Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Note: The following is the second part of a two-part essay adapted from the closing keynote address at the EDHEC Business School 2017 Family Business Conference: “Family Firms in the Long Run: The Interplay Between Emotions and History,” May 11-12, 2017, in Lille and Paris.
HOW: THE PROCESS OF FAMILY HISTORICAL NARRATIVE
The process of crafting a family historical narrative can unfold in various stages over many months or even years. Wherever that process leads, I think there are five key questions that every family will want to bear in mind before setting out on this journey into the history of their family firm:
1. Objective. What exactly do we hope to achieve or learn from the family history: to inform strategy? groom next generation executives by engaging them in the values and culture of the firm? unite family shareholders around a coherent vision of the firm and its relationship to the family? acculturate nonfamily executives, employees, and shareholders in the mission and purpose of the enterprise? introduce customers and clients to the story of the firm and thereby strengthen brand and reputation? or something else altogether?
2. Audience. Who is the audience for the narrative? The answer will follow to some extent from the objectives, but it shouldn’t overlook nonfamily executives and employees, who will often have as much knowledge about (and emotional investment in) the family firm as many family members—sometimes more. The narrative should balance the need to preserve confidences with the benefits of being inclusive.
3. Sources. History needs sources: archival material, visual assets, public information, and interviews with family members and nonfamily executives, employees, shareholders and associates. Smart organizations will have begun capturing and organizing this material long ago, giving them the widest possible latitude. But even this is not enough. “Just the facts,” lined up and left to themselves, don’t tell a story. Only by seeing these facts over time and in context—in history—can we begin to appreciate their true meaning and significance.
4. Authorship. That begs the question of authorship: will the family turn to an insider or outsider? An insider will often have the trust of family members, which may help to elicit candor, while a journalist or freelance writer will often be a good storyteller. Yet both will usually lack other attributes that only a professional historian will have, including: the professional training and skills to capture an authoritative story; the broader perspective needed to place the family history in context; and the experience to ensure that a project of this kind—one that few family firms will have undertaken before—is managed successfully.
5. Format. Any historical narrative begins with words on a page. Whether it also ends there, in the form of a book or other written presentation, will depend on the audience. The tools of the digital world enable us to engage millenials and other next-generation audiences with new purpose and impact, and we would be foolish not to exploit them. However, beware of gimmicks, like drone-videos of the family mansion, in which technology becomes a poor substitute for a good story.
WHAT: THE STRUCTURE OF FAMILY HISTORICAL NARRATIVE
Which brings me to the content and structure of a family historical narrative.
1. Whatever else it is or does, a family history should be true—that is to say, based on sources and methodologies, which is what distinguishes history from memory. It also should be honest. It shouldn't whitewash difficult episodes in the past (failure, shame, substance abuse, infidelity, etc.) but rather deal with them sensitively.
A true and honest account of the family history is not just a matter of integrity, but can also help defuse tensions around difficult subjects in general, fostering a culture of open communication that can improve compliance and avoid or minimize future ethical lapses. It also can stimulate a renewed sense of purpose that is all the more compelling because it is authentic, forged in the crucible of setback and adversity.
2. At the same time, the family history should be sensitive to myth—hero myths, remembered events, survival stories, and the like—that may not be wholly or even partly true but that nevertheless symbolize something important about what the family values. It is not the job of the family historian to dismantle these myths but rather to understand why they grew up, and to distinguish between those that are useful and those that may be holding the family back.
3. The family history should be inspirational, not just informational. Whatever its ultimate objective, the narrative should create an emotional attachment in members of the audience, who will need to feel connected with the story before they can learn from it.
4. That is why family history should be collaborative in construction. For a family to engage an outsider in crafting one’s family history is to take that person into its confidence and to entrust him or her with one of its most sensitive possessions. A family history must therefore be a partnership between the family and the historian that reserves the definitive interpretation of that past to the family itself.
5. Finally, the family history should be multi-vocal in expression. The process of capturing the narrative is an exercise in collective self-discovery that should include as many stakeholders as possible. The final story will be richer as a result, and stakeholders will be more likely to accept the interpretation as valid if they had a say in making it.
FAMILY HISTORY: IT'S NOT ABOUT THE PAST
No matter why and how family firms engage with their history and what form it takes, the important thing is to begin. Because the longer one waits, the greater the risks: that the stuff of history—documents and memories—will be lost to time; that their history will become distorted, perhaps irrevocably; or that guilt, grief, anger, fear, or other negative emotions will continue to impede their progress.
Indeed, they should remember that family history, like all history, is not about the past but about the future: a source of insight, business and family, that hold out new possibilities. Because how can any of us know where we’re going unless we know where we’ve been?
John Seaman, the founder and CEO of Saybrook Partners, is currently at work on the history of a leading partnership bank.