Death of a Salesman
. The Godfather
. The Count of Monte Cristo
These great works of literature have larger-than-life characters and sweeping themes of love and loss. They also share something else: They're about family businesses. Sometimes the fictional business is like a living, breathing character itself (Buddenbrooks, The Godfather). Sometimes the business is more for setting and context (The Count of Monte Cristo). As a family-business researcher and consultant for over 10 years, I'm not surprised that so many authors, playwrights, filmmakers, and TV-show creators look to a family livelihood for inspiration. The real-life intersection of family and work, arguably the two richest sources of self-worth (and pain), is rife with the most archetypal themes and conflicts, the lightest and darkest sides of the human psyche and human interaction.
Take the example of a Northwestern business family I've worked with over the years. Two generations ago, their grandfather invented a product that is still a household name. They became bazillionaires. Of course, with the money came complexity. And conflict. The founder's oldest son assumed he would take over the business. His mother doubted his capabilities and enlisted the second youngest son, her favorite, to "watch over" his brother's dealings. So began a lifelong struggle between the siblings for power, respect, and appreciation. Now in their 70s and partners in a variety of businesses, the brothers still bear those resentments like battle scars and festering wounds. But there has been much bonding, as well, like when an outside business partner tried to take control of one of the family's core businesses, and all seven siblings banded together to wrest it back. The second generation has its own children now, and these third-generation members struggle to find their place in the business, perennially stuck at the kiddie table though they're now in their 40s themselves. Not surprisingly, the version of history each third-generation cousin carries bears remarkable resemblance to the stories, complaints, and confessions of their parents. In this sense, history is indeed destiny.
One thing that helps is something I observed early on: Rarely are a family member's intentions all bad. There are few Darth Vaders or Goldfingers or mustache-twirling villains ready to tie the family and its business to metaphorical train tracks. Sure, there are personal agendas galore, whether for one's own good or for that of the business. But more often than not, there is also a deep appreciation for the business past generations have built and for the objective of maintaining family harmony.
Often, business families are replete with amazing stories about amazing people, from real-life rags-to-riches tales even Horatio Alger couldn't have penned to the account of a founder whose business provided jobs for half the town. When families draw stories like these from their database of history, they're often inspired to enrich the present-day script with their own cooperation-fueled triumphs, like when my client family clawed back control of their business. By reminding families of the values they stand for and giving them permission to rewrite their scripts, I help motivate them to improve their business, themselves as professionals and people, their relationships, and their communities.
I wrote my book to help business families understand their challenges through the lens of generational conflicts ? it's hard enough for members of a single generation to get along, and now we have up to five generations working in a family business, each with its own values, biases, and expectations. These families face important choices: They can choose to focus on and intensify their differences, whether in regard to risk-taking or money-handling or anything else, or they can harness their shared passions for family, business, and community. By choosing the latter, they can move steadily from dark to light, sidestepping the larger-than-life conflicts that have made family businesses such rich settings in our own community.
Inside the Multi-Generational Family Business is part of Palgrave Macmillan's all-new launch of the Family Business Publication series, in partnership with the Family Business Consulting Group. Be sure to check out other books in the series today!