Guide To Keeping Your Business Partnership Healthy
Last Updated: June 11, 2018.
What do I want to teach with this guide?
I want you to leave this knowing that you need a plan on how to maintain your relationship with your co-founder, and one that will need constant adjustment. And, that the keys to keeping a co-founder relationship healthy are time, respect, and having hard discussions before they cause long-lasting damage.
- Both co-founders make the relationship a priority.
- Both co-founders are responsible for their own needs and ensuring those are met.
- Both co-founders can manage conflict and differences without despair, threats, or verbal/physical/emotional abuse.
- Both co-founders can communicate wants, needs, feelings and emotional issues with little or no shame.
- The relationship feels fun and supportive.
- They can hear feedback from each other without instantly disregarding it.
- There is a commitment to the co-founder relationship.
- You are on the same page in terms of the big picture. You might disagree over how to get there but you know where you are going.
- You trust the other person.
- You don’t take the little things personally.
- You act as teammates, not competitors.
- You take responsibility instead of shifting blame.
- You can talk openly about anything — even tricky topics.
- When you fight, you fight fair.
A formal plan is a recognition that something is so important that it needs the continual investment of our time and energy. You and your co-founder need to make a commitment to keeping your relationship healthy and happy. That plan will change, it will pivot, it will adapt, but it always needs to be there given the huge importance your co-founder relationship has on each of you, the business, your team, and your clients.
A plan protects you when things get stressful or a crisis hits because it reminds you what is important in the grand scope of things. A plan also serves as a public commitment to each other and helps you both remember how important this relationship is.
“With my co-founder we did not have a plan on how to keep our relationship healthy and happy. We had been friends for a long time and I don’t think either of us thought about making one with clear times to touch base because so much happened naturally and in the flow. You can probably guess what happened, when a crisis/stress hit one of us some of that flow got interrupted and we lost enough of our connection to eventually cause problems. One of the biggest mistakes we all make is thinking that we just need to go with the flow and it will work out. Going with the flow works great when things are easy, when stress is low, or when things are not so busy. But the minute a crisis hits is when you drop things that don’t have an articulated plan.”
The key proponents of the formalized plan are a commitment to regular meetings time and the right topic. Not only do you need to make time for each other, you need to make sure you are talking about the right topics and not fluff.
What does a plan look like?
- It can be having two lunches together with your phones off.
- I can be hanging out after work to play games.
- It can be a morning breakfast three times a week.
- It can be a monthly survey you do with each other to check-in on key topics.
How does a plan like the above evolve?
Plans can and must change and adapt. If one of you has to spend 4 months in China getting a factory ready, or working with local partners, or traveling that doesn’t mean you drop the plan, it means you pivot. If your plan was spending three lunches together a week, instead sit down and do a scheduled morning/dinner over video conferencing. Commit to it, do not let anything else take precedent. It might also be switching from three blocks to two when you are tight on time, but you have to watch that very carefully.
The 3 keys to a great relationship with your co-founder.
- Quality Time
- Talking about the hard things.
I think that quality time together is the single biggest influencer of co-founder health. It is important to note that quality time is the time you spend to build a real connection and not just the day to day grind of being in an office together. Quality time means you have set aside time for just the two of you to talk and connect. Both about work but also what is going on in your personal life.
Schedule 1v1 time together no matter what.
What might this look like?
- Meeting every morning for a 45-minute breakfast and coffee together before going into the office.
- Meeting at the end of the day over a beer.
- Meet at the start of week and end of the week with time for touching base on the business and where you are at personally.
The important thing is that you do not let that 1v1 time slip or get discarded when things get busy, bad, or good. Too many founders hit a period of high growth and everything is going great, and they stop doing the meetings because they think they should spend it somewhere else. Only later do they find out that they lost the connection with their founder and now they have to try to rebuild it.
Make sure that you talk about personal challenges going on in your life.
There is a myth that you can keep things “professional” in a co-founder relationship and it is simply not true. The things that generally shake a co-founder relationship are what is going on personally with your co-founder, so I urge you to build that connection now. The more you are able to talk about challenges in your life and with you the stronger you will both be for the business long term.
Imagine your co-founder is having trouble in her marriage. Would you rather build the type of relationship where you feel comfortable talking about those challenges? Or would you rather try to do that for the first time when she is facing divorce and is utterly stressed and angry, and barely able to focus at work because she is thinking about getting a lawyer, the effect on her kids, and the effect on her finances. The ability to have deep conversations is something you want to have now, both for the business, but also for when a personal crisis hits. Because they will.
We get in a trap of thinking that other people are like us, or very dangerously that they should be, and that can create some huge problems in terms of expectations.
