Courtney Pullen PicSome families find a way to have a successful family business integrated with their successful family.  Many more families never get close to this outcome.  Today we’re going to talk with Courtney Pullen from Pullen Consulting.  He’s written a book title Intentional Wealth where he helps us understand what makes successful families different.

There really are things you want to pay attention to when you try to integrate your family and business.  In today’s podcast here are some of the things we’ll be talking about:

  • What are the traits of successful families who integrate family and business health.
  • Why you need to understand how family circles overlap with business circles.
  • How communication as boring as it might be is the key to successful families.
  • Why being intentional about building a family legacy helps make a successful multi-generational family.
  • What the difference is between I language and you language.  In other words talk about how you feel and not how they feel.


Narrator:         Welcome to the Sustainable Business Radio Show podcast where you’ll learn not only how to create a sustainable business but you’ll also learn the secrets of creating extraordinary value within your business and your life. In the Sustainable Business, we focus on what it’s going to take for you to take your successful business and make it economically and personally successful.

Your host, Josh Patrick, is going to help us through finding great thought leaders as well as providing insights he’s learned through his 40 years of owning, running, planning and thinking about what it takes to make a successful business sustainable.

Josh:                Hey, how are you today?

Today, I am very excited. My guest is Courtney Pullen. Courtney is an advisor to really, really successful families and families in business. I’ve known Courtney for—oh gosh, probably seven or eight years and I’m really excited to have him on the show today. I’ve got to tell you, he’s one of the best teachers I’ve had the pleasure of learning from. I always find his explanations of really complicated issues, one that everyone can easily understand and I’m hoping you will too. Courtney is the author if Intentional Wealth: How Families Build Legacies of Stewardship and Financial Health. We’re going to get into some meat about his book and find out what is Intentional Wealth and how do we handle that.

So, let’s bring Courtney in.

Hey, Courtney, how are you today?

Courtney:        I’m doing great, thank you very much.

Josh:                I’m really happy to have you with us today.

So let’s start out, Courtney. What makes a successful family in business and what kind of traits do they have?

Courtney:        Well, Josh, when you ask me that question, I go back to a diagram that we’re all very familiar with but I’ll kind of start the conversation, thinking about it a little bit differently. The classic family business diagram is of three overlapping circles. So you’ve got (1) what are the needs of the business, (2) what are the needs of the family, and (3) what are the needs of the ownership group. And really, that’s the essence of business consulting, it is how can you attend to the very different and sometimes competing needs of a family – and a family that’s in business together. I add a fourth circle to that diagram and that is the need to being individuals. So what makes for, in my mind, the traits of a successful family business or a family that’s sharing an enterprise together, in some way, is their attending to those four different circles.

Now, sometimes, maybe let’s say the ownership circle isn’t relevant to a family enterprise but it is to a family business and so forth. So, when you look at that, the positive traits, they’re attending to those needs. Another one that is very high on the list is—and this sounds boring. I know but it’s effective communication. When you look at the research for the number one reason for failure in family businesses, it’s because of poor communication. So, if we, as advisors, can be steering family businesses together to really help them having more effective communication.

And Josh, what I mean by that, I don’t mean to make it sound touchy feely. It’s just that they are open in their communication. They handle their differences and their disagreements rather than kind of pushing them to the side. I see that as probably the biggest threat to a family or a family business is the habit that we can all have in our culture of avoiding talking about difficult issues. So, it’s a willingness to put the issues out on the table, around fairness or equality, raising kids, what to do with the business? What to do with the wealth? What to do with these step kids or in-laws? All those stuff that can trip us in families, it’s just the willingness to talk about it.

Another trait that really comes to my mind and I’m kind of maybe making a plug for my book, Intentional Wealth, that when I was interviewing families that it made a pass at that proverb of ”from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations.” They kept talking about, in my interviews, were very intentional about building a legacy, about being successful. We put as much energy into building a healthy family culture that we have into building a healthy bottom line for the business. So Josh, that’s off the top of my mind – the characteristics that are really jumping out of me.

