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How parents can apply business principles to their brood

At work, you decide whether a project is worth investing in. At the bank, you ask if your mutual funds are paying a high-enough return. What if the same principle could boost your family life?

That's what two management consultants, Barbara Fagan-Smith and Lesli Gee, advocate in their new workbook, The Family ROI Experience: A Step-by-Step Guide to Realizing Your Best Family. Based on retreats and workshops the pair have conducted since 2005, the book outlines how parents can apply boardroom logic to their brood.

We spoke with Ms. Gee, a married mother of three, at her home in the San Francisco area.

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Why is the notion of "return on investment" a good one for parents?

Leaders of an organization always have to make choices about where they're going to invest their money and their resources. To make the best decisions, they're going to look at whether an investment produces the greatest return.

In the same ways, families invest their time, energy, love – sometimes it's deliberate, with intention – but sometimes it's unconscious. The question we're trying to help families answer is: Where does your family invest? And are you getting the return that you'd hope for?

So many times, people go home and they're exhausted and they're not bringing their best home; they're saving their best for work.

Or for other myriad things we fret about.

We wouldn't dream of being so passive in other areas of our lives. I've been planning a vacation for my family and I realize, "How much time have I spent looking for the right hotel online?" If we applied just some fraction of that to our family and to where we're heading as a group, it would be ideal.

Applying economics and business theories to life is an emerging trend. There was the book Spousonomics last year. What happened to good old self-help books?

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There are a lot of people who are already familiar with tools like ROI at work. When we read things in self-help books and present them to our partners, it feels kind of soft and fluffy. As an example, family meetings: Everyone has an experience with meetings at work, so it's not foreign. Same with visioning and something we call mission – where your family is headed. You develop a shared vision. Everyone has done this at work in some capacity. These are really just practical, concrete, usable tools that we find guys and girls both get.

In other words, the husbands are on board.

That's right: We get a lot of males who say they want to bring this home to their family.

And the kids are, to use business jargon, "stakeholders" too. That's a far cry from the old days when mom and dad were the bosses and the kids had no say.

When they don't have a voice, that's when you get resistance, people unengaged, it doesn't feel like a cohesive team any more. And who can blame them? Throughout the experience, we have things that kids of all ages can participate in.

What's the starting point?

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Communication is the foundation. It's the oxygen of every family. You can't do the rest of the stuff unless you have the tools to communicate with each other. How do you communicate clearly and compassionately with one another? Focus on needs. Everything anyone does is to meet needs. So when your child is screaming, don't talk to them about the screaming part. What do they need? When we can understand what someone needs rather than what they're doing wrong, it helps the conversation to be much more open. We also talk about practical tools, like family meetings. It's different for everyone. Some people commit to family dinner, others say bedtime is the time to connect.

So I don't have to use the talking stick you recommend? It's so 1970s.

It really is about finding something special and unique for your own family. You really can pick and choose. One family told me they bought a pool table when their kids were little and that's where they find all their conversations are happening with their teenagers. That's where the kids open up. For them, a family meeting wouldn't work.

You also use some cartoon animals: a jackal and a giraffe. What do they represent?

The jackal is criticizing, aggressive, attacking – it symbolizes that part of us that is mean. Language like, "You never do this," or, "You should pick this up," and, "Why do you always …?" or, "Why can't you be like your sister?" The giraffe, on the other hand, is a symbol of compassion. It has one of the largest hearts of land mammals. And it's tall – it can see all the other perspectives. And has big ears. So we ask families, "Is this a jackal statement or a giraffe statement?"

Another area you discuss is "culture." Is that like creating a brand for your family?

All organizations have a culture. I ask people, "What's your favourite airline, gym or company?" People say Apple or Amazon, Coca-Cola. They think about what that brand means to them. A family has a culture too. It drives so many things. What your family believes in. How your family behaves. What's okay and not okay to do. Companies spend a lot of time and money on shaping their culture because they know it's a big deal. But families don't and when behaviour starts to flare up in a certain way, it's because they haven't talked about what their culture should be.

Can you give me an example?

My daughter, when she was 7, was invited to a birthday party that made us stop and talk. It was a makeover party and they were going to do makeup and everything to transform into something else. For our family, it didn't feel right. It didn't fit with our values that we'd laid out when she was about 3. So I asked her, "Do you think this fits with our values?" And she said, "No." And I said, "Let's still go buy her a gift and we'll meet with her after school or something. But I don't think we can go to the party." And she agreed.

So, no massive fight?

It doesn't have to be a big fight in the moment. And it can be fun to figure out your family's values. We make it a card game where kids sort them. It helps kids understand this isn't just about now, it's about the rest of your life; you're going to have to make choices and decisions: What compass are you going to use?

What could it mean if more people did this? Less divorce? Fewer troubled kids?

I think so. We feel like the family is an integral part of society, regardless of what the family looks like. It's two or more people sharing their lives. There's a lot of pain in this world and part of it is because people have forgotten their power to shape a life they truly desire. The family is this perfect little unit to help propel you to that future.



This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More

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