Here in the Northeast, the snow has finally melted enough that I can bear to write about it and I no longer feel the shovel-induced aches in my back. During one of several days when our sons’ school was closed due to snow, I took them sledding. While sitting at the top of the hill I noticed a mom pull up and four kids got out of her minivan. The oldest, a girl who seemed to be about 16, was clearly in charge. There were two sisters (perhaps ages 12 and 9) and the youngest, a boy, looked to be around five. (I empathized with him; I grew up with only sisters and know the joys and pains of that situation.)

All was well until the boy decided to go down the hill head-first on his belly. My boys and I were doing that all morning and having a great time without injury or decapitation. However, the sister-in-charge decided that was too dangerous and insisted her brother go down sitting up, feet first. His feet kept slipping off, digging into the snow ahead of him and sending him flying into the air only to crash down hard on the icy, packed snow. He would have been safer on his belly, head-first, dragging his little feet behind him – as he had suggested. Nonetheless, nothing changed; she insisted, he complied, and he continued to fly face first into the icy snow.

In my work with enterprising families I frequently encounter the “birth order conundrum.” Often the oldest is automatically given the most authority and responsibility without regard for the relative aptitude, ability and leadership potential of the younger siblings. This can lead to missed growth opportunities for next-generation leadership and the business.

What’s the Lesson Learned?
Enterprising Families: Assess long-standing birth order roles within the family and how they are applied to business roles. Are they the best fit for the individuals and the business? Ask your most trusted advisors and non-family executives if they see pitfalls in this area. Develop a plan to ensure that all family members working in the business are in positions that fit best with their ability, education and experience.

Advisors to Enterprising Families: You are in a key position to see birth order pitfalls in your clients’ businesses. Start a general discussion about balancing family with business. Then, look for a comfortable opening to point out some of the mismatches you observe.