Academic journal article Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice

Succession Narratives in Family Business: The Case of Alessi

Academic journal article Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice

Succession Narratives in Family Business: The Case of Alessi

Article excerpt

One of the most significant challenges facing family firms is how to successfully manage succession from one generation of leaders to the next. In this paper, we contribute to existing understandings of this complex and difficult process by exploring how successors use family business succession narratives to legitimate their succession. Building on a case study of Alessi, a family-owned Italian design firm, we draw on the literature on organizational narratives to develop a framework for understanding family business succession narratives and present a typology of some of the narrative strategies that can be used during succession. We conclude with a discussion of the theoretical and practical ramifications of a narrative view of succession in family firms.


In family businesses, transitions of managerial control from one generation to the next pose significant challenges and often "simply do not work out" (Miller, Steier, & Le Breton-Miller, 2003, p. 513). Thus, the switch between generations represents a time when family firms are especially vulnerable (Handler & Kram, 2004), and many family firms struggle to survive beyond the first generation. Family business researchers have long recognized these difficulties, and a growing body of research has explored this process and the factors that underpin effective and ineffective succession.

While this work has provided considerable insight into succession in family firms, it has generally used frameworks anchored in economics, such as agency theory (Lubatkin, Schulze, Ling, & Dino, 2005), the resource-based view (RBV) of the firm (Cabrera-Suarez, De Saa-Perez, & Garcia-Almeida, 2001), and theories of intention and strategic planning (Sharma, Chrisman, & Chua, 2004). As a result, we have only a partial understanding of family business succession, and one that neglects, in particular, the role of language and meaning in the family business succession processes.

In this paper, we seek to build on calls (e.g., Steier, 2007) for researchers to take language and meaning more seriously in the study of family firms by considering the role of narratives in the succession process. Narratives are accounts of events--oral, written, or filmed--that are told to convey meaning (Barry & Elmes, 1997; Smith, 2000). More specifically, narratives are complex social artifacts that constitute "storylike constructions containing description, interpretation, emotion, expectations, and related material" (Harvey, 1995, p. 3). Social scientists have taken a particular interest in narratives because they are commonly used in attempts to influence how others understand the actions, events, or processes described in the stories (Barry & Elmes).

Narratives play an especially crucial role during family business succession (Dawson & Hjorth, 2012). This is a time when the meaning of family, the eligibility of the prospective head, and the appropriateness of appointing from within all come under scrutiny (De Massis, Chua, & Chrisman, 2008). Narratives have the potential to help family members make sense of this complex and challenging situation. Yet, surprisingly, few family business researchers have considered succession in this way. Indeed, Dawson and Hjorth (p. 350) explicitly note the need for more research on family business succession that draws on the concept of narrative in order to bring the "relational, dramatic nature of social reality to the fore."

Our aim is to extend the small number of existing studies that have sought to connect narrative and family business research (e.g., Dawson & Hjorth, 2012; Hamilton, 2006; Steier, 2007) by showing how successors use narratives to legitimate succession in family firms. In addition to providing a framework for understanding this process, we present a typology of narrative strategies that can be deployed to manage the process effectively. To do so, we draw on an in-depth case study of succession at Alessi, a medium-sized, Italian family firm founded in 1921. …

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