In this episode of our WIFB Conversations, Amy Katz speaks to Farida F. El Agamy, General Manager of Tharawat Family Business Forum and Co-Founder of WIFB, and her sister Ramia Marielle El Agamy about what it’s like to work together in the family business, how it changed their relationship, and why they would do it all over again.
This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.
Ramia: Welcome to another episode of Women In Family Business with Amy Katz from Daughters In Charge. Today we have a very special guest here, Farida El Agamy, whose primary role in life of course is that she is my older sister, and hence, my role model and number one person to live up to. Welcome Farida to our conversation.
Farida: Pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
Ramia: So let’s keep it very polite and give you a chance to tell us what you do in life to give our listeners a bit of context and then we can dive right into a few questions that Amy and I have prepared for you.
Farida: Sure. As you’ve correctly said, my primary role in life is being your sister. Next to that, I’m a lawyer, I qualified for the bar of Switzerland and worked for a couple of years in Switzerland. Later I became the general manager of an organization called the Tharawat Family Business Forum. This is a non-profit organization focusing on the sustainability, innovation and growth of family enterprises in the Middle East. I joined the organization in 2009 and since then, have been trying to grow it into a peer support structure which really focuses on the best practices for family-owned enterprises in the region. So, that’s my primary occupation. Our family has a family business, so I do help out whenever I have time next to my occupation as Ramia’s sister and as GM of Tharawat.
Ramia: Full-time job.
Farida: I help out in other parts of our companies as much as I can.
Ramia: Great, thank you. So, one thing that needs to be mentioned is Farida is a member of the WIFB committee as well. She’s one of the founding spirits behind Women In Family Business. So maybe Amy, the first question from your side may be about what she does and then we will dive straight into the topic of sibling relationships in the family business workplace, which is going to be very interesting.
Amy: My own interest right now, Farida is what inspired you to create WIFB?
Farida: That’s a very interesting question. So, it was a couple of years back when I started with Tharawat, I always had a feeling that we were not having the right conversations around the role of women in family business. I have a feeling, and I still feel that a little bit, specifically now with everything that is happening around Hollywood and all the scandals that are emerging, one of the conflicting feelings I have in the conversation on women in the workplace, it’s a conversation that’s very polarized. On the one hand, women are overly-praised sometimes just for being a woman in the workplace, which I find not very helpful and not very productive.
Ramia: And also very offensive.
Farida: It is offensive but it’s also it sets you up for failure. Because you cannot fulfill that expectation that people somehow build up for you just because you are a woman and you manage to get into a certain position of influence and power. The other part that irritated me was the fact that on the other hand, we speak about women as victims. We kind of in both cases, in the overly praising role and in the victimizing role, we group them in these very abstract generalized groups of people with no individuality, with no sense of the complexity that each of us are facing in the context of the workplace. So, I kind of saw that very early on in the Middle East, and in the Middle East we have these conversations at the even more extreme level because it’s a big topic here. It’s something that we have to talk about, but I never like the conversations that we had about being a woman in the family business or in the workplace in general. I’ve always kind of had at the back of my mind, the idea that we should do something different for this but maybe something that has a global appeal. So, then I was lucky enough to meet Ana she’s in a Columbian the family business. We met at a conference by complete coincidence. We met at the conference site in an elevator and we just started chatting. That’s how our friendship started. I mentioned to her that one of the things that I wanted to do was to speak about women in family business and she was right away very passionate about the subject. She had her own experiences and she had her own point of view of it and basically that’s how WIFB was born. Obviously, Ramia has come on board, and she’s been instrumental in creating a lot of content and really making sure that it found an audience. And then we were able to bring on board an amazing team of committee members who have really been instrumental to drive the agenda and make us reflect on how can we have an impact? How can we be realistic about having an impact and managing and navigating the challenges of being an international organization that doesn’t physically meet that often.
