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)