This article was originally published in FOXConnects. You can download a PDF version of this article here: Advice From A Filmmaker.
I spend much of my professional time working out of my right brain – aka the artistic side of our craniums. When I walk into wealth advisory forums, I immediately notice something: I stick out like a sore thumb. Most of the advisors deal in the realm of numbers, investments, strategy, and business. All good stuff and all fairly foreign to me. At first, I wondered if I should I read up on annuities. After dozens of conversations with family members and advisors, I have surmised that it is best that I leave annuities to the experts and instead provide hard-hitting advice garnered from the world of filmmaking.
My profession provides me with the opportunity to creatively collaborate with some of the most thoughtful and financially successful families in the world. As a legacy filmmaker floating in a sea of tax attorneys, wealth consultants, and risk strategists, I’ve learned that the techniques I use in my work can be applied to a whole host of settings.This is my attempt to translate some right-brain know-how on the art of multi-generational connection for application in a left-brain playing field.
Tip #1: Forget the Questions and Listen
When I first begin working with a family on a film project, someone invariably asks me about my interview questions. How do you come up with your questions? Could you send them to me? In your role, whatever it may be, you probably feel it’s pretty smart to arrive at meetings prepared. You likely bring specific questions to guide a conversation. I’m here to urge you to do just the opposite. Come with a blank mind. Lose your list of questions.
The point of a conversation is to share ideas. Through sharing ideas, we open the door to connection. Connection builds trust and can be revealing – offering the opportunity for progress of thought. If you come to a conversation with strong opinions and a rigid list of questions, you’ve cut things off at the pass. Instead: listen. As much as you can bear it, come to family meetings, especially ones that include multiple generations of your family, with a beginner’s mind. Bring your full, undivided attention to the doorstep of others in the room. This is a new approach that will, no doubt, catch everyone off guard. At least two things will happen when you do this:
1. Critical information may come to the fore that your questions would never have elicited.
2. The person you are listening to will feel respected.
If you are the “wealth builder,” you might be looking down the barrel of succession planning. You need at least one or two of your rising gen to step up to the plate. If you are an advisor facilitating a meeting around a succession plan, you need a clear and powerful consensus to build that strategy. All of this requires trust and connection. There will be plenty of time for your lists of ideas. Your invaluable experience will be sought out. But first, you must be present and be quiet. See what reveals itself. Nothing could be more important than hearing the deepest underpinnings of familial concerns before making a business move.
I won’t lie to you, the whole “waiting quietly” business can be awkward at times. And furthermore, it can feel like you aren’t doing much. That’s hard for a Type A person. But take a deep breath and give it a go. In my work of documenting family stories, I frequently depend on this technique to extract the best material from whomever I am recording.
If you have established trust with your kids, take out your “be quiet / open mind” tool. And, if you don’t have much trust established with your kids, I would urge you to sharpen that tool like your legacy depends on it.
Tip #2: Have Fun
Mitzi Perdue approached me during a conference focused on family enterprise and we eventually built a substantial connection around one important question: “What makes a family stick together?” Mitzi is the widow of the late Frank Perdue (the poultry magnate) and the daughter of Ernest Henderson, co-founder of the Sheraton Hotel Chain. Mitzi has a deep understanding of how to create and sustain a successful family business. How I interpret it, Mitzi recognizes the power of facilitating parallel play.
“Family vacations are time apart from day-to-day business and normal family affairs. It’s a special time,” Mitzi said during a session I attended where she spoke on the topic of How To Make Your Family Business Last. When we are enmeshed with our loved ones in financial affairs and spend substantial time in serious discussions that make us want to tear our hair out, we need opportunities to connect over fun experiences. The younger people in your family need to be integrated and appreciated for their tremendous potential. For some reason, it can be difficult to see that in a boardroom.
When I first meet with a family, they ask me, How long do book projects usually take? and What’s a reasonable timeline to expect for this film? Great questions. I have answers to these questions. The more important issue, however, is one that many people miss. The time spent collaborating on a family project is parallel play, the same vacation concept Mitzi campaigns for in her books. If family members enjoy being around one another, if they can bear to be in the same room with each other, they are better set up to attack the nitty-gritty details of shared assets, governance, and tax options. So, maybe a film about the family’s history or a multi-generational family vacation to the Dolomites seems like a luxury, but if it gets your Paul talking to your Paulette, we’ve solved a big problem, haven’t we?
This concept of parallel play – where people vacation/creatively collaborate adjacent to one another – is a human skill mastered as early as our first birthday. We humans inherently know how to do parallel play. What’s missing is the invite. I’ve seen 30-year-olds to 90-year-olds work on family legacy projects with me and find new interest in one another and their shared identities.
If you want your kids to care about financial education or what it means to take over the reigns, try my advice: intentionally start with fun experiences that connect you.
Tip #3: Have a Great Opening Sequence
In creating a book or a film about a person’s life story or a broad family history, it is critical to invest considerable thought into the book’s cover or a film’s opening sequence. The first pages of a book or first 15 seconds of a film should communicate to the audience this is going to be interesting. The opening sequence should intrigue the audience. It should create a question that must be answered.
Engaging children is not so different. You likely imbue fun into your day-to-day interactions with your family, but many of us drop the ball when we move into the affairs of a family office. It becomes all business. “We must accomplish x, y, z.” Approaching the younger generation with this sober tone might suit the central work at hand, but it is a terrible opening sequence.
When working with families, I am charged with creating a compelling narrative that delivers a meaty message. The creative problem is how to draw the audience to that message. Mystery, color, emotion, humor. These are openers than get my viewers to the first act. Invest considerable time reflecting on an opening sequence that makes your loved ones wonder: what’s the bigger story here? There are consultants aplenty who can teach your kids about investments. Your job is to set things up like the master film director that you are.
The importance of connecting with your children, whether they are ten years old or sixty years old, never diminishes. The investment you make in them comes back ten fold in the family office setting and in innumerable, intangible ways in your life with them. Start with a beginner’s mind. Leave your old opinions at the door. Create opportunities for connection. Send out the invites. Concern yourself with how to craft a great opener to the story of their success.
This article was originally published in FOXConnects. You can download the article here: Advice From A Filmmaker.