Kissing Your Sister: Playing for a Tie in FamBiz

As a lifelong sports fan, there’s been a phenomenon going on that I haven’t heard many people address. When I was a kid, a lot more games seemed to end in ties.

It was as a youngster that I first recall hearing the expression: “A tie is like kissing your sister”.  

As this subject came up as a potential blog post, it struck me that rule changes have been developed and implemented in some sports, notably hockey and soccer, to minimize the number of games that end with this seemingly “sub-optimal” result.

 

Is Family Business the Exception?

If ties are no longer considered something desirable in sports, maybe the world of family business could be the one place they’re still in vogue.  Let me explain.

Back in April, in Roles and Rules for Enterprising Families, I wrote about a presentation from the 2019 Institute for Family Governance Conference, which included an impressive 75-page slide deck.

In that blog, I intentionally chose to not focus on the great slide I noticed on page 50, because I was saving it for its very own post.

Here’s what the slide said:

 

A General Family Business Precept:

In a Family, if you play to Win, you Lose;

In a Family, if you play to Lose, you Lose;

In a Family, if you play to Tie, you Win

Richard Goldwater, MD

Boston, MA

I saw that slide in January, and months later it’s still with me, and rings even truer today.

 

Setting the Proper Context

Of course we need to think about this in the proper context, otherwise this statement can be dismissed as completely nonsensical, and that would be a shame. I think that there’s real wisdom here and I’d hate for it to get lost.

Dr. Goldwater is clearly talking about what goes on “intra-family” here.

Of course every family business, as a business competing with other businesses, should be playing to win, all the time, or else the business will not survive.

His thoughts on this subject are clearly directed at how members of a business family think about and deal with their interactions as members of the same team.

 

Misdirected Efforts

In essence, what I think he’s also talking about is how important it is to present a common front to the outside world, as a united team that is competing with other businesses, playing to win.

However, when some of the team members are busy expending efforts to win at some internal game that they are in effect playing against their siblings, parents, or cousins, then things can begin to fall apart rather quickly.

 

Sad to See in Real Life

Part of me wishes I could say that my only knowledge of these situations is theoretical, because it’s really sad to see things like this go on in the real world.

I have a coaching client who is fighting this kind of battle with their two siblings right now.

It’s so clear to everyone that there’s a power struggle going on.

And when I say “everyone”, I mean everyone.  

Employees see it, customers see it, suppliers see it, outsiders like bankers, accountants and lawyers see it.

brother kissing sister

Accidental Partnerships

The situation with my coaching client is one where the siblings are partners in a business together, but if they had started from scratch, these people would never have agreed to be business partners together.

They just ended up that way, accidentally.  Or, actually, through a lack of any real planning as their parents were transitioning out of the business.

 

Not Every Problem Has a Magic Solution

Unfortunately, there isn’t always a great way out of these situations.  

Various strategies are being looked at so that these partners can each end up in situations in which they are in control of their own destiny, and that their reliance on their sibling partners is minimized.  

We’ll see how it plays out, because there’s lots of complexity to manage, and the “parts” may be worth less than the “whole”.

 

Saving the Family Over the Business?

My bias, in situations like this, is to work on ways to “save” the family, even if that means making drastic changes to the business.

Some advisors prioritize the business.  I rarely do.

 

Kiss and Make Up

Getting back to the title of this post, maybe kissing your sister isn’t so bad?

And maybe it’s all part of a “kiss and make up” strategy.

But please recall that a tie can really be a win.