Ramia: Farida, Amy actually has a wealth of experience in dealing with women in the context of the family business from all of her years of coaching daughters in family business. She’s encountered many problems that were unique but also many problems that keep on coming back through different forms and through different people. She has identified one of those topics as sibling dynamics and sibling relationships within the family business context. I don’t know why she invited us for this conversation.
Farida: I have no clue.
Ramia: I feel like she’s trying to tell us something. And I do want to have this conversation with you off the air. So, our idea here is for Amy to guide us through the subject in terms of highlighting the usual issues that she has seen in the past and for us to maybe give her an account of what it was like for us when we begin to work together. So, Amy, I’ll bounce that back to you.
Amy: You just asked my question. I’m curious whether or not you always envisioned working together.
Farida: From my side, not at all. I’m an accidental family business person. I really started out very focused on my studies. In Switzerland in order to get to the bar, you spend about eight years of education. So, it’s a very long educational path. Most people who go down that path also have the vision of staying in that field for a very long time. We always had the family business, I was always aware of it. I was always supportive whenever I was needed but I did not have this in mind for my own profession. It honestly did not occur to me what it would mean to work with the family business. Unless you’re in it and have really grown up with the intention of becoming a part of it, you cannot imagine what it is to work with your family.
Ramia: I think it’s also because we used to identify the family business mostly with working with Dad.
Farida: Yes, very true.
Ramia: I’ve always wanted to work for Dad and within the family business but without expecting that either of you. So none of us thought that the three of us would be in the business together. Interestingly the focus laid on the older generation in that respect. We identified the whole family dynamic that originated with our family and back with Dad. This was even before we started working that was a primary thing that happened first I feel was this finding our way with Dad, as opposed to finding our way with each other.
Amy: In working together for a while as adults who have different pathways, I guess it’s a question to each of you. What has surprised you about your sister in a work setting?
Farida: Should I start?
Ramia: You go ahead. Unleash and I will follow you.
Farida: Okay, don’t cry.
Ramia: It’s okay, I can take it. You said worse to me, I’m sure. I’m sure you’re still going to sugar-coat it because it’s being recorded right now.
Farida: I think this is a very interesting question about conversations within the context of Tharawat a lot. Not just your siblings working together, but in general family members working together. I think with siblings, it’s maybe a bit more extreme. Especially if you’re someone who has largely grown up together and largely grown up in the same context. Now what happened to me is I moved out from home at the age of about 18, we all did. But I’m quite a bit older than Ramia, I’m 5 years older, so I moved out and I didn’t live at home for 10 years before starting to work and live with Ramia. We had quite an extreme version of family business because we didn’t just start working together but we also started living together as well.
Ramia: Because we were living abroad at the same time.
Farida: So we moved abroad and we started this initiative together, the media company. Now that I look around me and see the different models of siblings working together, it’s rare that you would live and work together at the adult age. This is an extreme version of the family business experience, I would say. But it has taught me a lot. So, you asked me what did I learn? I went into this thinking the biggest challenge would be the company or the work. Trying to start something fresh, all the start-up problems that you have as a start-up business in general. It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re a family business or not, start-ups are hard and start-ups basically take all the life out of you. You wanted me to be candid, well, here you go.
Ramia: It’s a tad bit dramatic but I say go for it. Open up.
Farida: With regards to the sibling relationship, we fought a lot in the first year and, looking back, it’s very clear to me why that happened. It’s because as an older sister, I felt that I knew my sibling. I saw her grow up, I was there when she was born. I wanted to teach her how to read and write before she went to school.
Ramia: I am grateful.
Farida: You’re welcome. And so, I just have this feeling that I knew this person and I was going to know this person whether it’s at home or in the workplace. Suddenly, I realize that I did not know her in the workplace. That she is a different person, I have never seen her in that context. This for me was probably a shock to the system. It literally took me a good year and a half to understand that. To accept that my idea of who my sister was, is not necessarily the full picture. So, for me, one of the things I always tell family business siblings is be prepared to accept that your sibling is more than the person you know. Specifically, in the work context, be open to being surprised by either their competency, sometimes their incompetency, by their way of reacting to things. For me, one of the first things I had to learn to accept was that at the workplace, she was my equal, even though in my eyes, she still my little sister. But she is my equal because we did not have a hierarchy, we had a flat hierarchy. I had to accept that and, in the beginning, I remember struggling with it to a certain extent. But then also there were beautiful moments. I just recently had a situation like that where I looked at her and I would think, ‘I am so proud of you and I am so impressed with this person.’