Your co-founder is different than you, no matter how much alike you are or how well you get along they fundamentally see aspects of the world differently. You have to come to terms with that and respect them no matter how differently they approach a decision. When you stop respecting your co-founder is when the four horsemen of relationships emerge: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling (from the very wise Gottman Institute). These are the same four horsemen that are used to predict divorces.
Talk with your co-founder about what they do when they get mad or pissed off. Do they yell, do they sulk, do they disappear and process, do they light things on fire, what do they do? Have a conversation and make sure you understand how they react when they get mad. If one of you runs away to process, and the other pushes to solve it before they leave the room that isn’t going to work in the heat of the moment. Maybe even consider putting together a weirdly formal process for arguing. Write it down, and then exchange it with dedicated blocks of time to explain it without interruption. You will be amazed how little pauses and formalized time for one person to speak can stop our tendency to get upset.
Putting together a small plan now is well worth it. Do you want to tell each other via email why they are upset because that is easier to express for one of you then face to face? Is the key there to just say thanks for letting me know and then sit down and talk face to face about what to do next time? You have to figure out what works for your personalities and your co-founder relationship. Conflict is inevitable so make a rough plan/habit now so you have a release when it does happen.
Showing recognition and value you for your cofounder.
When is the last time you thanked your co-founder? When is the last time you told them how much your relationships means to you? Or, thanked them for all their hard work?
If you are rolling your eyes and thinking they know these things, or that it is silly to say these things I have some very bad news for you… recognition of value is something that everyone wants and rarely gets. It drives many of us even if we can’t identify it consciously. Giving your co-founder a little love and telling them how much you appreciate their insight, their work on something will help keep your relationship healthy.
Showing respect for your cofounder.
In an HBR survey of 20,000 employees around the world respect was the number one quality they desired. In a survey of 838,151 people in 158 countries, the strongest predictor on the entire survey of what produced positive feelings and outlook was the answer to had they been treated with respect the previous day.
Respect is knowing your co-founder is different and loving that. Respect is treating them like the valued partner they are, and considering them in every decision. Respect is not trying to solve everything, and instead listening and acknowledging them.
Every business will hit points where you need to have a hard conversation with your co-founder. How do you have those conversations and ensure they go well? How do you bring something up that scares you to talk about?
First, it is your responsibility to make sure your needs are met professionally and personally. If you are not happy with something but don’t talk about it it can slowly poison every interaction you have with your co-founder. Do not sit on something too long, if you are following a more formalized plan to talk with your co-founder tell them and talk about it. It might not be something you even need to solve, you just need to express it and make yourself heard.
When a hard topic comes up I recommend making the conversation a little more formal. Why? By letting your co-founder know the topic of the conversation ahead of time they have time to prepare and they don’t feel ambushed or caught off guard.
I am a very fast thinker who likes to work through ideas and decisions in real time, I can’t tell you how many times that frustrated my co-founder or management team who generally needed to prepare and roll around a subject for a few days to a week before talking about it. Sometimes you will want to shoot the shit about things just to see where you are both at, but when it comes time to make a big decision or talk about a hard topic I recommend you formalize it. What does this look like?
Imagine two co-founders, Thor and Helga. In the business, Thor is the CTO and Helga is the CEO. Thor would like to promote one of his managers to be VP of something in his group but he has some concerns about the move. He could bring it up informally with Helga when they meet, and that is going to give some good feedback but if he formalizes it a bit more it can not only help him make a better decision but groom the partnership. So Thor might email Helga and give her a few days heads up that explains what he is thinking of doing, why he wants to do it, and his concerns. Thor clearly explains what he wants from Helga in terms of her advice, and if she has any concerns about the move. Helga receives this and gives it a few days thoughts so she is prepared, she also knows her role and that this isn’t a decision she is making but that her role is advising. They have the conversation, the roles are clear, and Thor comes away with some great advice that helps him make a decision.
I know this sounds weirdly formal, but even if you can bring in 1/4th of this formalization it can go a long way in grooming and showing respect for your co-founder. We all give less recognition then we should to the people around us, this process can help you make them feel valued through the process, and also aware of how much great help you are getting so you can thank them for it.
Upcoming topics for this guide:
- What are others doing? What else is working?
- What are some different techniques co-founders use to maintain quality time?
What are some different techniques co-founders use to maintain a personal bond?
What do you do when you get mad? What are we going to do when we get pissed off at each other?
What do you do now when you get pissed off at your co-founder? How does the process go?
How do different co-founders recognize their co-founders hard work and show them they value them?
How do founders show their respect? What does respect mean to them?
What are some different techniques co-founders use to formalize roles and key decisions?