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Sibling Relationships in the Family Firm

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Cain and Abel? Hansel and Gretel? Sibling Relationships in the Family Firm

by Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D.

The sibling relationship is the longest relationship of life. Our sibs enter our lives - without our choice - long before our spouses, and usually they outlive our parents. Your position in the sibline, or birth order, has a profound impact on your personality: eldest children more frequently become National Merit Scholars; middle children develop creative ways to negotiate; and the youngest, always having had an audience, can regale the entire breakfast nook with outrageous imitations of everyone else in the family.

Sibling rivalry erupts from the very beginning of the human family, as told in the Book of Genesis, when Yahweh himself favors Adam's younger son Abel and his gifts, more than Cain, the eldest. Cain, in jealous resentment, murders his brother, and lives the rest of his life in exile. Fratricide shattered the oldest family of all, and even God did not prevent it.

Sibling relationships within family businesses are rarely murderous - although there are some unsolved murders in prominent U.S. family businesses - but they do carry enormous emotional power, especially among sibs of the same gender, close in age, with plentiful "access" to each other during the formative experiences of childhood and adolescence: the bonds forged over thousands of fights for the TV remote control, as well as the delights of 4th of July sparklers, endure beyond death.

As American families change in structure, from four or six or nine children born over more than twenty years, to two or three, delivered closely together so the mother can return to work sooner, sibling relationships will predictably become more intense. In many two career families - or families working overtime to launch a business - sibs end up spending more time together, perhaps with other caretakers, than they spend with their own parents. And the pecking order - who gets the most pizza, parental eye contact and help with homework - is profoundly affected by who was born first, and how many children are already in line.

Images forged among siblings tend to be set in bronze: the 47 year old CEO of a major corporation who shows up at a Bar Mitzvah is still called "the baby of the family"; the high school wide receiver is still "the jock" to his brothers, even though he's now an astrophysicist; and the eldest daughter gets up after Thanksgiving dinner to start the dishes before anyone else.

As siblings move into the family firm, the strength of their bonds can stabilize the business, as they defend each other against all outsiders, or rivalry can erupt right in the middle of the shop floor, or the front office, with ancient power.

Some basic concepts about sibling relationships, culled from experts including Frank J. Solloway in his 1996 book, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives, can help the family business capitalize on sibling rivalry, rather than be disrupted - or destroyed by it. The following observations are summarized from Solloway, Stephen Bank's recently revised book called The Sibling Bond, and other professional sources, including my own reflections as a family psychologist and consultant to families in business. Check them out, compared to your own experience.

First-born children from different families are often more alike, than sibs from the same family.

First-borns are taught to speak up and tell what really happened while Mom was at the store; generally they are more comfortable in take-charge situations than their younger sibs. They tend to become more conscientious and responsible, and, consequently, more worried and anxious with problems beyond their control. Although all the children from the same biological parents have the same genetic inheritance, diversity within a family is accomplished biologically because the genes are recombined, or "scrambled" in each subsequent birth. As with social security numbers, the same digits can form thousands of combinations, each unique.

The eldest son, groomed from the time he was 6 to "take over" the company, may worry through the night about last year's performance figures, and share his fears more readily with the company attorney, ( also a first-born, responsible type) than with his younger brother, the golfer, who shows up 9 holes late every sunny morning.

Parents do have favorites.

Children who physically resemble one side of the family more than another, the child born after three miscarriages, the "baby" who is also the first boy, will, understandably hold a special place. In one recent survey, more than two-thirds of those interviewed reported that their parents did have favorites. This secret feeling leaks out around the words of fairness again and again. Hopefully, at least one of the parents (one more reason why, ideally, we have two) will work hard to discover an emotional link with the child whose chemistry seems much more like Uncle Larry's (the one who bankrupted grandma's farm because of insatiable gambling on the new riverboat) than either mom's or dad's.

One son or daughter may identify with and "speak for" one parent more than another, especially in times of conflict or divorce, and become a favored candidate for promotion, even though on-the-job performance is below par.

Fighting between sibs is beneficial.

Even though I personally abhor violence, I have come to accept fights between siblings, mostly because I have learned that they usually have an exquisite sense of just how far to go without actually injuring each other. By learning how to handle aggression within the protected environment of the home, sibs learn how to manage anger within limits, and develop confidence in their own capacity - especially when the youngest brother finally reaches 6' 3" - to defend themselves in the future against confrontation from strangers.

