History, tradition & company culture
Many people ask me, how can the new generation of leadership honor the family legacy and tradition, while still putting their own ‘stamp’ on the company culture? This can be particularly difficult in this day and age when we have so many generations working in the same place. However, history and tradition inform a strong foundation for the company culture and provide stability and help to build loyalty.
Below are some techniques that I often share with my clients as they prepare to pass the torch from one generation to the next – with a desire to preserve and honor the best of the past while evolving the company culture to support the generations of the future.
How can the new generation of leadership honor the family legacy and tradition, while still putting their own ‘stamp’ on the company culture?
First, if you are in the new generation of leadership in your organization, you might consider interviewing members of your founding generation. If your founders or your previous leaders are still alive and able, consider asking them about the values that were most important to them as they grew their business. What was the reputation that they wanted the company to have with their employees, and with their customers? What did they believe was their competitive advantage? What kind of people did they want to be surrounded by and why was that important? How would they describe their own leadership style? What were some of the most important lessons that they learned? And finally, as they pass the reins of leadership to the next generation, what do they want them to know?
If your founding leaders are no longer alive or able, you could consider interviewing the oldest employees, or thinking back to some of your earliest memories of your parents, grandparents and others who worked in the company. What impact did they have, and why was it important? What were the traditions that they valued most highly? Why were people loyal? And what makes you most proud of your founders?
The next step is to answer those same questions for yourself, today, in regard to your own leadership style. In particular, how would you like to be similar to or different from the leaders of the past? Compare and contrast the values that you hold most dear, and the attributes of the people that you like to be surrounded with and consider as leaders. Identify those aspects of your traditional culture that you would like to preserve in the company, and how your own style might compliment this.
One of the most important aspects of preserving company culture is to take the time to write it down. Think about ways to distinctly describe the traditional culture that was developed by your forebears. Once you’ve decided which aspects of that culture you wish to preserve, and what you would like to change, rewrite a description of your company culture and values in language that everyone can understand. Keep it simple and clear and use language that describes behaviors, not just concepts. “We listen and respect the opinions of everyone, regardless of age or experience.”
Here’s another example that can be very useful in helping multiple generations to appreciate the differences that everyone brings to the organization. Several years ago I was working with a large family business that consisted of grandparents, parents, grandchildren and a fourth generation that was just beginning to come into the company. The family was experiencing quite a bit of conflict with a wide variety of leadership styles and intergenerational differences.
During our first family governance meeting, I divided the room in half, with parents and grandparents on one side of the room, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren on the other side of the room. I gave each “team” a large piece of flip paper and some pens and asked them to write down what were the values and characteristics that the other team brought to the company that they appreciated most. I asked the older generation to report out first, and it was magical to watch the faces of the younger generation as they heard their parents and grandparents describe the value of their energy, fresh ideas, connectivity and sense of wonder. However, the most touching moment came as the children rolled out an exhaustive list of the attributes they valued most highly in their parents and grandparents. After several years of perceived tension and criticism, there was not a dry eye in the room as they shared their most heartfelt observations. It was a wonderful way to develop a foundation for their family governance.
Another important step in both honoring tradition and developing one’s own company culture is to utilize the cultural description of the company in policies, procedures, plans and professional development materials. There is little value in having a well-defined company culture with a set of company values if they’re not shared and utilized across the organization. Some questions to ask are:
- How does your strategic plan reflect and support your company culture?
- What behaviors do you recognize, reinforce and reward in your organization? Are they in support of your company culture, or do they work to undermine that culture?
- Are you able to translate the language in your company culture and values into specific behaviors that you would like to see demonstrated by employees?
- What are 5 things that you, as a leader, do daily to support and nurture your company culture and the values you hold dear?
Lastly, culture and tradition serve as strong organizational foundations. You might consider creating a video of your founders or other senior leaders as they describe how the company was originally formed, how it grew, and what the key milestones were. This is also a wonderful way to capture some of the time-honored stories from the history as well as the legacy of the business. All too often, tradition, history and values die with the passing of the founding leaders. As a nation, we are hungry for that sense of stability, of honor and tradition. We believe that our country’s small businesses have a unique capacity to provide this legacy, honoring the best of the past and valuing new opportunities for the future.