Who’s Honking That Horn? August 2021
A young couple moved from New York to Arkansas due to a company reassignment. They decided to buy a small farm so they could raise pigs and feel a part of their new community. As this was a completely foreign and new undertaking, they found a neighboring farmer and purchased five pigs. They made their selection, loaded the five pigs into the back of their truck and took them home.
After two weeks they wondered why none of the pigs were producing baby pigs, so they went back to the farmer and complained. The farmer explained that all the pigs they had selected were sows, that is females. They needed a boar to mate with the sows. The farmer said, “Tomorrow morning load your five pigs in your truck and bring them to my farm and I will put them in the pen with my boar then come back in two days to pick them up and take them home.”
Another couple of weeks goes by, the young man checks their herd every morning to see if any of the pigs are pregnant. None are, so he loads them in the truck again and drops them off at the farmer’s farm. Two more weeks goes by and still no luck. He loads them in the truck again and takes his five sows to spend time with the boar. This goes on every two weeks for three months.
At this point the young man is discouraged and disillusioned about raising pigs. One morning they wake up to the sounds of pigs squealing loudly and wildly and something like a horn honking. Thinking the excitement might be the birth of a piglet, but not wanting to be disappointed again, he asks his wife to go the window to see what is happening. He questions, “Do we have any piglets yet?” She responds, “No, but four of the pigs are already in the back of the truck and the fifth is in the passenger seat honking the horn.”
Hopefully I got a little chuckle. What in the world does this joke have to do with wealth and families? The answer is the importance of managing expectations. No one told the young couple that the gestation period for a pig is about 114 days, and not to expect signs of pregnancy until the end of that period, and those pigs are going to be really disappointed if the trips to the neighboring farm stop. A primary factor of destroyed relationships, whether in families, business, or any relationship involving two or more people; is individual expectations have not been properly managed.
Trust and communication are inseparable. We have all been the recipient or perpetrator of saying or hearing a promise to do something only to be disappointed, so from then on, we do not trust or are not trusted. In such cases, even though we were not focused on our interests and did nothing evil; we just didn’t communicate well, so our expectations and the other person’s expectations were not aligned. We did exactly, at least in our minds, what we said we would do. However, the other people had different perspectives and images of the anticipated outcomes, so trust was lost. No one did anything wrong. It was just a misunderstanding!
A misunderstanding may be relatively easy to correct if handled immediately and not repeated. But if these “misunderstandings” keep being repeated they become a problem. A simple example is the difference between “attention” and “intention.” The latter is what we tell others when we have failed to meet their expectations. Dad intended to make it to his child’s soccer games but didn’t. Daughter intended to call Mom on her birthday but got busy and time slipped away. The soccer child and the birthday mom will graciously accept those “intentions” a few times, but when they become a habit, the child and mother will learn that person’s promises cannot be trusted. Attention is what they enjoy when their expectations have been met. In other words, “attention” turns “intention” into “fulfilled expectations.” In my example of the dad and soccer child, the dad could have paid attention to his calendar and commitments and blocked out time for his child’s game or re-arranged his calendar to make time. He could also not accept phone calls after a certain time so as not to be delayed. “Attention” requires setting priorities.
In order to manage expectations successfully we must be good listeners and learn to parrot what we heard and require the other person to do the same. A simple question like, “What did you hear me say,” or saying “Here is what I heard you say” can ensure everyone is on the same page and clearly understands what to expect from each other. Assuming you heard what you thought you heard or that the other person heard what you intended them to hear is the classic “When you “assume” you make an “ass (in the animal sense) of “u” and “me.” “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. If one gives an answer before he hears, it makes him foolish and ashamed.”[i]
Hypothetical example: The Jones family has a successful family business in which three children are involved and two are not. Dad told the five as a group, “Some day you children will own this business.” What did each child hear and what could be each child’s expectations? Some may have heard opportunity while others may have heard “ball and chain” or having to take responsibility for something they do not want to be responsible for. On a one-on-one basis, dad told each of the three involved children “You will be a leader in the family business when I’m gone.” Do all three now have an expectation of being the next CEO? What dad meant was each would be a leader in their respective roles, not necessarily “the” CEO. How will the two not selected respond if and when the other one fills that position? What if dad fills it with a non-family person. If one of the non-involved children overheard dad’s comment, did that child hear “I will never have a chance to be involved,” or interpret it as “dad has his favorites and I’m not one of them since I do not want to be in the business.”
