The Secret to Families That Retain Their Wealth? Values

In the Tony award–winning musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr is asked, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

Like Burr, many of us are challenged to examine our values as they become increasingly entwined in our daily lives. Whether fighting for gender parity, advocating for an inclusive workplace, or rallying for climate solutions through responsible investing, many of our core beliefs are assuming a more prominent role. And though you may have well-defined ideals, pinpointing which are most important requires thoughtful reflection. Where should you start?

What do you hold dear?

Every day, our values subtly influence our decisions and guide our actions. For instance, the more mindfully you align your financial decisions with your ethics, the more fulfilling and strategic these choices become. Or, when your principles inform your charitable intent, your donations take on a deeper meaning. Your beliefs may even influence the sale of your business, and whom you hire. But opportunities to actively articulate your ideals arise less frequently. Because most of us rely on actions speaking louder than words, it can be difficult to express something that’s such an integral part of ourselves (Display).

Your Values word cloud


At Bernstein, we often use guided exercises to uncover what matters the most—and the least—to clients across a range of situations, including:

  • Working with a business partner when selling an enterprise
  • Dividing family assets without dividing the family
  • Selecting a charitable focus across multiple generations

In each case, keeping an open mind and acknowledging deeply held beliefs can inspire a collective sense of purpose.

Beyond Belief

Once identified, values need to be conveyed—to see whether they are shared or not. For example, if your family coalesces around justice and freedom, you might focus your charity on human rights. But sustainability and resilience may appeal more to your daughter, so she may individually support conservation. Pinpointing values can enable families to appreciate unifying tenets while respecting unique differences.

The same rings true for business owners. If you built your business to embrace diversity, employees should be aware of that intent. If giving back to the community is part of your business’ mission, you may require that all employees participate in a day of service or earmark a portion of profits to support local initiatives.

A Practitioner’s Point of View

Below we provide three real-life examples demonstrating the importance of expressly communicating values:

One word, two meanings: A recently married couple engaged in a values exercise with their advisor. The wife selected tradition as a top value, but her husband—an entrepreneur who viewed “tradition” as stifling to innovation—placed it as a low priority. Yet as his wife described what tradition meant to her (holiday gatherings and cherished family rituals), the husband moved his tradition card to the highest level of importance.

A good cultural fit: An investment banker tasked with selecting potential buyers for a privately held company worked with Bernstein to uncover the owner’s principles. The exercise helped crystallize the business’ culture. Ultimately, the banker was able to narrow the list of potential buyers to someone with similarly held convictions. In fact, the owner accepted a lower sale price because she knew her employees would be better off with the firm’s culture intact.

Mismatched standards align: Siblings participated in the same exercise to rank causes to support via their family’s foundation. Each selected their top beliefs—and their lists differed substantially. But as they began to describe what each word meant to them, it became clear that they clustered around the theme of impact, particularly when it came to climate change.

What if values don’t line up?

Communicating ideals remains vital in establishing common ground, but also in highlighting differences. Beliefs that you may hold dear may not be prized by your loved ones or business partners. But that doesn’t make them less important. It’s equally essential to talk through dissimilar ones, in order to understand and validate varying viewpoints. So, keep an open mind, especially when connecting across generations. Other exercises can help tease out generational influences, which is especially important when passing down a family business to heirs.

Tell your story

In the final scene of Hamilton, the cast sings about Alexander’s legacy, and who will tell the story of his journey and achievements. What’s the story of your family or business? Your heirs or employees should know what your wealth or company means to you. As a result, they will have a more significant emotional stake in it. Start by sharing how you achieved success, made sacrifices, skirted risks, and embraced opportunities. Beyond the stories of resilience and triumph, share the purpose and vision for your business or family wealth. After all, future generations won’t have the benefit of being in the room where it happened.

Anne Bucciarelli
National Director—Family Engagement Strategy
Emily Neubert
Director—Family Governance

The views expressed herein do not constitute, and should not be considered to be, legal or tax advice. The tax rules are complicated, and their impact on a particular individual may differ depending on the individual’s specific circumstances. Please consult with your legal or tax advisor regarding your specific situation.

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