What’s the Elephant in Your Room? — Susan Schoenfeld

Talking Trends
5 min readMar 2, 2023


Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Susan R. Schoenfeld, CEO and Founder of Wealth Legacy Advisors LLC serves as a ‘thought partner’ to families of wealth through personal attention and human spirit. Susan is a nationally recognized family wealth consultant and award-winning Thought Leader; she provides guidance on legacy, next-generation, stewardship, governance, leadership succession, and philanthropy. Susan recently spoke about the importance of addressing the elephant in the room that everyone’s thinking about, but nobody’s talking about.

Families often find the “money talk” an even scarier conversation to start than the dreaded birds-and-bees talk, because many families have a culture of never discussing their finances.

It may feel more comfortable to engage a third-party facilitator to create a mutual safe zone for those difficult conversations.

I once worked with a family, ostensibly for a leadership succession planning engagement. The patriarch wealth creator had created a wonderful and interesting business. His current wife worked in the business, but in a siloed operational role. His son from his first marriage also worked in the business, also in a siloed operational role. Patriarch was the only one at the vision level. I was engaged to help them think through leadership succession planning.

My first step in all engagements is to meet privately with each stakeholder in the family and hear what’s on their mind, and then use that information to create the agenda for the first family meeting. In this case, I met not only with each of the three family members, but also the patriarch’s right-hand assistant and the family’s business lawyer.

The three family members each talked about what might happen to the business when dad eventually passes because he was close to 80 and hadn’t engaged in any succession planning at all.

Then I spoke with the two non-family members and asked each of them, “What’s the elephant in the room that everyone’s thinking about, but nobody’s talking about?” They both said that they had noticed that the patriarch was starting to decline in mental capacity, and that was the big risk to the business that nobody was talking about, the elephant in that room.

When I constructed my agenda for the meeting, I listed as an agenda item: Founder’s age and health. When I got to that point in the meeting, I simply said, based on your age health issues can arise, what’s going on that everybody ought to talk about. I kept it very generic and very non-threatening. Much to everyone’s surprise, he opened up and started talking about the doctors he had seen and the tests he had had and the concerns he had, and it took the conversation in an altogether unexpected direction that never would have come up had I not asked the question up front. You never know.

I had a former colleague who talked about walking out in the woods and seeing a rock lying on the ground. All you see is the rock but when you pick it up you see lots of crawly things underneath and you realize how much there is in every situation that you can’t necessarily see at first. Shining the light on the elephant in the room gives the family license to have the conversations on topics that keep them up at night.

Susan Schoenfeld, a public speaker & thought partner to families of wealth and their advisors, is an author and award-winning thought leader. Susan’s decision to switch from being a successful estate planning attorney and CPA to become a trusted family advisor and thought partner was inspired by families of wealth asking her searching questions beyond estate tax planning. As a conflict-free advisor who provides no investment, tax, or legal advice and sells no product, Susan shares her insights directly with wealthy families and with financial services experts. She is active as a keynote speaker and a leader of break-out sessions and workshops at conferences throughout the US.




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