The challenges of working with a sibling in a small business

Lizzie Fouracre shares her experiences of working with her brother Tim, the founder of an online accounting company.

Five years ago I was working for a Microsoft consultancy in Windsor and relatively happy with my lot. Although the company was lovely, for me personally there was no real buzz and the work was a bit mundane and unsatisfying. I wasn’t learning anything and I felt like I needed a change and challenge.

My brother Tim had set up Clear Books, an online accounting company, on his own and the business was gaining traction and growing. The company was targeting SMEs and accountants and he needed a sales and marketing manager to help support and accelerate its growth.

We talked about the role and what it would entail and subsequently he offered me the opportunity, albeit with a hefty reduction in my annual salary and a move to London where the office is based.  Brotherly love, you might call it! I wasn’t the first sibling Fouracre in the business as our brother John had also joined the company six months prior.

When I started in my new role, there were just five staff and my brothers and I outnumbered the other employees three to two. At that time you might say that it was a family-run business, but things began to change as the company expanded, more customers came on board and additional staff members were needed. It wasn’t long before the Fouracres became the minority, although my sister-in-law Ruth also joined the business a little later.

Working with family members has its swings and roundabouts, although I have to admit that in our case it’s mostly positive and I believe actually helps our business. Earlier on in life, I had never anticipated that one day I would be working alongside my two brothers or even one.

People often ask me what it’s like to work with them and how the dynamic works, especially as Tim is the founder of the company and it’s his brainchild and baby.

Being completely honest, to begin with I wasn’t sure that I could live up to his expectations. At the time of joining, I was definitely more sensitive, less assertive and quite unsure as to whether I was doing enough; I would worry about failing his dream to grow the company. It’s one thing floundering in a company that you’ve recently joined, but when it’s your brother’s ambition, it certainly sharpens the sensitivities!

What I quickly came to learn is that I really enjoy seeing my two brothers any time up to five days a week in working hours. That may sound a tad corny, but having them in my life on a continual basis makes me personally very happy. Some siblings may hate it, of course, and would prefer to see their brothers and sisters only now and again, and most certainly not at work.

Mixing the professional and the personal

One of the challenges of siblings or indeed any family members working in the same business is that personal stuff – the things that happen outside of the office – can sometimes get dragged into the workplace. Thankfully we come from a large family where there are rarely any confrontational issues to deal with, but we are always mindful of mixing the two. Who knows, though, maybe our team would be happy to see a few EastEnders type dramas now and again!

Although we’re related, Tim, John and I do treat each other as colleagues in the company as we do with other team members. I wouldn’t want to be treated any differently because I’m related and I’m certain they feel the same.

Early on the situation did produce another interesting dynamic. In the workplace, I used to feel like I needed acknowledge and constant recognition from Tim as a brother. Maybe I half expected it because I’m his sister. But looking at it from his point of view, I could see why he would choose not to do so because it could be deemed as family favouritism. It wasn’t something we discussed, it just happened.

As well as being my brother, Tim is also my manager and a fellow director. In the same way that we line manage other colleagues, together we set my personal objectives and how these might best be achieved. As it happens our skills are quite different and yet complementary. As CEO, he focuses on setting the business vision and making sure that hard decisions are taken while I have taken on more of the role of people person; what many might deem as the softer skill set.

Switching in and out of sister mode is actually very natural. When I’m at work I always see and respect Tim as my boss. Outside of the office, for example over a Sunday family lunch or on a family break, he is my brother and we have lots of other things to do and discuss outside of work. I can’t quite tell if this is a conscious or unconscious approach for either of us; it just comes naturally and works.

When I first joined Clear Books, the business was small. Now it’s larger and growing all of the time. I’m sure there will be times going forward where the Fouracre dynamic changes again and we experience new challenges and opportunities that we never ever anticipated several years ago before the company was formed.

Lizzie Fouracre is the chief operating officer of Clear Books.

Further reading on family businesses

Alan Dobie

Alan Dobie

Alan was assistant editor at Vitesse Media Plc (previous owner of before moving on to a content producer role at Reed Business Information. He has over 17 years of experience in the...

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