Families in which siblings are encouraged to express strong differences directly, find common ground, and get over it, ultimately experience more intimacy, because the fight is honest, out in the open. Anger is a clue to your deepest values, what you are willing to fight for. Anger can be a powerful source of energy for positive change, especially if it is focused on intolerable behavior, or honest differences in ideas or values, and not on destroying the other person. Families which can resolve conflict effectively, and agree to get back together within 24 hours, can end up with a much deeper understanding of each other. Make-ups, complete with laughter, can even be fun.

Moms and Dads who fight fair with words at home - expressing honest disagreements without name-calling or obscenities - can teach their sons and daughters later working in the family firm how to disagree, sort core values, and resolve differences without humiliating or dominating each other.

Personality differences between sibs are an advantage to the family firm.

Successful siblings learn how to divide turf, as surely as they drew an imaginary line down the middle of a the back seat of the car driving all the way to Michigan. Your laterborn daughter may be suited for management of the new Quality Circles program, because she learned early to relate to lots of different personalities, and to negotiate differences. Your youngest son may be delighted to open the new sales office in Singapore, because younger sibs tend to be more open to new experience, as they continually define their uniqueness in contrast to the brothers who got there first. Laterborns of every socioeconomic class are inclined to accept new ideas more readily than first borns, who often identify more with the more conservative parental generation - which they represented frequently as baby-sitters.

Especially as family firms mature into the third and fourth generations, it becomes crucial to capitalize on the differences between sibs. The task is to discover the "niche" which best matches the talents, personality, and birth order style of each son or daughter, whether inside or outside the family business. Spin offs were invented for sibs who differ more than they agree.

Children raised without parents do not exhibit sibling rivalry.

Children who survived the Holocaust without their parents stayed together under extraordinary circumstances, searching for their lost families after WWII, helping each other survive, without competition. Sets of siblings raised in orphanages reportedly also develop cooperative, supportive relationships, perhaps because they are not competing for limited parental attention, and are forced to rely on each other for emotional connectedness.

Certainly, no one would promote raising children without parents, but parents who are stressed out, focused primarily on their own agendas, or without enough emotional reserves to nurture each child, may stimulate competition between sibs. Fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time per day with each child, at bedtime, or during a trip to the hardware store, remains an effective norm, even while building a business.

Children of the same parents can be raised by different parents.

Every seven years every cell in our bodies is transformed. Between the birth of the first child and the last, especially if several years intervene, parents change physically, emotionally, economically, spiritually, so that sibs will have very different experiences of childhood. Generally, parents are most solicitous and even anxious when raising their eldest child; by the time the youngest comes along - even in the throes of similar adolescence challenges - they are considerably more relaxed because they've been there, done that, and know they will survive.

We all know that the youngest child really is spoiled, perhaps because the parents can afford the top-of-the-line bike by then, or because they learned from their firstborns which rules didn't work. Some younger children do, in fact, function as responsibly as firstborns or only children, especially if there is a gap - usually six or seven years - between births. The youngest child of two first-born parents may inherit an extra does of responsibility. All of which contributes to extraordinary diversity, even within the same nuclear family - and potentially, within the same family firm.

Annointing the first-born son is no way to run a family business.

Americans vehemently rejected monarchy in the 18th century, and yet many family businesses continue to transfer power and controlling assets by primogeniture. A succession plan ideally includes an objective assessment of all the sibs, depending on their present competencies, their observed performance, and their willingness to develop the necessary skills for leadership. The choice of successor also is affected by the stage of development of the business: Do you need a super-responsible, conservative, firstborn to steer through turbulent times? Or will the business benefit, during times of rapid technical and social change, from a more adaptive, innovative laterborn?

Developing a succession plan involves assessing leadership abilities and providing opportunities for growth for all your sons and daughters, so that the best prepared and best motivated candidate is chosen for CEO, or warehouse manager, or VP for marketing, without relying only on gender or birth order.

For most personality traits, sibling differences outweigh gender differences.

First born women can be as conservative and responsible as their first born male cousins, and later born men and women may challenge the status quo in similar ways. Assigned gender "roles" - the girls babysit the younger kids, the boys carry out the garbage - build more differences between genders over time than innate personality structures. Two brothers, both with adequate testosterone, who develop different roles - one a back-hoe operator and the other a violinist - may have more divergent interests than two cousins, one male, one female, both firstborns who become CEOs, with similar educations, cultural experiences, professional goals and family lifestyles.

