The Whiteboard Lessons We Learned from COVID-19: Starting Over with a Blank Slate

By Simon Powers

Working with Family Offices and operating a Family Office are challenging, even without the added pressure of global market volatility, pandemics and outside professional relationships. The global economic path prior to Covid-19 was headed in two different directions, and growing further apart daily. With the onset of Covid-19 the world came to a halt, as if Mother Nature had stepped in and declared that “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!” The consequence – a global shutdown.  Well for most of the world, except those parts of the world that decided to go against the political powers.

Covid-19 has affected all of us in one way or another. Our family office had seen the signs of a global shift in the second quarter of 2019 in some sectors, and as early as 2018 in others, and we observed the continuous decline until it fell off the current global cliff.  Many of the family offices we collaborate with are connected to the oil & gas, energy, hospitality and commercial/residential real estate industries; needless to say, these industries have been the most affected, with more volatility to come for months, if not for years. And so, we all ask ourselves the same question:  is this the disaster that will be the demise of the legacy our family offices have built over generations, OR an opportunity for our family offices’ future generations?

Let us choose this to be an opportunity to wipe out past bad behaviors, preserve what has been beneficial, and start with a clean whiteboard! Our future generations will look back on 2020 as the year our generation laid the new foundation for our single or multi-families’ futures. History has offered us few opportunities to redefine the world and humanity; 2020 is such a memorable moment in time. NOW WHAT? Now that we have a blank canvas, where do we start to make changes? Our wealth, expert knowledge, or long-term focus? As a family office, we are defined by our absolute discretion, the numerous emotions we have to consider, in addition to the care we exercise in determining whom we allow into our inner circle.  We are also acutely aware of the value of time, and the limited amount of it to advance our family’s legacy plan.

After three plus decades, our business, as with all family offices have seen many challenges:  like working with the market ups and downs, addressing needs and requests from family members, mourning those who have left us – as we all will and have experienced.  It is time to embrace the “reawakening” opportunity to create an innovative legacy, born from a transformation of our shared ideas to launch the new reality for our families.  So, what will your fresh and clean whiteboard start with?  Here are four words I have chosen that I would like to share with you.


A specific mission requires preparation. We can reflect on some of the maxims our parents, grandparents or mentors shared with us, and remember our responsibility to remain discrete yet accountable, whilst relating to others. My German/Native American mother consistently reminded me from age six, “Do not embarrass the family”. No pressure from that statement!

My German father had what I considered an easier system; he would ask me to retrace every step up to and include mistake taken.  This was done by writing down every stage leading to the point where I made the mistake, and then identify the exact mental moment which led me to turn left – the wrong choice – instead of turning right which would have been the better way.  Again, no pressure, right? This may be considered harsh in today’s environment, yet some of the best lessons I learned was from what I believe to be the two greatest parents a young person could ever have. They had their respective approaches founded on their understanding of what it meant to relate to others, and centered on what their families were most valued or concerned with. The trust others had for my parents was based on their credibility, and their empathy; the first word I would put on my blank canvas is Relating based a value system that can work for our new world and that can last over time like the values were from the last turn of the century – followed by Discovering.

Discovering: is the next logical – word – and step once we have established we can relate with a person(s), finding out more about them and uncovering opportunities. Another way to describe it would be due-diligence. “If you know the kind of person you are working with, you will know how to handle the adversity”, are the words my father shared with me when our family or individually went through difficult situations; identifying who we work with is of utmost importance. Are they analytical, drivers, expressive or amiable? They may have more than one of these traits, however one will always be dominant. Identifying the dominant trait is key to understanding the right questions to ask the person you are working with. This is critical in laying a solid foundation for growth, and finding others who have shared missions is always exciting and beneficial.  Using a “discovery lens” keeps us focused, receptive to what is being said, and find meaning in what is NOT being said.

I find myself smiling at how often I think back to what I learned from my family growing up in West Texas. It’s always my mom who stands out with her one liners, even to this day at 85 years old; it must have been her ranching heritage that created her all-natural style! When she found me not listening, or not paying enough attention to understand all that was being said, she would just remind me by saying “God gave you a brain, now use it”. My dad, who passed away 33 years ago, would weigh in by simply saying “Not a smart thing to do”. Do these words not ring true in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic? With the words Relating and Discovering on our white canvas, what is the next step? Natural it would be Advocating. By advocating we strengthen our knowledge that was gained from Relating & Discovering outcome.

Advocating: To advocate, the following needs to be recognized and understood:

  1. we have heard what is important;
  2. we have clearly shared each other’s concerns;
  3. a solution can be determined;
  4. a clear advantage is defined;
  5. the benefits are obvious, and there is clarity;
  6. the families have committed to the opportunity;
  7. collectively an action plan can be achieved

In summary, interests are aligned.

It would be rational to assume these were advocating points I learned from professors while going to college – NO! Again, I will state I had the best parents anyone could have. Mom’s form of advocating included what she thought was the best PhD I could ever earn; the ability to dig a post hole with my Post Hole Diggers aka my PhD.  There is nothing like building a fence, by hand, around a five-acre pin for the livestock under her command before and after going to elementary school!

Thankfully, when starting Jr. High at 12, we were promoted to working for dad who handled the school of life very differently; all he would do is stare at me with his bright blue eyes and stern rugged face. His stare was worth a thousand words, and it was all that was required to understand his expectations, and what needed to be done. By advocating we can establish a mutually beneficial value for all partaking family members.   With Relating, Discovering and Advocating now on our canvas, we have reached the light at the end of the tunnel, and can now Support decisions that will lead to positive shared realities.

Supporting: Ultimately, the additional effort required to build relationships with family offices is more than worthwhile. Family offices bring much more to the table; the power of a warm and collaborative environment, and a much broader network. Supporting a decision made collectively facilitates the management and implementation of the opportunities, makes answering questions a simple part of the process, and elevates relationships to a multi-generational span.

Is this the blueprint for the future? Let’s examine what families are doing for each other during the Covid-19 epidemic. I cannot remember a moment in my lifetime comparable to this pandemic, and odds are we will never again have the opportunity to be a part of the light at the end of the tunnel of such a magnitude.  The world is full of smart educated people, just ask them; intelligence is a commodity but integrity is not. Final words from my mom; “Never forget who your family is, and where you came from” and from dad; “We will all win together, no matter what position you’re playing on the team.”

Let’s discard the old, and bring in the new. Let’s fill our blank canvas with our “renaissance” painting.


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