A business partnership is a lot like a marriage: for better or worse, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Conflict and even the occasional blow-up aren’t just normal, they’re signs of a healthy, passionate working relationship in which both parties are invested in making BIG happen for the business.
In fact, as is also the case in a marriage, sometimes the issues that could be doing the most damage to the relationship aren’t the ones you argue about out in the open. They’re the problems bubbling just below the surface. Sometimes those problems erode the partnership so slowly that neither party realizes it’s over until it’s over. And in some cases, those problems pop out of the water at the worst possible time and drag your whole business under.
Here are four common warning signs that your business partnership might be falling out of alignment and tips on how to get both you and your partner refocused on growing your company.
1. Your partner seems checked out.
Is your partner not quite as on the ball as he or she used to be? Maybe you’ve noticed hard deadlines softening, tardiness, a lack of engagement during important meetings, and a litany of excuses that don’t add up.
Usually these situations are a result of a work – life imbalance that’s built into a feeling of burnout. If your partner is overdue for a vacation, force them to block out a couple weeks for a recharge. Schedule an off-hours activity you both enjoy, like a round of golf or dinner at a favorite restaurant. Ask about and encourage their weekend pursuits, or try involving them in part of your routine, like hitting the gym before work. If you sense there might be a problem at home or a health issue that’s a distraction, offer a sympathetic ear.
What you can’t do is nothing. You wouldn’t tolerate a slip in performance from a subordinate, and these kinds of issues between partners are even more serious. Your partner IS your business as much as you are. Neither one of you can afford to be “off.”
2. Unclear division of labor.
As companies grow, they change. What worked for you and your partner when you were doing $5 million a year in sales might not work once you’ve hit $25 million. If the two of you aren’t absolutely clear about who is responsible for what, toes get stepped on, egos get bruised, redundancies pile up, and the business suffers.
I have a lot of personal experience with this issue. In the early days of Platinum Capital, my partner and I stayed on very equal footing. When we expanded to four divisions, it became apparent that I would have to step into the CEO role while my partner focused on running one of those divisions. We were still equal partners in the business, and we made board-level decisions as members of the board, but operationally, we each knew who was responsible for what, and how executing those responsibilities would lead to success for the business.
If you feel like you and you and your partner are both doing everything, stop. Have a frank conversation about where each of your interests and strengths lie and restructure your roles accordingly. And if the business has outgrown your partnership, it might be time to consider some options. Maybe you buyout your partner’s interest. Maybe your partner retains their equity but steps out of an operating role in the company. And if you’re both too emotionally involved in the decision, reach out to a coach who is skilled at facilitating these type of discussions.
3. Feelings of inadequate compensation.
Religion, politics, and money are usually verboten topics of polite conversation. That’s why you and your partner might both be grinning through gritted teeth at paychecks you both know are below what you’d be worth at a different company.
This is an issue that plagues many partners who have built up a company from nothing but failed to transition out of a “startup mentality.” Family businesses, where everyone pitches in at different levels for the greater good, are also susceptible. You might both think you’re “taking one for the team” by paying yourselves less than you’re worth so that the company has more cash on hand. “Once we hit our next target, we’ll bump up our compensation packages,” you tell yourselves.
Unfortunately, a business on a positive trajectory always has another target to hit. Cutting back on paying the people who are most important to hitting those targets is just poor budgeting. If you and your partner are both top performers, you deserve compensation commensurate with your level of responsibility. Bonuses and incentives are a great way to keep both partners on equal footing if one is the CEO and the other is working a level below.
4. Communication breakdown.
Successful businesses find a communication rhythm that keeps everyone focused on their tasks while also welcoming and reinforcing feedback. Somewhere along the way to BIG, you and your partner might have fallen out of that rhythm. Even if you’re both showing up to the same weekly meetings, digesting the same numbers, and working towards the same goals, the two of you need to schedule time to talk alone, face-to-face, to discuss the state of the company. You need to make sure you’re both hearing each other’s ideas, receptive to frustrations, and united in the ultimate vision that brought you two together in the first place.
Periodically, ask yourselves:
- Do we see ourselves growing together for many more years?
- What is our vision together?
- What roles do we play that enable us to achieve that outcome?
- Do we keep paying ourselves the same way, or do we need to change our pay structure to align us better with our work?
- On a scale of 1-10, how would we each rate our direct reports? Can we coach up the 6s and 7s? Why are we holding on to any 5s and below?
When business partners reach a point where they can’t have these kinds of honest conversations, they have two choices: dissolve the partnership, or get with a coach who can help reopen the lines of communication. Don’t let your pride get in the way of resolvable conflicts. Your partnership got you this far, and with a little work, it might be able to take you and your company even further.
About Mark Moses
Mark Moses is the Founding Partner of CEO Coaching International and the Amazon Bestselling author of Make Big Happen. His firm coaches over 170 of the world’s top high-growth entrepreneurs and CEO’s from over 20 countries on how to dramatically grow their revenues and profits, implement the most effective strategies, becoming better leaders, grow their people, build accountability systems, and elevate their own performance. Mark has won Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award and the Blue Chip Enterprise award for overcoming adversity. His last company ranked #1 Fastest-Growing Company in Los Angeles as well as #10 on the Inc. 500 of fastest growing private companies in the U.S. He has completed 12 full distance Ironman Triathlons including the Hawaii Ironman World Championship 5 times.