Building a Strong Family Culture, with Mitzi Perdue
Every family has a culture, but those that leave their culture to accident rarely end up lasting across the generations.
Mitzi Perdue shares the wisdom of successful multi-generational families, as she connects two business titan families with a collective 276 years of staying together as a family. She’s a businesswoman, speaker, and anti-trafficking advocate. Mitzi is also the author of How to Make Your Family Business Last, How to Communicate Values to Children So They’ll Love It, and How to Keep Your Family Connected.
So, if you want to create a family culture and traditions that solidify, strengthen, and “glue” your family together over the generations… tune in now!
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Table of contents
How Mitzi Became Interested in Family Culture
Some time ago, Mitzi lived in New York and belonged to the “Famous Last Names Club.” As you might imagine, members of this club were from high-profile families in the US. One of the conditions of belonging to the club was that you never mentioned the names of the members. So while Mitzi doesn’t share names, she does share the fascinating story of how she first became interested in what makes a high-functioning family.
As it turns out, Mitzi was at a lunch with about 16 of these club members, when someone asked the question: How well do you get along with your siblings? And unfortunately, as people around the table shared, it was one catastrophe story after another. One woman shared that her brothers were freezing her out of the family business by “forgetting” to tell her about meetings. Another person shared that their family members were suing each other, and the inheritance was going to legal fees.
The list of disaster stories just continues.
Cultivating Family Culture
[6:33] “That’s telling me that there are a lot of very famous families that haven’t figured out the basic of how to get along.”
Of course, Mitzi was the last to share, but she didn’t have any horror stories about her siblings. Things were good in her family, and continue to be. So she didn’t say much at all, to avoid sounding insincere or as though she was gloating.
[7:10] “As I left that meeting, you know, I’m thinking that the two families I’m a part of are the biggest source of joy in my life. What do we do that not everybody else does? And what enabled us to last so long? Because the statistics on families lasting—every generation only about a third of family businesses make it to the next generation. And by the time you’re at a hundred years, only one in a thousand makes it that long…I spent the next fourteen years reading everything I could, interviewing people, even writing blog posts.”
What is Different About Families that Last for Generations?
[11:14] “High-functioning [families] means you enjoy being together. You probably have above average mental health [and] physical health. Kids stay in school and finish school. If it’s their temperament, they go on to college. They form good marriages; they don’t get pregnant before it’s time to be pregnant… They don’t get in trouble with the law. The [kids are] less subject to obesity, they’re less subject to substance abuse. That’s high-functioning.
Mitzi shares that families that spend time with each other and know their family stories are the ones that are the highest functioning. When they’re high-functioning, they tend to meet the criteria above. One correlation experts have noticed is the more meals a family has together each week, the higher functioning they are. This is one of the best times for children to learn their family stories and share their own with parents and siblings.
[13:17] “Stories… are actually like little computer programs inside your head telling you how to think about things, telling you how to respond to things, telling you how to act. And the general culture of this country, and probably the world, isn’t terribly strengthening for family bonds… It’s like a centrifugal force. So how do you counteract that? I mean, you can listen to the stories of the general culture, which I think is kind of horrifying, some of the things that they glorify… You can let your kids have that be the dominant force in their lives, or instead, you can have five or more meals together in the course of a week…”
These meals are an ideal time for you to grow closer to your children, instill a sense of love and pride in your family, and help your family to grow together.
The Henderson Family Dinner
The Henderson family, in which Mitzi was born, has been around since 1840. And long ago, the family created a fund that helped establish an annual family dinner with no holds barred. It was a good time for all, and everyone in the family looked forward to the event each year.
Over time, this dinner has turned into the Henderson family weekend, and many of the family members today consider this event one of the high points of their year each year.
[17:08] “If you’re the head of the family and you want it to continue beyond… your passing, endow a vacation, or a dinner, or a weekend. And just put enough money in to make a great big event.”
Mitzi cautions that if you don’t do this, things might be okay for a while, yet will ultimately disintegrate. You can even enjoy a thriving family business for some time. Yet when the matriarch or patriarch passes on, the family begins to fizzle. You might reminisce during holidays, but after two or three years the frequency of visits dwindles. Then you may only see family members at weddings or funerals.
[18:18] “By ten years you don’t even know your cousins and your whole family goes POOF. And that is what happens if you don’t have some mechanism for staying together.”
What Can Families Do to Build a Functional Family Culture?
