According to Noam Wasserman, a professor at Harvard Business School who studied almost 10,000 founders for his book The Founder's Dilemma, business partnership can bring you triumphant glory or catastrophic disaster. Ideally, partners contribute diverse skills and talents to their business, providing a sense of wholeness that no one partner could have achieved alone. However, the intensity of sharing a professional identity, coupled with the knowledge that your partner is impacting your survival, brings huge potential for conflict.
Many of today's iconic companies were founded by pairs. And investors prefer to invest in teams. However, according to Wasserman, 65% of high-potential startups fail as a result of conflict among co-founders. Often, the most successful teams are made up of people who worked together in the past. On the other hand, married couples, family members, and friends often hit a brick wall when their blurry relationship boundaries overlap and make it difficult to hold conversations that might hurt feelings and produce a negative impact in their outside-of-business life.
My doctoral dissertation documented my study of the business partner relationships. During that process I learned that many successful partnerships share some key characteristics. Here is what you need to know to make choosing a partner a step towards success.
- Find someone you genuinely enjoy, like, and trust. There is a trust continuum. Mistrust is very difficult to overcome and can doom a partnership. True trust builds over time. So a sense of increasing trust means you are on the right path.
- Find someone who shares your values. Successful partners generally agree on standards regarding what is desirable, undesirable, good, and bad. These values guide their actions, judgments, and choices. Your values shape your personal and professional identities so they typically carry a strong emotional charge. When partners’ values align (e.g. they share a sense of commitment to family, prosperity, ambition, work ethic, or political persuasion) they are more likely to make congruent decisions and remain united.
- Find someone with a complementary set of skills and traits.Successful partners will possess different (complementary) skills and traits. The broader the partners' range of skills, the clearer the division of their labor (and power) can be. The marketing gal from the technical guy are readily distinguished. Other necessary variables are often not so apparent. Michael Gerber's classic book "The E-Myth" explains that there are three key roles in every business, Entrepreneur-the creative visionary; Manager-the administrator who brings planning, order and predictability; and Technician-the craftsperson. Partnerships have a distinct advantage in that two (or more) invested people are available to perform these three functions.
- Find someone who gives and takes. In successful partnerships each partner believes their rewards are equal or exceed their contributions. Casual acquaintances can maintain this sense of equity by keeping track of the benefits they exchange. However, in long-term and more committed relationships keeping track is unhealthy. Instead, each partner should have that sense of equity, knowing that some days s/he is giving and some days getting.
- Find someone who wants to grow and will support your growth.From birth to death, each of us is consistently moving through a process of change. Sometimes, we are not aware of the changes we're experiencing. And, sometimes change is viewed as a threat to the status quo. Successful partners embrace change and growth, knowing that this attitude benefits them both individually and as a team.
- Find someone willing to engage in proactive conflict management. When people share a close connection, competing and avoiding are not effective conflict management strategies. (Use those strategies only when no on-going relationship exists.) Instead, successful partners will use proactive and strategic approaches to conflict management such as accommodation, compromise, and collaboration to resolve their differences.
- Find someone who can share your vision. Vision reflects an organization’s desire for the future. When partners hold different visions they can easily become discouraged, overwhelmed, and disconnected. In order to create and benefit from a shared vision, four tasks are necessary: creating the initial vision, translating that vision into a set of actions, articulating and selling the vision to others, and holding true to the essence of the vision when reality changes the plans.
- Find someone who is prepared for the end.It’s often said that a graceful exit is proof of a successful venture. Without an exit strategy in place partners can be faced with making crucial decisions at a time when they are least levelheaded. An exit strategy is a shared sense of when and how an alliance will end. A written exit strategy should be included in every business plan. However, even though planning for the end is a critical aspect business ownership, it is one of the most neglected. An exit is easy to avoid when the issue is not pressing and raising it might sour the deal or suggest a lack of trust. An exit plan should answer four questions: what events might trigger an end to the partnership; how will the business be valued at the end; which options for future ownership are acceptable; and what post-alliance ties and restrictions, such as non-compete clauses, need to be included.
Having the right partners allows you to create results that would otherwise be unobtainable. Using these eight strategies to select your next business partner will increase your potential for creating true synergy through a partnership that is greater than the sum of its parts. Enjoy the rewards!
Elinor Robin, PhD is a mediator and mediation trainer specializing in workplace and family conflict management. Find out more at www.ElinorRobin.com and @ElinorRobinPhD.