family business generational storytelling
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Preserving generational wealth through intergenerational storytelling  

 I recently had the pleasure of virtually meeting brothers, Aaron and AJ Greenberg – the founders of Biograph . The mission of Biograph is to create narratives that enlighten, entertain, and inspire while preserving stories that are vital to life. The brothers are zealous preservers of memory and legacy. More than recollection of ancestors and origins, preservation is pre-serving, a proactive form of service for family, community, and posterity. Aaron and AJ believe that storytelling is essential to living, and that writing life is a privilege, right, and responsibility. They believe there are as many styles of life writing as there are lives.

As it turns out, I had many things in common with the Aaron and AJ. Besides being alums of the University of Wisconsin (even having the same degree in Industrial Engineering as AJ!), published authors and Chicago residents – we share a commitment to preserving the legacies of families and their businesses.

The objective of our conversation was to learn how to preserve wealth through intergenerational storytelling. Read the Q&A derived from our conversation below.

Aaron - What is an ethical will?

We recently sat down with a prominent Chicago family – the scion, now in her nineties, made a fortune in manufacturing. She has spent the last 20 years building a family office, staffed with CPAs and investment managers. She has gone through five drafts of her will, vetting it with lawyers to check for leaks or loopholes. She has built committees staffed by family members to oversee their long-term investment and philanthropic strategy and she trusts the family’s finances are in good hands.

Nevertheless, planning for the future only gets you so far. Even the strongest family office will be tested eventually. In a volatile world, her children will be forced to make tough decisions that could shape the family’s fortunes for generations. How can she ensure her children exercise good judgment at critical moments?

“You can’t micromanage from the grave,” she said, cheerfully blunt. “But I can empower my kids to make good decisions without handcuffing them.” She wants to strike a balance: giving her descendants the benefit of her experience without limiting their capacity to be creative and entrepreneurial in response to future crises.

An ethical will helps achieve that balance. It serves as a record of your time and values, preserving hard-won lessons to share with new generations. Our client wants to help her children maintain composure and see the big picture when opportunities arise. “When markets plunge, many investors panic and lose their shirts. If you stick it out like I did on Black Monday in 1987, you stand not only to hold your position, but find ways to profit that are hiding in plain sight,” she says.

We’re helping her create an ethical will that is resourceful and adaptable. Rather than a narrow set of instructions, this will provides personal context to support philosophies of investing, wealth management, and best practices. The process of writing the ethical will has been rewarding for the whole family – an opportunity to reaffirm individual and shared values while co-authoring the interwoven stories of family and business. Our conversation-based creative process can be fun, healing and revelatory for clients. The process, as much as the product, yields enduring dividends for the family.

Creating an ethical will has brought our client peace of mind; she knows her legal will is airtight. In drafting her ethical will, she has watched her family come together and affirm their mutual responsibility and shared purpose. The result is a versatile archive of useful artifacts including letters, speeches, and public statements. The ethical will is therefore both timely and timeless, designed to be reprised and revised for generations.

An ethical will not only helps make sense of a legal will and testament, it preserves continuity of values across generations, ensuring that prosperous posterity keeps innovating with the same entrepreneurial spirit of their humble, gritty predecessors.

AJ - Why is it important for family enterprises to tell their stories?

Telling the tale of your family, business, or family business is critical. Just as accounting revenues and expenses is necessary for growing your business, recounting your story is essential for preserving and re-inventing the family’s role within and beyond the business. With each re-telling of your story, your intention and identity become clearer and more powerful. Telling your business’ story establishes its history and guides its future.

This is particularly important for a family business or office. As many cultures around the world have recognized, family wealth is often fleeting. The English warn of going from “clogs to clogs”, in Japan, “rice paddies to rice paddies”. According to the Scottish, “The father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells and his son begs.” The thrift and entrepreneurial energy of one generation can yield wealth as well as complacency in the next.

So how do you preserve or reclaim that dynamic and foundational energy? An estimated 90% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the third generation, “primarily due to lack of communication and trust in the family.”[1]  Co-creating the story of your family business is an ideal way to build trust and open lines of communication – showing where your story began and what matters to you. It’s not only that a finished story communicates values, in fact, the best family business stories never quite conclude but rather preserve chapters and volumes for the next generation to build upon. More importantly, the storytelling process enhances the very communication and trust that the story will ultimately preserve.

Storytelling helps ensure continuity of leadership across generations. According to management experts, “continuity is about connection and cohesion over time. A defining question in the study of family business is how the family and the business can endure and survive across generations.”[2]  Recounting the family’s struggles and the perilous path toward prosperity can help. It gives the older members of the family a chance to remind the rest of the family of their roots.

However, family businesses can hamper themselves if they obsess over long-lost glory days. A strong family culture not only emerges from a respect for the past, but also from a clear vision for the future. Older generations should strive to empower their children and grandchildren to make good decisions, instead of constraining their capacity to make bad ones. Telling stories builds intergenerational trust; it provides younger generations the chance to participate in the process of defining the family’s history and its values. For children, learning about the family’s history is the first step in creating the family’s future.

Aaron - What role do stories play in the actual operation of a family business?

Many challenges that family businesses face involve interpersonal communication or the lack thereof. This may seem a bit “touchy-feely”. Frayed nerves and hurt feelings can complicate a family’s private life, but they won’t hurt the bottom line, right?

