Ethical Wills - A New Idea

Larry Grypp

Larry Grypp, President of the Goering Center
Feruary 2016

There is a reoccurring dynamic of priorities in family businesses: what comes first, the family or the business?

At the Goering Center we suggest that business decisions be made in the best interest of the business as it is the golden goose that must be nurtured so that it can provide treasure and opportunities for the family.

In a successful business many critical elements are documented including a vision, a business plan, a marketing plan, financial results, and a succession plan. These plans and processes create focus and understanding.

Yet, as much as we accept those disciplines as foundational to the family business, we often can overlook other key elements that are proven time and again to be equally influential to the success of the business family –values and ethics. Maybe it’s because we feel those things should be taken for granted, or are infused so deeply into the family culture they need not be written down. Still, there is something about going through the process to clearly articulate our values and ethics — in writing — that sharpens them in our own mind, if not also in the hearts and minds of others.

The process to do so is called an “ethical will,” and ensures that the qualities that underpin a company’s founder(s) are not lost on subsequent generations. It documents those select values, beliefs and ethics that are steadfast and, hopefully, enduring for business family generations. 

It is not always an easy process because it requires a sorting out of the many qualities that more easily come to mind -- integrity, trust, honesty, hard work -- and instead rummage around more for those simple statements that truly capture the cultural pulse of the family. By the way, a qualified facilitator can be helpful in this endeavor.

So, is the value having that framed statement on the wall or on a pocket card or desk plaque? Just like any exercise of this sort -- it is the open discussion, the unveiling of deeper sentiments and aspirations that best fortify the footings for what supports the most successful business families -- the strength of the family itself.

If you are interested in learning more about ethical wills, contact the Goering Center for an article on one founder’s process and actual ethical will.