Josh:                So, if your family and you’re in business together, talking about tough subjects can always be a hard thing to do, what kind of recommendations do you have for folks to do that?

Courtney:        It really goes back to—I’m showing my age along with you because you’re going to know what I’m saying here about “wax on, wax off” from the old classic movie the Karate Kid.

Josh:                Okay.

Courtney:        It’s really dealing with communication basics using “I language” rather than “you language”, like blaming you for how I’m feeling. So, it’s taking ownership of my feelings. It’s using I messages that I’m the one that’s feeling this way. I’m the one that’s feeling some frustration and communicating fundamentally true purpose.

                        Communication tends to default, most of the time, to what I call “convinced conversations.” One family member tries to convince the other family members that they’re right and they’re wrong – that the other person is wrong. So, if a shared purpose can be identified earlier in a conversation then we can calm down that reptilian brain that we all have and really engage that prefrontal cortex into “What does really matter here fundamentally? What is our shared purpose?”

And then the other adage that comes to my mind, that’s ancient adage is, “First seek to understand.” That in these conversations that I refer to again as “convinced arguments” that we really take the time to take a breath, get control of your own physiology and then say to the other person, “Tell me more about your point of view. Help me understand your position.”

Josh:                One of the things that I’ve noticed is that, you know, you just mentioned that you want to use “I language” and not “you language” but it seems that society teaches us that “you language” is the accepted way and “I language” is really never even taught. So how would you go about helping a family learn how to use “I language”?

Courtney:        One of the things that I do with families is that I go through a series of exercises. I’ll do like a half-day communication workshop that I call Communication Essentials where I teach these communication concepts and I have them practice them together. And that’s something that I would really encourage families to do or advisors, depending on who’s listening to this podcast, is that if you really deconstruct it, if you’re looking at The Sustainable Business, “How much of the time is spent in communication, in business?” Now, when I ask audiences that question, they’ll kind of ponder and they’ll say, “95%, 98%, or 99%” and I’m nodding my head in agreement. Yes, communication is something that’s going on, verbal and non-verbal – almost all the time. So we think, because it’s going on all the time, that we’re kind of good at it, to your point.

We tend to live in this world of you and blame and so forth. We can just look at our presidential debates and see that scenario going on or that narrative going on. So what is important for us to be able to do is to be very intentional about “Wait a minute, let’s teach, what are these communication basics? What does it take for us to learn new communication habits?” because to your point, if we default to habit, then we tend to go into you-ing and blaming and being defensive in communication. It’s really an art form to get good at it.

What I tell family businesses all the time is that if communication is something that’s going on all the time, and you can improve the timing and quality of your communication by just 5%, that’s going to have a significant effect on the bottom line of the business, not to mention the goodwill and the connection and the trust that’s being built in the relationships.

Josh:                So, in your book, Courtney, you talk about family brand. Now, anybody who’s listening that owns a business knows what the brand is for the business but what do you mean by family brand?

Courtney:        It was something just delightful that came up in my interviews. This is not a concept that was in. I have a bias. I’m in Denver, Colorado although I work with families and family business all over the U.S. I would say probably 50% of my families are in the Western Colorado to Texas kind of towards Chicago areas.

So, anyway, people out here like riding horses and people talk about riding for the brand. And, like you said, we know what that means in business. But in the interviews, one of the families in particular that I heard something similar to this from other legacy families – again, ones that made it past that third generation. They talked about “we need to be as intentional about building a brand for our family as we do for our business.”

And I don’t mean that they’re going out and constructing something that’s aspirational as much as “let’s just really get clear. What are our values? What are our family stories?” In essence, I think the word mission can get overused but “what’s the mission, the purpose and the vision of our family?” So to be as intentional about developing that brand for the family as we have for the business.

