Contingency Planning: Keeping the rug firmly under your family’s feet

Contingency Planning

A recent New York Times article about one woman’s reaction and eventual response to being completely unprepared for her young husband’s unexpected death, reminded me that while change is constant, some changes are completely life altering. When death or catastrophic illness suddenly occurs, change can have a devastating impact as it exposes an unprepared family’s financial, structural and emotional risks.

Chanel Reynolds’ struggle to put her family’s financial house back into order is an inspiring story (A Shocking Death). While I read about the website she created to share what she learned with others, I vividly recalled the huge shock my family experienced when my father died suddenly of a heart attack at age 46.

I was in my first year of college, far away from my family when my father’s death pulled the emotional and financial rug out from under me. I not only had to deal with the pain and sorrow of losing my father, I also had to take immediate responsibility for paying for my college education.

My father’s death not only changed my life, it helped define my career. Over time, I recognized I had a strong need and desire to prepare against having the rug pulled out from under me again. Like Ms. Reynolds, I quickly learned about the power and effectiveness of contingency planning. Most notably, the sudden shock of my father’s death led me to focus my business on creating tools and processes for helping entrepreneurial families manage change strategically and through contingency planning.

The members of entrepreneurial families (and their advisors) typically make at least one of the following assumptions about preparing for unexpected change, like sudden death or catastrophic illness:

  • It is nearly impossible since the change and the time of potential occurrence are unexpected and unknowable.
  • It causes too much emotional distress by forcing people to focus on unpleasant possibilities.
  • It takes away from the focus on what can be anticipated.

In my experience, all of these assumptions are false and can be addressed through regular contingency planning activities conducted by the business’s board of directors, the owner family and their advisors.

Preparing the business or the family in isolation isn’t enough. For families in business together, planning for either the sudden or inevitable death of its founder or current leader is complex and easy to put off. I have learned that adapting the concept of a fire drill to my clients’ specific needs helps them focus on this painful topic, one step at a time.

Just as fire drills help people develop the processes and skills essential for surviving a potentially deadly emergency, the Fire Drills we developed help entrepreneurial families address and prepare for pivotal trigger events. By exploring how participants react to these events, Fire Drills act as a conflict-mapping tool by exposing, clarifying and addressing the assumptions, fears, tension, family dynamics, and taboos that surface when significant change occurs.

Taking a cue from Ms. Reynolds’ generosity, we’ve created a free self-assessment to help you rate how well you are prepared to manage change. Click here to gain access to it.

You can also try Fire Drills on your own by visiting Cambio Press. There you’ll find tools like our Think Ahead CDs and a do-it-yourself Sudden Death Fire Drill for capturing essential information your loved ones, business managers and advisors will need to assess the impact of sudden death and support effective decision-making in its aftermath.

We generally operate on the assumption the world will continue the way it is right now. We think our loved ones will always be alive and we will have time in the future to deal with everything. We believe there is a more-or-less predictable sequence to life and if we just follow our noses and meet all the challenges, we will find the answers at the end of the road.

Do not make this assumption; life does not always follow any sort of predictable order. The longer we live without facing any obstacles, the harder we will fall when something unexpected pulls the rug from under our feet.