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Brothers and Business


06Mar 2008

There is an old saying, “It is good for brothers to get along”. And it is true. But one of the most frequent problems I see in my work is the challenge of brothers “getting along” in business. And the issue plays out in many different ways and settings:

*Brothers who have been working together for years (and now are in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s) and have built a successful business together, and are now in conflict about business succession issues — especially about how and whether the next generation should be involved in the business.

*Adult sons of the business founder who are working in the business, in different roles and levels of responsibility, and struggling with what is fair in compensation, power, influence and privileges.

*Adult children (for it is not always just brothers, but their sisters, too) — some of whom are in the business, some who are not directly involved in the day-to-day management — who are owners together and have significant conflict over the direction of the business and how resources should be distributed (i.e. dividend distributions, bonuses for the managing owners).

*One or more siblings who are working hard, taking their responsibilities in the business seriously, along with one sibling (usually a brother) who is “coasting” — not working very hard, not putting in the hours, not getting the job done — but who is pulling the same benefits (income, perks) and playing a lot more than his siblings. Result: plenty of resentment to go around.

There are lots of variations.

You may or may not remember that I grew up in a family owned business (a manufacturing company). I am the youngest of four sibs, and although I did not work in the business as an adult, I was an owner and on the Board. My two brothers worked in the business (as did my sister later on) and we had our own challenges — personality differences; some were owners and managers, others (me) were non-managing owners. So I speak from experience — it is good for brothers (and sisters) to get along. And it is a pain when you don’t.

You may have heard that there are two “CEO’s” in family businesses: the Chief Executive Officer, and the Chief Emotional Officer. The latter is often the matriarch in the family system (she may be the wife, mother, mother-in-law, or grandmother depending on the stage of the family). And one of the (self-imposed) roles of the Chief Emotional Officer is try to ensure that everyone in the family gets along. (Good luck!)

In fact, when identifying goals for the family and the business, the most frequent goal cited by the matriarch is either: “I just want everyone to be happy.” or “I would like everyone to get along peacefully.”

So, what is the point, practically? First, it may be helpful to recognize that conflict between brothers in business is a common occurrence. If this is your current (or past) experience, you are not alone.

Secondly, it is an important issue to pay attention to. Many successful businesses have been shipwrecked by unresolved conflicts among siblings in business together. It is to everyone’s benefit to address issues early, before they become unresolvable.

Finally, it is critical to recognize that relational issues — trust, healthy communication, acceptance of differences, resolving conflicts in a healthy way — are just as important for the long-term success of a family-owned business as are good management and execution of the business plan.

If you, or your family’s business, is struggling in this area, I’d love to help you work through the issues in a way that will bring a positive resolution. If I can help, let me know.

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