And I would say, Josh, that the stereotype that I’ve certainly seen in my practice a lot is that you’ve got the first generation mom and dad that have built the business or the second generation that are continuing on the family business. And the family business gets so much time and attention. And there’s something that can really happen when people start having grandkids is that they step back and say, “Now, wait a minute, we need to be talking about the same things for the family system as we have for the business system. We need to give them equal weight.” And that kind of goes back to those circles that I started today’s conversation with, just looking at what are the needs – not only of the family business but what are the needs of the family? And how can we be very intentional about “What is our brand? What is our value proposition, if you will?”

Josh:                So, if you’re going to be good at this and you’re going to have a family that lasts for generations and keeps the business going on, at some point, you have to become a pretty good listener would be my guess. So, let me ask you a question, how does one become a good listener because most of us aren’t?

Courtney:        Oh, that is so true. That is such a classic problem, isn’t it? I am overusing the word intentional but if we really embrace the reality that most of us suck at listening and listening is so important. And we know very little about it, meaning as a professional community. I have kind of two answers for that. (1) One is to really – for the listeners, first of all, to really acknowledge. That’s just something that I tend not to be really strong at and to really practice listening much more than talking. Most of us just love to talk and most of us could really benefit from, again, taking a breath and listening. And when you’re listening, a couple of things you’re listening for. You’re listening for the purposes and the concerns of the other person. I call that essential intent. To be really clear about what is not only the content of what the speaker is speaking to but what’s behind the content? What’s really important to them about this? What’s their purpose?

Josh:                So how would you figure that out?

Courtney:        By asking open-ended questions. Questions like, “Tell me more about that. Help me understand your point of view. For you, what’s important? What’s at stake? For you, what most concerns you? For you, what is your purpose? I think I can guess at it but what’s the underlying “why” in this?” Whether it’s talking about the business or talking about something important in your life. But to really get at someone else’s underlying why.

Josh:                Well, that brings up my next question which is something you and I have had a lot of conversations about which is “why, what and how” as a decision making process.

Courtney:        Oh, yes.

Josh:                So, could you help us out there on a lot of times we start at what and we end at what and we never get to why or how?

Courtney:        Yeah. It’s a great question. I’m smiling because yeah you and I have been talking about this for several years. You think we’d have it figured out by now and I think it’s because it’s so fundamental. So if you look at the design of a conversation that’s going really well, that’s producing results and that we’re getting somewhere, whether it’s a project at work or let me kind of go back to focusing on the Sustainable Business. You see, we first need to get very clear about “Why are we doing what we’re doing?” What’s the fundamental underlying reason for why we’re about to get into this – a new engagement, this new process, this new project. The greatest source of value is getting very clear about what’s the underlying why.

In a way, it’s like why, how and what. And what I call it is purpose-method and outcome. So if you look at what’s the underlying purpose, then if that purpose is being fulfilled, “what are the things that we’re going to be doing to fulfill that purpose? And where’s the outcome or the vision, the results that we want to see?” So purpose then forms method which then forms the outcomes.

But what happens particularly a business is we have such a habit to start at method – to start at the how. We step over purpose. And then what happens is then a quarter later or two quarters later, when things are unraveling, we can’t figure out what’s going on. Often, what I find in family businesses or in businesses in general, it’s because the underlying why was not first established. And I think there are two reasons why we step over it. (1) Our culture is just, we just start at method or we start at outcomes. (2) The other thing is that we think that we know it and we don’t articulate it. And the (3) third is we don’t want to take the time to define the purpose because that takes too long. Now, it might take us 30 minutes to figure that one out, right? Or an hour or half a day off site, right? But boy, does that create a lot of waste if we haven’t defined that upfront because it comes back to haunt us later on.

Josh:                That’s been my experience also. So something that fits in with that is what you call touchstone. So, first of all is, (1) what is a touchstone? And second, (2) why should we care?

