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.