The ups and downs of running a business with your sibling

Virtually every level of entrepreneur, from Mark Zuckerberg to the gutsy heads of new start-ups, advocate the value of treating their staff as a ‘family’ and some even put this ethos down to the secret of their success.

Our agency began to embody this often quoted ‘mantra’ when my brother Dom Robertson joined RPM 16 years ago. As we’ll both readily admit, it has been an ongoing learning curve about the ups and downs of running a business with a family member.

An early lesson for us was understanding the intangible impact of being brothers, versus the tangible relationship as fellow directors of the business. The fact that Dom joined the business based on merit has been integral to our success as a duo - he had worked hard in the field and after impressing our commercial director at the time transitioned into accounts, client servicing and then onto MD. This demonstrated to the entire agency that whilst our relationship is a hugely significant foundation, it is only that. Everything else is about what each of us can bring to the party, our individual and collective impact on the business. 

From the beginning, we have been firm in our respect for our fellow directors. Yes, blood is thicker than water and we have each other’s backs, but there is mutual respect, honesty and fairness for all in and out of the boardroom, one person is one vote. There is a total lack of ego and it is an integral part of how we work together. We established these ground rules about communicating and working together with other colleagues in the early days and they have proved to be good for the business.

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We have also discovered that clarity and consistency are critical to working together as family members. Whilst Dom and I share similar values and ethics, we are completely different in many ways. We work hard to be consistent in our approach to our core business values in spite of the fact that our expertise has been shaped by different experiences. Our shared values have been communicated to and are entrenched in our business culture.

Another undeniable benefit to working with a family member is that it is easier to put absolute trust in others. At an agency for instance, one of the most damaging threats is for the individual responsible for client relationships to leave with a core group of clients. But with my brother as MD, I know this will not happen or if it does, as a dynamic duo, we can manage the crisis together. A great example was when I had to leave the business temporarily for a back operation a few years ago. As you would expect, the prospect of walking out of the business for an anticipated three month recovery was tough, but knowing Dom was there enabled me to focus on what was important - my health. 

Working with a family member leaves you with nowhere to hide. This ensures our feet stay firmly on the ground. We also make an effort to socialise outside the agency in order to maintain a degree of normality, as brothers, fathers and uncles, rather than as fellow directors. We know when to talk about the business and when not to – but coming from quite a physical family, if all else fails there is the option to undertake a good 'rag', (Scottish for a good play fight).

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Although we were raised by parents who believed and lived by the values of hard work and treat others as you would expect to be treated, we are just brothers, not mind readers. Communication has been a very important part of our relationship and we build time in for it. We have strong, clear and frequent conversations to ensure that there is no festering and no wrong assumptions are made. If in doubt, Dom and I just talk some more, without forgetting to listen to each other too. 

Working with a family member is far from easy; it takes time, commitment and brutal honesty. But it is an utterly compelling and hugely rewarding experience and our agency’s success is testament to the strength of our relationship.

They say you can choose your friends and colleagues, but you are stuck with your family. Personally, I think that’s a hugely competitive advantage and I’m extremely grateful to have Dom as my MD and part of RPM’s executive team.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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