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Helping Family Businesses
Prosper Across Generations®

The Shadow Effect of the Founding Generation on the Sibling Partnership


By Stephanie Brun de Pontet Ph.D. and Kent B. Rhodes, Ed.D.

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The sibling partnership stage is widely regarded as the most challenging and intense of the family business generations. While there are business reasons for some difficulties seen at this stage, most challenges siblings encounter are related to emotional issues, which are typically harder to confront or address than simple business struggles. In fact, some of these issues may not be changeable or fixable, but appreciating that some of these dynamics may be playing a role in your business can at least help siblings recognize they are "normal" and perhaps develop better empathy for one another.

While we are loathe to blame the parents for the less-than-perfect behavior of their children, it cannot be denied that the way we are raised as siblings will have a profound effect on how we relate to one another. In addition, while siblings are raised in a similar environment, it is worth remembering that there are distinct personality differences that further complicate sibling relationships. Siblings tend to differentiate from one another to find their own place in the family system. This adds to the diversity of styles and interests that can make getting to consensus and working as a team more challenging. In fact, there are many ways sibling upbringing or differences get manifested in a family business, some of the more challenging ones we see include:

Competition: We have seen many clients where parents pit their children against each other by constantly comparing one to the other ("Johnny, why can't you be a better student like your sister Suzie?") or intentionally having them compete and then belittling the "loser" ("Mark, your sales numbers this quarter are so lame it made me think you'd been trained by the competition; why don't you talk to your brother Patrick, so he can show you how a true professional works..."). These same parents then wonder why their kids are always at each other's throat.

Advice to parents: If you are the parents of young children, please celebrate the varied skills and interests of your children and avoid the temptation to compare one to the other. Appreciate each child's unique gifts without comparing them to their sibling. While it can feel harmless and natural to describe one child as the "funny one" and the other as the "smart one," be mindful that your children hang on your every word and you can label and limit them from a pretty young age. In addition, while you should certainly give constructive feedback and acknowledge when your children are not measuring up, never mock or belittle your children - either when small, or as adults.

Advice to adult siblings: If you were raised in a very competitive household, think about how this may be affecting your relationship to your siblings today and what steps you can take to develop a more collaborative working relationship. It can be hard to collaborate with a person with whom you have always been competing. It may be worthwhile to talk with your siblings about how each remembers these facets of your upbringing. Do not be surprised if each remembers the stories a little differently - memory is imperfect, and the point is to build mutual understanding, not determine the "facts" or to bash Mom and Dad. You want to build empathy and understanding between siblings, and work together to acknowledge how this history may sometimes get in your way today.

Controlling Behavior: Often, business founders have a strong need for control. This is part of what makes them successful in launching a business, but can be a challenge on the path to transitioning management and ownership of this business to their children. When parents are very controlling they may limit the autonomy of their kids in the business, which can affect the frequency with which the siblings learn to work together to solve problems. When parents make all the decisions and hold onto the power as long as possible, their children may never learn to work together on anything of consequence as all decisions are run through the senior generation.

Advice to parents of young children: Encourage your children to solve their own problems and even work together on projects from as early an age as possible. When children are young and arguing, unless bodily harm is involved or imminent, resist the urge to get involved. When your child runs to you to complain about their sibling, offer them empathy for their distress, but send them back to resolve the issue with their sibling, without your involvement in any way. The sooner siblings get used to relating to one another without the interference of parents, the stronger will be their bond.

Advice to adult siblings: While some parents may be very controlling of the business and not ready to give up a lot of authority, find ways to work with your siblings on special projects and on planning for the future. Work with your siblings to plan a family vacation or retreat or make a proposal to your parents about philanthropic pursuits for the family. While your parents may not be ready to turn over the business decision-making reins to you anytime soon, as a sibling team you can work on things like determining the "code of conduct" you will use to govern your relationships. You can determine your decision-making process, and even set a shared vision for the future of the business. If there are some siblings who work in the business and others who do not, it is particularly important (and impressive) if you can do some of this team building and decision-making with all.

