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The unique ability team behind your enterprise

When we established The Family Enterprise Office, we based deployment of our services on the concept of "Unique Ability." There are, at the start, three people involved in the company – Amelia Renkert-Thomas, Lee Ann Bareswilt, and me.  We expect over time there will be more.  Regardless of how large the company will become, we divide the work of the business according to each person’s Unique Ability.  We recognize not everyone is perfect at everything – and we see this as an advantage, not a drawback.  It means if we arrange our work according to what each person does exceptionally and uniquely well, we will have built a company that capitalizes on unique assets.  We will have anchored the capital of the business on the unique contributions of the people who work in it.  We will have created real value for the families we help.

Does your enterprise run this way?  What value could your enterprise create if it did?

In order to see whether your business is organized this way, first understand what we mean by Unique Ability.  Unique Ability has four characteristics:

  1. it’s superior ability that other people notice and value;
  2. the person loves to use it and wants to use it as much as possible;
  3. it’s energizing for the person and those he or she encounters;
  4. the person keeps getting better at using it and never runs out of possibilities for growth [1]

Using your Unique Ability involves more than doing an excellent job. Unique Ability goes far beyond being excellent at something. A person can display excellence but not love to do the job. A person can lack passion for the job.  Such a person may end up asking himself or herself, "Is this all there is?”

So back to the question: does your enterprise run based on Unique Ability? I ask this because in our line of work, we encounter families who must tackle issues such as who is going to do what, who is going to be responsible for what, who is going to decide who is doing a good job, and how compensation for doing a good job will be determined. We run into problems such as parents who hand down positions and job titles without considering whether they fit a child’s Unique Ability, extended families whose financial well-being depends on the dedication of a family CEO whose work is excellent but does not reflect the CEO’s Unique Ability, siblings who are directors of the company but never have real board meetings, family businesses where there are no criteria for hiring and promoting family members, and compensation plans that do not correspond to a person’s use of Unique Ability in performing a job.     

To be clear, a family enterprise can operate effectively for a long time without intentionally inventorying the Unique Abilities of family members involved in the business. A family’s natural way of making decisions about its assets may not explicitly pay attention to the concept of Unique Ability. But eventually, the business becomes more complex, the family becomes larger in number, and the old ways of “how we do things around here” do not work as well as they used to. This is typically the time people call us for help.

Is it possible to gain insight into these problems by thinking of them in terms of Unique Ability?

We think it is. A family’s intellectual and human capital is more important than its financial capital for how the family weathers the passage of time. Often who is in the family is more important, for successful growth of the family’s assets and the development of each family member in life, than what the family owns. A family’s core capital consists of intellectual, human, and social assets as well as financial ones. How to make the best use of financial assets over time depends on decisions informed by the intellectual and human capital the family brings to bear. And where human beings are involved, Unique Ability comes into play.

We don’t claim Unique Ability is a magic potion that replaces the need for sound business strategy, knowledge of markets, use of technology, and reliable accounting. We do claim Unique Ability is a uniquely useful concept for figuring out what hand the family has been dealt when it comes to people – both family and non-family who work in the enterprise. Families who wish to keep their enterprises family-owned need to know whom they have available to them, and what unique abilities those people have.  Arranging the enterprise so each person spends the predominant part of the day working out of his or her Unique Ability results in a firm that creates unique value. This is the best sort of advantage for a family enterprise.

[1] See Unique Ability 2.0: Discovery, by Catherine Nomura (2015).  “Unique Ability” is a registered trademark of The Strategic Coach, Inc., which publishes Ms. Nomura’s book.