Ramia: And then you take the credit, of course.
Farida: And then I take the credit because I was instrumental in her development.
Ramia: Especially the positive development. it’s interesting how you’re very keen on appropriating those, I love it.
Farida: So, for me, I think that was the big learning experience.
Amy: What about for you, Ramia?
R: Plenty of stuff that Farida just touched on apply to me equally. I always say that to next-gens or whoever starts working with family, don’t make the assumption that you know your family because you really don’t. We’ve had our younger sister join us two years ago and the whole process started from scratch. This time we had the advantage of understanding that these things take time. And I do believe for me, being the most impatient person in the family, I think for me the biggest lesson was there are things that can only be resolved in time. That’s the thing that I had to learn which is something that is very hard for someone who’s impatient. Farida is a lot more patient than I am. She is a sweeter, kinder character than I am so I had to learn a lot from her in perseverance and enduring. That’s what I learned from her. How to persevere even when you can’t get what you want. There’s no instant gratification in the family business. Obviously, we all know that, it’s not environment where you get instant gratification, at all. It really helped me in redefining my notions of success. I think that was a very important thing that we did for each other. That is the thing that you can’t do for you because you need that same generation to tell you and to help you to find what makes you successful and what doesn’t. That’s one of those things that you somehow can’t bridge with the other generation. That’s the one thing I can never align myself with the older generation. How did they define what is successful and what isn’t? And I actually feel it might sound very odd, but I actually feel like any conflicts that we had with Dad, have been massively in our favor for our relationship. Because we’ve always had each other’s backs when it came to confronting him or confronting the outside world. To me, that solidarity is the biggest reason why I could never work with anybody else to that extent. You just don’t recover from that kind of loyalty, it’s very, very hard. It also makes it difficult when you hire people because your expectations are ridiculously high when it comes to that kind of thing. Where you have to trust people and you can’t expect that kind of relationship with people that you hire. That was a tough learning curve for us. It was like, why aren’t they as passionate about this as you are? I want you to do this. On the positive side, it’s important not to cut out the other people and allow them to do these things. I would do it again in a heartbeat for sure and I think that’s the positive thing to take away. We also know today that in the time I had, there’s going to be changes and life brings changes but also conscious changes that are going to be hard to accept from each other. But I think we’re quite confident in being able to handle it even if we don’t like it.
Amy: It sounds like you treasure your sibling relationship and you learn to become partners. In terms of roles and education, that is a particular shift that I think sibling teams have to learn because it is different. It’s a different way of negotiating with each other, resolving conflicts, supporting and celebrating. But it sounds like you have made that shift. We wouldn’t be talking together if you didn’t.
Ramia: We’re faking it, there’s going to be violence after this.
Farida: My shins are hurting under the table.
Ramia: She’s getting kicked, it’s not even funny. Actually, Amy what I wanted to ask you in return is, we’re all in the family business field. I think that makes it a very interesting pool of experiences and cases that we encounter as well. Ours is a positive case in the sense that we’ve learned how to work together. We’ve learned that time is the only solution and it heals. But we do see a lot of people where the sibling dynamic is the main reason why the family business fails. And that’s something that we have to be very realistic about. Interestingly, I feel it happens just as much between sisters as it does between brothers or sister and brother. I don’t feel there’s a huge difference. However, Amy has in previous discussions brought up the point that a sister joining her brothers in the company can be potentially challenging. Whether we like it or not, there is a potential gender bias there. Maybe Amy, you could tell us a little bit more about the most complicated or complex issues that your clients have faced in a sibling relationship.
