Is your spouse your business partner? Did you plan it or did it happen by accident? My husband Aneil and I never planned on working together professionally. Things just worked out that way. We started off as high school friends and student council competitors and then got to know each other more through our church choir. It's amazing that we are about to celebrate 29 years of marriage. Time flies.
We first worked side by side at General Motors at the Oldsmobile plant in Lansing, Mich., as summer interns and then as full-time employees. We didn’t really think about it as working together as much as it was convenient for our lives: It also allowed us to share one car in our young marriage.
We attended graduate school simultaneous at the University of Michigan: I was going for my MBA and Aneil was seeking a doctorate in business. I helped him when I could, coding interviews and surveys and being a helpful second set of eyes on his dissertation.
This arrangement continued when he took his first academic job at Penn State. We ended up spending our first New Year’s Eve in State College writing a joint journal article together instead of traveling to see family. We had a deadline and couldn’t miss it. By then, we had found a nice rhythm to our work: One of us would write a first draft and the other would refine it and add a new perspective.
In 1992 we started a consulting firm, basing our work on our research about how leaders build trust and transform their cultures. I began by offering sales training and Aneil started coaching firms on how to downsize thoughtfully. Gradually, we found ways to work with companies together, conducting leadership and team-development workshops on how to communicate, resolve conflicts and innovate at work by building trust-based relationships.
We have always been equal partners in our business and take turns in serving as CEO or president, depending on our work schedules. Even when only one of us is on-site at a company, we both feel we are contributing to the partnership.
I had planned to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But since we had two kids, I could not imagine traveling all week and so a life in academia and consulting better suited my being able to work as well as spend time with my young children.
We are complete opposites, though. I prefer to look at the big picture, use intuition and focus on interpersonal relationships to make decisions. I would rather work before I play, and as an introvert, receive more energy from developing ideas than interacting with others. Aneil prefers to look at the details and make decisions based on an explicit, logical framework. He likes to play while he works and is inspired by interacting with others more than developing and refining ideas. Our diversity lets us better help others build trust and our different styles and skills are strengths for our firm.
We would not have made it for so many years as a couple working together without discovering the following practices that might be useful to other married entrepreneurs:
1. Respect each other. We each know what we are good at and let the other person to excel in his or her particular area. We complement one another’s strengths and offset each other’s weaknesses in research, writing and consulting, which allows us to enjoy the process more.
Take stress out of your working relationship by respecting the positive qualities each person brings to the partnership.
2. Offer support. Besides working together, we each have an academic job and networks of people we work with. We are always supportive of each other to do our best professionally and build other relationships, as well.
Appreciate a spouse's support because there are always people who want to compete with you.
3. Push each other. We are not only each other’s best champions: We are also knowledgeable critics and regularly spur each other on to keep improving.
When I turned 40, our youngest started first grade and Aneil encouraged me to go for a doctorate. My friends thought I was crazy, but he knew how this would develop my skills and abilities. I could do this only because we have always shared responsibility for child care and tasks at home: I love to cook and he loves to clean. After I completed my doctorate (at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), I took a larger role in our crafting research and writing books together.
Aneil would not have tried some risky entrepreneurial leadership recently without my encouragement. Life is too short to not attempt new things, and we encourage one another to try fresh projects to stretch and test our abilities.
You don't know what you are capable of until you allow your spouse to see something in you that you never saw.
4. Forgive. Ultimately, if you are going to work with your spouse, be willing to forgive your partner when things don’t work out as hoped. We have seen too many spouses who worked together but their marriages didn’t make it. We realized the only way we could get past those constructive (if painful) feedback sessions and occasional disappointments would be to ask for forgiveness -- and then to forgive one another.
It comes down to what we tell leaders: Act with courage, authenticity and humility.
If you have had success working with your spouse, we’d love to hear how you made it work.