Sunday, November 14, 2010

Business and Marriage

“It's all about quality of life and finding a happy balance between work and friends and family.” ~Philip Green

So many businesses are run by husband-and-wife teams. While working alongside your spouse may sound ideal, I can tell you that it is one of the most difficult partnership arrangements out there. Running a family business is like running a normal business but on steroids. Not only do you have to be concerned with all the usual entrepreneurial issues, but you must also deal with all of the family issues that are often so deeply engrained in the business.

For husband-and-wife teams and family-run businesses, one question always seems to arise. What comes first, the family or the business? For some, the answer is that the family always comes first, but for others, the business always takes the front seat. Where this is concerned, it is not so important which school of thought you subscribe to. The critical issue is that the priority is clearly articulated and understood by all of the partners.

We were helping a great couple that had been through so much. The wife started the business but had partnered with an individual that stole money and made her life miserable. It took them more than a year to dissolve this terrible partnership. Much like a very bad divorce, there were many legal and emotional challenges, and the path to the end just seemed interminable.

In order to finally end the long and nasty legal battle, the wife had to sell all of the assets and start a new company. She had to close the business for two months to make the much-needed renovations, and because of legal reasons, they had to form a whole new corporation with the husband at the helm. The wife could not be engaged at all.

While the husband was a great guy, he really had very little experience running a business, and he was equally inexperienced at managing the company’s all-women staff. As his lack of managerial skills began to affect the business, they hit a cash crisis.

Reacting out of fear that he would run out of money and the business would fail, the husband became very dogmatic in managing the staff. His lack of management skills became more and more pervasive, and both the business and the marriage began taking a thrashing. Adding an extra layer of complication to an already grim situation, the wife did not understand her husband’s reasons for adopting such a rigid management style. Soon enough, both business and marriage was floundering.

One day, I got calls from both of them, each saying how frustrated they were with the other. They had reached the breaking point. Their marriage was in serious trouble, giving out under the pressure as the husband struggled more and more with managing the business and the wife became more and more frustrated with her husband.

The following evening, I had dinner with the couple to see if I could help them deal with some of these difficult issues. To begin, I asked them whether they felt the marriage or the business was more important. In unison, they both answered that the marriage was. Once that was established, it was easy to show them what the real issues were and how they could resolve them.

One of their most destructive issues was their lack of communication. As they took turns discussing what they felt were the real issues, the other just sat there in awe. Neither had any clue how the other person felt. Up to this point, they had not been communicating effectively, and as a result, they were completely in the dark about the other’s motivating factors.

The couple came away from our meeting with a newfound understanding of the importance of really listening to what the other was saying. The husband agreed to back away from running the business, and the wife agreed to step up and run the day-to-day operations. They each would have a say in expenditures over $500, and to resolve the communication gap, they would have weekly meetings.

This husband and wife started the evening as two separate people operating in different universes, but emerged as a unified team. As we left the dinner, both husband and wife felt so much better because they now truly understood where the other was coming from, and they were prepared to work together and support one another.

Now go out and make sure that the communication channels are open in your family business, and that each partner’s needs are being met. Additionally, make sure that you all clearly understand what will come first, the family or the business.

You can do this!

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