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ALL IN THE FAMILY

Preserving the family’s story

When working with family businesses, I delight in hearing firsthand how founders started their enterprise, how the second generation grew the business, and how current family members adapt to a changing world.

Many of these stories are riveting:  the adolescent who left China with his father, then taught himself the local language, and went on to join the textile business; the third-generation granddaughter who used her smarts to make it in a male-dominated field, and is now the acknowledged head of their manufacturing enterprise; the in-law who is so upright and industrious that he has become the trusted successor of the patriarch.

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These stories are inspiring, but there is one problem:  more often than not, the protagonists have not shared these stories with the family. Usually, it is I who gets to know about family mindset, attitudes and their values, more than the family members themselves.

Half-jokingly—in a particularly challenging case—I once advised a patriarch in his ’80s to announce that he would give the lion’s share of the inheritance to the one who genuinely cared enough about him to listen to his stories.  The patriarch told me that it was too late.  His heirs approached him only to ask for handouts.  His biggest regret was never cementing a relationship with his family.

I asked the family, “What are your happiest memories of the family and the business?” They gave me a blank look.

The second-generation are all working for the business, but most in the third said, “We are not going to work for the family anyway, so we don’t really need to know much about it.”

“Seriously?  Where do you think the money to put you through the poshest international schools came from?”  I was aghast.

“You are looking down your nose at grandpa?  Who do you have to thank for your condo, your fancy car, your multiple gadgets?  Your salary in your corporate job is barely enough to pay for your clothes, your massages, your restaurant bills.”

“Communication is a problem for us.”  They were defensive.

“We are really busy with our own lives.  We only get together during reunions at the restaurant.”

I facilitated one-on-one talks between the patriarch and the second and third generations.  The patriarch was partly right: for some members, the hurt and alienation were too deep.

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But one daughter and three grandchildren opened their hearts, listened to the patriarch’s stories, and were trying to forge stronger bonds with him and each other.

“My father was always so strict,” the daughter (second-generation) said.  “But instead of lecturing us, like he used to do, now he tells me how he and his brother started the business, how loyal our first customer was, how he dealt with the one and only labor strike we ever had.”

“Grandpa is so funny!” a grandchild said.  “He told us how he aced this deal by using only his wits.  And also how he managed to win grandma’s heart even if they had a semi-arranged marriage.  I love listening to him.”

Family communication is a work in progress, but stories help open the door.

Another time, I asked five second-generation siblings why they never knew about how their mother started the business.

“All she cared about were our grades in school,” they said.

Granted, grades are important. But the siblings are all grown up now, I pointed out, so they should take the initiative to listen to their mother’s stories while her memory is still intact.

While helping them craft their family constitution, I asked the matriarch to share stories,  which were then recorded on video.  To enliven the storytelling session, I asked the grandchildren to look for old photos to supplement the anecdotes.

To this day, the family meets once a month in the ancestral home to listen to the matriarch tell more stories.

Have a blessed Holy Week.

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