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Homegrown: Nurturing a Family Culture Where Everyone Can Thrive

This is the third in a series of articles that looks at what organizational culture is, why it’s important, and how to change it.

Since graduating from BYU Marriott with his MBA in 2014, Derek Pando has worked for three companies that consistently rank in the top 10 places to work: Salesforce, LinkedIn, and most recently Zoom, where he was head of international and partner marketing during the all-Zoom-all-the-time pandemic. The work cultures of all three, says Pando, were “intentional and up front,” cultures where company values were clear, inspiring, and real.

Photo by Illustration by Red Nose Studio

It was this same intentionality, he realized, that he wanted to apply to his family life.

So early on in their marriage, Pando and his wife, Stephany, wrote down what they wanted their family to stand for. Now this framed list of six values sits in their living room, a daily reminder to “love one another, forgive each other, work hard, give thanks, live within our means, serve others and God.”

“Every family is going to have a culture,” Pando observes. “You’re better off shaping it.”

In a family, just as in a business, a list of values is most meaningful and effective when it has been not only carefully thought through and communicated but lived on a daily basis, in matters big and small. Pando remembers one Christmastime at Zoom when founder Eric Yuan explained that he wouldn’t be coming to the company party because he had promised his son to never miss a single one of his basketball games. It was corporate culture in real time—and an example to employees that it was okay to value commitments to their own families.

In our homes, there are no quarterly reports or annual stockholder meetings, and the people we manage sometimes kick each other in the leg on long car trips. Still, there are similarities between parenting and running a business, starting with the need to establish a “culture” in which everyone can thrive.

Parents as Multipliers

Parenting, says Liz Wiseman, is like being a corporate leader. And in case you think she’s just tossing off a vague simile, she adds: “It’s not a little like it—I mean exactly like it.”

Wiseman, who earned her MOB from BYU Marriott in 1988, is now CEO of the Wiseman Group in Silicon Valley and teaches leadership at companies ranging from Apple to Tesla. In 2019 she was named to Thinkers50’s top 50 global management thinkers. As her four children grew, Wiseman realized that “these things I’m learning as a mom are helping me be a better manager, and what I’m doing at work is helping me be a better mom.”

Wiseman knows she’s a take-charge kind of person, so it’s with only slight hyperbole that she imagines she was trying to boss her unborn baby during her first pregnancy. (“Okay, this week it’s fingers and toes! Go!”) She was a vice president at Oracle at the time, and one day she had an epiphany: My baby is growing without me telling it to.

She transferred that aha moment to the business world. “People are wired to grow,” she observes. “Your job is to incubate talent.”

Good business leaders are what Wiseman calls multipliers. Ineffective leaders are diminishers, including the biggest subcategory: accidental diminishers. The same applies at home, she says.

The things that accidental diminishers do may not look too damaging at first glance. In fact, most “senior managers” at home and at work are good people who are trying to do a good job. However, these accidental diminishers are often overbearing with their big ideas, their hyperenthusiasm, and their tendencies to micromanage or “rescue” their employees or children. Quite inadvertently the accidental diminisher sucks all the air out of the room, preventing others from growing.

In contrast, the bottom line of a strong family culture is how well it produces autonomy, says Wiseman, who quotes the chapter on children in Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. . . . You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

Patterns and Outcomes

As Gibb Dyer, academic director of BYU Marriott’s Melvin J. Ballard Center for Social Impact, says, “The goal of parents is to create independent children who can function without us.”

When Dyer was growing up, his father and a neighbor decided that they would try an experiment: swap children for a week. Dyer’s brother Michael went to live with the McLeans, and Herb McLean came to live with the Dyers. At the end of the week, Michael decided there were too many rules at the neighbors’ house and not enough music; Herb thought the Dyers were a little too noisy and unstructured. Both were happy, Dyer points out in his book The Family Edge, to return to what they were accustomed to.