Entitlement: When parents have raised their children with an attitude of entitlement, all bets are off. This attitude is among the most destructive in business, whether you are in partnership with siblings or not. Sometimes parents who had to sacrifice so much to found and build the business will be tempted to buy their children things to replace the attention they have been unable to offer. Sometimes these parents may try to buy their children's affection with endless praise for the smallest of accomplishments. The result is often children who may have a puffed-up sense of their importance, think things are owed to them, and who do not have a good work ethic.

Advice to parents of children: While you do not want to burden your children with your work stress and worries, do make sure they understand how much work goes into building a business. It is critically important that they realize that it takes a whole team to makes things happen - not just the owners. Speak regularly of the amazing contributions of your key employees, the importance of teamwork and the fragile nature of reputation. While you want to celebrate your child's successes, also recognize when they are not meeting expectations, tell them that as members of the owning family they must seek to exceed the standard, not slide under the radar. A business is actually an excellent platform for imbuing children with many valuable life lessons that will serve them well in their journey to be a positive and contributing member of society, whether they have an active role in the business in the future or not. Do not shelter your children from hard work or hard choices; you will not be doing them any favors.

Advice to adult siblings: Take honest stock of your work ethic and your willingness to make some sacrifices for the common good. Whereas your parents had the luxury of making decisions on their own - siblings have to be able to compromise or engage in give and take. If one or all of you are not able to make some sacrifices for the good of the whole, ongoing joint ownership and/or management of a business will not be successful. Acknowledge when you need help and go out of your way to recognize the efforts and contributions of others (your siblings and other key players in the business). If you are spoiled, you need to take responsibility for the hard choices of grown-up life, or recognize that you cannot hope to be a successful shared owner of a business.

Powerful Vision: Paradoxically, when the founding generation is much beloved by all and a visionary leader, it can be hard for the sibling generation to emerge from this powerful shadow. The more the founders are revered, the harder it is to fill their shoes. In addition, the harder it may be for the sibling generation to find its own voice and purpose, as the parents' vision may be on such a high pedestal that any deviation from this approach is seen almost as blasphemy.

Advice to parents: While we all appreciate getting recognition for our hard work, having the humility to acknowledge the role of luck and the possibility that there may be other paths to success can be important to freeing up your children to think outside the box. Be open to change and the new ideas of the younger generation. Do not interpret the appetite for new approaches as a rejection of all you have accomplished. Rather, see it as a natural evolution and a sign that you enabled your children to think strategically and take risks for the future, just as you did when you were their age.

Advice to siblings: While it is wonderful to hold your parents in high esteem, you must remember that each generation needs to take the time to examine the business, its future and the shared purpose you have for it going forward. Though your parents may well have been extraordinary visionaries - all visions have a shelf life, and it is important that the sibling team develop their own dream and vision to unite them and provide a viable model forward for the company. Through this process it is important to remember that not all siblings will be comfortable with change at the same pace. While some will feel change is too slow, others may resist any change as too fast and unsettling. Remember that the different points of view that you all bring to the table will enable you to create better solutions as long as you respect one another and listen to each other's wisdom. The process for arriving at agreement on the nature and pace of any change to the business is an important part of gelling as a cohesive sibling partnership.
Any parent who has more than one child learns very quickly the power of nature and nurture. Our children come into this world with distinct personalities, and though raised in the same house, will experience even their shared history quite differently one from the other. Having said that, the context of their upbringing and shared history - especially around the business - will leave a lasting impression on how they perceive the business, one another and their willingness to work together as a family. As siblings, it is worth remembering that your siblings are the people with whom you will have longest relationship in your life. Normatively, we outlive our parents by a number of decades, and we typically only meet our spouse in our 20s or 30s - so the people with whom we really share life's journey are our brothers and sisters.

This underscores that while working to build a strong and effective sibling team can be a challenge, in our experience, it is very worthwhile. We have seen many sibling groups thrive while working together, and find real joy in deepening their bonds with one another through the challenge and excitement of shared business management and/or oversight. If you have the opportunity and responsibility to deepen your bond to your siblings, or to set the stage for strong sibling relations between your children, make the effort to do it right!




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