Problems around mismanaging expectations are magnified when it comes to estate planning. I find it baffling that so many parents keep their estate plan a secret from their children. They excuse it with “I don’t want my kids to know how much they will inherit because it will dis-incentivize them.” In what way? If the theory is they will not work to become self-reliant guess what; once they get their hands on the money not only will they not work, but they will spend through their inheritance as fast as they can. Not telling them will not change the person they are or make them more responsible and wiser.
I can assure you that in every family every child has very different expectations of what is fair. The reason parents keep it a secret has nothing to do with dis-incentivizing the children and everything to do with parents not wanting to face the consequences of attempting to manage everyone’s expectations while they are alive, so they choose to let the children, with their respective attorneys, battle it out after they (the parents) are gone. Not dealing with each person’s individual expectations while everyone can be around the table will not make problems magically go away when the parents’ chairs are vacated.
If they know what to expect, might they pursue opportunities now they would otherwise miss because they fear not having the resources to sustain their lifestyle and family later in life? Would they try new things, take greater risks to succeed, get an advanced degree or multiple degrees, be more philanthropic and do more volunteering, start or buy a business, have more children, move to a better environment, become a missionary, priest, or pastor, operate a hospital or school in a poor area, and the list goes on?
Expectations can be good or bad (see my Toxic Gifts article). Expectations are the result of conditioning. If children are taught to be responsible, productive, and self-sufficient and to be rewarded for those traits they learn to expect success, happiness, confidence, and self-worth. If they have been conditioned to expect handouts, entitlement, and dependency; they will be unproductive, unhappy, fearful, and have low self-esteem,.
The solution to managing expectations and achieving the greatest probability of unifying and strengthening a family and a business is simple in concept, difficult in execution. I have said it repeatedly, good and frequent communication will increase clarity and understanding so there can be no misunderstanding of what is expected of everyone and what everyone can expect from the family and its members, and in the business from owners, management, and employees.
That brings us back to the differences between “intention” and “attention.” Attention requires a massive amount of time, dedication, commitment, patience, compassion, vulnerability, and follow through. More importantly, it requires love, the attitude of caring more about others and what they need and want and less about yourself. Young lovers spend hours trying to learn what will please their partner because they understand they benefit from meeting that person’s expectations. They marry, have children, then work and activities reduce the time spent with each other and communication suffers. They no longer understand what the other expects or how to manage those expectations. At the business everyone is so busy no one stops to ask if other’s expectations are being met and, if not, what are their expectations and how can they be met? A good marketing plan discovers customers’ expectations to increase sales, yet a business’, and a family’s most important asset, its people, are never asked about their expectations.
Families and businesses can be dispersed around the globe, but with cell phones, computers, and Zoom capabilities there is really no excuse for poor communications. Families come together for birthdays and holidays, businesses have director’s meeting, sales meetings, and financial reviews; so why not have regular and frequent “Expectations” meetings where the purpose is to uncover all the conflicts, needs, wants, desires, and dreams of each person so they can be addressed now when something can be done rather than when it is too late to avoid problems and unmet expectations?
Now that you have finished this article, send an email or text to every family member who needs to attend, explaining you would like to institute a regular (frequency and timing is up to the family) “Expectations” meeting. If you own a business do the same, starting with the ownership (include children who will eventually be owners) then do the same with the management team, then each manager does the same with his or her department heads, and the department heads would do the same with their staff/employees.
Finally, dad and mom need to resurrect their estate documents and bring all the children into the room to review them and solicit their reactions to determine if their expectations will be met. That goes both ways, the parents learn if their plans will meet the children’s expectations, and the children can demonstrate how they will meet their parent’s expectations when the family wealth transitions to them. Not doing so leads to; “What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the . . . desires [expectations] . . . within you? You want what you don’t have [what you expected to have], so you scheme . . . to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them.”[ii]
You might be surprised what you learn when you encourage honking horns!
[i] The Bible; James 1:19, NIV; Proverbs 18:13, NLV
[ii] The Bible, James 4:1-2; NLT
Kip Kolson is the president of Family Wealth Leadership, a multi-family office and family coaching firm, and author of You Can Have It All; Wealth, Wisdom, and Purpose—Strategies for Creating a Lasting Legacy and Strong Family.