Courtney:        It is so important to have that purpose be used as a touchstone. One of the classic things that happens in a family enterprise or in a family business is that you’ve got these generations of people that are trying to attend to the needs of the family, to attend to the needs of individuals and the needs of the business. And it can get pretty complicated pretty fast. And we can make these decisions feel pretty personal.

So, if we don’t have a governance structure. We don’t have a commitment to using a process. We haven’t defined what the purpose is and we’re not using it as a touchstone, then what happens is that we just default to making random decisions.

So, if we can get clear on what is the governance going in. What is the purpose going in. then when someone comes to the family and says, “Can I get a loan for $100,000? Can I go out and start a new business? Can I do this? Can I do that?” Rather than getting into that personal communications style, people can just pause and say, “Let’s take a moment here and look at what’s our purpose” and use it as a touchstone. Then what happens is when the family can come together and be really curious and thoughtful about the decision, if they can use that shared purpose as a touchstone. Again, if not, then our decision making is random and very personal and that little horse bet starts a lot of tension and conflict. It’s really vital to have that touchstone there to return to.

Josh:                We’re not quite out of time but we’re getting there pretty quickly. And I did want to talk to you about one thing which is conversations about money. And, you know, this is about sustainable business but we also have kids and we have to have these conversations about money. It seems that 75% of the people think talking about money with their kids is a great idea and in your book you say only 34% do. Why is there such a huge disconnect between what you think you should do versus what people actually do?

Courtney:        Because it’s so emotional for us. In our logical minds, we can say, “Now, wait a minute, if I want my family enterprise to be successful – my family business to be successful, then I need to be very clear and open about all of our money conversations.” And I know that when it comes to my estate plan or business succession, or leadership succession or fair versus equal, all of those conversations, we need to be very clear about that. And we know that logically, right? It’s like, “Of course, if I want my family to be successful, I need to let them know about what my wishes are and my beliefs and my values – all of that stuff.”

We don’t do it. Most of us avoid it because it’s hard. It’s emotional. It’s in an area we don’t know what’s going to happen. I remember my uncle, a number of years ago, and he knew that I consulted for family business. He had a very successful independent insurance company. I was asking him about his succession plan and he said, “I’m going to do it on the golf course.” I’m like, “okay, what do you mean by that?” He goes, “I’m just going to have a heart attack on the 9th hole and then let my attorneys figure it all out.” And he chuckles. You know, I kind of smiled but it’s like that represents that dilemma for people is that they know logically we need to be talking about this stuff but emotionally we don’t want to do it because we know it could be difficult.

But doing so is such an amazing investment. And often, I find that it doesn’t blow up like people are afraid it’s going to blow up. You know, people understand that we need to be much more open and talk about it. And I think that’s what leaders and family businesses need to be willing to do is to take those conversations on. And I think that we, as advisors to these sustainable businesses, need to be really guiding them and supporting them and taking these conversations on and being very open.

Josh:                Cool. Well, Courtney, unfortunately we are out of time. I’m going to bet that some people listening would like to get in touch with you, so how would they go about doing that?

Courtney:        Thank you for that opportunity. My e-mail is or you can visit my website which is, or call me at 303-420-2908 the old fashion way.

Josh:                And Pullen is P-U-L-L-E-N, is that correct?

Courtney:        Correct. Yes. And consulting has the I-N-G on the end of it.

Josh:                Courtney, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. And if you folks listening have some questions about families and business or successful families, I can’t recommend Courtney high enough, so give him the shout.

                        Talk to you soon.

Courtney:        Thank you.

Narrator:         You’ve been listening to the Sustainable Business Podcast where we ask the question, “What would it take for your business to still be around 100 years from now?” If you like what you’ve heard and want more information, please contact Josh Patrick at 802‑846‑1264 ext 2 or visit us on our website at, or you can send Josh an e-mail at

Thanks for listening. We hope to see you at The Sustainable Business in the near future.

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