Tag Archives: principles

Unity, Yes! But I Prefer Harmony

Dana Telford
Dana Telford

Two brothers (Ron and Kim) each own 50% of a half billion dollar manufacturing company in the western United States.  Both are over 60 and have large, dynamic families filled with talented, creative, hard-working daughters, sons, in-laws and grandchildren.

During a three day, intensive family business workshop a brave member of the 3rd Generation posed a difficult question to his father, Ron – “am I expected to look and think just like you do if I want to be a leader in this business?”  The query spurred a memorable discussion about individuality, guiding principles and the difference between unity and harmony.

To help facilitate the discussion I suggested we use music as a point of reference.  I am not a musician, but I was taught how to carry a tune (or some semblance of one) at a fairly early age.  I remember singing with my family at church meetings while watching mom’s finger track the melody line of the song.  As she sang the words in her clear alto voice, I tried to mimic the sound.   Only after adolescence had exacted its toll on my vocal chords, however, did we both realize that alto was no longer a viable option.

Using the same “follow my finger and mimic my voice” strategy, my mom helped me to become comfortable with bass and tenor notes.  Soon I was able to pick out the sounds of harmony in the church congregation and felt an increase in my appreciation of the power and language of music.

Ron spoke up in the middle of my analogy.  He said, “I know right where you’re going with this Dana.  Please allow our family to provide a live exhibit to the case you’re building.”  He then called 5 of his 7 children to the front of the room.

He asked them to sing the first verse of “O My Father”, a popular Christian hymn, in unison.  Obediently, they all sang the melody line, and did so beautifully.  He then asked them to sing the first verse again, but in harmony, each using her or his own voice.  What followed brought tears to my eyes and still sends chills up and down my spine.  I remember the absolute clarity and heightened energy that came into the room as they broke into alto, soprano, tenor, baritone and bass parts.   All singing the same words, but in their own voice. The verse is beautifully written.  When sung in unison, it’s lovely.  But when sung in harmony, it’s moving and emotional.

Simon & Garfunkel, Don Henley and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, Peter, Paul and Mary.  Would the art they have created influenced the world if each had been singing the same tune and mimicking someone else’s voice?  On that same note, isn’t a family business system that much stronger when family members use their unique talents, aptitudes and perspectives rather than try to mimic the style of the past leader?

Guiding principles and core values are the words of the song.  Those words – such as integrity, loyalty, respect, hard work, innovation, gratitude, frugality, – convey ideas about expected behaviors.  Let’s make sure that future generations know that we want them to live those ideals, but in their own unique way.  Let’s help them to know that we believe that when they add their own voice to the melody the song will be that much more compelling and beautiful.

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The “Why?” Exercise

Dana Telford
Dana Telford

I refer to a favorite consulting tool as the “Why?” Exercise – a process that utilizes repetition of the question “why?” to discover the guiding principles behind decisions. I’ve found that when working through the question, some clients realize they may be abandoning long-held values for other perceived short-term gains in status, power, wealth or comfort.

Some years ago a client (Jeff) and his wife (Rhonda) were given the opportunity to go on a service mission to a developing country in Latin America – something they had both hoped for and worked toward for many years.  When faced with the question “what to do with the family business?” they felt it was time to completely dedicate their lives to charitable service, to include gifting their assets to their church rather than passing them to their 8 children.

As I talked them through the Why? Exercise regarding this decision, a fascinating complication came up.  I learned that early in his career Jeff had been employed by his church to manage charitable gifts.  When pressed, he confessed that he did not believe that the well-intentioned folks in the charitable gifts department could fully appreciate the blood, sweat and tears he had invested into amassing the wealth.  He knew that their job was to graciously accept the gifts, assess value, provide tax documentation, meticulously dismantle the empire, sell the pieces to the highest bidders, and collect the funds for the benefit of the church.  With careful thought he realized that the thought of his businesses and assets going through this process left him feeling empty.

The alternative – to give and sell assets to their children – also caused them concern due to long-standing sibling rivalries and an overall quest for peace in the family as they prepared to leave the USA for two years.  Based on my time spent with their children and in-laws, I felt that they were talented and diligent and capable of working together, and I told them as much.  I also voiced my opinion that they would have a much higher chance of appreciating the Legacy and protecting it for another generation.

After further Why? questioning and discussion, Jeff and Rhonda realized that keeping the assets in their family was a more authentic reflection of the guiding principles they had followed as they raised their family and built their businesses – faith, family, hard work, education and service.

Jeff and Rhonda’s dilemma over the future of their business is only one example of the myriad emotional decisions that you face as a business owner. No matter what your own motivation is for building, nurturing and growing your business, keeping your “why” centered in your view through the decision making process will help you ensure that the business continues to grow in keeping with your  values and in a way you can be proud of.

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