Over my many years of working with wealthy families and their businesses, sibling rivalry is a problem I have seen all too often and has the potential to devastate both the family and the business if not properly managed. Family business leaders are usually most concerned about sibling rivalry when they start to consider succession planning and what will happen when they are not there to mediate disputes. But where siblings are actively involved in the family business before succession if sibling rivalry can be managed and squashed early on then the matter of dealing with it after the death of the business leader becomes far easier.
When rivalling siblings are actively involved in the family business it is often either emotional or strategic and to find solutions to the rivalry it is first important to determine the underlying causes.
A common example of emotional rivalry that I have seen is where siblings compete for their parents’ approval or recognition. While this is common in personal family lives and particularly when children are young, it can extend into adulthood and competition in the family business. And as the siblings are in competition with one another, they are not working together to further the interests of the business as a whole. They may actively avoid working together so they can prove the success is theirs alone. In cases such as this, the solution is to work on the parent/child relationship rather than the sibling relationship. This might mean formalising recognition and reward to remove any potential for favouritism, or the perception of it.
It might also mean putting in place the requirement that family members must take employment outside the family business before joining. While I often recommend this as a good way of gaining exposure to alternative business techniques, in the case of sibling rivalry it also allows siblings to achieve success that is recognised outside of the family. Where siblings have achieved success separate from the family, respect for one another and for oneself supersedes the desire for parental approval.
Strategic rivalry in family businesses often occurs when siblings have conflicting values and business styles and perhaps different attitudes towards risk. While such differences may not matter in their personal lives, when working together in the family business and with their livelihoods depending on one another these differences can present problems.
I suggest that the solution to dealing with strategic rivalry is found in solid business and strategic planning. Drawing up a solid business plan and then sticking to it should help to avoid disagreements over strategic direction. It’s also crucial to avoid relying on handshake agreements. Formalised contracts, job descriptions and operating procedures can’t be misinterpreted and therefore set out expectations from the beginning.
One high profile case of sibling rivalry over the family business that I recall is when Reliance Industriesfounder Dhirubhai Ambani died in 2002 without leaving a will, let alone a succession plan for the business. His eldest son, Mukesh, took up the role of Chairman while his youngest son, Anil, was made vice-chairman. Mukesh reportedly tried to push Anil off the board which led to a nasty legal battle resulting in a de-merger of the company in 2005, led by their mother. Even when heading their own businesses their feud continued until 2010 when their mother intervened again to issue a non-compete agreement. Today, Mukesh is personally worth around $43bn whereas Anil is worth around $1.5bn. While it is unclear why the two brothers’ feud first started it is likely that their rivalry was both emotional and strategic and without solid agreements about how they would work together once their father past away their rivalry was free to spiral out of control. While no one can know for sure, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to speculate that the two arms of the split up business would have faired much better if it hadn’t broken up and the two brothers had been able to work together.
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