Many entrepreneurs think that once they’ve found the right person to partner with, the rest of the relationship will be smooth sailing. While it’s true that finding someone with shared values and vision can put you on the path to success, you have to remember that strong business relationships don’t materialize out of thin air.
Reliable co-founder relationships are built over long periods of time, and they are only at their best when both parties put in a continuous effort to strengthen and maintain them.
Insist on and practice honesty at all times
In an article for Entrepreneur, Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company, said, “Trust implies that both parties participate in the relationship with both ‘gives’ and ‘gets.’ The attitude of giving a full commitment to the partnership will usually result in getting the same commitment in return.”
Without a commitment to honesty flowing both ways, the partnership is doomed from the beginning. Nothing will erode trust in the relationship more quickly than even the suspicion of dishonesty from one party, and once it’s gone it’s incredibly difficult to regain.
Just as with personal relationships, dishonesty between co-founders of a company often begins as something small that quickly snowballs out of control. If you think it’s better to withhold some information from your coworker because you’re afraid of their reaction, know that it isn’t. If you want to refrain from telling them bad news until the ideal time, they might discover the news elsewhere and resent you.
You must make it clear that you expect complete honesty from your partner as well. If there is a breach of trust early in the relationship, talk to your co-founder privately and explain to them there will be a zero-tolerance policy for dishonesty from then on. Tell them you respect them, your employees and the company enough to always disclose the truth, and you expect the same of your business partners.
Define your roles
Partnerships are great because you know someone has your back every step of the way. They can also be tricky, because two people with an equal stake in the company have the same level of authority.
For example, what do you do if an employee pulls the classic kid move of going behind one parent’s back after their request has been denied, and mentioning nothing to the other parent about it?
The best way to guard against such scenarios is to collaborate early in the partnership and decide who will take ownership of distinct parts of the business. Record these divisions of duties in writing and let your team members know so they can ask the appropriate partner when they have requests. Then, you have to respect the authority of your partner to make decisions within their sphere.
If you have qualms about the big picture management of their departments then you should address these issues with them in private, rather than using your status as co-founder to contradict their decisions in front of employees.
Discuss big decisions together
While it’s healthy for the relationship for each of you to focus your energy on your specific responsibilities and trust each other, it’s also beneficial to tackle the most important decisions together. Even if you’re sure you and your partner are going to agree on a particular strategy, schedule some face-to-face time so you can each talk through the issues and ensure you are on the same page.
Schedule regular time together away from the office
You don’t have to be best friends with your co-founder to have a harmonious and successful business relationship, but it is helpful to take an interest in each other’s personal lives. Many entrepreneurs often feel they are alone at the summit of a mountain.
If you have a co-founder, then they are one of the few people who uniquely understand what you’re going through, so lean on them. I’ve been fortunate to have co-founders who I can connect with inside and outside of the office who support me as I grow both personally and professionally.
To nurture your co-founder relationships, identify a common passion, whether it is fine dining, hiking or sports. Then, schedule time for regular outings where you can get away from the stresses of the office for a few hours.
Respect each other’s personal time
You don’t want to get burnt out on the pressures of running a burgeoning company, and neither does your partner. When you aren’t at work, respect that your co-founder has an entire life they’re trying to fit in along with making your shared dreams come true. Even if they don’t currently have a significant other or kids, it’s important to understand that time with friends away from work, and even time by themselves, may be vital to their well-being.
Expecting your co-founder to always be available can lead to performance-crippling anxiety and poor mental health. Your successes are tied together, so it makes sense to want them to be at their best as often as possible.
Approach disagreements rationally, not emotionally
You and your co-founder are going to disagree from time to time; in fact, it’s healthy to do so. A difference in opinions can facilitate critical thinking about topics that can have a huge impact on the business.
Of course, sometimes these arguments stem from miscommunication. According to entrepreneur and academic Dave Lerner, “One of the big surprises in these types of disputes is that the issue may have been a total misunderstanding, or that your partner was afraid to speak up about something relatively harmless. An open, trusting, non-judgmental environment with no one else around is the key to eliciting these kind of conversations.”
Talk rationally and respectfully about the issue at hand to ensure you and your partner ultimately get on the same page and reach an agreement that is best for the company moving forward.
Along with this advice, remember not to take these disagreements personally. Your co-founder isn’t attacking your character, they are taking a stand because they care deeply about the future of the company, just like you. You each have the common ground of wanting to find the optimal solutions, so remain dedicated to this task throughout any disagreements. Once a decision has been made, make your peace with it and move on.