Wrong. Personal conflicts between family members threaten the long-term health of family offices. Judy Lin Walsh and Ben Francois, both Principals specializing in family business strategy at BanyanGlobal, outline one such circumstance: “We often find unexpected trouble when the next generation is highly motivated to make a mark on the business but is not yet mature or trusted enough to do so, which wreaks havoc on the corporate culture.”[3]

Telling stories will not and should not create monolithic coherence, reducing families to pre-programmed corporate machines. On the contrary, storytelling encourages family members to articulate their distinct visions of the family’s history and future. However, voicing desires and grievances in an interview with Biograph is different than airing them during a board meeting. It helps to know that you are working together to create something foundational to the family and the business, rather than asserting your influence to win short-term arguments.

Creative and future-oriented storytelling brings out the best in our clients. Whatever their conflicts, they’re willing to lay them aside and speak openly, hopefully and helpfully about their dreams and desires. Biograph gives families opportunities to work productively through differences. When the family returns to the boardroom, they do so with a greater understanding of each other’s perspectives and needs. Since personal grievances can hinder capacity to grow and thrive, storytelling is not an extracurricular pastime but the key to the viability and longevity of family businesses.

AJ - Why does Biograph preserve stories in books?

Books, in their current printed form, are over five hundred years old. In a society that lives more and more of its life on the Internet, we understand why some people may raise a skeptical eyebrow at the idea of preserving their stories in a book. However, the book’s value comes precisely from its longevity. Books can be virtually timeless heirlooms, preserved and improved across generations. When you take a Biograph book in your hands, you know you are holding something your children will read and share with their children – each generation touching the same pages, reading the same words.

A book is a challenge and an opportunity; what stories will you bequeath your grandchildren and great-grandchildren? How will you help them inherit and own their heritage and identity? These are big questions, obscured by the proliferation of DNA testing kits in our culture. There is value in learning your genetic heritage, but human beings are more than the information encoded into our DNA, we are also the stories we tell about our history and ourselves. Without stories imparted from grandmother to mother, to son to daughter, our DNA is as sterile as computer code, a raw set commands with no context.

Likewise, inherited wealth is liable to dissipate if unaccompanied by the stories of its origin and evolution. We are more than genes and net worth. As wealth accumulates and technology accelerates — at times too fast for us to reckon with the consequences — returning to the book provides a foundation, a solid place to articulate values that will endure for generations, long after today’s cutting-edge formats are obsolete.

Aaron - Why should families work with Biograph?

Biograph can help you tell the stories and articulate the values that will guide your family for generations. When you hire Biograph, you get a full suite of services. We start small, interviewing family members, building a versatile archive of stories, ideas, and lessons. Then we help you design that archive into assets, possibly as small as a two-page statement of values or as long as a book. Whichever assets you create, our creative process itself can be fun, healing and illuminating – giving family members a chance to hold in-depth conversations that cross generations and bring them together.

If you are contemplating wealth transfer or family business ownership transition and need counsel, please contact Gary Plaster, the “Family Business Strategist”.

[1] Roy O. Williams and Vic Preisser. Preparing Heirs: Five Steps to a Successful Transition of Family Wealth and Values (Robert Reed Publishers, 2010). Quoted by Adrienne Penta, “Love and Money: Why Communicating Values Matters,” BBH. October 18, 2017. https://www.bbh.com/us/en/insights/private-banking-insights/love-and-money--why-communicating-values-matters.html.

[2] Michael Konopaski, Sarah Jack, and Eleanor Hamilton, “How Family Business Members Learn About Continuity,” Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 14, No. 3 (September 2015), 347-364.

[3] Judy Lin Walsh and Ben Francois, “When Should You Fire Your Child from the Family Business?” Harvard Business Review. July 24, 2019. https://hbr.org/2019/07/when-should-you-fire-your-child-from-the-family-business. Cited in Gary Plaster, “Should you fire your child from the family business?” https://www.bakertilly.com/insights/should-you-fire-your-child-from-the-family-business

About Aaron Greenberg, Ph.D.

Aaron Greenberg is a co-founder of Biograph, a storytelling organization that preserves life stories for self, family, community, and posterity. Aaron holds a Ph.D. from Northwestern University. Prior to co-founding Biograph, he served on the Core Faculty of the Bioethics Clinical Scholars Program at Northwestern School of Medicine. He teaches memoir at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Aaron’s publications include “Reviving Vitalism in King Lear” and Recorded Time: How to Write the Future.

About AJ Greenberg

AJ earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He began his career with the innovation banking team at CIBC (formerly PrivateBank), where he provided commercial banking services to tech-enabled businesses. With his brother Aaron, he organized Biograph LLC in May 2018. With his brother, AJ has edited We Were Strangers: The Story of Magda Preiss and co-authored Recorded Time: How to Write the Future.

I’ve learned some things through lived experience, but to echo Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” We are all giants in our own right and have stories to tell. Biograph’s mission is to write and preserve these stories to enlighten, entertain, and inspire. We love creating with other people, businesses, non-profits, and institutions. Ben Franklin implores us to “either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” I urge everyone to take this advice and tell your own story.

Gary A. Plaster
Principal, MBA
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