The Confused Cheerleader: A Lesson for Sibling Partnerships

Barbara Dartt
Barbara Dartt

At my son’s middle school basketball game this week, I overhead a young cheerleader say (to her coach!), “No offense to our guys, but I want the other team to win.” The coach is a friend of mine, so I caught her eye and we shared a good laugh. She certainly has her coaching work cut out for her!

Every time I picture that exchange in my head, I laugh out loud. It’s just so incongruous: a CHEERLEADER, whose whole purpose is to support a team in their pursuit of victory, pulling for the OTHER team. It just doesn’t make sense. And, as usual, the example got me thinking of family business. (Stay with me here!)

I have had the honor of interacting with several sibling groups over the last couple months and these groups fall into two camps: siblings who respect each other and siblings who do not.

The sibling groups who respect each other can lack a shared vision. They can lack structure and governance needed to effectively govern their business. They can be stressed by changes in their industry. But the foundation of respect and true appreciation for each other give them a base to come together and effectively work through these challenges. I’ve even seen situations where they come together to do the needed work and decide that one sibling is no longer aligned with the business vision. Departure of a respected sibling is difficult and strains relationships, but holidays and family togetherness are almost always preserved.

I’ve also observed sibling groups put in terribly difficult situations. Often, the siblings have been together for decades but don’t have the foundation of respect and true appreciation for each other. These situations were brought to mind by our young, confused cheerleader. Her role was clearly to cheer for one team (she had on the uniform for goodness sake), but she was rooting for their opponent.

These siblings love the family business and enjoy their roles within the business. They bring value to the organization with their competence and passion. And they deeply dislike their “partners” – co-managers or co-owners – who happen to be their siblings. How can you be professionally fulfilled when you love your work, but disrespect your coworkers? How can you be fully effective when your uniform puts you on one team, yet you feel like the opponent of the very team you’re supposed to be cheering for?

It is definitely a confusing and challenging place to be with stakes much higher than a 7th grade basketball game. I have deep empathy for adults who have devoted decades of their life to a family business and feel like their profession and passion can only be fulfilled if they stay in the business. However, staying in the business puts them in daily contact with folks they don’t respect.

If you’re contemplating becoming part of a family business in an owner or manager role, think deeply about your potential “partners” – the siblings (or cousins) you will interact with regularly. If you don’t respect or appreciate those folks, I urge you to pass on the opportunity. While our young cheerleader just needs a little coaching, I rarely see these feelings improve with time in the family business.