10 tips for entrepreneurs on working with a partner

After almost five years of working closely with a partner in an internet venture, I have had a great deal of time to think about how to do it better. At times it has been as easy as could be – enjoying the work together, assisting one another seamlessly, being greater than the sum of our separate parts and more able than the sums of our separate skills. At other times it has been a chore and then some; conflicts, disputes, and (yes) anger have bubbled up to prevent us from working at our optimum and actually served to decrease our productivity.

We have learned a great deal about each other, about working together, about co-managing and I like to think that we’ve actually gotten better over time and will continue to strengthen our abilities to build our company, manage our team, and serve our customers.

Here are 10 tips to that I hope will help you to better work with your own partner:

1. Listen hard to your partner.
Pay attention to your partner, listen to what (s)he says and read between the lines. Emotional and social intelligence are key when building and maintaining this all-important relationship and it is the responsibility of each partner to watch for the cues and read the signs when working together.

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2. Don’t compete with one another.
You are (truly) in this together and the urge to compete with your partner can be greatly damaging to the relationship and to your business. This is very difficult for many of us – entrepreneurs tend to be A-types, hell-bent on winning, winning, winning, and the urge to compete even with those closest to you is probably your second nature. Fight it.

3. Don’t argue in front of the team.
What you say and do has a profound impact on your team, on the culture you’re working hard to build, and on your company’s workplace atmosphere. It is only natural that you will have disputes with your partner and inevitable that conflict will arise, but when it does, take it outside and spare the kids the stress that your argument creates. Remember, the team is watching everything you do, so always be a leader by example and set the atmosphere for the rest of the company.

4. Share the load.
The sheer volume of work involved in starting and running a company can be overwhelming. The key is to share the load with your partner in order that everything gets done. Each of you has inherent strengths and weaknesses and these are a good place to start when dividing up the work. If one has an aptitude with analytics and business intelligence, let him handle that; if the other is great at negotiating with vendors, then she should be the one who does that. This is not to say that you shouldn’t work outside of your comfort zones, and chances are your partner is a great one to teach you the ropes with a new skill you’re looking to learn. One note: once the work is divided up, don’t step on each other’s toes or get into one other’s rice-bowls – no one likes to be second-guessed and no one likes to feel that they have a partner who is looking over their shoulder or judging their work.

5. Trust that your partner knows what he’s doing.
This goes hand-in-hand with #4 above. It is critically important that you trust your partner (and your employees, for that matter) to get the job done and to execute on their own areas of responsibility. As in any relationship, trust is probably the biggest driver of success and you need to work hard to build this with your partner as well as your team.

6. Take time together.
In the office it can be difficult to get any kind of quality time for just the two of you to talk, to relax, to share with each other how things are going. This may sound a lot like date-night with your spouse, and actually that’s because it is. Just as in a personal relationship, time alone together is critical to communication and understanding. Take time away from the workplace to share information, get on the same page, and develop and maintain the shared vision that brought you together in the first place.

7. Don’t be bossy.
Your partner is your equal – you are not the boss of him, nor is he the boss of you. You are partners, equal in all ways and neither of you comes first. Your attitude and actions with one another should reflect this, and this mutual respect and deference should color the relationship. When one partner puts themselves “above” the other, or behaves in a manner that makes the other feel subordinate, even if this is not intentional, it can become a recipe for trouble. Always keep in mind that your partner is just that – your partner; they are not someone who works for you and your deeds should reflect that fact.

8. Don’t be grabby.
Workplaces have a rhythm and sharing is an important part of that rhythm. It is always vital to let others take the lead on projects large or small. As a competitive person and a leader we often have a tendency to just “do it myself” rather than letting a partner or a subordinate give it a shot. Fight your instinct to grab a project, and instead share the work and let your partner give it a try or let one of the team take the lead. Instead of just grabbing the task, hold off for a little bit and let someone else claim it for their own.

9. Ask, don’t assume.
The corollary to #8 is that sometimes, when discussing a project or task, you should just ask your partner, “Shall I do this, or would you like to?” You’ll be surprised how often they would just as soon lead the effort and you will be equally happy to not have to do the extra work.

10. Share the glory (and the blame).
Finally, always remember to share the credit for your victories and successes. Not only does your partner and the rest of the team probably deserve it, but it feels so good to let everyone bask in the adoration that comes with success. Of course the same goes for things that don’t work out so well – when the inevitable flop happens, take your share of the blame, whether you have it coming or not. Your partner and your team will appreciate that you put yourself forward when they most needed your support.

Photo: Jill Catley

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