"Mom Always Fixed Him What He Wanted for Breakfast"
A Discussion About Siblings in Business
by Ronald C. Reece, Ph.D.

Distrust, arguing, silence and avoidance were the day to day norm for two business partners and brothers. Their relationship had deteriorated over the years to the point of interfering with running the business. My job was to help them communicate effectively in order to work together to manage the business. In the course of conversation, the older one said to me, "Mom always fixed him whatever he wanted for breakfast." What this man was really saying was that his brother was spoiled. He had put up with it for years, but was not going to let him get his way this time. Children often complain that their parents show favoritism to another sibling. However, these brothers and business partners were 75 and 73 years old. Early sibling issues do linger and can interfere with the current day relationship.

Whether it is a multigenerational family business or brothers and sisters who have decided to own their own business, sibling relationships can span the gamut of love, respect, anger, resentment or apathy. I once asked an eight year old boy, "How do you show your brother you love him?" He responded, "I tell him and I hit him in the back." This simple statement sums up the picture quite well and, even in the best of sibling relationships, there is a dynamic tension. In our forties, my brother and I still tease, "I'm the smartest," or "I'm the best looking." And remember the Smothers Brothers' "Mom always liked you best."

Siblinghood is likely to be the longest family relationship a person has. Mix business with the dynamics of brothering and sistering and the result can be powerful, plentiful, or painful, but probably seldom boring. Such factors as birth order, gender and age spacing significantly contribute to who we are and how we act. Laura Markowitz says it well, "In a sense, our siblings are as responsible for creating us as our parents. All planets, though drawn to the sun, pull on one another, shaping one another's course." In all families, children assume certain roles and, as a result, obtain labels: the smart one, the helper, the troublemaker, etc. Even as grown-up siblings, we will often unconsciously relate to each other in ways defined by those childhood roles.

So what? That stuff happens all the time. Because of the "Great Hand Off" that is occurring in family businesses as post-World War II entrepreneurs retire or die, sibling partnerships and cousin consortiums are growing in numbers. As a result, questions arise about which sibling will take the lead, or will they co-lead effectively. In essence, the questions are how will we relate to each other and what governance systems will we use to help the business thrive. Obviously, the typical founding entrepreneur's autocratic ways will have to give way to a more democratic orientation in order to address the multi-person ownership complexities. This dictates a process that forces siblings to face and interact with one another as members of the business team.

Over the last seven years as a consultant to business families, I have had the privilege to work with a number of sibling partnerships that were at a serious change point or were in some state of crisis. The emotional content and conflict in these situations was always related to early family interactions as opposed to "pure" business issues. For example, there was the older sister who had always felt left out. Her father and brother made all the decisions. She continued to feel left out as a non-active shareholder, but having finally had enough on the side-lines, demanded an active role with no preparation, thereby creating a crisis. In another situation, we consulted with two brothers who ran a $250 million a year business, but couldn't stand each other's company for more than 30 minutes at a time. This conflict arose from many years of difficulty competing for their father's approval and their father's inability to allow them to solve their own problems. Then, there were three brothers who grew up with their father coaching them to compete with one another, finally reaching a point where the competition and lack of ability to share their success drove them apart. It seems to me that the siblings in these families did not have the opportunity to gain or benefit from the knowledge that we have today about creating positive sibling partnerships for the long haul. In each of those situations, the family assumed the siblings would be in business together. This was the way it was "supposed to be." As time passed and the siblings grew into adulthood, they were absorbed into the family business. No one took the time to objectively step back from the situation, evaluate, modify, create, or even decide not to participate.

So how do we help sibling partnerships not just survive, but thrive?

Create a shared vision
Create a shared mission
Follow a strategic plan
Recognize that there will always be some rivalry
Maintain a humorous perspective on rivalry issues
Take pride in siblings' achievements
Share the glory
Create a family employment policy
Engage qualified and trusted advisors
Establish regular family business and leisure times together

Getting ahead of the "crisis curve", one family asked me to facilitate a retreat designed to establish vision, mission, values statements and a family employment policy. In addition to the owners and spouses, we included their 6 children ages 8-19 (a beginning cousin consortium). What powerful messages we gave the younger generation! Conversation among us is good. Everyone can participate. Our family believes in these things. This is what our businesses are all about. Maybe in this family the focus will be on the wealth of "we" instead of "Mom did more for you."

In real estate, people say, "location, location, location." In sibling partnerships what counts is Communication, Communication, Communication! With communication comes understanding and resolution. Therefore, siblings can rise above their childhood roles and the lingering emotion connected to who got whatever he wanted for breakfast.

© Reece & Associates, P.A.