When I met Patricia I was head over heels in love, totally committed; crazy beyond recovery. We came from similar backgrounds, we had countless common interests and our relationship was story book magic. However, just a few short years after our honeymoon our marriage appeared to be less than ideal. With the advent of children and the increased time demands of business, no longer was my ying totally harmonizing with my dear wife’s yang. After significant soul searching we recognized that marriage was not a natural state, but also concluded that we wanted to be married and that we were willing to work at being married. So, we set out to find a counselor to help us understand and deal with the good and the bad that both of us brought to our union. Subsequently, I learned a new love language and came to recognize that as a Martian I had a formidable challenge understanding what my extraordinary, “Simply Irresistible,” Baby Cakes from Venus needed from me to be happy, secure and tolerant of my crazy ways. The result was that we began to pursue an extraordinary relationship that would rise above just being married. Here we are after 30-plus years of counseling with a marriage that is far from perfect, but one that we are delighted to report is getting better every day. And even today we occasionally have to “go talk to Russ” (our counselor) to untie some knots that we have not been able to shake loose.
Relationships between business partners encounter some of the same challenges faced by husbands and wives. From my experience, business honeymoons are a little longer than those of marriages, however, with few exceptions. After the excitement of initial growth wears thin and management responsibilities grow apart, the necessity for communication diminishes and concerns of all shapes and sizes begin to surface and grow. In many cases, these concerns are further complicated because partners are also family members. As I facilitate succession planning across the country I hear the full assortment of partnership emotions that include:
- My son/daughter does not listen to a thing I say.
- My dad has made me a partner, but does not respect me or what I have to offer the business. My partner just seems to do whatever he/she wants without keeping me informed or showing any regard to my feelings or goals.
- My older brother/sister has assumed control and does not really care what I think.
Typically, after a repetition of these emotional dumps with no progress from basic communication facilitation, I assume we are dealing with deeper seeded issues beyond the scope of just sitting down and talking things through. So, I offer some Dr. Merlot circuitous logic which goes something like this: “Let’s just for a moment assume this less than ideal business relationship that is causing you heartburn is a marriage, a business marriage, if you may, with dependents in the form of key managers, employees and vendors. If that’s a reasonable assumption, is there any reason why we should not consider partnership counseling in the same context as you would consider marriage counseling?”
From my experience there is a great commonality between family and business relationship dysfunctions; if there is enough motivation to improve a relationship, the parties (family or business) will agree to work at trying to make things better. Unfortunately, it appears that “partner counseling” is less common than marriage counseling. From my perspective there are not enough “succession matrix trained” succession planners out there who will present this question and call the question on motivation. Furthermore, the business community lacks those with a vocal vested interest such as parents, friends and children who urge the parties to get counseling before they create the trauma of a divorce. Consequently, business partners are more likely to “sit and bitch.” The implications of less cooperation, less collaboration, less leadership, less synergy, less productivity and less profitability appear to be more palatable to a business partner than sleeping on the couch is to a disgruntled spouse. Fundamentally, I cannot argue with the logic that the pain of family dysfunction is a profound motivator, but I do contend that partnerships are worth fighting for especially when there is a full understanding of how dysfunctional business relationships can detrimentally impact family members, key managers, employees, vendors and the community at large.
I contend that there is no justifiable reason for any of you who are living your own private hell with an insensitive or even incorrigible partner to continue to take a whipping and moreover significantly reduce your probability for achieving succession success. No doubt, the continuation of success by multiple stakeholders is a complex undertaking that demands empathy, communication, patience and versatility. However, when all of these components are not working in harmony; when you appear to be working harder at maintaining harmony than you are at selling cars or providing service, there is the opportunity for help through partnership counseling.
Partnership counseling, like marriage counseling, can go in many directions ranging from simple to so complex that it makes my face hurt. To offer a few basics, the realistic goal of partnership counseling is to establish a relationship framework and communication process that avoids problems by reconciling the constantly emerging issues associated with common ownership of a complex entity. The credo of partnership counseling focuses upon achieving two partnership objectives. The first objective is mutual commitment to address issues; a willingness to stop denying them and stop avoiding them. Achievement of this objective requires a simple commitment to come together on a regular basis to discuss developing circumstances including whatever is causing heartburn. A partner counselor will ensure that these meetings take place and facilitate emotionally honest discussions without the fear of hitting critical mass and blowing out the walls of the building. The presumption is that the counselor will ensure issues are identified and addressed so that relationship problems are reconciled and/or avoided. Without any time pressure, the presumption of a partnership counselor is that as long as partners are talking and scheduling the next meeting, they are dealing with issues and avoiding problems that cause pain and cost money. This is not rocket science; simply meet regularly, stay engaged and discuss issues.
Also, some partnerships that do not find natural harmony need a framework or guardrails that define acceptable behavior and allow assumptions that form the foundation of interdependence and teamwork. A partnership counselor can help the challenged parties define mutually agreeable reasonable behavior and attitude expectations which are referred to as operating covenants. They are called covenants because they are in effect good faith promises, not contractual obligations. As such, the first operating covenant is: “No one expects perfection, but everyone expects a good faith commitment to fulfill all mutually agreed reasonable expectations.” The process of defining and recording these reasonable expectations takes time and deliberation. The interactive process managed by the partnership counselor confirms critical safe harbor behavior assumptions that partners need to work interdependently as a partnership team and as the leaders of the business team.
I again reiterate that there is no reason for any of you to continue to take a partner whipping and significantly reduce the probability for achieving Succession Success and to continue to put the welfare of family members, key managers, employees and vendors at risk. When you are in the middle of an emotional swamp it is easy to be paralyzed by the looming shadows lying below the surface versus working to find high ground. Partnership counseling can provide you the high ground to not only save your butt from unnecessary frustration and stress but also significantly increase productivity, fun and the prospects for succession success.