Business Study Groups - Part One

Collaborative enlightenment delivers better client service. Experience the power of a multidisciplinary perspective.

By Tom Hubler

Key Takeaways:

  • Multidisciplinary study groups can substantially boost your perspective and problem-solving capabilities so you can serve your clients better.
  • Members of high-performing study groups are committed to each other, willing to share knowledge and willing to be vulnerable, honest and objective.
  • Study groups can be especially beneficial for small-firm practitioners by helping you see how your personal experiences shape your view of your clients’ cases.

Traditionally, study groups are formed so high school or college students can work together to review and prepare for class subjects more effectively. But study groups can also be a tremendous resource for business practitioners. For any small or independent office—accounting, legal, insurance, estate and financial planning, and even family counseling—a study group composed of members from diverse disciplines can offer tremendous benefits and rewards. I should know, because I was invited to join a fledgling family business study group back in 1988, and we are still active and continue to meet after all these years!

At the time, I was a business-family therapist. I kept running into situations that needed more than my psychological expertise to solve. My clients revealed problems with their finances, their businesses, their legal issues and their addictions. I was sometimes out of my element but wanted to do more for them. These clients depended on me.

So I joined the group expecting to learn more about family businesses from a multidisciplinary approach. All six individuals in our study group were in the prime of their careers. Their backgrounds represented a wealth of experience across the range of family and business issues:

  1. A psychiatrist at Menninger Management Institute
  2. A law school professor teaching trust and estate law
  3. An academic who taught family therapy
  4. An organizational development consultant
  5. An MBA with an accounting and finance background
  6. A family therapist with training in organizational development (me)

Each of us was actively consulting with our family business clients. I’m sure we all expected to gain information from the group, maybe some informal education and, hopefully, some motivation. I know I did. But what I received was infinitely more than I expected. In retrospect, we shared an “enlightened” engagement. We cared, opened up and held each other accountable to each other and to our clients. This enlightenment revealed itself in several group attributes.

1. Commitment. We made the commitment to never miss our sessions, which eventually grew into two-day meetings occurring three times a year. All six members continue to take this commitment seriously and rarely miss a meeting (rare exceptions are due to circumstances such as an illness or death in the family). Right from the start, this commitment launched a culture of respect for one another and for the time we individually expend—time away from our families, our businesses and our “billable hours.”

2. Vulnerability. Even in the early years, members were willing to be vulnerable. We not only shared our successes, but we also revealed some of our failures. This nurtured an environment of mutual trust and, over time, amazing camaraderie.

3. Knowledge sharing. We have a routine in which each of us takes turns presenting anonymous client cases at our meetings. I coined the term “profession of origin” to signify the individual’s professional discipline, such as law, psychology, accounting, insurance, and so on. For example, I would prepare and present a troubling or even gratifying case from my profession of origin—family therapy in business organizations. Others would see it from their own discipline as we deconstructed client situations using each other’s perspectives. This rich diversity made it inevitable that I would find I had missed critical issues or questions related to the presentation. For example, “the MBA” would often raise questions about business issues that needed further consideration. Conversely, the MBA benefited from the psychosocial issues raised while considering his cases.

4. Honesty and objectivity of our group. All consultants have blind spots, not only in their incomplete knowledge across disciplines, but also those created by their families of origin—the circumstances and culture in which they grew up. Without getting into the “psychological weeds,” the way each of us grew up produced subconscious attachments that can affect how we might perceive specific issues our clients face.

For me, this issue came up when I was working with a family business in which alcohol misuse was present. Both of my parents suffered from alcoholism. It only made sense that it had an effect on my approach with these clients. My study group’s objective questions and comments helped me step away from my client’s emotional force field.

When we examined some of the group’s anonymous cases, we discussed this cultural affinity that could have led to an unconscious collusion with clients—times when important topics might not be raised and resolved with them. It is rare to have a business study group composed of individuals who openly discuss their own families of origin and who discuss how their personal experiences affect their consulting practices. It allowed us to dig deeper and become better providers for our clients.


In part Two of this article, we move from the general benefits of study group participation to the impact it has had on me personally and on my professional consulting career.

About the Author

Tom Hubler (tomh@thehublergroup.com) is president of Hubler for Business Families (hublerfamilybusiness.com) and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas. He can be contacted at (612) 375-0640.