Storytelling: The past can lend perspective

By As told to Amy Cosper

Why you should make documenting your history a formal part of your operations

Knowing your family story and history shapes the very essence of your family business. The notion of storytelling touches everything from your brand to your values to your culture – and your legacy. It is how your customers experience your products and services.

Historians document stories. And filed under the coolest jobs in the world tab, Gretchen Krueger is a senior historian with Wells Fargo Wealth & Investment Management. Family Business got a chance to ask her how families can create a lasting legacy by documenting their stories.

“For the majority of our client families, these stories are interwoven and, likely, inseparable,” Krueger explains. “Few things are more compelling than our own stories. We help clients answer the questions: Where did my family come from? Who came before me? What does it mean to be part of my family? How have my ancestors shaped my life or identity? How might I contribute to this legacy?”

Family Business: We talk a lot about storytelling in business and how it anchors everything a business does — brand, culture, innovation (or not). Can you talk a little bit about the relevance of storytelling in business?

GK: We emphasize the same — brand, culture, innovation (or not) —when we speak of storytelling and its great value to a business, especially a family business.History, in particular, is a natural anchor for businesses. At a basic level, stories from the past can help answer foundational questions about who founded the business, when and where.

Records and stories about the past can also speak to significant changes in products and services, company ownership and leadership, location and domestic or global expansion. The past can lend perspective to standard company timelines by asking how your family business navigated challenging periods in history, like an economic depression, wartime or a pandemic.

The past can also be personal. We might default to thinking about history as milestones on a timeline, but business history is also, fundamentally, a story of people, their decision making, their personalities, their values, their talents and the way they cooperate and collaborate.


FB: Family businesses’ rich history can be spun into some riveting stories, which is why HBO made a series about it. Why is storytelling important to family business?

GK: Storytelling is vital for defining (or redefining) identity and culture, for answering questions about who we are and what we stand for. Storytelling can draw people together through a common, compelling narrative. Yet, like in the HBO series, when done well, that narrative should also reveal nuance and complexity. It can help us examine the very particular (an individual making a specific decision, in a specific place and time), but also seat that small moment within a broad multigenerational context.

Stories can emphasize continuity — the longevity, success and resilience of a family and family business. Stories can (and should) also highlight moments of disruption or necessary pivots.  

FB: As documentarians of family history, what surprises you most about family businesses?

GK: I don’t know that the right word is “surprise,” but I have a deep curiosity about the origin stories of family businesses.

These are questions I ask myself:

•  Was the founder an employee at a business, but saw a need or opportunity to create something new and went out on his/her own?

•  Did the opportunity arise from a new technology?

•  Was the product or service something made or done informally and then became a formal venture?

•  Where did the initial seed money come from? What risks were taken? If there were initial financial backers or partners, who were they? How about close advisers?

I’m often surprised by the simplicity of how these stories are often told, when they’re often quite complex.

And, then, of course, as illustrated in the HBO series, it’s fascinating to consider the next “chapters” of the story. If it is a multi-gen family business, has succession been through a direct family line, has it included other family members or in-laws, or has leadership been both family and non-family members, over time? Have family members had other roles in the business?

And, perhaps most importantly, what planning or preparation has been put in place for future transitions?

FB: How do the stories of a family become legacy?

GK: Stories are a critical part of the intellectual capital — a family’s unique currency.

When held and passed down in a family, they shape a family’s conception of who they are. The stories that endure often embody a family’s values.

Stories can serve as a compass for the rising generations, although not all stories may resonate. The next generations may retell stories or revise them, ensuring their continued relevancy.

FB: How can family businesses capture their stories and histories? What is your advice?

 GK: Be intentional about capturing and sharing your stories. Make documenting your history and storytelling a formal part of your operations.

Dedicate financial and human capital to historical work. Include documenting your history and records retention in your annual budget, so that it is not left to anniversary years or other company milestones. It is difficult, if not nearly impossible, to do this work well when it’s done sporadically.

FB: How can a family business harness its storytelling power?

GK: Tell a rich story in the “About Us” section of your company’s website. Update it over time, as your story lengthens and use a storytelling approach in your internal company communications.

Tell your customers who you are and what you stand for using stories of the past and present.

Stories can be a compelling way to make connections to local community, service/volunteerism, and corporate giving. Also, widen your scope in how you share your stories and when thinking about who has a valuable story to tell.



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