How to Build a Business Partnership That Works

Managing a business partnership may be the only thing more difficult than managing a business. Partnerships are hard for the same reasons that any relationship is hard. It takes diligence and work to bring together personalities, communication styles, and ideals. And if you want your partnership to serve your business—rather than hinder it—you need to nurture the relationship upon which your partnership is built.

But how do you do that?

As a business coach, I’ve worked with many partner-owned businesses, and improving the partnership has always been a crucial part of the process. There are three common types of partnerships:

  • Husband-wife partnerships
  • Business partners
  • The multi-generational family business

Each is complex for different reasons. But whatever the makeup of the partnership, the major root to all business issues is the same: A lack of alignment. If partners aren’t aligned, if they don’t share the same values and vision—which we call The Strategic Objective—or have the same goals for the company, it prevents progress. In short, lack of alignment gets in the way of growing the business.

Easy enough to understand, but not as straightforward to resolve. Just like in a marriage or friendship, partnership needs a sincere commitment to good communication if it’s going to succeed. And that takes hard work, but the impact it will have on your business is worth it.

Here are my top tips for building better communication and creating alignment so you can make your business partnership work:

Define Your Independent Roles

For some partnerships, the trouble begins here: You don’t even know where your job starts and your partner’s job ends. Each partner having their own role(s) and responsibilities is not only foundational to your day-to-day organization strategy, but ensures that your partnership survives as your business grows.

So define your job. You and your partner have different strengths; sit down together and write down those individual strengths, what you’re each good at—and not good at. And most importantly, decide who’s going to be in charge. Who’s the CEO? If one of you is passionate about the company’s strategic vision, while the other prefers the high-level management of the business, the choice is obvious—defining the strategic vision will always be the CEO’s job.

I know this can be a sensitive decision. Passing the CEO role to a partner can feel like giving up stake in the business and stepping into that role can feel like owning too much of it. But choosing one CEO is about bringing clarity to your partnership—and everyone that works for you. It doesn’t change your ownership of the business, just how you can best contribute to its growth.

Stay in Your Lane

Once you have your role, stick to it and stay within its scope. Do your job—not your partner’s job.

Sometimes this is easier said than done, especially if your business partner is also a family member or life partner, where you already have a strong relationship dynamic outside the business.

But for each of you to be effective in your role, you have to be committed to it. Sometimes that means creating rules for how you’ll work with your partner both at the office as well as outside of it. Be open and honest with each other about how hard it is not to interfere with your partner’s position. Create guidelines for how you can give each other feedback, and when and how you’ll check in on crucial decisions. If you can’t be open about the struggle with each other, you’re alone on an island. And that’s not conducive to growing your partnership—or your business.

Have a Conflict Resolution Plan in Advance

Conflict is inevitable, even in companies where the owners are completely aligned in vision. It can stem from deeper problems, but it can also come from simply caring a lot about the business. In fact, conflict can be good if you know how to address it constructively. It helps lead you toward innovation and growth.

But before you ever get to that point, you and your partner should talk about how you’re going to resolve conflicts. Imagine where conflict could happen before it happens, and create an action plan. If one of you is a talker and the other wants to get to the bottom-line quickly, natural conflict is already there. Figure out a way to structure conversations that won’t end up with raised voices. For example, give the bottom-line partner the details they need first, then figure out where to add detail if the other partner wants to go deeper.

A father-son team I worked with had some deeply ingrained conflict that was a serious barrier to growing the business. They’d attack each other about daily priorities, which would stalemate their work for the day and completely hinder their progress. So we came up with a solution. Every single morning at 8:30 a.m., the two would meet on the phone. They’d ask each other these five questions:

Are there any expectations to follow up on from the last call?
What do need from me?
What do I need from you?
Is there anything we should talk about with key clients?
Are there any new frustrations in the business that need immediate attention?

Then they’d go off to focus on their own work. The results were incredible. Since they started this routine, they’ve never missed this meeting and the blow ups disappeared.

Healthy companies communicate well. That’s one of their greatest strengths. They deal with the same difficulties as other businesses, but they have the communication structures to help them get through.

Choose Your Decision-Maker

Conflict resolution is a powerful tool, but sometimes, no matter how well you communicate, you can’t come to an agreement. So you need to also plan ahead for who will be the ultimate decider in moments like these. Why? Because in the moment when a big decision needs to be made, emotions are high, so there’s more room for conflict. It’s simpler, more effective, and less emotional if there’s no question of who will make that decision.

In a two-person partnership, stakeholder decisions often fall to the CEO. But the more people in the partnership, the more complex the situation and the more defined you have to be.

Take for example a client of mine in Australia. This family real estate company had six partners—a couple and their four children—so lots of personalities and dynamics to manage. The parents planned to retire, but knew they needed to decide which of their children would be the next CEO. They saw that if they didn’t decide, the children would fight amongst themselves and likely destroy the business. It wasn’t an easy choice for them, but it was a crucial choice for their business and their family. They chose the youngest son, who was best suited for the job. Once the decision was made, the other siblings accepted their new roles in the business and were able to work together with clarity.

Have a Mediator to Help with Business Conversations

In any relationship, it’s hard to be honest in the tough times (and sometimes even in the good times). But to have a strong partnership, one that can get through the highs and lows of developing your business, you need to be honest with each other all the time. If this is already a challenge, get help. Bring in a mediator.

In my years as an EMyth Coach, I was that mediator for many partner clients. One such client was a father-son team with an established grocery store. The son was taking over the business, and he was so excited about it. But his dad was reticent to let it go and undermined his son in a way that made him feel incapable and frustrated—like his dad didn’t really think he could succeed. The emotions were too high for them to look at the business objectively. As their intermediary, I met with them each alone and together. That gave them both a chance to be honest without fear of being attacked, while it also allowed me to help them see the situation with more objectivity. That objective perspective was what they needed to get past that emotional block.

Even great partners sometimes need help finding common ground and space to look at each other without judgement. They need to see that even though they’re very different people, they can come together on their shared vision for the company. A mediator facilitates finding alignment so you can grow your business.

Conclusion

To have alignment in your partnership, each partner needs clarity, a shared vision, and a set of rules for how they’ll relate to their role and to each other. But most of all, you need thoughtful and constructive communication. With that, aligning on how to build your business becomes not only simpler, it becomes possible.

Partnerships can improve through the coaching process. If you struggle as partners and would like to know more about how EMyth Coaching can help you better grow your business together, schedule a Free Coaching Session.

Topics: Leadership, Client Stories, Management

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Adam Traub

Written by Adam Traub

Adam is our Coaching Delivery Manager. He was a client of EMyth as a General Manager of a manufacturing company and was so blown away by the transformation that happened, he decided to become an EMyth Coach in 2002. He loves helping coaches and clients have more life.

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