We’ve devoted the week to spring cleaning. For many people, the process of spring cleaning is not much fun, but they do enjoy the outcome – a more organized, clean and clutter free environment. Family businesses aren’t the best at fresh starts, and indeed getting rid of history, legacy and culture can take away what can be one of a family business’ greatest strengths. However, we all know of elements in our family businesses that we would be better off leaving behind, inter-personal animosity from prior generations, outmoded business practices, or unhealthy family dynamics. Families have a difficult time letting these things go, because they represent an important part of the family history or perhaps the family isn’t even aware of the pattern they are perpetuating. Whether these unproductive elements of the family are acknowledged or not, they would benefit from spring cleaning. Consider one of two exercises for your next family gathering –
Ask each family member to write down one thing about the way the family works that they would like to keep and one thing they would like to let go. (Note that saying “let go” rather than “get rid of” takes the sting out of the process).
Ask the family to think about starting with a clean slate. If you didn’t have your traditions, history, legacy, what is one thing each person would do differently than what you do today?
Either of these exercises will lead you to a productive discussion of what things your family might want to leave behind so that it can operate in a more organized, clean and clutter free environment.
Business historians John Seaman and George David Smith wrote a superb article for Harvard Business Review (December 2012) that has particularly great value for family business leaders. Wise leaders can use their company’s history for many benefits:
Create a stronger sense of identity for employees ‐ ‐ they are affected with something larger than themselves
Show the need and capacity to adapt illustrating such from the past
Argue that successful change is possible and that adversity can be overcome with examples from before
Promote the enduring values that shape the culture ‐ ‐ especially drawing on stories from before
Learn the obstacles to change from understanding the history and culture
Broaden perspective when making significant decisions by exploring analogies from before and now
We find family businesses have an especially acute appreciation for history from which they can particularly benefit as outlined above.
The article reinforces some axioms we find well practiced by successful family business leaders:
Embrace tradition as a way to prove that, indeed, the company has a long history of change ‐ ‐ a tradition of innovation
When leadership changes, emphasize the platform of values that don’t change before promoting a new vision
Find those authentic values of the past that will enable the new behaviors for success ‐ ‐ reinterpreting their meaning in the contemporary context
Interestingly, the primary example used to argue these principles was the 3 generations of leadership history at IBM. The values regenerated to support a new future were:
Focus on customer needs and
customer service and
long term relationships and pursue
break through innovation
The authors conclude that IBM’s leadership, “found in IBM’s history a usable past ‐ ‐ one that helped them…persuade people to embrace necessary solutions to deep–seated problems, but also grasp the nature of these problems in the first place.”
As Seaman and Smith well show, history is a leadership tool more than an anniversary with “balloons and fireworks”.