Thought Leadership Articles by William Gartner January 2020

Legacy and Achievement in Family Entrepreneurship

by William B. Gartner, Bertarelli Foundation Distinguished Professor of Family Entrepreneurship
January 2020

In discussions with entrepreneurial families about their futures, I often suggest that each family member consider four aspects of their lives (achievement, happiness, significance and legacy) as a framework for exploring their goals and values. This framework comes from “Just Enough” – written by Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson. The book focuses on what “success” in life means for highly successful individuals (and families). Often there is a mismatch and many misunderstandings among family members in regards to what they want across these four dimensions of success. This is often the case in terms of issues of legacy and achievement. 

Before I delve into the framework, please note that these four characteristics of success are dynamic, in that the priorities for each of the characteristics change over time as well as how they relate to each other. What may bring happiness (or achievement or significance, or legacy) today is likely to be different as circumstances in our lives evolve. Failure to recognize that our success criteria have changed is often where the conflicts and struggles are. Given how fast-paced changes are: in the world, our societies, and in the competitive nature of business, it is a challenge to stop and “pay” attention to ourselves and our situations. I emphasize the “pay” in “pay attention” because there is a cost to taking the time to be present and evaluate ourselves and what is around us. It often is less costly, at least in the moment, to just go with the flow of life. The framework, then, provides a way for paying attention to ourselves, now, and, to consider where we want to be.

What are the characteristics of: achievement, happiness, significance, and legacy? Consider achievement to be: goals that are accomplished. Each person, then, has a set of goals that are individually prioritized and important to them, which are likely to change over time as certain achievements are accomplished and other aspects of their lives take priority. One family member might want to be a successful artist exhibiting paintings at Art Basel Miami Beach, while another family member might want to develop a new product line in the family business. Happiness is when there is contentment and satisfaction. Obviously, contentment and satisfaction occur across many aspects of our lives, not only in what we achieve, but in our relationships, families, community, and, in just being ourselves. Significance is when there is a positive impact on others. We all want to be of value, whether it is raising our children, or providing a product or service that others use, or solving issues in our community. Legacy is enabling one’s accomplishments and values to benefit others in the future.

In considering these four dimensions, think about what you would list under each of these four categories for: self, family, work and community. Realize that you might not have something to put into each category, yet you might see that some activities could satisfy a number of different dimensions and categories.  What you do at work might be an achievement that brings you happiness as well as something that is of significance to others, and might also generate a legacy. The goal in making this list is not to look for activities that meet all four dimensions, but to explore where you are putting your time and energy and to see whether one dimension of the four might be outweighing the other three.  One of the fundamental ideas of “Just Enough” is that a successful individual (and families) will navigate, over time, to balance these four dimensions. So, for instance, at certain times, achievement might be more of a priority, so, for example, achievement through building a business is likely to take more time and energy than other dimensions. Therefore, time with family might be minimized for achievement, yet, over time, achievement, alone, is costly if one doesn’t balance it out with time and energy in the other three dimensions.  Isn’t that the story of King Midas? So, a successful life is a balance of all four, over time, and, successful individuals (and families) will navigate how these four dimensions will be prioritized over time. One dimension might be prioritized for a time, but, at some point, success in one dimension needs to be “just enough” as to not become all to consuming as the only goal in one’s life. 

Now, while a lot can be done through this exercise for exploring many types of family dynamics that are affected across the four dimensions, I will devote the rest of this note to a focus on one dynamic of this framework that I have seen in some business families: senior generation legacies and a mismatch with the next generation’s achievement goals.  Simply – what the senior generation often wants to provide as a legacy to the next generation is not what the next generation wants in order to pursue their own achievement goals. Sometimes, what the senior generation sees as their legacy are specific businesses that they have owned, operated and grown over the years. If the senior generation intends to pass on that specific legacy (the business or businesses) to the next generation, it is often a surprise when the next generation doesn’t want to receive it in the way it is given. I am not saying that the next generation doesn’t want to receive the business and get involved in operating it in the future. What I am saying here is that the next generation has their own needs to achieve in life that will require them to go beyond the legacy they have received.  The next generation can’t satisfy their achievement goals in receiving a legacy. Achievements are not what can be given to them. Achievements are what the next generation does with what they are given. 

In a prior essay, I suggested that legacies can either be a burden or an enabler for the next generation. What I am suggesting here in this note is that an enabling legacy is one that is provided by the senior generation to the next generation in a way for the next generation to achieve their future goals. For enabling legacies, sometimes, achieving future goals of the next generation will require that the legacy given is modified and changed in significant ways. How does this play out in real life? For some business families, the next generation’s achievement goals may not involve managing the business(es) received. The “legacy” may end up being sold or managed and operated by non-family members. For some business families, the next generation may want to move the businesses into new markets, or entirely different business areas and to use the current business as a spring board to accomplishing these new goals and achievements. And for some business families, operating the received business(es) in the current manner may be sufficient for achieving that next generation’s goals. What is necessary for the business family to discuss is what the family legacies are, and, appropriate ways these legacies can be utilized by the next generation. 

Finally, it is well worth noting that the senior generation’s legacy doesn’t need to be the businesses or assets or any of the tangible resources that have accrued over the years. The most important legacy, I believe, involves imparting the senior generation’s entrepreneurial wisdom, mindset, and skills to the next generation. What the senior generation has in abundance is “experience” which is often tacit knowledge that is usually difficult to impart to others. The challenge of giving away the legacy of “experience” then, to the next generation requires ongoing dialogue and active generational involvement. Making “tacit” knowledge visible is something that I will cover in the next note in this series.


Nash, L., & Stevenson, H. (2004). Just enough: Tools for creating success in your work and life. John Wiley & Sons.