Entrepreneurs are often very good at telling stories about themselves, as we all know. The point of the stories is not to give the unvarnished, objective truth about the entrepreneur’s life and times, of course, but to create an image. An entrepreneur uses narratives to sell himself, in some cases as much as his product.
Family business heads could learn a lot from this approach, especially when it comes to managing succession, argues a new paper* by a trio of British academics, Elena Dalpiaz and Nelson Phillips from Imperial College Business School, and Paul Tracey from the Judge Business School. They argue that discussions around family business succession focus on strategic, “quasi-economic” approaches such as resource-allocation, agency theory or training .
But, they say, “family business succession involves the management of meaning” too. “Succession is not only about rationality. Language and meaning also play an important role,” they write. If they want to be accepted, family heads have to persuade people that they are the right person for the job. And they might have to keep on doing it. So, how can they do this?
The academics found a gold-mine of successful narrative-creation in the authorised autobiographies of Alberto Alessi. He became the third-generation head of the family’s kitchenware business in 1970, and published autobiographies in 1979, 1989 1998 and 2010 (a total of 718 pages) explaining how he turned the business from a manufacturer of mostly functional cutlery and tea-pots into one famous for its cutting edge design.
As the academics see it, the point of these narratives is not to tell an unbiased, objective history of Alberto’s career, but to legitimise both his position as head of the family firm, and his actions.
His strategy - conscious or not - had several strands. Firstly, he connected himself strongly with his predecessors - the books have lots of photos of the family doing things like drinking coffee and hiking together - and he talks affectionately about “Grandpa Giovanni.”
Secondly, Alberto insisted that his own focus on high-end design was not (as it is widely seen) a departure from the family’s traditionally functional approach, but a continuation of his father’s values.
He frames his father’s one-off collaborations with artists as being in the same vein as his own “poetic” approach. In fact the entire 1998 book is devoted to explaining Alberto’s actions in the context of his predecessors’.
Then there is the re-evaluation of some Alessi products, as “classics” or “icons” - putting them in the same category as Alberto’s own artistic products (such as a singing kettle whose production was delayed for three years until they found craftsmen in the Black Forest in Germany who could make the right sort of whistle).
The narrative also includes plenty of outside verification of Alberto’s brilliance, such as French designer Philippe Starck’s gushing praise, and stories about drinking whisky late at night with other Italian industrial giants. The overall effect is to paint Alberto as the only person who could possibly run Alessi, someone who is both embedded in the family culture and a singular, visionary genius. It’s a masterclass in legitimisation.
So, there are two lessons for family business successors. Firstly, “the successor needs to construct and justify his or her role with respect to previous generations of family members,” write the academics. Secondly, “if the new leader also aims to introduce significant organizational and strategic changes, she or he may need to reconstruct the identity of the firm so that the new strategy appears consistent with previous family leaders’ decisions and values."
Cool corkscrews aren’t the only thing that Alberto Alessi spends time and effort creating.
*Succession Narratives in Family Business: The Case of Alessi, in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 38, 2014