Why it matters
I met Nick, not his real name, during the maiden trip of Madaraka Express in 2017. A 2nd Generation scion of a family business, he was lanky, with a nose that seemed to sneer, giving him an inquisitive look. I first noticed him in the queue, when he joked with an overzealous guard on the benefit of subjecting him to a rather “enhanced invasive pat,” and yet, he still had to walk through the full body security scanner. He later left the attendants tickled, and in stitches, when he inquired about the magic, they used to get the usually abrasive Nairobians to be so orderly as they cleared, and inspected luggage before joining the terminus. A humorous fellow, I’d thought.
As we got to the platform, the ease and convenience with which we located our reserved ~ and empty ~ seats, on the train, was a triumph, equivalent to a small lottery win, when compared to my experience during a recent domestic flight. We settled in, to find Nick [and his family] seated adjacent to us. And as the train pulled out of Syokimau station ~ on time ~ Nick, with nostalgia, described how there was a time public transport buses were as orderly and actually also kept time.
Conversation between Nick and I soon picked up, as if propelled by the trains’ momentum. As other passengers engaged in the quiet activities of travelers settling in for a long ride. Like old buddies, we discussed politics, the struggling economy, the growing Chinese population in Africa. he lowered his voice as he discussed the unorthodox methods the Chinese were using to strangle the local investors in the construction industry. I learnt that like us, they were headed South Coast for the long weekend.
The ride was pleasant, except for the parents across the alley who didn’t seem to notice their child playing games on his iPad with the sound turned full up – inexcusable! We soon passed Tsavo National Park, and Nick almost picked his jaw from the floor, awe stricken, as we were treated to a scenic “game drive” from the comfort and convenience of the train.
He seemed to recover when suddenly he remarked, “This park is a great legacy for future generations, it has lots to teach us, just like we too have some remarkable stories in my family.”
“How is that Nick?” I inquired.
“In my family,” he began “we have stories of family success and failure, hardships and recovery, lessons learned and long forgotten” looking intensely into the distance, trying to recall something.
“Yes Nick” I said, “storytelling has been part of our culture from time immemorial. It has been used to pass on traditions, and bind communities together. And I understand what you are saying, indeed because family stories are not meer fanciful recollections of days gone. They are powerful tools for families to connect and pass on values to the next generation. However, while we recognize that family history is important, few families do much about it. Think about it?” I then shared with Nick the following;.
Chances are, you are already now thinking to yourself, “Sure, but where do I start?” I get asked this question several times in my consulting life, and my answer is the same every time. Start with three easy steps;
1. Share the stories you do know with family. If nothing comes to mind, conduct an interview between two family members. Start the interview with simple questions like “How did you first get involved with the family business?” As the conversation moves along, address more probing questions including “What do you regret not doing?” and “What personal values do you hold most dear?”
2.Record those conversations. Here you have plenty of options, from using digital voice recorders to writing them down, to more elaborate writing a book. My preferred choice, however, is to record the stories with a video camera. Nothing compares to hearing the story as told by the family member who lived through the experience. When recorded, the emotions are powerful especially if you want future generations to actually pay attention to the stories and learn the values.
3. Take the next step. Nominate someone in the family to be the “legacy keeper.” That person shall collate the stories; including pictures from the early days of the family and business, memorabilia from family retreats, old family videos and milestone family celebrations. As these pieces come together, you’ll soon realize how rich a story you can create with lessons for generations to come on family values.
Holidays are in fact an ideal time for storytelling. Try going round the dinner table asking each family member to retell a story he or she cherishes. The time you spend collecting and recording these stories is worthwhile and can be invaluable in connecting future generations to the present..
Avoid the mistake of waiting until it’s too late. Celebrate your family and family business now. Hardly a day goes by without someone lamenting to me, “If only I had met you 3 months ago, before my father passed away, I’d do anything to have him on camera.” Act now while your family is healthy, vibrant, and full of stories.