Often, Dyer says, we only really see our own culture when we step outside it and observe a different one, in the same way he understood English grammar better when he studied Japanese. We may not recognize the patterns of our family life, he says, and we may even have blind spots. We may think our families are more nurturing than they really are.

“I think most families don’t think about what kinds of patterns will lead to good outcomes,” says Dyer, who in his decades of studying family-owned businesses has had a front-row seat to observe why some families falter and others are not only financially successful but happy.

There is, thankfully, no Glassdoor ranking of Best Families to Live In. And there are all kinds of families: boisterous ones and quiet ones, adventurous families and homebodies. Some families prioritize social justice or creativity while others place a higher value on sports or lifelong learning. In some, the parents are simply more innately talented at creating healthy relationships. In other families, a child may have emotional problems that are difficult to navigate. Family culture norms can also vary across societal cultures; for example, some may stress conformity over individuality.

So how can you tell if a family is doing culture “right”? There is no sales-volume bottom line, no employee turnover rate to calculate. But are there metrics for assessing a family’s success? Should we look at good grades and awards in school? Being able to weather life’s inevitable low points with love and grace? A feeling of safety and belonging? Laughter?

A groundbreaking 1990 report called Child Trends, commissioned by the US Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged the difficulty of assessing what works. “One criterion for a successful family is that it is able to reproduce itself: i.e., to raise children who go on to establish stable and harmonious families themselves,” the researchers wrote. The problem, they acknowledged, is that for each family the data doesn’t come in for at least two or three decades.

When social scientists began studying families in the early part of the 20th century, the emphasis was on pathology—studying the families, for example, where children had turned to crime. Later researchers began to look at functional families, and later still they turned their attention to families that were flourishing, as BYU has done with its Flourishing Families Project. “Just as good health at the individual level is more than the absence of disease,” wrote the authors of the Child Trends report, “so healthy family functioning is more than a lack of obvious problems.”

Building Intentional Families

The Child Trends report was the first example of researchers from different disciplines and biases coming to a consensus about the characteristics of strong families. They listed nine: communication, encouragement of individuals, expressing appreciation, commitment to family, religious/spiritual orientation, social connectedness, ability to adapt, clear roles, and time together.

For Wiseman, a healthy family would be able to answer yes to the following questions, just as a healthy business would: Do people feel respected? Do they feel trusted? Are they entrusted with responsibility? Do they feel listened to? Are they held accountable for their actions? Are they engaged? Would they “recommend this place” to others? In other words, will your kids, as they get older, choose to spend time with you and even bring their friends home to spend the weekend?

For Jason Whiting, graduate program coordinator and professor of marriage and family therapy at BYU, the qualities of honesty, accountability, and respect are key. It seems like an obvious list, he acknowledges, “but it’s amazing how many people don’t follow it.”

To one degree or another, says Rachel Sullivan, author of Creating Your Forever Family, many of us raise our children the same way our parents raised us. But when she had her first child at age 30 after a career in publishing, she decided to research what could keep her family out of the just-trying-to-survive category. “I never knew I was so incompetent,” she says, laughing, remembering those early days when her baby wouldn’t sleep.

The result is a book based on the qualities encouraged in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” issued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1995. Those qualities include “faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.”

In addition to trying to live up to those ideals plus fostering a love for learning, Sullivan and her husband try to come up with a different theme each year for their family: “Living in thanksgiving daily,” for example, or “We can do hard things.”

Family culture transcends family configuration, says Stephen Duncan, a recently retired professor in BYU’s School of Family Life. Traditional families, blended families, single-parent families—“it’s more about what happens inside the home rather than the structure,” he says. “Love at home is love at home.”

Duncan was director of content development for the BYUtv series Real Families, Real Answers, which debuted in 2008 and is now available online. The 13-part series builds on the nine characteristics of healthy families first proposed by the Child Trends report, and the series features Duncan as well as William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of the book The Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World.

