Ideas & Debate

Dealing with an echo chamber in family business

echo
carol musyoka

Summary

  • An echo chamber is defined as an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.
  • You must have seen one of those in your work team meetings when the leader is talking with everyone nodding their head furiously at whatever he says and laughing uproariously when he cracks stale jokes about his mother in law.

An echo chamber is defined as an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.

You must have seen one of those in your work team meetings when the leader is talking with everyone nodding their head furiously at whatever he says and laughing uproariously when he cracks stale jokes about his mother in law.

Or maybe you’ve seen it in your family meetings, where a feared matriarch speaks. No one dares to contradict her edicts or opinions because doing so will destabilise the way things are done around here. Peace must be maintained. Even if she’s potentially leading everyone over a cliff into a deep abyss.

The danger of echo chambers is that without differing or dissenting opinions, the occupants of the chamber may fail to see potential danger in the horizon. Talent attrition brushed off as “anyway those guys were useless”, shifts in consumer tastes attributed to “those goods are cheap, our customers will be back” or worse still, family members who are suffering from mental health issues are labelled “just being spoilt”. These are some examples of blind spots that need to be called out by a brave, dissenting voice.

I have been getting a lot of queries recently from entrepreneurs curious about what a board can do for them. Let me start with a basic premise: you do not need to set up a statutory board which is where you appoint directors via the provisions of the Companies Act and have to register them at the Registrar of Companies.

You can start the gentler way, which is to set up an advisory board. This is a group of experienced people who have no legal affiliation to your company but who come together to sense check your strategy, your risk framework, your financial performance or your product proposition. They can do all of that or some of that. It’s entirely up to you, the business owner, to define what advice you want from them.

It’s also entirely up to you to determine how many times you want them to meet in a year, what information you want to share with them and what renumeration, if any, you want to pay them. But let me warn you that if you want to get talented individuals who don’t want to feel that their time is being wasted, be prepared to open up your operations for scrutiny, your financials for a thorough review and your strategy for an intensely deep interrogation.

You can create professional boundaries by ensuring you have a board charter that outlines what the role and the responsibilities of these advisory directors will be. Included in the board charter can be a non-compete clause which clearly states that an advisory director cannot enter into the same business line as yours, and if she does then this would be grounds for termination of the appointment.

You should also include confidentiality clauses to ensure that the information shared remains within the business confines and is not the subject matter of a discussion at a nineteenth hole somewhere on a Limuru golf course. The same should be replicated in an advisory director appointment letter which states the tenure of the directorship, let’s say three years, that may be renewed. It should also state the remuneration (if you want monkeys throw peanuts, so get serious about what you want to give as a sitting allowance) as well as have confidentiality and non-compete clauses, the latter of which should be grounds for termination if breached.

Bats send out ultrasound waves and use their echoes to identify the locations of objects that they can’t see. Which is why the euphemism “Blind as a bat” is quite oxymoronic because though blind, those critters fly around quite efficiently.

Your advisory board of directors will be your bats, to help you turn your business echo chamber on its head, helping you identify the potential stumbling blocks that you cannot see: Staff talent that needs to be rewarded better, succession planning that needs to begin happening, product features that are missing shifting market cues or market opportunities that are being left wide open.

Give some thought to opening up your business to new voices in 2022, it might bring a road to Damascus moment.

****

This is my 500th article in the Business Daily as The Nitpicker for the last 13 years. My many long suffering editors continue to give me a voice on this respectable forum, and to all of them I say ‘Asante sana!’