How to Sustain a Healthy Partnership

When it comes to business partnerships, you can find a lot of information and advice on whether business partnerships are a good idea and how to select the right partner. While those are two very important aspects of creating a successful and sustainable business partnership, a third and equally important area is often ignored -- how to keep it together.

You've probably heard the phrase "Getting married is easy. Staying married is hard work." Well, the same can be said of business partnerships. It's not enough to focus solely on the business and overlook your relationship with your partner.

Over the years, I have observed certain behaviors -- best practices, if you will -- in long-term business partnerships. These partners find time to nurture the relationship between them, staying conscious of the fact that if the relationship sours, so does the partnership -- and possibly the business.

Below are three of the most important things business partners can do to nurture their relationship and create successful and sustainable business partnerships.

  1. Put your relationship on the calendar. Set aside consistent and quality time to stay connected with your partner on a human level, not just on a business level. Entrepreneurs spend a considerable amount of time discussing their business and far too little time on their partnership. There are two areas of the relationship that need to be nurtured: the personal (life outside the business) and the partnership (guidelines for the relationship inside the business). Make a habit of spending time off-site, away from the business, to reconnect personally with your partner -- go for a walk, play golf or have the occasional dinner out. Use this time to share what's going on with your families, finances, stresses and celebrations. You may have had deep and personal conversations before finalizing your business partnership, but life has a way of changing things. Find out if there's anything new in your partner's life that could possibly derail the business or the partnership -- marriage, divorce, a health issue or a financial setback. Be open and honest about sharing any personal situation you have that may impact the business. Chances are that when you started the business, you created some "rules for the road" in areas such as roles, responsibilities, authority and decision-making. In addition to staying connected on a personal level with your business partner, it's important to revisit those rules from time to time. Incorporate this as a regular topic in your monthly or quarterly partner meetings. Are your initial agreements still working for you? Are your expectations being met? Are you satisfied with each other's work effort, performance, etc.? Sometimes little things can build to the point of destroying your partnership if they go unstated and unexplored. (Side note: If you are not having partner meetings, I recommend that you start immediately. Partner meetings afford you the opportunity to get out of the day-to-day and work on the business -- a best business practice.)  
  2. Learn how to disagree. Good communications is about how to have productive and effective conversations even when you disagree. Those in long-term business partnerships have learned a) how to communicate their differences of opinion in a way that does not harm the relationship and b) how to use those differences to make the best decision for the business. Both are vital to a healthy partnership. First, learning how to communicate when there's disagreement has a direct impact on the relationship between business partners. If one or both partners are more interested in being right and making the other wrong, then egos have gotten in the way and hurt feelings are around the corner. From a neutral party's point of view, it's like watching two people have separate conversations, talking at or past each other. Because neither feels heard, it can escalate into raised voices or with one partner shutting down.When you and your partner disagree, be mindful of the following: Does the disagreement involve differences in core values? If the answer is yes, then a completely different conversation than the one you're having is in order. If that's not the problem, then: What is the overall objective or outcome you can agree on? What are all of the options to accomplish it? What are the commonalities between your different positions?  Ask yourself whether it's more important to be right or to be effective.  For example, your partner wants to hire an office manager and you say no, the business cannot afford it. Many business partners get stuck here and just argue, restating their desires and positions. But what if you asked your partner why she wants to hire an office manger? What will it accomplish for the business? Your partner tells you that if she can offload all of the bookkeeping and administrative tasks, she would be able to spend more time with existing clients, generating additional sales and increasing client retention. She further argues that the company is leaving a significant amount of money on the table -- more than enough to pay for an office manager -- because she doesn't have time to spend with clients. While you agree with her premise and see the value in freeing up more of her time, you are still concerned about making such a big expense commitment. So you turn the discussion to brainstorming other ways to achieve the same result. The decision you mutually come to is to outsource your bookkeeping. As an interim solution, this will free up about 80 percent of the time your partner was trying to offload, the expense is considerably less than a full-time employee, and it's a way to test the presumed ROI. Second, putting some structure around your conversations when there is disagreement increases effective communications. And that, in turn, helps keep the relationship going. It's also good for the business. Those who have learned to cultivate healthy disagreement understand that they are purposefully considering many perspectives and points of view to arrive at the best decision for the business partnership and for the company.  
  3. Does the disagreement involve differences in core values? If the answer is yes, then a completely different conversation than the one you're having is in order.
  4. What is the overall objective or outcome you can agree on?
  5. What are all of the options to accomplish it?
  6. What are the commonalities between your different positions?
  7.  Ask yourself whether it's more important to be right or to be effective. 
  8. Remember, diversity between partners is a strength. In any relationship, over time we often lose our infatuation with the things that attracted us to begin with. In a business partnership, it's no different. When you enter into a partnership with someone who has different skills, knowledge and experiences, those differences are considered assets. After a year or two, however, those differences can become a source of tension and conflict. The partners have forgotten why they chose each other and no longer appreciate their differences as strengths. Business partners can learn to get past the annoyance and proactively leverage their varied expertise, approach and skills for the overall good of the company. To achieve that, however, they need to "institutionalize" their decision-making and problem-solving processes. In other words, you have to get in the habit of seeking your partner's viewpoint or advice, even in areas where you have the most experience. Because of the diversity of experience and knowledge, your partner will most likely think of something you haven't considered. In the end, that leads to better decisions for the company. A second area where differences in skills and knowledge can cause conflict is in the division of labor. Most business partners agree upfront how the roles and responsibilities will be split based on their strengths and weaknesses. In truth, the differences between them are usually a main reason for choosing one another as business partners. Unfortunately, that does not mean that at any given time the workload will be equitably shared. Sometimes the business needs more of one skill or knowledge base and less of another. If that goes on for any length of time, it can create resentment and feelings of an imbalance of workload. When that happens, it's important to remember that your diversity is a strength and not let it bring down the partnership. Perhaps it's time to renegotiate some of the "rules of the road."

A final thought to consider is that there is a distinction between a sustainable business and a sustainable partnership. Both are critical to the survival of the business entity, yet most business partners focus on the business and not on nurturing the partnership.

Barri Carian, principal ofCarian Consulting, provides clarity, focus and results for business owners. She is author ofCreating Great Business Partnerships. A Workbook for Success.