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"Social Fitness" Of Wealthy Families – Why It Matters

Tom Burroughes

1 September 2023

A term that has been around for a while in certain circles but which is possibly going to be better known in the wealth management sector is “social fitness.” 

It’s a term that measures the strengths or weaknesses of our relationships. Social fitness sounds vague – not as precise, perhaps, as internal rate of return or compound interest – but given the costs of poor relationships with family, colleagues and friends, it’s important to understand. 

Improving the quality of family relationships obviously takes on more salience when the air is full of talk of a multi-trillion intergenerational wealth transfer, whether it involves stocks, cash, or actual companies. Whether it is HBO television dramas about dysfunctional wealthy families, or stories pulled from the media about divorce, rows about wills and business, getting social fitness to a high level is as important as physical fitness. Covid-19, lockdowns, family disputes and other disturbances add an edge to the topic. No matter how much money a person creates or inherits, loneliness, lack of a nourishing network of friends and relations take a toll. 

HNW families need, perhaps, the equivalent of a strength and conditioning coach. Maybe without the barbells and the cross-trainer.

A person who likes the physical coach analogy is Katie Jesionowski, chief marketing officer at Total Family Management, aka TFM, a private family coaching service, founded in 2019, that specializes in supporting family dynamics and wellbeing for clients of the RIAs.

This is a completely “virtual” business. TFM meets with heads of households in 15 states and has staff in nine states. The business doesn’t focus on finance – it does not compete with wealth managers. 

“TFM is for people who like to set goals and talk about the future. It’s for people who read books and then buy four copies to hand out to their friends,” Jesionowski told Family Wealth Report. “People who think about having a coach as a tool to improve what they are already focused on. Think about the best family you know. They would love TFM,” she continued. 

Jesionowski referred to an 84-year Harvard “happiness” study showing how one can evaluate the “social fitness” of family relationships. The Study of Adult Development tracked two groups of men – Harvard graduates, and those living in inner city neighborhoods of Boston – over the last 80 years to identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging. A new study of their descendants is being undertaken. The work is supported by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. 

The Harvard study showed that the “the strength of our relationships is the leading indicator of a long, joyful and healthy life,” she said. “Greater than money and physical health , relationships matter the most. Improving social fitness means tiny reps of connection with the people in our lives. Often that is family, but it extends beyond that to friends, colleagues, community members.” 

TFM’s work with wealth advisors to explore improving family relationships is getting wider attention. The business has worked with RIAs, and organizations such as Charles Schwab/Family Wealth Alliance as a resource to guide around family dynamics. “We have momentum,” Jesionowski said. 

The firm runs about 50 workshops covering such topics in the US. The group is on track to develop one to three workshops a month. 

The rise of firms such as TFM speaks to how, around the edges of more overtly financial advice, there’s a need for guidance on family dynamics. It is also an aspect of the trend of personal development, self help and subjects such as "wellness" that have taken root in recent decades. Sometimes these topics, when they concern areas such as family governance, can be dubbed as "soft" – a term that not everyone in the wealth sector is happy about. After all, when families break apart, the fallout can have a very "hard" impact.

Jesionowski said that some of the workshops tackle what people need to know if they become caregivers for relatives; other topics are more tactical.

“TFM clients experience eight foundational workshops in their first year. Topics include things like vision and values but also rituals, communication and how life might change in the next two to five years,” she continued. 

“The coaches see and hear about the impact of TFM in workshops, but it is often the conversations inspired in between sessions that are most transformational. It turns out that when you are headed in the same direction, conversations can be more interesting and impactful than simply what has to get done."

Jesionowski drew parallels with the rise of health coaches, for example, personal trainers and therapists. A few decades ago, this was seen as an odd or niche area. Now it is mainstream. 

“Social fitness is the fourth workshop in year one but it is also the thread that runs through all of TFM’s content. We encourage people to think about their social fitness in tiny increments. Just like you wouldn’t sign up for a marathon without training, you shouldn’t have the pressure of perfect relationships without small efforts to improve them. Once you are `in shape’ you still need to eat well, drink water, exercise. Social fitness and the strength of our relationships is no different,” she added. 

According to a definition on the website of Uniformed Services University: "Social fitness is the degree to which you assess, build, and optimize the relationships and interactions you have with others. The connections you build with family members, friends, teammates, and those in your community are key to your overall health and your ability to perform at your best. Healthy relationships are characterized by mutual respect, support, and effective communication."

Jesionowski is clearly passionate about this topic, and the need to raise awareness of it. 

After spending the first seven years of her professional career in advertising, she took two years off after the birth of her twin daughters before co-founding an organic kids snack food company that she ran for 10 years with her best friend. During nine months off from work, Total Family Management crossed her path and Jesionowski was immediately drawn to its why “to show up and help families.”