I thought working with my brother would make us closer but it’s done the opposite. I’ve heard this story SO many times. Brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and sons….the idea of working together, running the family business sounds very romantic. And usually, when the business is very small, you work together closely and all with the same purpose – to build something that can provide a comfortable life for you all.
But then you start employing people, your turnover goes up and up, you move from being a small lifestyle business into a fully fledged company that constantly needs to grow because you’re now responsible for all these salaries! Suddenly the decisions you make have a much further-reaching effect than before and the pressure starts piling on. The two of you as brothers (or sisters, or couples, or father and son) are now responsible for the livelihoods of many people.
And you both want the same thing, right? Decision-making should be easy because you’re both driven towards the same goal and equal shareholders in the company. But now the decisions you make have serious consequences, and all of a sudden you notice a difference in each other’s opinions, priorities, attitude to taking risks, values and way of working. You start to notice things about each other that you’ve never noticed before. Things that annoy you, frustrate you, pee you off.
But you don’t say anything, because he’s your brother. And it’s just a different way of doing things. After all, you’re not the same person and the business needs all sorts of skills and talents. You’ve never had a major argument as brothers so you don’t want to start now and let business stuff ruin your relationship.
But as the company grows and you both become responsible for more things, all those small niggling things begin to develop into tension and start bubbling away under the surface. It results in several things happening.
First of all, it makes the decision-making process extremely difficult. Particularly when you’re really excited about something - maybe a brilliant new idea you’ve had. You’re all fired up and tell him all about it …. but he says he doesn’t think it will work and that the company can’t afford to waste money. You try and explain your thinking behind it and all the logical reasons why you think it WILL work but he has an argument for every single point and eventually you find yourself at stalemate. And guess what happens? Nothing. Your idea gets put back inside a box and that’s the end of that. How are you ever going to progress as a business if he keeps shooting down your ideas? And who is he to have the final say? What if you truly believe it will benefit the company? Who decides?
Secondly, the way he speaks to you and treats you at work in front of your staff is causing real issues. You try not to let things escalate but he wouldn’t dream of speaking to an employee like this, so why does he think it’s ok to do it to you? Arguments on the factory floor about how things are done, laying into each other at management meetings about big decisions for the future…it just seems like every single day he’s got a problem with something and you bare the brunt of his frustration. But it’s affecting the atmosphere at work, staff don’t know who’s in charge or who to ask about things. They’re terrified of his volatile behaviour so come to you with questions but then you still have to run everything past him. It’s not a nice environment to be in.
Finally, and most importantly, you’re drifting apart as brothers. Dealing with him at work is one thing, but when you’re together as a family outside of work – perhaps at your parents for Sunday lunch or when your kids have parties together – you find it really hard to forget the way he’s been treating you at work and it stings. You find yourself being a bit fake and just smiling for the sake everyone else, not wanting what happens in the business to infiltrate home life. Sometimes you question whether you should even be in business together AT ALL. Before the family business you got on brilliantly, but now you’ve seen a completely different side to him.
So let’s figure out what you can do to manage this situation. Because if you don’t do SOMETHING you could potentially lose your brother and your business.
Firstly, it sounds like there is a real lack of clarity around who is responsible for making which decisions. You need to identify each of your strengths and weaknesses. This will then allow you to carve up your roles and responsibilities and each of you can take ownership for decision-making in those areas. If your brother is a very straight-down-the-line kind of person then he’ll appreciate these boundaries. For instance, if YOU work best in operations i.e getting your product or service made and delivered, managing staff and workloads, implementing new processes and systems etc then that’s your patch. And if he is the strategy and numbers guy then let him look after decisions about growth, diversification, marketing and all that stuff. However you divide it up, just make sure there is a clear divide and no room for grey areas. It doesn’t mean he can’t contribute ideas about the operations or vice versa, but it means the final decision falls with one person.
Secondly, in order to end this awful culture of arguing and shouting in front of staff, you need to create a forum where you can both have your opinions heard. This could be in the form of a monthly facilitated meeting. You both come prepared with your challenges, your ideas, your frustrations and anything else that normally causes an argument. You have an independent person chair the meeting (it could be your accountant, a non-executive director, me!) and your each get to have your say. If it’s not covered at this meeting then it has to wait until the next month or be tackled in private away from the business. It can NOT raise its ugly head whilst you’re amongst your employees.
Thirdly, it’s time to get your sibling relationship back on track. If you’ve implemented number one (clear roles and decision making) and two (a forum for discussion) then it should all help with number three which is about making sure you spend time together outside the business. And I don’t mean sitting on opposite sides of the room at family parties or using your kids as a distraction at Sunday lunch. I mean doing something regularly, just the two of you and having a chance to understand each other. Do NOT talk business and do NOT revert back to the same dynamic you have at work. Why not take a boat out on a lake together? Take the dogs out for a nice long walk together? Just a drink and a packet of peanuts at the pub after the kids have gone to bed? It’s not about WHAT you do, it’s about doing something together, just the two of you.
So if you’re at breaking point and your worried that things can only go downhill, please don’t give up. Give these three things a try and see if you can start changing things bit by bit –
ONE – Identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
TWO – create a forum where you can both have your opinions heard.
THREE – Spend time together outside the business
I’m going to leave you with a couple of thoughts – firstly remember you can always get another business but you can’t get another family. And finally, the more successful your family business, the bigger your family’s impact.
Author: Amalia Brightley-Gillott, MD & 2nd Generation
Family Business Place