by the sale of a business? To oversee a portfolio of direct investments? To preserve a family legacy? And why does the family want to manage assets collectively? Families planning an SFO should take time at the outset to consider the purpose of the SFO and its role within the family.

Focused Mission Statement

Developing a short, focused mission statement to guide the work of the SFO will help to avoid “mission creep” in future years. The founders should resist drafting a mission statement that is high-minded but vague and short on specifics. A family office consultant can help a family mold its vision and values into a practical and useful tool to guide the work of the SFO.

Regular Meetings

There are regular owners’ and board meetings, with written agendas and complete minutes. Information necessary for effective decisionmaking is distributed well in advance of voting, and there is adequate time for discussion.

Board of Directors

The owners have appointed a board of directors and/or advisors to provide perspective, access to specialized experience/skills, and to discuss strategy and provide guidance. The board includes the family member chairperson, the CEO of the SFO and frequently three others non-conflicted in this capacity (five is commonly an optimum number, three tends to be too clubby).

Management Freedom

Management is free to implement the SFO’s strategy, without interference or meddling from the family or the owners; although they do need monitoring as to how well they are meeting goals.

Plan Beyond Investing

The SFO’s strategic plan goes beyond investing and includes education of family members, for example, to promote effective stewardship over the long-term.

Clear Performance Reports

SFO performance reports are clear, comprehensive and timely, so that decision-making can be based on accurate and complete information.

Rights and Responsibilities

The powers, rights, and responsibilities of owners, board and management are clearly spelled out and followed.


The CEO reports to the chairman. Simple. As with a public company, the chairman and the family board are responsible to the family for making sure that the SFO is serving its mission as best as possible. Aside from accepting direction, guidance and support from the chairman and the board, the CEO should limit distractions. Even from within the family there should be a protocol, in which the CEO submits monthly reports on progress toward goals and an overview of the finances of the SFO, ensuring complete transparency to all family members. There should be at minimum an annual meeting with all family members at which the CEO addresses the family, delivers his or her “state of the union” report, listens to all family members and answers all questions.

While the chairman must be accountable, accountability can have consequences: rifts can occur within the family; disgruntled family members can file lawsuits. It is often a thankless job for the family members in these roles. The more clearly the family can provide the CEO with a clear vision and the governance to achieve it, the better the chance the CEO and the SFO will successfully meet family goals at the highest of standards. Anything else is failure.

The family should create a streamlined process for family members to ask questions of the SFO leader outside of monthly updates and the annual state of the union addresses. A defined process can head off a constant barrage of questions and interruptions that distract the CEO from executing the family’s vision and goals. If family members disagree with direction or specific solutions and services, they can reach out to the chairman via a formal process for submitting a grievance, with a timeline for response. Many successful generational families and their SFO CEOs appoint an SFO contact, such as a chief of staff, to field questions and concerns.

Smaller families have a far easier time avoiding divisiveness. In larger families, it sometimes makes sense for dissenting family members to take control over their respective portions of the capital/resources to prevent their conflicting needs from damaging the SFO and allowing it to serve the rest of the family well. Dissenters may find that they can maintain healthy family relationships by breaking off from the SFO.

Whatever governance decisions your SFO makes, making it clear what those decisions are is the key to success. Without clear structure and rules, even the best CEO and staff can be gripped by indecision and become ineffective.