Ask Mike: We’re a partnership but now we’re falling out

Posted by | October 11, 2012 | Ask Mike, People, Podcasts, Small Business | No Comments

Mike has mentored over 1000 entrepreneurs personally  – and often the same sorts of problems crop up. Hence “Ask Mike” – your business, entrepreneurship and growth questions answered! Email your question to mike@mikesouthon.com

Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards and Kermit & Miss Piggy: what do they all have in common? Well aside from (bizarrely) all scoring number-one albums, they are excellent examples of diametrically different characters forming hugely successful partnerships. All three have also proved very lucrative businesses; and in business, partnerships are good. They provide complementary skills, personalities and outlooks whilst halving the start-up costs, workload and pressure.

Unfortunately, these differences will inevitably lead to conflict at some stage, too. It is almost guaranteed that two driven individuals with different ways of working and large amounts of time and money at stake will argue over how to run their business.

Picture this: your business is doing well, those difficult early stages are a fading memory, it is making money, attracting new custom and growing steadily. Yet businesses can grow in a number of ways; so which direction do you choose?

Now picture the opposite: your business is failing, you are both putting in more money than you had imagined, the hours are getting longer and the rewards smaller. How do you turn things around – or even worse, which of you is to blame?

In all likelihood, it is neither of you. Both these scenarios offer ample opportunity for squabbling, and a ruckus is practically guaranteed at some stage (this is why big companies have boards of directors and a host of external experts to remove emotion from the equation).

The parallels with a marriage are easy to draw. In the beginning, you both get on well, complementing each other’s abilities and make a great partnership. By the time divorce proceedings begin, each is blaming the other with everything largely reduced to a dispute over money and assets. The danger in both cases is playing the blame game while ignoring the actual outcome; in this case, the failure of your business.

Yet, as with marriage, divorce is not inevitable. Some couples just seem to ride out the rough times without raising their voices at one another. Marriage guidance counsellors always promote the value of communication, and that is not a bad place to start. Hold regular board meetings, even if it is just the two of you, away from the office and its day-to-day troubles. Put together a formal agenda, so that both sides can have time to prepare approaches to problematic situations, without feeling ambushed. This sort of preparation, with a good dose of courtesy and mutual respect will make arguments healthy and productive, rather than lunging between crisis and resentment.

If you find that you have counted to ten more times than a Hide-and-Seek enthusiast, what can you do about it? To use the marriage analogy again, you need to agree on as many contingencies as possible before you begin (just like a Pre-nuptial agreement). Write them down beforehand, or during your ‘honeymoon period’ – those balmy days when everything is still new and exciting.  Better still, agree upon a third party mediator whom you both like, trust and respect, to be the guardian of your agreement and most likely marriage guidance counsellor, too. This eliminates any ‘re-interpretation’ of the agreement and provides a crucial degree of objectivity.

If you are reading this too late and it is a repair job you are after, then you need to get some advice. However, be wary of the source: friends and family are the easiest option, but having your best interests at heart often means telling you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear. Speak to a mentor if you have one, or a contact with no strong personal connection to either you or your partner and ask their professional advice. The best route, perhaps surprisingly, is that of the HR Consultant. One of my sponsors, Park City Consulting, has had a lot of success in this area by providing impartial and professional mediation services. If you are both willing to listen and ultimately accept the decision you are paying for, then this can potentially save your business.

It is worth remembering that the best approach here is to take a step back and be honest with yourself. Professional services of any sort inevitably have a price tag attached; so a rational and calm discussion, whilst harder, will be cheaper. Everyone can be stubborn in the moment, but good business practice demands flexibility, compromise and an ability to see the long-term.

Either way, a clear head and some impartial advice will allow you to remove yourself from the situation and think in terms of outcomes. There are outcomes for everyone involved; you, your partner, the business not to mention your customers.

Finally, sometimes you simply need to know when to quit. Opposing views with no sign of compromise and a dismal dislike of each other all point towards the dissolution of the partnership. It does happen; and it is not the end of your career. When packing up your stuff, make sure to leave your grievances behind; as I evangelise in our book, ‘The Beermat Entrepreneur’ – the best revenge is a happy life. So take a gleaming new idea, learn from the experience and go and execute it exactly how you want to. After all, even if you have lost money on this venture, there is something nobody can take away from you second time around; and that is your experience.

Mike Southon

About Mike Southon

Mike Southon is a serially successful entrepreneur, best-selling business author, mentor and one of the world’s top business speakers on entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship and sales.

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