Angela Civitella had to take on a position of leadership in a family business when she least expected it. Following the premature death of her father, Civitella found herself struggling to co-manage the family’s complex, multinational enterprise with limited experience.

Unfortunately, these life-changing circumstances brought her into direct conflict with her brother, heir apparent in a strictly patriarchal family business. The siblings were expected to cooperate, but their father’s death triggered a metamorphosis in Angela’s brother, exacerbating a rivalry that had begun when they were children.

Their leadership styles were incompatible: where he imposed rules and delegated responsibility, Angela moved forward by establishing relationships based on respect, trust and the collective good.

Angela’s brother would eventually make a slow exit, but not before their painful relationship threatened the sustainability of the family business.

Now, as the Founder and CEO of Intinde, Angela Civitella leverages her experience to coach others through similar situations. Over her 18-year career as a consultant and advisor, Civitella has helped family business leaders see their differences through a complementary lens, adding value and resiliency to their organisations.

Angela Civitella sat down with Tharawat Magazine to discuss how her relationship with her brother turned into a bitter rivalry and how others can avoid the same.

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Image courtesy of Angela Civitella

How did you become involved in the family business?

Tragically, my father died from complications of CML Leukemia at 49, which changed the trajectory of my life. I was given some leeway to finish my degree, but my brother assumed all of the business responsibilities immediately.

Not long after, my mother sat me down and told me I was responsible for some of the burden that had fallen on my brother. I was stunned – it was completely unexpected. This marked the beginning of an exceedingly complex, difficult and painful time in my relationship with my brother.

What was your relationship with your brother like before that? How did it change?

It’s always been difficult, and I believe it’s because we’re so close – only 11 months apart. We went to the same schools and had the same friend groups; we did everything together from a very young age.

My parents had a way of wanting to see who could outdo the other. With children, it’s innocent, and not necessarily damaging. However, when this carries on as adults, it becomes dangerous. Once my father, the person imposing rules, protocol and policies within the family passed away, my brother changed into someone I couldn’t possibly relate to. Our rivalry escalated from there.

“Collaboration is possible only so far as these differences are complementary. Our differences were not.”

How did your leadership styles differ?

The most powerful leaders are the leaders that are closest to their people. I was given the mandate of overseeing our team and making sure that tasks were properly executed. I wasn’t just delegating; I was in it with them. I gained a high level of respect and earned their loyalty.

My brother’s concept of leadership was more in line with the idea of being a boss. He was surrounded by employees but only had discussions with them once a month, if that.

Siblings can have differences and still work together as long as they have their own area of expertise or speciality. Collaboration is possible only so far as these differences are complementary. Our differences were not. He assumed the role of a traditionalist. I was adaptable and amenable to a changing business environment.

We could never meet halfway. The gap widened, and the difficulties multiplied. Eventually, it got ugly. With family, there’s no filter – no formality. Some of our conversations were destructive, and things were said that can’t be taken back.

How did you resolve this situation?

For reasons that are personal to my brother, he has, over the years, relinquished a lot of tasks and responsibilities. What he didn’t calculate, however, was that continually delegating to me made me more assertive and gave me the confidence to run the business. If you’re going to give me a project once, why would I ever give it back to you? So, we went from a very patriarchal structure to one where I was the ‘closet leader’.

What got you through this period?

I was able to overcome it because I held on to the belief that with enough time and dedication, I would be able to handle all the responsibilities associated with my role, it was only a matter of time and experience. We must know who we are and what we’re capable of and not let anyone else disturb that vision.

I also knew that, one day, I would be able to leave if I wanted to, and today I have that choice. I still oversee the family business, but I’ve also started my own business in a completely unrelated field.

“Siblings that can leverage their differences and meet in the middle undoubtedly add resiliency to a family business.”

Why do sibling relationships in family businesses digress to the point that yours did? 

Unhealthy rivalries can begin at a young age, and it all depends on how parents allow siblings to relate to one another. There are parents that want to see which child is more capable, and they’ll pit siblings against each other. This is what happened in our case. What began as an innocent way of understanding our strengths and weaknesses turned into a life-long test of wills.

Rather than attempting to ascertain superiority, it’s far healthier to try and understand the differences between siblings and how this might affect their ability to work together in the business.

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Do you think differences between siblings make a family business stronger? 

Siblings that can leverage their differences and meet in the middle undoubtedly add resiliency to a family business.

External experience is crucial. If siblings spend time outside of the family business, developing their work ethic and managerial style, they’ll make better collaborators when they return.

Maintaining harmony, not just between siblings but in the wider family as well, is critical. Family businesses survive because of a collective focus on putting the family first. Successful families invest hours, weeks or even months in coming to a collective agreement. Nothing is more integral to family business sustainability than the preservation of the family unit.

In retrospect, would you have handled the situation with your brother differently?

I wish I had had the wisdom to be more collaborative and less combative. I was so busy fighting for my place that I didn’t take the time to collaborate. After all, it’s collective achievement, not individual accomplishment, which makes a family business successful.