Business is often hard enough without adding the additional layer of personal relationships to the mix. Small business is often run by partners or business couples. The partners can be a whole range of people; husband and wife, siblings, parents and children or business partners who don’t have a family connection but who may be friends. The blending of real-life partnerships can have some excellent benefits and it can have some rather challenging hurdles, for a multitude of reasons, including the most obvious; you don’t only live together (especially in the scenario of spouses) but you also work together. You don’t get a break and there is an already existing relationship.
So in order for me to help business couples not only survive but thrive, let’s first cover some general tips, and then have some specific tips for some of the specific relationships.
Clarity of business
Be clear about what you want to achieve in business and how you intend to achieve it. Business planning and goal setting are particularly important for business partners, versus a solo run business. You need to be on the same page and heading in the same direction, versus pulling the business apart from two different ends. Goal setting and annual planning should occur no less often than annually, and really, it should be done quarterly. I know some couples who get away for a weekend specifically once a quarter to plan the upcoming quarter. They revisit their long term goals, review where they are at, and then plan the quarter upcoming with a clear 90-day plan.
Know your skills, know your duties
Each partner brings to the mix a range of skills. These might be IT, customer service, organisational, planning, strategy, finance, sales and so much more. These differences and diversities add value to the entire skillset of the business. If you both were hopeless at sales and marketing, but awesome at finances, then there would be clear gaps in your business which you’d need to find ways to fill. So understand, value and appreciate your differences and then determine your duties and responsibilities according to those differences. Just as your employees should have position descriptions, so should you. Each person should be responsible for specific duties and tasks. Ideally, these should not overlap very often, but having said that, you should be keeping your business partner updated regularly; no one should be in the dark and not know what is happening.
Appreciate differences, learn to be flexible & keep your promises
When you’re working with someone else, there will always be differences. Some people are very action orientated and will complete a task the day they get it; others are more thinkers (and yes, sometimes procrastinators) and will leave things until the last possible moment to complete it. Here is where compromise comes in. You both might agree to do the task somewhere between the two points – and then stick to that compromise as it’s now the new deadline. If the agreed compromise was say on the 15th of the current month, then ‘Action’ Partner 1 cannot get cranky it’s “left to the last minute” because it was done on the 14th or 15th. Likewise, ‘Procrastinator’ Partner 2 should not reset the date and let the 15th pass without doing the task because they know the real deadline is say the 20th. In other words, keep your promises. Whether the promise is doing a task, or behaving in a certain way, or meeting a deadline, if you say you will do it, then make absolutely every effort to do it. Don’t allow the personal relationship with the person to become your “I can get away with murder” excuse.
Communicate – well and regularly
What is often common with real-life partners in business or what we call business couples is that they often think they don’t need to tell their partner things. Or they think they have, but didn’t If you were not life partners, you would most likely have partner meetings on a regular basis. It might be lunch on a Friday to catch up with the week’s events, or Monday morning coffee to plan the week ahead. If you are a law firm or accounting firm, then partners’ meetings are very common and often also very formal. Make sure you communicate regularly, have partners’ meetings and of course take notes, especially regarding tasks to be done and who will do those tasks. You might update your partner with a daily email of things which have occurred or simply have an update in the car on the way home.
When it comes to family members, it can be often easy for one person to point the finger at the other and blame them. Remember in a family run business, all your eggs are in one basket, particularly for a spouse/husband/wife team. If the business struggles financially, both partners may have a dip in income which will double hit the household finances. Additionally, both are feeling the stress and pressure of business. If you are feeling stressed and pressured, take a breath, take a moment, even step away from the situation, count to 10 (or 1000 if you need) and remember your mantra of always speaking to your partner with respect, kindness and positivity. Instead of laying blame, what is the solution to move forward and remedy the situation?
Don’t fight in front of the kids
The kids, being staff (or worse, clients). Professional partners would never fight in front of staff or clients, yet some life partners do exactly that. This makes working for a family-run business often very uncomfortable for employees. In fact, some employees will avoid family-run businesses because of this and because they know there is often inequality when it comes to opportunities and advancement for non-family employees. As an experienced business coach, when I’m working with business owners, who are also family members, I set some rules for them:
- Speak to each other respectfully; as if they were speaking to an employee
- Listen to the other person’s viewpoint without ridicule or negativity
- Be genuinely nice to that person – never rude or abusive. Just because the person is your child, wife, husband or sibling, there is absolutely no excuse to be rude or abusive.
- Agree to disagree and have a strategy to manage disagreements.
The other challenge with life partners who are in business together is that business becomes their life. It seeps into the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. Neither switch off and their personal life soon ends and really, you are living with your business partner and working 24 hours a day. Boundaries absolutely need to be agreed upon, set and met. Additionally, you must make time for your personal lives as well, especially if it’s a husband and wife team (business couples) and you’ve got children. It might also be good for you both to have other interests outside work and the marriage, such as a sport or hobby. As you are both living and working with each other, you need a little break to keep the relationship fresh and strong.
In part 2 of this blog, I’m going to talk further about advice to specific persons in a family-run business or one where there are two partners in the business from the same family/household. I’m not a marriage counsellor, but I’ve been business coaching (and life coaching) for almost 15 years now and I’ve worked with many couples and family-owned businesses.