Competition—It’s Not All Win-Lose

Competition between siblings can be one of the fiercest dynamics in a family business. Unbridled competition between parents and children can be one of most devastating. But seen from a constructive point of view, inter-family competition can be one of the greatest advantages of family business.

I have been bewildered by stories of cultures that play games in which no one wins. I am equally perplexed by the attitudes of those who see winning or losing as a measure of their prowess and superiority over others.

I like to compete as much as anyone else, and thus found myself in a self-imposed paradox until I considered a perspective of competition that supports winning by all the parties involved. Consider tennis players who appreciate playing against skilled opponents. Both players win by testing themselves and by learning from each other’s game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to sports events declaring a winner, rather I recede from intentions of proving inherent superiority by winning.

In family business, I imagine a scenario similar to a sporting activity involving an older and younger sibling. The older, more skilled and stronger, can easily beat the younger in a way that demonstrates superiority, and plays to win accordingly. In a win-win scenario the older sibling derives gratification when the younger achieves increased ability and skill, even to the point where the younger often comes out the victor. Inside the family, strength has been added to strength. By the same token, when a child becomes able to perform a task better than their parent, the parent recognizes a job well done. The family wins too, because new capability has been added.

Family businesses can benefit by understanding that internal competition is not all win-lose. They can learn much by watching its outcomes, becoming aware of the growing strengths within the family that competition showcases.


Family Business And Organizational Culture

The Questions Every Entrepreneur Must Answer, by Amar Bhide, published in the December 1996 issue of Harvard Business Review[1] is one of my perennial favorite articles to use in teaching my class on entrepreneurism at Baruch College, City University of New York.

Rereading the article recently, several thoughts came to mind as being significant when reframed in the context of family enterprises.

Speaking of entrepreneurs the author writes: “To secure the resources demanded by an ambitious strategy, they must manage the perceptions of the resource providers: potential customers, employees, and investors.”[2] Further into the article he adds that “… the entrepreneur must design the organization’s structure and system, and mold its culture and character.”[3] and that “When entrepreneurs neglect to articulate organizational norms…, their organizations develop a culture by chance rather than by design.”[4]

Successful multi-generational family businesses come about more by design than by chance. Considering the article in this context one might view the founder or current head of the family business as ‘the entrepreneur.’ And continuing the simile, family members might be viewed as resources—for the family or the business or both, and managed accordingly. The perceptions of family members have impact regardless of their roles in the business. They help to articulate and establish organizational norms. When these are appreciated and employed as a resource to be developed, a culture arises by choice from within the family.

The perceptions of stakeholders are not the only issue the head of a family business should be alert to, but it is important one when seeking to create a multi-generational legacy.

[1] Bhide, A. (1996, December) The Questions Every Entrepreneur Must Answer. Harvard Business Review.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid