It was Mother’s Day in 1968. We had just come home from church. I was six years old. I ran into the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house to say hello to my grandpa, only to find him in the throes of death.
He had been sick for months, but we thought – I thought – he was getting better. My next memory is that of the hearse pulling up to the house.
While I long to see my grandfather again after all these years, I most miss his voice. What did it sound like? The movies of those days were largely silent, much like the voice I no longer hear or remember. I hear stories; see pictures and those aforementioned movies, but never the voice. That voice is now silent forever.
When families in business leave a will, they are usually concerned about passing along the family assets, the legacy that will hopefully long outlive them. While this may be comforting for a time, I encourage you to pass along much more – your values, in your voice.
Each year on the night before the night before Christmas (yes, that is December 23 in our German household), I read the book of the same name to the family. Blessed with three children, now adults, they still call or Skype, even if they are not around to jump into bed to hear my overly dramatic retelling of the story. With grandchildren on the horizon, I hope (get going on that, won’t you kids?), I am well aware of my own mortality and the prospects that at some point my own voice may fade and they will not hear my now infamous retelling. My wife bought me a book which allows me to record for all posterity that voice for those legions of legacy to hear forever.
Family businesses need to remember the important thing you brought to the firm: You. Your values. Your way of doing business. Your living the Golden Rule to treat others as you want to be treated, or better yet, even better than you want to be treated. They need to hear from you what is important to you. What should those children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren hear from you? In your own words and in your own voice.
I recommend you tape and save such a will, what we call an ethical will. It is not meant to supplant the legal will, the one dealing with the assets, but complement the financial one. With your voice will come your inflection, your smiles and maybe even your tears? Regardless, the family will know it is from your heart and that is something they can refer back to in the darkest of days when things are not going so well for the family firm. And yes, there will be those days, regardless of how well thought-out the other will might be.
This ethical will can include your values, your vision and your dreams for the future for the firm, and them. Pass along your heart on issues that matter to you, even your faith. Use this as an opportunity to clear the air, although ethical will experts like Dr. Eric Weiner suggest doing that long before this end note. The leaving of everything in good stead is cathartic, and probably emotional, but so necessary for the next generations to come. There are companies which specialize in the audio and video related to an ethical will. The good doctor also recommends leaving a handwritten note documenting this video. That latter one I won’t leave for the kids, as they can’t read my handwriting – the curse of being a doctor – even an academic one, at that.
You have worked all these years to build a family business. You have hopes of passing it on to generations to come. The lawyer has your will, your assets, even your passwords for the computer. So before it is too late, leave one more lasting memory before your voice goes silent.