In the second episode of our WIFB Conversations, Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy explore what kind of influence sibling relationships can have on the running of a family business and how women taking more active roles is changing the conversation.

This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Ramia: Welcome back to Women in Family Business with Ramia and I’m here with Amy Katz from Daughters In Charge. Amy, welcome back.

Amy:Thank you! It’s a pleasure to be back.

R: So last week, Amy and I started out having a discussion about the importance of having a conversation around women in family business and we’re going to be continuing our episodes in the weeks to come. Today we are going to be talking about sibling relationships in the family business and how they affect the family business in positive and maybe negative ways. Amy actually has a lot of experience in coaching people through difficult relationships or positive relationships in sibling dynamics. Amy, tell us what has your experience taught you in terms of the sibling relationship within the family business? What have been some of the most outstanding experiences and stories that you’ve heard?

A: One of them is that I think siblings don’t always appreciate how their relationships, even when they’re kidding with each other, can affect the whole business. They can fight, they can laugh, they can struggle competitively, and they don’t realize all the time that their every movement is being watched. And that sometimes, the way they relate to each other can be replicated amongst teams in other groups in the organization. So that’s one thing that I think I’ve become aware of as almost a blind spot in some of the sibling relationships that I’ve heard about and tried to help people work on.

R: Actually you mentioning that makes me feel like I need to go back and have a talk with my sisters because we probably and most definitely do that. There are way too many inside jokes in our daily work life between us. So what do you feel the effect of that could be? Does it make others feel locked out of communication or is it something that could negatively impact the environment?

A: I’ve seen both. I think that inside jokes, which are playful and fun, can have a wonderful affect on an organization. Because there’s just that sense that at the top of the organization, or the future of the organization, there can be play, they can have fun, there can be disagreement and there can be a shared sense of commitment to a mission. So that can be very reassuring. Of course, the other side is aching could cause a great deal of anxiety and concern about, particularly if it’s a second-generation, what will happen when there is no longer that trusted leader and now we have a group running the business. That transfer from one person, often the father at this point, to a sibling team can be a little disorienting for people in a sense of who’s really in charge.

R: Let’s expand a little bit on that, Amy because I think you’ve touched on a superbly important word here and that’s ‘team’. So how do you create a team spirit between siblings? Because I think, being a family member in a family business of course, I know this, that when we enter the family business as a second-generation or third generation, everything changes in terms of our family dynamics. Our perceptions of each other change, our expectations change very dramatically. You have to almost re-learn each other entirely so whatever you thought was true about the other person, let’s put it this way, if you’re not open to relearning it you’re going to get in to head-on conflict with everyone. Because everyone is a different person in the workplace, sometimes as they are in private life as well. So while the founder is there, while the incumbent generation is there, our relationships are very much defined by them setting certain rules or certain expectations. What happens when that founding generation is gone is those expectations get transferred to between us. How have you seen siblings react to that transition where they’re suddenly confronted with, ‘Well, there’s no older generation anymore so it’s up to us’. How have they dealt with that?

A: Well certainly in the beginning when the transfer occurs, the older generation might still be there in some way shape or form. Either coming in periodically or connecting with his or her children.

R: You’re taking a very western approach Amy because trust me, most of our culture that we know is that you leave the business when you’re dead. That’s it. There’s no transition.

A: I think the western version is everything from ‘See ya, I’m going on vacation’ to ‘I’m coming in and I want my office’.

R: Exactly.

A: But not quite what you’re describing, at least not the experience I’ve had. There are a lot of different models for that but within the sibling team, I think re-learning is a good word. I think you can give me more a more global perspective about this but if we’ve gone away, if we’ve left your family home and are going to school or going to work somewhere and then we return and there’s a sibling or two or three or cousins, which is also a dynamic to keep in mind, there’s a re-acquaintance process that must take place. Really getting reacquainted with a sibling and how has her career evolved and what is she really good at and what is and she is interested in is crucial. So understanding the strengths, and sometimes the needs, of your siblings is important from not only an adult standpoint but also from a professional standpoint. So you can negotiate all those roles which have emerged from the founder It’s one of the challenges people kind of think, ‘I’m gonna be the one who leads’ or ‘You were never good at math so why do you think you can…’

R: Oh my God that one! That one is the worst. OK, people knowing how you did at school and then you end up working with them. Or people knowing how you messed up as a teenager and you got into trouble and they have to bring that into the boardroom, that’s really hard by the way. So regaining that credibility in those circumstances, it’s hard enough with your parents or the older generation having seen you grown up and everything. But with sibling patterns, I’ve seen two extremes in terms of reactions. I’ve spoken to two brothers whose youngest sister has just joined them in the family business and it’s really funny because the two brothers had two opposing reactions. One of them started becoming extremely patronizing so it was hilarious to watch. OK, he’s been in the business what, two minutes but he was being so condescending and talking to me about she has to fulfil expectations, she has to perform and stuff like that. And the other brother was babying her to the extent that it was just ridiculous. Out of love I guess, but to her, it felt like a lack of respect that she comes in and she actually wants to contribute and neither of the two brothers actually let her do so because they both are locked into row perceptions, maybe expectations towards themselves. Maybe one brother felt he needs to be a sort of mentor, the other brother felt he needed to be a protector so it was really funny to see them go into this locked grid attitude together and I think what’s going to define the situation is her behavior. So how she recognizes these patterns and how she manages to build communication individually with them in the workplace, I think that’s very important. I tried with my sisters, it’s very hard. We try to separate as much as possible between, OK we have to talk business right now and then try to create more space for private issues us on the side. It’s very difficult because sometimes we will burst out laughing at something someone said because it’s an inside joke which no one else will ever get. I wouldn’t miss those things for the world either because it’s what makes it special to work with family. That’s the fun part, so I guess it’s about finding a good middle.

