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For family businesses, storytelling can be the key to success beyond the first generation. 

A number of years ago, a second generation family business owner asked me to write a story in the form of an in-company teaching case. The story centered on the firing of one of the company’s top and highly successful directors. The director, a married man, had been caught conducting illicit affairs and the decision was made to fire him, despite his being responsible for dramatically increasing the profits of the company. The family business owner was convinced that the story, used for discussion in the company’s executive training, would be instrumental in embedding the high integrity and ethical values that were the foundation of the successful family business.

The story of Suhardani Arifin’s entrepreneurial spirit is a continuing source of inspiration and cohesiveness to her family. With only her husband’s first lieutenant salary to provide for the family, she learned to sew from the lessons provided by the Singer sewing machine store not far from her house so that she could make clothes for her children. Gradually she sewed for other people as well. She also became good enough to begin teaching sewing at Singer. Because of increased demand for her clothes, she used a profit sharing scheme so that her students could produce more garments by sewing at home with their own sewing machines. The business became a success and was dissolved only because the family moved to Jakarta on the promotion of her husband. But since then, she has created other businesses such as Yummy and Taman Bunga Nusantara that are success stories in the Daniprisma family group of companies.

Storytelling is part of the human condition-from cave paintings to the Mahabharata in the East, the Iliad in the West and onward to the present. We tell stories to teach and learn. We tell stories to share information and to connect. We tell stories to inspire. But storytelling is often ignored as being old fashioned and traditional. However, in recent years, a renewed interest in storytelling as a powerful tool for management has emerged.

According to Sole and Wilson, both of Harvard University, stories can “powerfully convey norms and values across generations within the organization”. Their paper on “Storytelling in Organizations” describes how stories can build trust, transfer knowledge and create emotional connections that can make family businesses more effective.

GenSpring, a company focusing on family business advice, have come up with the 25 best practices that together make for family business success across generations. The first listed is the family cohesiveness that arises from communicating “family history and culture” through generations. In a similar vein, Charles Collier, author of Wealth in Families, says that one key ingredient of successful family businesses is the telling and retelling of the family’s important stories.

So how do you start to tell your stories? Here are three basic steps:

1) Share: Share stories about the company’s founding. What were the reasons behind critical decisions? Recount achievements and failures. If there are not enough stories to share, begin interviewing family members and key employees. 

2) Record: Recording can be in written in different forms such as in cases or books. Other options are voice recorders and video cameras

3) Keep: Someone should be responsible as the “legacy keeper”. Besides safeguarding and storing the recordings, the keeper should be looking out for supplementary material to enrich the storytelling. These can include photos, memorabilia, old films and videos. 

Finally, start now. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Derry can be contacted at [email protected]