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Top 10 tips for successful sibling working relationships

How do you avoid strife in sibling relationships in family businesses? CampdenFB takes a look.
Top 10 tips for successful sibling working relationships
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©David Lyttleton

1) Don’t create a pressure cooker. It shouldn’t be all or nothing when it comes to the family business, says Insead’s Randel Carlock. When parents say, “if you want part of the wealth in this family, you have got to work in this business”, you’ll end up with children joining the family firm despite not being qualified or it not being their first interest. “That’s when emotions take over,” Carlock says. “When people are smart and capable, their smarts and capabilities balance their emotions. When people are weak and afraid and unqualified, that’s when they deal with emotions.”

2) Differentiate positions. If siblings do show an interest in working in the business, it’s important that they are not competing for the same jobs or resources. “They need to figure out what their roles are going to be and how they are differentiated from each other,” says London Business School’s Nigel Nicholson.

3) Only work together if you get on. So says Clark Construction’s Chuck Clark. It sounds simple, but if you struggle to get on with your sibling, you’ll probably find it even harder when business is thrown into the mix.

4) Be on the same page. For a partnership to be successful, siblings need to share the same goals. “Try and establish early on what all of you are trying to achieve,” says Irwin Mitchell’s John Nicholson. Wayne Rivers of the Family Business Institute adds: “A business is very much like a marriage – you take two people (or more) and in spite of their human differences, they need to focus like a laser beam on one common goal or vision for their business.”

5) Agree on the rules. Before any problems arise, work with a consultant to draw up a family agreement that everyone agrees to, says Riso Gallo’s Mario Preve. “You must have rules. I say that each country has a constitution and companies have a statute – families must have a family agreement.”

6) Know your role. If all the siblings are owners, and some are also managers, the non-managing ones can start trying to behave like managers. They should resist this. “Owning a business is very different from managing a business. If I own shares in IBM, I would never walk into an IBM factory and tell people what to do. But that’s exactly what happens in family businesses,” Rivers says. Either become a manager or let the managers do their job.

7) Consider counselling. Don’t be afraid to seek outside advice to help make the partnership stronger, says Rivers. Whether that’s seeking the council of a “wise uncle” or the company’s chief emotional officer, or speaking to outside consultants, it can help put partnerships on the right track.

8) Talk, talk, talk. “I have an expression – once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you are not going to put it back in. So what you want to try to do is avoid conflict,” says Carlock. In other words, once something is said it can’t be unsaid. It’s best, then, to talk about problems before they become big and somebody snaps and says something that damages the relationship.

9) Shut up and listen. You don’t have to dominate each conversation – let others give their views too. “You’d be amazed at how much difference it makes in a family when they learn how to listen – when they learn to shut up, not say a word and really listen,” says Carlock.

10) Compromise. Sometimes, if siblings want different things, the best option will be a compromise. “The best thing to do, as in life in general, is to discuss, to look for a compromise or a solution that will work for the majority – it is very hard to please everyone,” says John Nicholson.

Click here for an in-depth look at the problem of sibling rivalry in family businesses. 

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