And, of course, in the scrambling of genes across genders, your firstborn daughter, the meticulous mechanical engineer, may be a better CEO, and responsible manager of your retirement funds, than your later born only son, your spitting image, and favorite fishing buddy.

Sibling rivalry is one of the major reasons why more than 85% of family businesses fail during the third generation.

Families expand geometrically. The founder and his/her spouse start the company in the garage, and eventually raise a family in which two brothers, reared in the same household, with the same values, the same work ethic, grow up and eventually take over the business. They work together successfully as partners, respecting each other's strengths, building niches suited to individual talents, fighting through their differences, and dividing turf as well as bonuses, as they learned to do back in their boyhood bedroom.

Between them, after a while, they have one divorce and seven children, raised in three different households, with different ethnic and religious influences, different choices in education and parenting styles. In the third generation, five of the seven cousins (all into their 20s at about the same time) assume that there will be a white collar job for them in the family business. Unless clear, fair policies were developed in advance, including requirements for getting a job in the company, much less being promoted, rivalry among sibs and cousins can lead to intense conflict over limited spots at the top. As in childhood, only one person gets to sit in the front seat. If these conflicts remain unresolved, even in the midst of success in the marketplace, another third generation business will face decline, or an unwelcome sale to "outsiders".

The development of a Family Forum, usually with the assistance of an expert in healthy family process and conflict-resolution, remains the most practical way to develop family agreement around succession planning, hiring standards for family members, stock distribution, and other hot topics. Dealing directly with these issues in advance in an organized forum remains the best insurance policy against sibling or cousin rivalry disrupting the family firm.

Hansel and Gretel is a story of siblings who survive by using their wits and sticking together. Sadly, their enemy is their parents - the evil second wife who covets scarce resources, and so wants to get rid of the children, and the spineless father, who goes along with a murderous plot to abandon his son and daughter in the wilderness. Hansel, presumably the eldest male child, is clearly the leader, as they naively devise plans to find their way home by dropping bread crumbs along their path. Gretel, the younger sister, is actually the more aggressive one, who courageously saves Hansel's life by pushing the wicked witch into the oven to her death. Incredibly, the happy ending to this fairy tale includes a joyful reunion with their twice widowed father, whom the children continue to love in spite of his rejection and abuse of them, and they return home together to carry on their family wood-cutting business.

Fairly tales, especially those that survive into the common consciousness of a culture, do encapsulate some shred of truth. Perhaps we have preserved this story because the collaboration of sibs such as Hansel and Gretel is so extraordinary. They stick together even against powerful, hateful parents, as well as the most frightening threats and deceptions the evil world can fling at them. But this celebration of sibling loyalty, in the midst of an all-time dysfunctional family, is fundamentally disturbing. This family could have used some help with their conflict-resolution skills.

Healthy sib loyalty is not forged against dominating, selfish parents, but is taught and fostered by nurturing parents who have learned how to resolve their own conflicts, and have enough love and attention left over to offer each unique child.

As a family psychologist and consultant to family firms, one of my most rewarding experiences has been to sit down with brothers and sisters as they re-negotiate the old rivalries, the old stereotypes from childhood. Usually this has happened after the unexpected death of a parent, when sibs are suddenly forced to make major decisions without Dad ( the mediating middle son all his life) in the room. It is wonderful to see sibs - who assume that they already know all about each other - reach beyond the rhetoric of football and low-fat recipes, and enjoy the surprise of meeting their brothers and sisters for the first time as adults, equals now, but with an extraordinary bond, which can't really be duplicated in any other relationship.

If siblings, especially those who need to make consistently good decisions together in the family business, can re-define their adult relationships based on the current realities, the adult bond between siblings can truly become profound. They will rediscover that they share not only bloodlines and a stake in the family business, but a lifetime of irreplaceable experiences.

And perhaps some future fairy tale or spiritual saga will be written ( by the youngest brother who flunked out of accounting school, but finally found his niche as a creative writer), to tell the story of siblings who truly learned to love each other, to make great decisions together, and to follow not only the crumbs, but to laugh all the way home.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D., is a Cincinnati-based family psychologist who consults with families in business. She is President of Frankenberg Associates at (513) 729-1511 or fax (513) 729-1011.



Dr. Ellen Frankenberg, President & CEO


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