The CEO at Home: Can You Change?

September 01, 2017 - J. Carter Tolleson
7 Min read

As a successful CEO, you manage the complexities of business with confidence and well-honed skill. Can you translate those same leadership qualities to a successful home life? Or, must you change? My observations suggest that the traits of a successful CEO translate to successful family life—if some conscious behavior change takes place. Are you willing to change for your family? And what’s at stake if you do not?

First, congratulations. You’ve spent your life developing skills and can now enjoy the fruits of your labor. The bad news is that those skills and areas of expertise you developed might be distinctly different than what you need to be a successful parent leading a successful family. Furthermore, your achievements could be at risk in two arenas—the personal and the professional—if your business is threatened by your inability to change with your family.

You built your career and business, especially if you are an entrepreneur, by being something of a “rugged individualist.” You think differently, faster, more doggedly and with more determination than others with similar ideas or skills. You are decisive; you’ve not had time to “market test” every move you make for your business. You cultivated a high tolerance for risk and may even find it exhilarating.

Within your role in the family, those qualities can express themselves differently. To other family members, individualism may seem like stubbornness. Decisiveness may come across as inflexibility, and your high-risk tolerance may signal recklessness or even selfishness. In your family, those entrepreneurial traits of “lean, mean and hungry” need to give way to the ability to make peace, collaborate, deliberate and be open to a range of ideas and perspectives.


Your family is the most important asset you have. Your business achievements and your legacy will be best sustained by developing your family’s qualities and character. You work to preserve and build your family, just as you would your other assets. The following behaviors may help build a stronger, more effective family, but might not work in your CEO role:

  • Tame the ego so that it roars on command, but makes no untimely appearances. In your professional role, you project authority. Even in the most collaborative of businesses, it’s clearly understood you’re the boss. Have you ever tried the “command and control” model with teenagers? It’s their signal either to head straight out to do the forbidden or to molder on the couch, ruining the weekend for the rest of the family. Nor does that model rear well-adjusted, resourceful, resilient adults. What about the spouse who works in his or her own pressured professional setting or who runs the family’s households? Try coming home and flexing the ego with that spouse.
  • Strive to see the fundamental value in the complexity of daily life. I have four children under the age of seven. Glorious chaos at my house subsides only when they are asleep. I love everything about them; they’re great kids. But my home life is complicated in a different way than my work life. At work, the problems we solve are complex, interesting ideas, many of which have immediate rewards. At home, the problems are logistical, interpersonal, educational, emotional—and far more fundamental. My environment shifts from what feels like reasonable control at work to what feels like zero control at home. I think this observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes makes a good point: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Understand that the chaos of the family’s day-to-day is an opportunity to teach, with a light hand, the skills of organization and focus that made you successful.
  • Acknowledge the two distinct environments of work and home with different sets of rules, different orders and different avatars (in the lexicon of your middle schooler). The themes of much great children’s literature come from the need to change. From Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan to The Chronicles of Narnia and The Black Stallion to The Hunger Games and Frozen—these are all stories of children finding themselves in new realities with different sets of rules. They try on different personalities to thrive, or even sometimes to survive. Only by changing do the children in these stories win their futures. We expect a lot from our children. It seems reasonable that they be permitted to expect a little from us—a similar shift in behavior so that we may fit more successfully and fruitfully into their worlds.


In any “normal” household, behavioral changes always are a challenge, but in a wealthy household, the complexities magnify. Jim Grubman, noted neuropsychologist, family wealth consultant and friend of Tolleson Wealth Management, has written extensively about the behavioral changes required of families in order to sustain great wealth. The bottom line is that the competencies needed to sustain wealth are very different from those required to build it. In a paper Jim wrote with Dennis Jaffe, the two conclude that the difficulty of sustaining great wealth from generation to generation lies in a family’s inability to “undergo adaptation.” They describe the need for personal changes, followed by changes at the family level and then at what they describe as the “broad family system level.” Grubman and Jaffe developed a chart that shows the characteristics necessary for successful management and growth of wealth, and those characteristics change from generation to generation. The groundwork for successful change is a mindset that is cultivated, demonstrated and transferred by the family leader—you—to members of the family.


Having wealth does not change the subset of skills needed for a successful home, but it probably is harder for wealthy people to put aside their egos and change at home. It’s very difficult for people who have done so many things right to change their behavior at home. But, there is also a danger in not changing: a titan of industry who has achieved herculean creation of wealth will see his or her wealth only a footnote if the home is not a place where the responsibility of wealth is discussed and respected.

Our Tolleson Wealth Management clients and friends have worked hard to achieve what they have and are engaged in the world at large and especially in their own communities. They want the same for their children. Yet, in our practice we see otherwise savvy families who avoid the discussion of wealth for fear that the understanding of family capacity will kill ambition in children. That’s a well-founded fear. Statistical studies have shown time and again that perceptions of beneficence and plenty can be a disincentive to personal achievement.

News flash: your children know you’re rich. How you deal with that reality makes all the difference. If you continue at home with the personality traits you used to build your business, you won’t invite your children to speak frankly and openly with you about money, sex, drugs or anything else that can tip the balance from a successful life to an unsuccessful one. Research reveals that wealthy families often run through their assets by Generation 3. Grubman and Jaffe list the family’s characteristics and themes that occur at each generation. Loss of wealth comes about because of failures in family cohesion—lack of communication, no common mission or family vision, and no unified actions around a series of family goals. The themes (and opportunities for failure) become more systemic and complex with the addition of each generation, and require changes of individual behavior. The competencies needed to sustain wealth are very different from those required to build it. If we can teach our family the intergenerational qualities that sustain and build wealth, you will not only situate your children comfortably in their wealth, but will also stimulate their ambition and motivation.


The secret is not to mold the family after yourself, but to understand that cooperation, risk aversion and openmindedness are precisely the elements that will help your family thrive even though these are not necessarily the elements that got you where you are. At Tolleson Wealth Management, we see it time and again. Family leaders who embody the family’s values at home and who teach and coach family members yield the desired results. Charles Collier notes in Wealth in Families, “To discover one’s calling is the single most important duty of each human being. A family’s duty is to work to preserve the family’s principal wealth-generating assets: its human and intellectual capital.” Accomplishing the preservation of human and intellectual capital does not take place in the “command and control” setting of the successful entrepreneurial start-up. It happens, instead, in the more cumbersome but more promising environment of a collaborative, information-sharing and participatory maturing enterprise.

It becomes very simple: who do you want your family to be? And can you change?

I want my family to be about who we are, not what we are. I want to play the role of father, guide and coach. I want my family defined by what they achieve, how they serve and how they build a better community. Our legacy, I hope, will be great goodwill in the community. When others talk about a family’s legacy, the fact that they flourished financially is a footnote; the memorable test is how they lived decent and humane lives, with and for each other, and for those around them.

So as I drive home at night, I think about all the qualities necessary to build a company or a business to accumulate wealth—and then I consciously define their counterpoint and consider the themes that must change in order for a family’s success to continue with the next generation. That thinking then leads me to a list of qualities that sustain wealth and, more importantly, sustain a family. As I pull in the driveway, those qualities are the ones I summon as I begin the best—and most important—part of my day.