Sharing your family story makes your business stronger

Guest Blog: By Sally Collings

“We have no direct access to historical truth … Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves.”
— Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness

A team of researchers who set out to analyze the business attributes of family-owned wineries in Germany came across a strange fact. They were studying 21 wineries that were, on average, 11 generations strong; the oldest dated back to the 10th century, when Vikings were still colonizing Europe. About half of these family wineries had continued to innovate across generations in areas such as growing new grape varieties or adopting the latest production technologies. The other half were more inclined to follow than to lead, only adopting new techniques or entering new markets after their competitors paved the way.

Among the attributes that distinguished the more entrepreneurial wineries, one in particular was somewhat surprising. These business families had what you could call an “entrepreneurial legacy story” that they shared from one generation to the next. It might be the tale of a great-great-great-great-uncle, say, who rode his horse to Paris so that he could attend an auction to buy back the family winery after it was seized by Napoleon. At family meals and festive gatherings, stories of persistence in the face of peril, theft, adversity and war were told over and over again.

What is the significance of that? “These stories give meaning to today’s entrepreneurial actions and put current risks and problems in a broader context,” Peter Jaskiewicz of Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business reasoned. “It is hard to complain about losing a customer knowing your great-grandparents overcame war and starvation to build the business.”

From speaking with both the current generation’s leaders and their children, the research team found that the families less inclined to innovate lacked pride in their ancestors’ achievements. They either did not know the stories, or they played them down as being simply a matter of chance with no enduring significance.

Who would have thought that stories could actively make a difference to the capacity for innovation? Of course, this correlation will not be confined to German wineries. Stories are the glue that hold any family together, and the mortar that makes a business strong going into the future. If the current leadership connects the next generation to their shared narrative, the result is a more cohesive unit with aligned values and goals.

When the Mouawad family celebrated 125 years in the diamond, jewelry and watchmaking business, they set about creating a book that would capture their heritage so that future generations could appreciate it, as well as providing insights for other families seeking longevity for their business. After completing the process, current business leader Fred Mouawad says, “By better understanding our history we were able to set a better trajectory into the future.”

Set aside some storytelling time at your next family gathering. It is far more than an indulgence for the older generation: it could be the difference that makes your family enterprise a leader in its field, rather than a follower.

Sally Collings (founder and CEO of Red Hill Publishing, specializing in writing books for family businesses and social enterprises)


Facing Conflict in The Family Business

All family businesses—and all families—at one time or another face conflict. And it can be extreme. Understanding what triggers conflict and how it develops is useful. Understanding how to manage it is even more important—serious advice offered by family-business consultants Doug Baumoel and Blair Trippe in their new book “Deconstructing Conflict: Understanding Family Business, Shared Wealth and Power.”

In the course of their analysis of conflict in family business, Baumoel and Trippe argue that conflict plays a valuable role in our development; that only through being challenged by conflict do we learn, grow, and advance as individuals, families, companies, and as a society. Further, they submit that it is possible to learn how to manage family business conflict in ways that ensure the success of families and their businesses for generations to come.

Left unaddressed, they warn us, conflict leads to erosion of relationships and waste of valuable resources and opportunities.

The authors have developed an equation by which they can help a family enterprise understand why they are stuck or in conflict and what approaches are needed to move the system forward.

I heard Doug and Blair speak about their ‘conflict equation’ this past April at the annual conference of Attorneys for Family Held Enterprises. From their presentation, I took away effective language for discussing conflict, and a viable process for transforming the consequences of conflict from upheaval to growth.


More Than ‘Do No Harm’

I saw my internist recently, and we started to talk about a book written by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, entitled “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery.” In it the author gives a viscerally disturbing account of what can go wrong in surgery and with the brain itself. He speaks about risk, he speaks about his growing experience and skill and he speaks about caring.

During this conversation my mind jumped, by association, to a principle of family business called stewardship.[1]

As a steward of my family business my leadership role is to receive the business from my predecessors, grow the business, the family wealth, the family itself, and then pass this multifaceted inheritance on to the next generation in better shape than it was in when I received it. More than do no harm, stewardship of a family business aims at building health and vigor and creating an ever greater family legacy.

The challenges of stewardship change as the business develops. The responsibilities of sole proprietorship differ from those carried by the head of a business with family members working in management or as employees. It changes when the founder’s children are born, and changes too when brothers, sisters and cousins become part of the picture.

At The Family Business Leader™ we help you meet the varied challenges of family-business stewardship and bequeath a healthy and vigorous inheritance to your family’s next generation… and the next.

[1] According to The Family Business Leader™: “Stewardship is defined as “a perspective that founding family members view the firm as an extension of themselves and therefore view the continuing health of the enterprise as connected with their own personal well-being.” http://www.familybusinesswiki.org/Stewardship


The Familiness of Your Family Business

John, CEO of the firm, tells Robert that they are letting him go because he was coming up short on the competencies needed for his job.

John turns away and then back to face Robert. He says: “Son, I heard you lost your job. How can I help?”

Familiness in a family business is that unique set of resources which arise from the interactions among the family system as a whole, the individual family members and within the business itself. It describes a behavior that supports the family as a whole, the individual members and the business. Where it exists, it constitutes a competitive advantage.

In this story the strength of the family commitment is evident. John recognized and Robert understood that what was good for the business was good for the family, and equally what was good for the family was good for the business.

Familiness embodies the family culture, the reputation of the company, confidence and communication among family members, entrepreneurial spirit, management of non-family employees, and trust. It is what we compliment as the hallmark of a model family business enterprise.


Accepting Anxiety

Last week I wrote about how to keep moving forward in times when we are feeling overwhelmed by challenges in our businesses. My posting today is on a similar theme—managing our anxiety.

Some business owners thrive on anxiety. They require the frenetic energy it delivers in order to do business. Others suffer severely under the weight of its emotional intensity. Neither extreme is desirable.

The ability to manage anxiety in a balanced way is a requirement for success whether yours is a family or non-family enterprise. Reprising last week’s water metaphor—with each set of rapids we navigate we get stronger. The struggles we encounter as business owners are a source of personal and professional growth.

A prerequisite to managing our anxiety is our acceptance of it.

I recently had a conversation with a young second-generation business owner about her process of managing anxiety as she grew the family business. In her view, seeing her challenges as a vital part of her personal and professional growth was an important first step.

To control the anxieties assaulting her, she learned to diminish their overwhelming character through acceptance of her feelings, instead of exhausting her inner resources in struggling against them.