by Whitney Weeks
Operating a business—any business—is a challenging endeavor. But when that business happens to involve a family, perhaps one that’s generations old, some unique obstacles must be considered. Among them: how to plan for succession when one generation has a different vision for the company than the next. Or how to separate one’s professional and personal life when making important business decisions. That’s where Margaret Vaughan Cox, BA’88, MBA’92, steps in.
While her official title is founder and president of MCV Consulting, Vaughan Cox is so much more. Part strategic planner and part family therapist and savvy entrepreneur, she has grown her practice from a firm once focused on strategic-planning processes for Houston-area clients to a thriving international consultancy.
Her clients are prominent multigenerational families, Fortune 100 companies and private foundations. In some instances, the families continue to own the operating companies. In others, they are co-investors, co-owners of properties, co-trustees of family foundations, or clients of family offices.
“People are very familiar with private wealth advisers, estate planning advisers and tax advisers who help families manage their financial capital, but they’re often not as familiar with consultants like me who help an enterprise focus on the human, intellectual and social capital of the family,” says Vaughan Cox.
Her strategy-development work with clients typically begins with identifying the patterns, values and operating principles that are important legacies versus ones that no longer serve the families’ best interests. MCV Consulting particularly helps clients determine whether they have a family-first or business-first orientation.
“It can be incredibly difficult to have candid conversations around important issues like distribution policies or performance of family leaders when decision-makers and affected people alike share the same Thanksgiving dinner table or gather to celebrate birthdays,” she says.
Storytelling also plays a key role in Vaughan Cox’s process. Hearing, sharing and honoring an enterprise’s history through stories increases the understanding of root motivations and emotions, she says. It empowers families to embrace collective goals for the future and approve necessary changes after having gone through a very unifying experience.
“It makes a difference when everyone involved can share in the real, unvarnished story of their family and their enterprise,” she says of her approach to this work.
Scenario planning is another key tool Vaughan Cox employs with clients. Planning for generational transitions often requires difficult conversations about the inevitable passing of a family elder or the potential failure of the rising generation to continue current successes. Vaughan Cox uses scenario planning as an invaluable technique to aid in this work. The process requires the family to create stories about alternative futures, which leads to exploration of both positive and negative possibilities.
“Families utilizing this method are able to talk about situations they previously haven’t been able to go near,” she explains. “It allows them to fully explore the question of what they should do today to mitigate the negative and make the positive more likely.”
Working on behalf of the founding families of iconic American institutions, companies and foundations—in such diverse fields as media, health care, banking, energy, packaged foods, pharmaceuticals, construction and greeting cards—is an incredible honor and privilege, says Vaughan Cox. “I walk on very sacred turf when they share with me the painful setbacks as well as the triumphs of their families.”
In reflecting on her own professional journey, Vaughan jokingly describes herself as “the Owen placement office’s worst nightmare.” Shortly before graduating, the extent of her Plan A was to avoid corporate banking. Her Plan B was “to find something off the beaten path.”
Her career has included working for former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter and Martha Ingram, the former chairman of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, and as the lead project manager of the 1996 Tennessee Bicentennial, which afforded Vaughan the opportunity to design the state’s official commemorative license plate for the celebrations.
“It can be incredibly difficult to have candid conversations … when decision-makers and affected people alike share the same Thanksgiving dinner table or gather to celebrate birthdays.”
She also managed the international account of the John Templeton Foundation for Atkinson Public Relations Inc., where she worked alongside Templeton himself, helping
the iconic investor elevate awareness of his foundation’s work. Her interest in the burgeoning field of organizational development then led her to Boston, where she trained in leadership development with Peter Senge, author of the classic management book The Fifth Discipline. She also worked with Joseph Jaworski at The Centre for Generative Leadership, later known as Generon, on strategy work and scenario planning for clients around the world. As off-the-beaten-path as her career has been, Vaughan Cox has found that all roads eventually lead back to Vanderbilt for her. She readily admits that she wouldn’t be where she is today if it hadn’t been for her undergraduate and B-school experiences. For that reason, she’s excited to be a member of the Owen Alumni Board. “I was raised by my parents to give back to the institutions and communities that nurture you. It’s part of my mindset, my operating ethos,” Vaughan says. “The chair of the board, Emily Baker Tobin [BA’87, MBA’92], and I both went through Vanderbilt undergrad and Owen together. I believe in her leadership and in what Dean Eric Johnson and Associate Dean of Development and Alumni Relations Erik Kahill are doing. I feel like the conditions for Owen’s success and movement are there today, and I want to be part of helping Owen continue to take its rightful place among the top business schools in the country.” In 2002, Vaughan Cox returned to Houston, the hometown she’d left in 1984 to attend Vanderbilt as an undergraduate. The cross country move was motivated by a mixture of escaping nearly 10 years of Boston winters and establishing a more balanced approach to her professional and personal life. When she obtained MCV Consulting’s business license at the city clerk’s office, she told herself, “I’m the daughter of an entrepreneur and have this in my blood. If it doesn’t work, I’ll go get another job.” Sixteen years later, with a long list of satisfied clients to her credit, it’s safe to say that won’t be necessary.
Whitney Weeks is founder and principal of Whitney Works, a national boutique consulting firm. Previously, she was an executive at both the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies.