June 19, 2017

"What about our family do you value most and hope never changes? "

This is one of several questions a family might ask itself as part of a process to develop a family mission statement. Why might a family want to define their mission? Consider what a mission statement achieves in a business setting—it clarifies an organization’s identity and vision for the future.

A company’s mission is a clear and concise statement about its purpose. What does it aim to do? What value is provided? The business world has come to appreciate that customers listen to a compelling message. Scott Bedbury, brand guru for Starbucks and Nike, defines great brands as stories that are never completely told. A galvanizing mission is the first chapter of the story for a business. The same can be true for a family that wants to create something of value that thrives for generations. The family’s purpose should be stated and its story should be told.

Even before its legendary swoosh symbol, Nike’s founders knew they wanted “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” This is their mission statement. To engage consumers in the story, they added a tag line: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” The appeal of contemporary brands such as Facebook and LinkedIn is that they connect people. Having a mission to connect the members of your family creates its own social network.

Businesses big and small understand how missions move people. The Humane Society taps our emotions with its promise “to create a humane and sustainable world for all animals.” Disney’s aim is “To Make People Happy.” The TED organization only needs two words—“Spread Ideas”—to engage us in its cause. When a mission strikes a chord, everyone wants to be a part of the story.

In successful organizations, employees have a clear grasp of what the company is trying to accomplish. The stock boy may not own company stock but he certainly understands what his role is in fulfilling the company’s mission. In a family, all the members are “stockholders”; no one should function in a vacuum. An unfocused company will lose customers as well as profits. If family members don’t understand what they are trying to accomplish, they are bound to get off track.

A mission usually begins with the founders’ vision. Founders are those with the drive and ambition to create something of lasting value, whether a family or a company. Passing on the founders’ vision through a mission statement provides continuity for succeeding generations. Having a written statement helps them remember it. Remembering it makes it important.

The old proverb “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” relates to the challenge of successfully transitioning wealth past the second generation. It predicts that the financial assets will be gone by the third generation. When that time comes, some family members may have never known the family’s founders. Perhaps they didn’t hear the poignant personal stories of the challenges that were overcome. More than likely they didn’t have the matriarch or the patriarch as a mentor.

This is when families need a mission statement. It instills the family’s most important message in the minds of succeeding generations. This can be a single sentence, or a more lengthy statement that sets out values. We aren’t accustomed to seeing mission statements in a family setting. They are often found in schools—places with a specific teaching job to do, but like a family in important ways. Both are there to educate the next generation, respecting the past while preparing for the future.

A family’s mission is more personal than a company’s. It often takes root as a daily maxim. It might be a slogan or byword that rings true to the family members. It’s something to turn to when times get tough. A family mission gives purpose to its members’ lives just like a company’s mission provides focus to its employees. It’s more than a statement on the wall. It’s a way of life.

When a company defines its mission, lots of people get involved. It isn’t only the corporate executives who set the direction. A special meeting is called to invite others into the mix. We can do the same with our families. The summer months or other holiday periods are ideal times because families are more likely to have get-togethers already in the works. 

If meetings aren’t yet part of the family lexicon, this is the chance to begin a new healthy habit. We all like to be asked for our opinions, especially regarding something we care about. Let your family members know about the new project and schedule a few hours together at a favorite family spot to hold the family meeting.

If your family isn’t filled with verbal types, you may want to have a few warm-up questions ready to get the conversation going. Families are filled with stories, but rarely is there a collection of them in one place. Questions such as the one at the beginning of this article and the two that follow encourage family members to reflect on the things they cherish, the genuine family jewels.

“Share a family story or tradition you love and want handed down to future generations.”

“What three adjectives complete the sentence, “Our family is . . .”?

If logistics prevent scheduling a family meeting in the near future, consider sending an email communication to begin the family conversation. For written communication, I have found asking the question, “What does it mean to be us?” to be pivotal because it touches on identity, values, and culture—literally the “glue” that holds a family together.

One family member told me recently that when she asked this question of her family members, she was overwhelmed with the insightful and meaningful answers. After the first ten or so responses, she noted a common thread; people were grateful to be a part of the family, and being part of the family was one of the most important parts of their lives. As she began sharing the individual answers with the entire family, it had a snowball effect. As family members read what other members had written, they wanted to add their perspective. 

Shared values and  shared stories lead to a shared mission. Think of a mission as a mantra that motivates. One family with whom I worked expressed its belief that everyone in the family is expected to make the family a priority with three simple words, “No Empty Chairs.” Whether you’re a family of one or of one hundred, what matters is developing the appropriate mind-set.

Your family’s mission is its promise to itself. The mission connects all the members to the family story. The story is like an epic tale with themes of new opportunities and chapters unfolding with each new generation. Each person lives his or her own version, but the core purpose is timeless.

The thoughts in this article are excerpted from Linda’s book, “The Business of Family: How to Stay Rich for Generations.”

Download Article: The Family Mission: What Does It Mean to Be Us? 

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