Turning Sibling Rivalries into a Positive Force for Business Success

Northeastern University



“When sibling relationships are going well, they can be the most wonderful thing in a business. When they are not, they can mean the end of the business.”

That observation by Shari Wyner Narva, a consultant with Genus Resources Inc. of Needham, Massachusetts, wasn’t disputed by any of the sixty or so attendees at a recent session of the Northeastern University Center for Family Business on “How Relatives Relate: Siblings in Business Together.” Narva presided over a panel consisting of two sets of siblings from family businesses: Matthew and Andrew Hayes of Bernett Research Services and John and Brendan McSheffrey of MIJA/Bestek.

Andrew Hayes recalled the difficulties he had joining the family business his brother was already involved with. Andrew was pursuing a broadcasting career in New Jersey when his brother asked him to join the business. Initially he worked from New Jersey, but that created tensions. “Matt just kept focusing on the fact that I wasn’t here and the problems that created.” Andrew eventually moved to the Boston area and the two worked out their difficulties.

The McSheffreys’ relationship evolved somewhat differently. According to John McSheffrey, “Brendan and I have been best friends for years. But we have had some rocky times.”

That siblings have such difficulties should come as no surprise, said Narva. “The rivalries that come out are the same ones that were played out in childhood.”

How can siblings best work through the difficulties that are an inevitable part of working together in business? The panelists offered several suggestions:

  • Open communications. “The number one issue hands down is communication,” said Narva. “If you know there is stuff going on, you have to get it out. To know there is a time and place you can express it is such a relief.”Matthew recalled that when problems with Andrew reached a critical stage during the first year, the two finally sat down and “got it all out. I said what bothered me about him and him about me. We felt bad for a few days. But in retrospect, it was the best thing we did.”
  • Clarity of roles.It is essential, said Narva, that siblings know exactly what their jobs and the expectations of performance are. Matthew agreed, noting that role clarification might have helped him and his brother get off to a smoother start working together. “You need to have a clear set of rules. We kept changing timetables and terms. If we had things more clearly spelled out, it would have been better.”John McSheffrey noted that he and his brother are experiencing that challenge as they select a new computer system. “I have one system in mind and he has another. But it is his project. We are going to an outside expert. I will take the opinion of that person.”
  • A sense of humor.Both sets of siblings emphasized the importance of using humor to release tension and keep things in perspective. Said Andrew, “When the worst things happen, we laugh. We then try to figure out what to do.”
  • Time away from the business. Siblings should make it a point to go off-premises for informal time outside of the business setting, said Narva. Both sets of siblings said they do things like go to a local restaurant together or simply talk on the phone during off-hours.

The panelists concluded that sibling rivalries can actually be a positive force so long as the underlying tensions are being dealt with. “Rivalry can be good,” observed Narva. “It is healthy.”