An intentional family is one that resists the forces that pull it apart, and it does so by being mindful, plan-full, using time well, and thinking about setting a course as a family, Doherty explains in the series. A family is a “people maker,” he adds, and of course he’s not just talking about the biology of reproduction. “There is no social institution that is set up to grow and develop people like the family.”

Adds Duncan, “It’s a myth that family comes naturally, that we just need to get married and have a family and it will work out.”

Family Culture and Moral Development

“Moral ecosystem” is the way the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia defines a family in its 2012 report Culture of American Families. The report, based on responses to 500 questions from 3,000 people nationwide, divides American families into four cultures: (1) The Faithful, (2) Engaged Progressives, (3) The Detached, and (4) American Dreamers.

The Faithful (20 percent of respondents) believe that morality is received from a divine source. They’re determined to defend the traditional social order, say the report’s authors, but are less likely than other parents to agree that the mother’s role in raising children is more important than the father’s.

Engaged Progressives (21 percent of respondents) believe their job as parents is to prepare their children to be “responsible choosers” with strong moral character, but rather than being religious, they are more likely to embrace “a moral order with its own logic and moral criteria.” They are 11 times more likely than other parents to say they prefer to be close to their children rather than strict with them.

The Detached (19 percent of respondents) “lack the vision, vitality, certainty, and self-confidence required to embrace any agenda, even a relativistic one,” according to the report. When asked what traits they want their children to display as adults, “no trait—not even honesty—is rated as ‘absolutely essential.’”

American Dreamers (27 percent of respondents) are more likely to live below the poverty line and be less educated. They are highly engaged and believe that parents are the agents who make and enforce family rules. “They live and breathe a faith and hope that things will be better” for their children than things have been for them. Nearly 9 out of 10 list loving as an absolutely essential quality for their children, compared to just half of other parents.

What do all the parents, in aggregate, want for their children? Highest on the list: that their children are honest, loving, reliable, hardworking, financially independent, and highly educated; have a strong moral character; and preserve close ties with parents and family. Least important: that their children be thin, popular, famous, athletic, share their same political values, and have an interest in the arts, literature, and history.

The report makes no judgment about which type of family culture is the best one to grow up in. But though family cultures are “largely invisible,” say the researchers, they “are powerful” and “crucial elements for understanding the moral life of children and their families.”

A Common Vision

With so much riding on family culture, it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a family could or should be perfect. But Amanda Baize prefers a more generous barometer as she integrates her job as senior brand manager at Proctor & Gamble with her life at home as a wife and a mother of three small children. Rather than perfection—some Shangri-la where all the meals are balanced and the laundry folded—she strives for a more modest, healthier metric: “I did my best today. We’re all alive, and at the end of the day, we all feel loved.

“I adhere strongly to prioritization and simplification, drilling down to the core of what’s essential in our lives,” she explains. “For our family, what’s most important is the quality of our time together—being fully present in those moments. To protect the quality of that time, I cut out unnecessary activities, tasks, and homework.”

Baize, who graduated with an MBA from BYU Marriott in 2018, remembers studying grit—the qualities of perseverance, passion, and resilience that she now tries to encourage both at work and at home. Employees and children can sometimes be resistant to change, Baize notes, so with both she tries to create “excitement and energy around the idea that we get to do something new.”

In addition, she tries both at work and at home to provide a culture of listening and cooperation. “I want my children to give people the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “I want them to work together rather than compete. I want them to understand that united we rise and divided we fall.”

Families are the original startups. They have cultures, planned or simply by default. Some families come up with mission statements, some even have mottos—a kind of brand, you might say. With apologies to Leo Tolstoy, all happy families are not alike. But in the most intentional families, parents and children hopefully feel that they’re on the same path, that they don’t just live under the same roof or share a last name, but that they belong to something bigger than themselves—an organization with a common vision.

Written by Elaine Jarvik
Illustrations by Red Nose Studio

About the Author
Elaine Jarvik is a Utah playwright and former reporter for the Deseret News.

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