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Lights, camera...succession planning?
Video case study latest tool in Kellogg family business kit

By Matt Golosinski

It's no secret that family business can be filled with a range of the strong emotions that typically accompany blood relations. To understand this drama, say Kellogg School experts, it's sometimes helpful to employ a different kind of drama.

That's what Professors Lloyd Shefsky and John Ward have done with the creation of a recent teaching tool. The co-directors of the Kellogg Center for Family Enterprises have leveraged the power of the silver screen to convey some of the challenges confronting family businesses. The professors enlisted the services of award-winning actors and a producer — including veterans of Chicago's Goodman, Shakespeare, The Second City and Steppenwolf theaters — to create an engaging 16-minute video that reveals the boardroom dynamics at the fictitious Prince Co., a family enterprise facing new competition, and questions about how to meet it. The video debuted in October at Governing the Family Business, a four-day Kellogg School executive education program.

The initiative has been "overwhelmingly successful," said Shefsky, who wrote the screenplay.

Shefsky said the goal was to present materials in a way that resonated with media-savvy participants. Mission accomplished.

"Conference participants watched the film and immediately identified members of their own family with what they saw on the screen," he noted. "I don't think I've ever seen people do that with a written case nearly as deeply and personally."

Traditional teaching methods aren't going away, Shefsky said, adding that the Center for Family Enterprises has actually produced more written family business cases over its five-year existence than any other peer school. However, he observed, "this is a multimedia world, and good teachers need every possible teaching tool."

This video case isn't the first time Shefsky has employed multimedia to address business challenges. Some 15 years ago he wrote a play, titled "Prospectus Perspective," to articulate the complexity of taking a business public, as many of his clients at the law firm that bears his name were eager to do — even when it was a bad move for them.

The play had "an immediate and astounding impact," recalled Shefsky.

Still, he wasn't sure if a similarly unorthodox approach would deliver results in the family business context. But it has.

"The actors were superb," he said. "Even without any coaching on the details of family business, they got it. They portrayed the most minute elements of our characters. I guess if they can understand Shakespeare, they can understand a family business."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University