While it’s often ideal to work on your family culture while your children are young, it’s not a requirement. You can work on creating a more functional family at any time. It may be more difficult to bring your family together, but in every situation except extreme cases, there’s almost always a way to bring your people “home.”
Another key to keeping the family together is to keep a tight lid on disagreements. Mitzi shares that most psychologists agree that taking your “dirty laundry” public is a step you can’t really come back from in the eyes of your loved ones. It escalates the situation and opens it up to people who might not understand your family. This can even make your family vulnerable to lawsuits; and you don’t want to invite lawsuits.
[28:50] “So I’ll tell you how the Hendersons and the Perdues have both followed this, and this is something that I recommend to every family that exists. The Hendersons and the Perdues—we’re both fine with quarrels… You have to be heard… we don’t want you to store it up.”
How to Avoid Airing Dirty Laundry
The ground-rule for Mitzi’s family on both sides is to do what you need to do to be heard and make your thoughts known, so long as it stays within the family. There’s no need to make anything public. On the Perdue side of the family, they even have a term for this: the covenant. The covenant states that you can have the deepest disagreements, but you solve them within the family. Both sides of the family came to this way of approaching things before Mitzi married into the Perdues, and both families have a long, functional history.
This covenant prevents any member of the family from suffering in silence. Moreover, it encourages family members to be open and honest, and not to let things fester. This creates trust and a sense of security within the family: no one is out to get anyone, and is instead intent on solving problems.
The Family Constitution
Mitzi also shares that by the time your family is three generations old, it’s smart to have a family constitution in place. This document can help family members solve disputes, act within family values, and continue the family legacy.
The Perdue family constitution addresses a hierarchy of issues and how to handle them within the context of the family. For example, the Perdues have procedures for how to determine the family vacation as well as how to handle stock distributions or business choices. Some decisions may even be limited strictly to the bloodline. Having these guidelines determined ahead of time keeps things fair and limits disputes.
The Henderson Approach
The Hendersons have a slightly different outlook on family culture. They rarely vote on anything and instead discuss issues until they’re resolved. And typically, the members of the family come to resolutions after enough discussion.
Whatever you decide for your family, Mitzi believes that it’s critical to come up with something. It may even evolve over time, as you uncover your family culture. But the process is worth some experimentation to find a way of coexisting that makes everyone want to contribute.
One of Mitzi’s personal lessons she shares with Henderson children is that they won’t always be right, and how to handle that. Furthermore, she teaches children in the family they must be good stewards of the things they own or contribute to. In other words, they should be a good steward of their money, the family business, relationships, the environment, and so on.
Build Family Culture with a Family Newsletter
One of the many incredible things Mitzi has done for her own family is to create a newsletter. In fact, she has actually created two: one for the adults and one for the children. And when children in the family reach a certain age, they receive this newsletter that’s full of family values by way of family stories.
One of the Henderson family values is to be frugal. Despite the wealth that her family has, they are very frugal by nature. To communicate this value, and the cultural importance of the value within the family, Mitzi has included a story of her great-grandmother in the newsletter. Along with each value, or story, there’s also an activity.
In Mitzi’s story, her great-grandmother would wash and save aluminum foil after cooking because waste was a sin. In addition to the story, the newsletter includes some foil, an apron, and a recipe. The kids get to make the family biscuit recipe with their parents and be a part of this family narrative.
Every story, and every subsequent activity, is designed to last about an hour. During this time, they can talk with their parent about the family value that the newsletter conveys. This is a beautiful way of allowing the kids to take ownership of their role in the family and choose these values for themselves. If you want to implement this idea with your own family, Mitzi has a book called How to Communicate Values to Children.
Connect with Mitzi Perdue
About Mitzi Perdue
Mitzi Perdue is the daughter of one business titan (her father founded the Sheraton Hotel Chain) and the widow of another, (her late husband was the poultry magnate, Frank Perdue). She is also a businesswoman in her own right. She started the family wine grape business, now one of the larger suppliers of wine grapes in California.
Mitzi likes nothing better than to share insider tips for building a powerful & effective family culture. Her family of origin (the one that started the Sheraton Hotels) began with the Henderson Estate Company in 1840. Her Perdue family started in 1920 in the poultry business. These two families have a combined tradition of 276 years of staying together as a family. Mitzi is happy to share actionable advice on how they did it.
Mitzi Perdue holds degrees from Harvard and George Washington Universities, and as a former rice grower and wine grape grower in California, is a past president of the 35,000-member American Agri-Women. In addition, she was one of the U.S. Delegates to the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi and is a former Commissioner for the U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science.
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