A: I’ve always said when it works well, it’s really wonderful and when it doesn’t, it’s extremely painful. You know it affects your relationship with partners that you seek, sometimes I think it’s really a situation of extremes. That doesn’t mean it can’t be brought in and managed more comfortably but when it’s bad it’s pretty awful.

R: What do you think is going to be the impact now that we have more women’s joining family businesses? Just today again, I’ve read on LinkedIn another article on the father and son dynamic in the family business and quite frankly, I feel like that narrative really should change into parent and child because there’s so many different cases where it just doesn’t apply anymore. So I feel like the conversation is changing very fast especially with this generation emerging into the family business. How do you feel that’s going to affect specifically this topic? Sibling teambuilding, and sibling relationships now that the girls are joining too in the active roles so the pressure is no longer just on the boys. What do you think?

A: Here’s one thing I think that could happen. Let’s just use as an example, women with two siblings as you mentioned. You can see how easily the woman may fall into a mediating role or that Chief Emotional Officer role trying to create harmony, trying to be the mother in the workplace. And I hope that doesn’t happen because not all that women are that nurturing. I don’t want to go with that stereotype, so I think that capacity to really be structured about it, I think structure whether that’s a series of conversations or an agenda that you follow up with a fair amount of shared commitment. Structure will be helpful whatever that may be, roles, routines. I guess I’m saying I don’t want to see women fall into the trap that that’s the role they have to take.

R: In that case that’s also wanting to others siblings. So to all the brothers or male cousins out there that are confronted now with women in the workplace to not automatically give them that role or expect that role from them so it goes both ways not to have that expectation towards women. I think that one definitely goes out to parents though, and I’m including mothers and fathers or uncles and aunts because funnily enough, I feel like the older generation plays a huge role in how that sort of pans out for the next generation. My dad, poor man, he doesn’t have a choice he has three daughters so it was never an issue for him. So it is a big issue for him it depends what perspective you take. So for him, it was never an option, but I can imagine if we had a brother, Dad’s attitudes towards what he projects in terms of responsibilities onto us in private would have directly translated into how we would’ve been perceived by a brother in the business. Oh but in the family you’re nurturing or you’re the one who already has kids, I know you from outside so I expect you to do the same thing or to take a similar role inside the business. Again, for me this comes back to I think the fundamental success of running an interesting and exciting family business comes from being open to being surprised by family members. So being open to the idea that you don’t know them and they don’t know you, at least not in every single situation in life. You should give them the chance to surprise you whether it be positive or negative. You know the prejudice problem that we really have, we just think we know each other so well that we know how we’re going to react and that doesn’t give anybody any space to grow or change. It makes you feel trapped. I feel there’s a huge dialogue there that needs to take place between the older and younger generation that sets a precedent then on how we, within one generation, deal with things. I feel it’s extremely important that we look at it both vertically and horizontally, those two things have a huge influence on each other. Has that been your experience as well with Daughters In Charge, with the ladies that you coach?

A: Well I would say in many situations, the sibling patterns in childhood which obviously are affected by the parent, can be replicated and probably are. So that re-working in adulthood becomes extremely important. I like that you mentioned surprise because I think I would almost say the surprise is perhaps sublime ignorance of the obvious. It’s things you may have known about a sibling and that comes back but it’s really not that surprising. There’s been some recent research I’ve heard on national public radio about birth order. This back-and-forth and back-and-forth –  does it matter? And the conclusion is, at least the conclusion this year is, yes it does. So I’ve worked with an older sister with two younger brothers, and she’s always going to be the older sister, that’s not going to change. But that doesn’t mean that she can’t take a backstage role at times. I think sometimes women who are able to be successful and in charge when they have male siblings, their birth order is going to have an impact. And their ability to not be the older sister all the time is going to be important. On the other hand, I have had experience with a daughter with three older male siblings. So when she wanted to have children their expectation was ‘OK great, but you’re still going to work from 630 to 630. There are no exceptions here. And she actually has said you know, if it weren’t for fulfilling the expectation that I have children, I could rule the world. And you hear the power of some of these women, and it’s not that she doesn’t love her children, but she is seeing in the way her role is playing out that there are some compromises. There’s opportunity but they’re also constraints. So every family is a universe but I think there are patterns that we can at least think about.  Like am I being younger sister here or am I acting out like a kid when it’s time for me to grow up? But that’s why the more the conversations you can have, not about the business but about what your goals are what your hopes are, the better. This is what we want from people that any work situation and in some ways, while sibling teams have to become reacquainted perhaps, teams within the organization need those conversations so they can be become acquainted so it’s a very rich area certainly.

R: It’s a very rich area and we will continue talking about these topics this was Ramia El Agamy from Women In Family Business and Amy Katz from Daughters In Charge and we will be back next week with another episode. Thank you.

About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge: Amy Katz Daughters in Charge

Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses.  She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.