Amy: Well, there’s a range of course. One is if the daughter has grown up never dreaming she would join the family business and that the expectation is always that the son would. So she goes off and gets a career and returns, that return is very dicey because she brings a certain amount of experience. There is the challenge of who actually has the skills and the interest and the passion and the ability to lead. This becomes a more open question than anyone thought it would be when the siblings were growing up. So that can add a dimension of surprise and conflict and doubt because it’s so disruptive to envision in a mostly male-dominated company that the daughter ends up in charge. So that’s one example, and I think when there are multiple siblings, the daughter has to fight a little harder to have her voice heard, to find her particular niche. One of the milestones that I think becomes an issue when the daughter is working with siblings, particularly when they are either one or more male siblings, is if she decides to have children. Then the expectations of what her schedule is, what her needs are can create some irritation on the part of her male siblings. A woman who maybe has worked 12-hour days just like her brothers, and then all of a sudden, she isn’t doing that. This can draw criticism and can be seen as having a lack of commitment. Especially since this is still a relatively new phenomenon and many brothers have wives who are staying at home. If you have a particularly patriarchal family, even having sister working is not what they’re comfortable with. Obviously, each family is a universe, but I think the challenges of creating a sibling team whether it’s 2, 3, 4 or more is a bit about that reacquainting, just as you’ve described, who is this person? I’ve never seen her act this way before. I think the other dimension can be when a daughter is working too hard to fit in, she can come on in a very strong fashion which may in some ways exacerbate conflicts from childhood. The entry of the sibling into a business is a huge event in the life of a family business, male or female. It’s just we’re less accustomed to having women join now. That’s a newer phenomenon but it really is a milestone and it sounds like you did learn a lot, Farida when you entered and now that your sister has entered, I love the fact that you were prepared now.
Ramia: We still did stuff wrong because she surprised us more than we expected, but we understood when it went wrong and why it went wrong I think.
Farida: I think what’s interesting with our third sister is that I knew this was going to happen. Even though I knew I was going to make mistakes and I was going to be impatient and I was going to be surprised by her. I had told our sister (???) the moment she came to the family business, I’m going to count between 9 months and 12 months until we find our groove. She joined to work specifically with me directly. I remember she was a bit skeptical in the beginning. Why would it take so long, we know each other we know how we work? It was by far not as difficult as when we started working together. I think also our situation was a bit extreme because we started the business and we started working together. She came into a context where it was already set. Which to be honest for her, it was probably harder. She had to deal with the fact that we had established a certain culture, a certain system. Our third sister is also a very strong personality, extremely competent. Again, in the areas I was not expecting her to be so strong, which is really funny. That’s what I told her recently, I rediscovered her as well and I rediscovered her as a professional.
Ramia: You know that art of letting someone insist on something in the beginning, even if you don’t really see it. I think that’s super important to the induction into a family business. For someone to be allowed to carve that space and be given the opportunity to just push one argument through that seems to be so important to them. Especially if it doesn’t really matter to you.
Ramia: Let it go. Let them go with it and just let them do that. Let them get that foot in the door. I think that’s a big one that we were able to do right this time that we couldn’t do for each other at the time.
Farida: Better than before, yeah.
Ramia: We weren’t able to do that for each other. For me, one big question I have for both of you, and I think back to our parents when we started working together, is what is the role of the older generation in facilitating a new sibling joining the team? We’re talking about how we need to figure this out together within this generation. How can the older generation be a positive enabler to make it easier for someone to join? Amy, do you have any positive cases where you saw this was a conscious process where this was employed?
