When I first met my wife, Patricia, I was head over heels in love. We came from similar backgrounds, had countless common interests, and our relationship was storybook magic. However, just a few years after our honeymoon, our marriage appeared to be less than ideal. With the advent of children and the increased time demands of work, no longer was my yin totally harmonizing with my wife’s yang. After significant soul searching we recognized that marriage is not a natural state; we also decided that we wanted to be married and that we were willing to work at being married. So we found a counselor to help us understand and deal with the good and bad that we brought to our union. Now, after 30+ years of counseling we have a marriage that isn’t perfect but one that is getting better every day.  

Relationships between business partners encounter some of the same challenges faced by husbands and wives. With few exceptions, it seems that after the excitement of initial growth (the “honeymoon phase”) wears thin and management responsibilities grow apart, the necessity for communication diminishes and concerns of all shapes and sizes begin to surface and grow. In many cases, these concerns are further complicated because partners are also family members. As I facilitate succession planning across the country I hear the full assortment of partnership emotions that include: 

  • My son/daughter does not listen to a thing I say. 
  • My dad made me a partner but does not respect me or what I have to offer the business.
  • My partner just seems to do whatever he/she wants without keeping me informed. 
  • My brother/sister has assumed control and does not really care what I think.

After hearing a client repeatedly express statements similar to those above, I realize I am dealing with deeper-seated issues beyond the scope of just sitting down and talking things through. So I offer the following circuitous logic to the client: “Let’s just for a moment assume this less-than-ideal business relationship is a marriage; a business marriage, with dependents in the form of key managers, employees and vendors. If that’s a reasonable assumption, is there any reason why you should not consider partner counseling in the same context as you would consider marriage counseling?” 

There is a great commonality between family and business relationship dysfunctions; if there is enough motivation to improve a relationship, the parties (family or business) will agree to work at trying to make things better. Unfortunately, it appears that “partner counseling” is less common than marriage counseling. From my perspective, one reason for this is that there are not enough trained succession planners out there who will present this idea of partner counseling.

Furthermore, unlike a family, a business partnership lacks those with a vocal, vested interest such as parents, friends and children who urge the parties to get counseling before they create the trauma of a divorce. The implications of having less leadership, cooperation, collaboration,  productivity and profitability appear to be more palatable to a business partner than sleeping on the couch is to a disgruntled spouse. I cannot argue with the logic that the pain of family dysfunction is a profound motivator, but I also believe that business partnerships are worth fighting for.

To offer a few basics on partner counseling, the realistic goal is to establish a relationship framework and communication process that avoids problems by reconciling the constantly emerging issues associated with common ownership of a complex entity. One of the main objectives of partner counseling focuses on achieving a mutual commitment by the partners to acknowledge and address issues. Achievement of this objective requires a simple commitment to regularly discuss developing circumstances. A counselor will ensure meetings take place and facilitate emotionally honest discussions without the fear of causing more disagreements. The presumption is that a counselor will ensure issues are identified and addressed so that current problems that are causing pain and costing money are reconciled and future issues are avoided. This is not rocket science; simply meet regularly, stay engaged and discuss issues. 

Some partnerships that do not find natural harmony need guidelines that define acceptable behavior. A counselor can help define these mutually agreeable, reasonable behavior and attitude expectations which are referred to as Operating Covenants. They are called covenants because they are promises, not contractual obligations. As such, the first Operating Covenant is, “No one expects perfection but everyone expects a good-faith commitment to fulfill all mutually agreed reasonable expectations”. The process of defining and recording these reasonable expectations takes time and deliberation. This interactive process, managed by a counselor, builds a solid foundation for the partners to work interdependently as a partnership team and as leaders of the business team. 

 There is no reason to take a partner whipping, significantly reduce the probability for achieving Succession Success™, and continue to put the welfare of family members, key managers, employees and vendors at risk. When you are in the middle of an emotional swamp it is easy to be paralyzed by the looming shadows lying below the surface versus working to find higher ground. Partner counseling can provide you the high ground to not only save you from unnecessary frustration and stress, but also significantly increase productivity, fun and the prospect for Succession Success™.

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