As a business lawyer, I sometimes get hired to perform a sort of marriage counseling for business partners. The goal is to preserve the business by coaxing the partners back together or gently breaking them apart. I always know I can save the partnership when each partner asks the other questions and talks about both business and feelings. I usually cannot save the partnership when one partner lacks accountability; the cause is lost when one sneers with contempt.
All of the business partners I have helped stay together or break apart have similar disagreements. There is usually a partner more financially prudent who tries to rein in the other partner; a deadline oriented person who imposes limits on the perfectionist; unavailable partners; wounded feelings following criticisms, even if gentle.
People conflate their self worth with their work, so criticisms injure their ego. But, most businesses lack the emotional space to share and soothe. In a business partnership – like every other relationship – unexpressed hurts accumulate and turn into resentment. When resentment becomes contempt, the deal is done.
Having worked with business partners in good times and bad, I can recommend five action steps you and your partners can do to stay connected.
#1 HAVE THIS TOUGH CONVERSATION EARLY
Have an honest conversation about how you and your partners will work together. This is important at the beginning of a venture, when you are all at your most optimistic. All of you need to feel that the divisions of control, labor, cash and credit are fair. Here is what you ought to decide:
- What are your goals for the business?
- Which owner will be the boss?
- How much money, property or time will each partner contribute?
- How will you divide salary money, profits and losses?
- How will voting get divided?
- Will one or more owners have veto power and, if so, over what?
- Who gets the right(s) to sign checks and spend money?
- What will failure look like (so you know when to pull the plug)?
- How will you resolve ties and disagreements?
- How can you get away from each other if it’s not working?
If you can, write down the answers to the 10 questions. If you don’t have a lawyer to do it, write it down as clearly as possible without short hands or acronyms. The point is not just to create a contract, it is also to create a roadmap and a record of your conversations.
#2 DON’T BE A DOUCHE
Yes, your partner, employee, consultant, etc should take criticisms and suggestions professionally. Yes, you are certainly entitled to criticize and demand changes. But, if you want to preserve the relationship, your reputation, and the willingness of the other person to root for you and your business, then be sensitive about his feelings.
#3 DON’T BE A DRAMA QUEEN
Yes, it hurts when someone rejects your idea. Cut your hurt feelings a little slack – but just a little. There is not even a fine line between being human and a baby. You are here to do a job and to do it well. Take instructions; don’t sulk or throw a tantrum. Adults feel their feelings but aren’t controlled by them. Past the pain of rejection is satisfaction from overcoming an obstacle – try to get there.
#4 SCHEDULE REGULAR DATE NIGHTS
Look, it’s mildly ridiculous that humans can’t just separate personal feelings from professional relationships, but most of us can’t, so own it. Once a quarter, go out to dinner, preferably with booze, and talk about your relationship. Try and use feeling words, listen, and don’t go tit for tat. Address the following questions:
- Have you been communicating well?
- How can you improve your communications?
- Are you each still happy with the division of labor, control and money?
- What changes should you make?
- Is there anything anyone is happy about or mad about?
#5 PICK THE RIGHT PARTNER(S)
The most important thing you can do is choose wisely, or at least don’t choose badly. Don’t pick someone mean or lazy. Pick an adult, who believes in you and understands your weaknesses and lets you be the best parts of you but speaks honestly to the worst parts of you. Pick someone with talents equal to, but different than, your own.
I find that most times when business partners follow this advice, they live happily ever after.