Amy: Most of the situations I’ve heard about have been where that introduction has not been smooth. Particularly where the daughter is stronger, and the son may not even be happy that he’s working in the business. The father can sometimes over encourage the son and care more about the son’s success because that’s just hard-wired in. In terms of the question of the how to facilitate the smooth introduction, there are different models. One is early on building that possibility that any child can join the business. Which is still almost a radical thought for many people. The issue also becomes either around who’s going to be in charge and how the parent describes that. Maybe it’s perfectly clear but maybe it’s not. And then also how does the ownership play out? What is the succession plan? As we know, succession planning is a wonderful thing and it’s a complicated process. The parents should be clear and say how they’re going to approach that. When it is uncertain, one way is to say, ‘This will be Ramia’s role for a while. We’re going to see how things evolve. Each of you are going to receive a development opportunity, there will always be a place for each of you as long as you want to be here and you’re contributing.’ I think in many cases, to the extent that it’s possible, providing that kind of acceptance of each sibling and making sure that the sibling understands that is important. While also recognizing that there may actually need to be someone in charge, at least even if it’s just for the face of the company, but that’s okay. That’s how a business of multiple siblings is going to need to run. Sometimes equalizing everything has its own set of complexities. I think we’re learning more and more about this, but I don’t think it’s been something that’s been thoughtful and intentional in the past.
Farida: I completely agree. I think for me, the senior generation, if you have a family business and you know that your children one day will either be expected or required to work in it, at some point your children will be facing facts. One of the one of the facts is suddenly they’re in charge, as owners of this unit or this organism in a way. As the older generation, you’ve said it correctly Amy, it starts very early on. The one big gift that our parents have given us is to instill the solidarity towards each other from a very early age. My mother always had conversations with us, why is this one crying, we have to understand what happened in school.
Ramia: No jealousies.
Farida: No jealousies. You’re all equal, you’re all different but you’re all equally loved. These are these feelings that I see so often in family businesses when they have not properly communicated to children or when there have been dramatic incidents in their childhoods. Dealing with family business in the Middle East automatically makes you deal with a lot of traumatic pasts because of the geopolitical situation in the region. It has been very volatile for a very long time now. Really, you have 60 or 65 year old people who have trigger moments that just transport them back to their childhoods and whatever the context, whatever the situation they’re in, whether it’s a boardroom or a factory, they are going to react according to what this child’s insecurities were. I think this is something that, as parents, one of the biggest gift you can give them is solidarity with their siblings. Because ultimately, it is one of the strongest things you can have. The knowledge that you can fight with this person, even hate them under certain circumstances, but there’s still a knowing that it’s okay. You have each other’s backs and you can count on each other. The family business is such a complex unit, it’s a very, very difficult thing to handle. It comes with so much interference into your personal life. One of the things I always say is the difficulty with modern life is that we are brought up thinking that we live in an individual society. But when you join the family business, you’re catapulted into a collective life. That is a transition that is really, really hard. If you don’t have partners that you can bounce things off, or just spar with sometimes just to burn off energy, knowing that you’re not going to damage anything, to me, I think that is essential. So for me, parents who have children in businesses, it starts right from the beginning. I think doing that later on takes a lot more energy and lot more time. It only really works when people are very introspective and open to this change. It’s a very unlikely that all the people involved will be at the same point at the same time in their lives.
Amy: The other is that solidarity, the extent that non-family employees can see that he is really a very important factor in what’s going to make that a healthy business. I often find siblings are completely unaware of how their sparring, even if it’s in a playful way, has a huge impact on others.
Ramia: So, for the sake of the health of all future family businesses, let’s show solidarity with our siblings. Let’s be patient with them, let’s give them a chance to surprise us regularly and let’s not make the entry in the business so hard for those who come after us. Be honest about how we used to feel when we started out. I think that’s an important one to part with for this podcast. Don’t forget that if you’ve been in a situation before, you have a person who’s going through it for the first time and you should never use that again someone. It’s really not fair. Thank you Farida for joining us today, will you come back?
Farida: I’ll think about it.
Ramia: I’ll try to coerce her. Amy, thank you very much for your insights as usual. Will be back with another episode of women and family business very soon. Thank you, Amy Katz from Daughters In Charge for joining us.
About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge:
Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses. She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.