Are Family-Based Practices Doomed To Fail?

Are Family-Based Practices Doomed To Fail?
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Beverly Flaxington is a practice management consultant. She answers questions from advisors facing human resource issues. To submit yours, email us here.

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Dear Bev,

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Let me preface this by saying I love my family, I really do. I work with my brother, my two sisters and my dad in our financial planning firm. It was always my dad’s business, but he has had some significant health issues over the years and has given most of the reins to us to make the decisions. My brother (not the oldest in the family) has elected himself in charge. He is a bully and he bosses my sisters around. I’m not the oldest either but I don’t enjoy being bossed so I do what I want and don’t really care if he yells at me or not.

My sister (who is the oldest) gets thrown around by his behavior. Some days she doesn’t come into work and tells us he is giving her an ulcer. She feels sick, she mopes around and isn’t productive. That’s fine except she is responsible for our operations and compliance and things fall through the cracks pretty consistently. My other sister and I have tried to counsel her to ignore him, reminding her he is a bully and he enjoys tormenting her, etc.

Nothing works. Our firm is in jeopardy. If my oldest sister left none of the rest of us would know how to do her job. She gets irked if we suggest bringing in an outside resource (and yes, we have tried to broach this many, many times). We have also tried talking to my brother and asking him to tone it down or just leave her alone. My other sister and I don’t really care – we find it irritating; who needs to take harassment from a family member? But, we don’t focus on it so it doesn’t disrupt our day. I know the whole thing really bothers my mom and dad. At one point my sister stopped coming to family events. She started up again when my dad took a really bad turn a few months ago. He is fine now but I think it scared her enough that she isn’t boycotting. However, when she comes she goes to lengths to avoid my brother so my parents totally notice what’s going on.

Is there something else we should be doing? Are family businesses doomed to fail? Could we help my sister break free from giving my brother so much personal power and help her see he’s “just a guy” and her brother at that? It’s so frustrating but it’s also killing the great advisory firm we have all inherited.


Dear S.L.,

Let me take one of your questions first – “are family businesses doomed to fail?” The answer is no, but it sure ain’t easy! I have worked with so many family-owned financial advisory firms of all different kinds. Typically it is the father who is the patriarch, although I have one where both parents founded the business together and I have one where the mother (a single mother at that) started the firm and continues to run it even though her adult children have joined. It’s a great industry for legacy and succession planning and many advisors would probably love to see their offspring carry on the name and success they have built. But, it isn’t easy because family is most often not very easy. Into adulthood every carries their childhood memories, roles, scars and reactions. If a family doesn’t deal with them, and address how they might impact their relationships in the business, they are going to continue to come up on a daily basis in things big and small.

I recommend paying for a business counselor who specializes in family dynamics. This situation has gotten to the point where you need someone objective, outside of the family and trained in these sorts of dialogues. Your brother needs to see the impact his behavior is having on everyone, and particularly on your sister. While he may be a “bully,” being one inside your firm isn’t gaining him anything. But, you can tell him this until you are blue in the face and it probably won’t move him.

The support you are giving your sister is great, but it doesn’t resonate with her. Whatever hold your brother has over your sister is likely deeply ingrained and goes back many years. In order for the family to work together effectively, it seems to me the only option is to create an intervention.

When I taught small business management, one of most popular modules was on the family business. I know of this general resource that might be able to lead you to a good consultant. If one of my readers has worked with someone who is particularly good, please write in so we can give S.L. additional options.

By Beverly Flaxington, read the full article here.

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