Like something out of an episode of Succession, reputation issues faced by HNW families are often linked to a lack of common purpose. Matthew Fleming, the head of family governance and succession at Stonehage Fleming, tells Rory Sachs how families can avoid these concerns
The pandemic has been good for some of the world’s richest people, as stock markets around the world have rallied, helping to increase the paper wealth of the already wealthy. But the past couple of years have not always been plain sailing for HNWs. Isolation, confinement during lockdowns and an increasingly divided, hostile public mood have forced many to question themselves, their values and the way that other people see them.
However, of the families surveyed by Stonehage Fleming before the pandemic, around half said that they had no formal process for discussing their reputation – and therefore no way of easing such anxieties.
Stonehage is best known as a provider of family office services and for advising its clients on matters financial. But its remit doesn’t end there, says Matthew Fleming, the firm’s head of family governance and succession (pictured). ‘We often have tears in our meetings – of happiness, frustration. There’s a lot of emotion in what we do.’
Fleming, who played cricket for England and is the great-nephew of James Bond author Ian Fleming, explains that the reputation issues faced by many HNW families can often be traced back to a lack of alignment about their ‘purpose’. Members of different generations often hold different views about the way things should be done and the very public arena of social media can be an outlet for these differences to emerge. Fleming recounts one cautionary tale in which a younger member of a family was publicly hounded over a photo of a lavish bash on a yacht at a time when the family’s wider business was experiencing considerable financial difficulties and laying off staff.
‘A lot of families we’ve talked to will engage their children and try and agree a social media policy,’ he says, noting that it’s common to identify some ‘no-go’ subjects and some types of image that should never be posted. ‘And, in fact, it’s not a bad way for families to start the conversation [about purpose].
‘Purpose is so important, because it adds a narrative to all your decisions,’ says Fleming. He encourages family members, individually at first in a ‘safe, trusting place’, to share their ideas about how they can do good in the world, in the hope these can coalesce into a shared vision.
Fleming finds that family members in their teens and 20s – who understand and experience the ramifications of social media in a unique way – often experience guilt as ‘a very powerful emotion’. But he finds that the more families engage in the process, and actively seek to understand each other’s positions, the more forgiving they are – of each other, and themselves. ‘What we see is a huge sense of relief across the family, that they’ve all been given a chance to say stuff that they’ve wanted to say, a great sense of gratitude by both generations that we’ve helped uncork the bottle – and a renewed optimism in the future.’
It can be a complicated, lengthy process, but reaching a consensus about what a family is ‘for’ serves as a foundation – for building better relationships within the family, as well as with the wider world. As a result, Fleming says, outward appearances and activities on social media quickly become part of ‘a much more sensible, consequential conversation’.
Image: Peter Kramer/HBO