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I’ve been asked to be a guest on a radio show in December, talking about Family Business Dynamics. As the fourth generation of my clan to work in a family business, it got me thinking about the skills we use to make the business a success.  I work with my younger sister (you see, right there is a characteristic of a family business – if she was a colleague I wouldn’t feel the need to define her as ‘younger’ or ‘older’, but because she’s my baby sister, usual business etiquette relating to age discrimination can get warped).  Whilst we both run our own businesses, Philippa works with me as a Business Partner, challenging me to grow the business, managing projects and research.  We’ve got another sister too (she’s a teacher) and we come from a family of female role models; hard-working, outspoken women who greatly outnumber the male relatives.

Going back a generation, our dad gave up his dream of a university education to work in the family firm after his father had a heart attack. Whilst he made a success of the business, he never lost his desire to learn nor his sense of obligation to the family.  As a result, we were encouraged to live our dreams and pursue independent careers of our own making.

We’re often asked how we switch between being ‘sisters’ to being business partners.  What people really want to know is ‘how do you work with someone who knows all your tells’?

In truth, I think there are three key points to managing the dynamics in a family business:

  • Play to each other’s strengths
  • Create space for each other
  • Allow time for creative disagreements

Play to Your Strengths

We’ve known each other all our lives, so we’re pretty clear about each other’s strengths and we use that knowledge to our advantage (and I’m talking professional strengths here – the fact that Philippa is a talented artist and seamstress is no use to me when I’m designing a Team Coaching course).

For family businesses there can be a level of honesty because of the innate trust.  A great deal of this is intuitive – Philippa’s never going to ask me to update the website because she knows my IT skills mean she’ll be faster at doing it, but she knows to call me straight away if we’ve got a client who needs a mediation because conflict resolution is my sphere.

Creating space for each other

As with any business, working in a family firm can be frenetic.  However, with the added complication of emotions and sibling telepathy, the pace of work can be relentless.  It’s important to create time and space to address the unspoken elements which can drive the speed of change.

It’s exciting working with your sister. When you get something right, there’s no one better to celebrate a success with.  But the consequences of failure have an added significance, given that the impact might be felt by family members.  It’s this unspoken knowledge which can lead family business owners to drive the pace too hard, particularly if things are not going as well as planned.

For us, we make sure we take time at the start of every meeting to talk as sisters; to catch up, check in and touch base.

We also make sure that we don’t rely on sisterly telepathy. At the risk of sounding patronising or foolish, we make sure we verbalise our thoughts and document our plans. This slows the pace and has the added advantage of ensuring there is no misunderstanding.

Creative disagreements

Family business dynamics are unique and different to the challenges faced by the non-family business sector. It can be a trade-off between emotion and economic performance; do I risk upsetting my sister by pushing for this target, or do I let it go because she’s had a difficult week and I don’t want to cause her stress.

I’ve worked with family businesses where the conflict is systemic, it is built into the system and it’s not constructive. I’ve also worked with family businesses where the family no longer speak outside of the business – economic performance won out, to the detriment of the family. When Philippa and I started working together we were clear that this was not going to be the case for us and as a result we facilitate creative disagreements.  We are prepared to talk openly and adopted collaborative strategies, so we get conflict to work for us.

We’ve had our disagreements in the past – we’re talking about a sister who used to sit on my face in her nappy to wake me up in a morning!  The important thing when working on business disagreements is to remove as much of the emotion as possible from the equation, to have a constructive debate, which acknowledges we each have specific areas of specialist knowledge and which allows for mutual respect.  With that in mind we are always able to move towards a conclusion or decision which is ultimately best for each other and the business.

Who knows if one of the next generation will take on the mantle of fifth generation of family business owners? Whatever they decide I know they’ll have the backing of their aunty and me and that the lessons learnt over time will be as relevant to them as they are to us.