Agree or Disagree?

Couple-Owners Handling decisions and disagreements

One of the big things marriage counselors have to teach their troubled client couples is how to fight productively. A couple that cares about their relationship will eventually hit rough patches when they don’t agree on the direction of their life together, and they’ll fight about it. Some fight well; some fight dirty.

In a couple-owned business, the disagreements that arise don’t just impact whether someone sleeps on the couch tonight. They determine the stability of both your livelihoods—and those of everyone else who works in your company. Learning how to handle disagreements is critical to the success of your couple-owned business.

What is what?

Experts who study family- or couple-owned businesses have found that those who succeed are those who treat the company like a company, and their family like a family.

If you were working for someone unrelated to you, you’d behave differently at work than you probably would at home. You’re more formal, more focused, and more tactful. After all, the person you work for has the power to fire you.

In a family-held business, that threat is lessened. And you can get sloppy in how you communicate. It’s easy to let family-specific disagreements bleed over into work time. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Whether you need to make a written pledge together not to discuss work at home and vice-versa (except in emergencies, of course) or just develop a ritual that separates the two, the need to treat work as work and home as home is vital. Some couples drive to work in separate cars, even though they are going to the same place. Others have a good hug at the door before they head to the plant, and then keep things strictly business all day, with another hug at the end of the day when they arrive home.

Think like business people

Setting up a business is an intensive legal, financial and physical task. Having a business you both own should be no less structured. Every company, large or small, should have a set of documents that outline what the company is all about, who owns it, and what happens in the event of a breakdown at some point.

If you are already in business together, it’s not too late to sit down and have a long talk about “what if?” Brainstorm all the potential problems the company could encounter (realizing you won’t get them all—who took a pandemic/shut down into their consideration 10 years ago?) and write out guidelines for how you’d like to handle each one in a rational and realistic way. When any of those situations arise and you can’t deal with them quickly, check your documents and stick to the plan.

Anyone in your company, from you and your partner on down, should be able to ask at any time who is in charge of a given area, and who has authority to do certain things. The answers coming from you both should be the same. No disagreement. It gives your employees great comfort to know you both are on the same page and have every intention of being businesslike.

Fight fair

Jess and Joe have a plant in a busy metropolitan area. Jess has always handled customer relations and office chores, while Joe keeps his hands very much on day-to-day processing of customer orders. One day, Jess gets a great idea for a community-wide promotion to bring in new business. She checks out all the various ways to make it happen and puts together a campaign.

Joe hears about The Idea when he stops in the office to call a mechanic because the shirt press is acting up and quality is way off. He is immediately incensed. He’s working his backside off in the plant and things are going wrong… and she wants to haul in new business?

Joe’s Response 1: “No way. I can hardly keep our heads above water back there! You know, you’re just like your crazy Uncle Phil, always going off half cocked and not asking anybody else’s opinion. Just stick to what you were doing and help me get hold of the repair guy.”

Joe’s Response 2: “Wow. That’s an interesting idea. I’m glad it’s not already launched, because today is a bad day back there. But let’s sit down later and map out a time schedule for when we might try it. It’ll give us both time to think about all the aspects of the plan. For right now, I need a mechanic. But down the road, I’ll want more business to make use of the repaired press.”

In Response 1, Joe didn’t fight fair. He immediately made the suggestion all about himself, and then resorted to name-calling. It is pretty obvious he doesn’t like Uncle Phil, and has no doubt raised his unsavory habits before. He’s pulled in personal grievances in a business situation, and now both their backs are up.

In Response 2, Joe took a breath first. He stepped back from his immediate concern and saw the benefits of what Jess was proposing. He was honest and said it would be bad if all that business came in the door today, but acknowledged campaigns take time to put in place and begin to be effective. He validated Jess’s idea, and tabled it for thorough discussion later. Then he returned to the crisis at hand.

Which scenario ended with two partners able to continue their work day with dedication and focus? And which had them both steaming in their own parts of the plant, plotting how to get even later?

Responding to a moment of disagreement takes conscious effort. Letting emotion get the better of either of you never brings about the desired outcome.

“If I were working with this person and we were not personal partners, would I speak or act this way right now?”

Set aside time to disagree

If you’ve come from working in another company and started your own, one of the things you no doubt do not miss is meetings! In many cases, they are time-wasters. You enter the meeting half a day behind in your work, spend four hours drinking coffee, eating donuts and listening to others cover their personal areas (or covering up) and when you come out you are now a full day behind.

Properly run meetings are efficient, and move everyone in them forward to better productivity. Just because the two of you own the company doesn’t mean you don’t need to have dedicated meeting times. Set aside uninterrupted time once a week to discuss any and all issues, ideas, problems and goals.

  • Have an agenda and stick to it.
  • Block out the time and make sure other staff members know it is important.
  • Make notes during the meeting that you can refer back to for clarity.
  • Speak as equals.
  • Leave the meeting with action points to move what you discussed forward.

Business is business. Treat it that way.

Get away from each other

You may have had a romantic idea of working with your partner in business as a great way to spend all your time together. As they say, too much of a good thing can be bad. Just as you encourage your employees to enjoy their lives outside the company, you need to encourage your partner to do the same—without you, sometimes.

Maybe your hobby is cross-country biking. But your partner may prefer getting together with a book club and discussing the latest bestseller. She likes to garden. You’d rather go fishing. Does that mean he/she has to join in your pursuits? Force it, and you’ll soon stop doing both. It’s OK to have outside interests.

Doing things you are passionate about will renew your passion for your regular work, and for your partner. You’ll bring new ideas and experiences back into the relationship and have things to talk about that the other doesn’t already know. Working and living together, doing the same things all the time, leads to staleness.

He: That pump switch…

She: I know. And Mary…

He: I’ll talk to her… Did you—

She: Yes, I ordered it.

If your whole dialogue has become shorthand, it’s time to branch out.

Break the cycle

Learning to disagree productively is just that: a learning experience. We aren’t born knowing how to do it, and our family dynamics have probably given us reinforcement of bad tactics and practices. If you find yourselves going around and around, consider stopping the wheel and getting help.

Places to look for advice:

  • Personal counselor
  • Business coach
  • Other couples you know who co-own a business
  • Local small business association
  • Online discussion groups with couple-owned business partners

The key is acknowledging that you need help, and then committing to each other that you will follow the advice and use the tools you gain through seeking outside assistance. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Additional reading:

Couple of the Week

Kevin and Paula Marois
Integrity Mechanical, Calgary, AB

Kevin (front left) and Paula Marois with their team

Our mechanical expert columnist and his wife, Paula, have been in business together for 20 years. Integrity Mechanical services plants in Western Canada.

It was always their plan to work together. They split the roles, but are equal owners of the company. “Kevin handles all the mechanical and organizational jobs,” said Paula. “I work in the office, order parts, etc.”

They realize they have different skill sets. “Kevin is more of a communicator than I am,” Paula admits. So she works in areas that demand her attention to detail, while Kevin interfaces with customers.

What about keeping work and home distinct? “Sometimes they overlap, but we try to keep things separate.” It helps that they work hard to be on the same page. “Make clear plans and goals ahead of time,” they advise other couples.

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