Brainstorming your Family Legacy

The word “legacy” can conjure up a variety of thoughts and opinions, because everyone has their own take on what it is, as well as what it should be.  When you add “family” to it, and raise the subject of “family legacy”, there is even more disparity in the responses evoked.

I recently took part in a training program at the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution, during which we took turns leading a group brainstorming exercise. Given free reign to use the subject of our choice, I decided to pose the question “what is family legacy?” to see what I might learn from my small group.

As someone who thinks about (and talks about) this subject on a regular basis, I thought it would be interesting to hear what a group of strangers, most of whom did not come from a business family, might have to offer on the topic.

They were all between 25 and 55, most worked for the government (this was in Ottawa), and I am reasonably certain that none of them came from what one might term a “legacy family”.

The exercise was a success, insofar as I filled up five sheets of flipcharts and stuck them to the wall, with around 40 different words that came up from the group.

When brainstorming, one of the main rules is that there is no debating what is a good or bad suggestion, it’s just an open “brain dump” where what one person blurts out will hopefully tweak something in the brain of another, and spur even more ideas.

Some of the expected and positive words that came out were:

–         Traditions; Reputation; Loyalty

–         Money; Memories; Trust

–         Supportive; Caring; Community

Of course there were also some negative ideas that surfaced, such as:

–         Dysfunction; Limiting; Stressful

–         Gossip; Meddling; Conflicts

–         Secrets; Façades; Bullshit

A brainstorming exercise is normally just the first step in a longer facilitated process, designed to get people working together, overcome inertia, and put a bunch of the pieces of the puzzle on the table to get going.

The real work comes next, when you take the ideas gathered and start organizing them, debating their merits, and figuring out what you are going to do with that information.

Working with a real family, the follow up question, “what is OUR family legacy?” would have been an obvious next step.

There is a big difference between personal legacy and family legacy, but when the founder of a business family is still around, a large portion of the family legacy naturally comes directly from that person.

In order to create a true family legacy, the key is to start when the founder can still contribute, and in fact OWN the process.

The family needs to capture the major values, traits, and principles of that person and then figure out how to make sure that they are preserved and transferred down to the following generations. If this is done correctly at this point, the succeeding generations will then have the task of maintaining the legacy that has been established.

Of course none of this just happens all by itself.  Someone needs to care enough to first stop and think about it, talk about it, figure out what needs to be done, decide who needs to be involved, and get things moving forward.

In the long run, the family must also figure out how they are going to make decisions together, how they are going to communicate, and how they are going to solve problems together. All of this generally falls under the heading of “family governance”.

If you are the founder, what you do before you go is really all you can do. Once you are gone, it will all be in the hands of others. If you want to leave a family legacy, building the financial assets is just the first part, and some say the easier part.

Keeping the family together after you are gone, wow, that’s the tough part.  It can be done, but like I said above, it won’t happen all by itself.

Essentially, you need to stop working in your family business, and start working on your business family.  Intrigued?  Check out: www.ShiftYourFamilyBusiness.com. It is my #1 book recommendation.  I also like the website.

Need help getting started?  sl@stevelegler.com