Arguably few things can be as damaging or limiting to an organization at all levels than when the business partners are in conflict. Partnerships are often compared to marriage for good reason. Just like in a family, tension and conflict between partners can lead to arguments and confrontations, contradictory instructions given to employees (the “children,” if you are following me on this metaphor), and even contempt that can drive away staff, cause significant stress to all parties and bring a company down to its knees.
So, whether you are in a long-term partnership, just getting started or are considering one, let’s take a moment to look at seven problem areas you will want to address now.
- Skill Set and Ability Overlap
Partnerships in which individuals are too similar in personality and skill set are left with blind spots that can handicap a company. The puzzle pieces must fit together without excessive overlap. Too much visionary type, and your organization may make impulsive or emotive decisions or get easily distracted. Too much operations or internal focus, and you may lack innovation and get caught in the weeds.
- Different Values
Charles Van Vechten, formerly a partner in the communications firm Jacob Tyler, once wrote regarding partnerships that you should “Think peanut butter and chocolate, not lemon juice and ice cream,” meaning that partners should bring different skill sets but have similar values. A key driver of a healthy company culture is when the entire organization operates around the same values (sometimes outlined as guiding principles or a credo). These values act as a rule book for the organization. Partners playing from different rule books will cause significant confusion and frustration.
The opposite is also true. A great example of how agreed-upon values can impact leadership decisions is the 1982 Tylenol crisis, when bottles of Tylenol were poisoned and resulted in multiple deaths. The leaders of parent company Johnson and Johnson faced a major decision: protect it’s shareholders or protect it’s consumers. Because the company credo specifically spelled out that its first responsibility was to its consumers, James Burke, the company’s chairman, chose to swiftly recall 31 million bottles of Tylenol from store shelves and offer replacements free of charge. The credo acted as a company compass.
- Different Visions
Agreement around corporate values is a critical piece — but only a piece. Partners also need to be heading in the same direction with the same goals in mind (although it is O.K. if they are driving different model cars on the way). Consider a two-person partnership where one person sees the company hitting $5 million in revenue in five years and the other wants $50 million in the same time frame. Those scenarios happen quite differently.
- Lack of Clarity Around Responsibility
Particularly in smaller organizations, partners may wear multiple hats, but they shouldn’t be wearing each other’s hats. Partners need to delineate who is responsible for what based on each other’s interests, strengths and the needs of the company. Why is this so necessary? Because having two people accountable for a single major function means that nobody is accountable. This is a lesson I learned the hard way in a previous company. Being new to business partnership, both my partner and I wrongly assumed who would be responsible for what and frequently, occasionally to the point of embarrassment, stepped on each other’s toes and sent conflicting messages to staff. Getting clear on what was my responsibility and what was his gave us each the permission to lay down the responsibilities of the other and focus instead on what we did best.
- Unproductive Arguing
Do you keep having the same arguments over and over? Leadership sets the tone for the health of the organization. And if arguments remain unproductive or unhealthy, you will end up experiencing contempt, which is difficult to bounce back from as it happens to be the single best predictor of divorce. If you are struggling to communicate effectively with your partner, it’s time to address this. Reminding each other why you got into the partnership in the first place and acknowledging the unique and valuable skills the other brings to the table may be a good place to start the conversation.
- Indecision About Deciding
Strong partnerships are clear about how they will address decisions in an organization. This includes knowing who breaks the tie when consensus can’t be reached. The authors of “Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want From Your Business,” a book that specifically digs into the “visionary” and “integrator” partnership roles, suggest that the integrator always be the one to make the decisions where consensus is lacking. This is because the integrator is responsible for executing toward the vision of the company and is more likely to make decisions in that vein.
- No Exit Plan
Even the best laid plans sometimes go awry. A partner’s values and goals may change, or partners may find that their skill sets don’t mesh in a way that is the best for the organization. Regardless of the reason, having a signed plan in place that defines how a member can exit the company can not only prevent contention but also help to ensure the continuity of the business post exit.
If you aren’t yet in a business partnership, get ahead of the game by addressing these issues now. If you are in a partnership, and one or more of these apply to you, then for your sanity and for the sake of your business, it’s time for a heart to heart with your partner(s). Bring in an outsider to facilitate if necessary, but get on the same page. These conversations are difficult but necessary. If ending the current pain and frustration isn’t enough, consider the opportunity cost not just for you and your partner but also for your team and the long-term well-being of your company should you do nothing.
HEATHER PARBST is a business consultant and founder of Clarity3 Consulting, a company helping organizations solve their operations, culture and leadership challenges. Heather uses her past experience owning, leading, growing, and selling a technology company along with a background in psychology to help her clients execute on their objectives, move toward organizational excellence and increase their impact.