Let me start off by saying that I believe in business partnerships. I know that stories and statistics show they can be problematic and perilous to navigate. However, I've witnessed what can happen when the right people come together and the sum total is truly greater than the individual parts.
To establish or maintain a successful business partnership, you have to go into it with the right expectations. Partnerships are like marriages you expect to end in divorce: It's nearly impossible for two or more people to be on the same life trajectory forever. Knowing this fact up front is the key to planning both before and during the course of a partnership to ensure its strength and success.
It stands to reason that women can excel and benefit disproportionately from business partnerships. The results of countless studies have shown that women embrace participatory leadership and excel in relationship-based management. These qualities are at the heart of good partnerships. In fact, the Center for Creative Leadership, a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to studying and teaching leadership, recently listed building and mending relationships as essential leadership skills determining success.
As I write this, I'm transitioning out of a very successful nine-year business partnership. The fact that even the dissolution of this thriving partnership is such an agreeable process reinforces the fact that my partner and I did many things right along the way, some of which were intentional and some were mistakes we learned to fix.
If you're considering joining forces with someone or some others to either start or grow a business, take to heart these lessons I learned from my experience:
- Find a partner who has what you lack. As Michael Gerber says in his popular E-Myth book, one plus one should equal three. Don't partner up with someone who's just like you. Equity is an expensive way to make friends.
- Make sure your core values are aligned. I've seen more partnerships fail because of trust issues than anything else. There's no grey area when it comes to integrity.
- Answer all objections up front. Take the time to go away together and do some real business planning. It's natural to be excited when forming a new partnership, but play the role of the naysayer. Determine why the partnership may not work, and then address every objection.
- Be honest about your life plans. The fact is, for women, life will have a greater chance of interfering with our business plans. You can't predict everything, but if you're planning a major life change--a move, kids, divorce, providing care for an aging parent--your potential partner should know it.
- Begin the partnership with the end in mind. Hire a competent attorney to help you put a buy-sell agreement in place so you both have an avenue for exiting the business. Make sure the agreement has teeth and is enforceable. As any attorney will tell you, it's much easier to set something up before there's an issue to content with.
- Assign areas of responsibility and then get out of the way. Early in our partnership, my partner and I doubled up on nearly everything. We worked too much and created a lot of unnecessary debate. Our partnership finally hit its stride when we assigned ourselves different roles and stayed out of the other's decisions. We should have done it sooner.
- Finally, when you do enter into a partnership, remember all the rules your mother taught you. As with marriage, you tend to get the partnership you deserve. So treat people the way you'd like to be treated. Don't say things you can't take back. Don't take things too personally. Argue behind closed doors and present a united front. Money and fear--two things you deal with constantly when running a business--bring out the worst in people. Using good manners smoothes a lot of the rough spots.
As women entrepreneurs, we have an inherent advantage in establishing effective partnerships by using the leadership skills so many of us already possess. With planning and expectation-setting done up front, the value can be exponential.
Kristi Hedges is the co-founder of SheaHedges Group, a strategic communications firm in McLean, Virginia. She is also an executive coach to CEOs and business owners on issues of communications and leadership.