Beneath the Surface of the Ground

In my last post I cited a Chinese proverb about creating long-term prosperity. Today I refer my readers to the thinking of a Native American culture–the Five Nations of the Iroquois.[1]

In American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation writes: “We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. …“[2]

Can there be any thinking more relevant than this to family businesses? Without upcoming generations, does the term “family business” even apply? And therefore, is thinking about the well-being of generations to come not every bit of a mandate for today’s incumbent leadership as it is for the chiefs of the Iroquois?

This is by no means an easy task. Today’s leaders are challenged by the intense pressure to produce short-term success; to please shareholders; to produce wealth now; to feed the spending frenzy of a voracious consumer society. 

Short-term thinking produces short-term results. Most contemporary family businesses do not last beyond their third generation. But there are family businesses alive and well today that have prospered for 100 years and more; whose very existence proves that paths to such longevity are open; can be found; can be learned.

Seventh-generation thinking is finding its way into our collective consciousness; changing our current worldview. Perhaps learning more about how this works will help business families to build a mindset, actions and behaviors based on their impact on the seventh generation to come: “even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground…”[3]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_generation_sustainability

[2] An Iroquois Perspective. Pp. 173, 174 in American Indian Environments: Ecological Issues in Native American History. Vecsey C, Venables RW (Editors). Syracuse University Press, New York.

[3] “The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law.”


Grow People

Chinese proverbs are sources of immense wisdom coming down to us through the ages. Ancient they may be, yet they are solidly relevant to our contemporary world. Here is one whose message is directly applicable to long-term success in family business.

“If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.”


For multi-generational success, “100-year prosperity,” start by preparing your family’s next generation. Introduce your children to the business early. Have them take on minor roles while in school. Include them in meetings where both family and business are discussed. Discuss family and business values with them. Help them learn what the role of a leader entails. Help them craft a vision for the family and the business under their leadership.

Pay attention to the talent in your upcoming generations. See where their gifts can be applied in the family and in the business. Are there born leaders? Are there natural innovators among them; natural communicators; networkers; entrepreneurs?

It’s your job to uncover and nourish next-generation resources,to support the development of their talents and encourage their chosen trajectories.

With the next generation thus grown, the business will not suffer a vacuum; when incumbents retire, when fresh ideas are needed, when upcoming technology calls for new knowledge. And when it’s time to step into responsible roles, they will serve the family and the business well and far into the future.


The Three Faces of Innovation in Family Business

The presence of entrepreneurial spirit coupled with a culture of Innovation within your family firm is possibly the strongest predictor of long-term success.

It’s important to understand that innovation is not confined to the development of new products and services, although this is indispensable. The vital part that innovation plays in business processes and organizational procedures is often overlooked.

Process innovation, sensitive to new technologies, consumer practices–a plethora of changing marketplace conditions –enables your business to make responsive changes in the ways that products or services are produced and delivered. Organizational innovation involves changes in management, workflow, and operations. These are often sensitive to generational outlook and leadership styles, as well as advances in office and plant technology.