First-class coach

I've been in business with a friend for four years and I now feel I am carrying her.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I do two-thirds of the business, but we split the proceeds equally. I have ambitious plans for the company, but she wants it to stay small. She's not particularly happy and seems to find business quite stressful. What should we do?

A: When I'm working with the founders of new businesses, I ask them to think about how each of them sees the future - for the company and for themselves. Usually, in the heat and excitement of starting their own company, the last thing on the mind of the founding partners is how it will end. However, by spending time sharing personal and company ambitions, it's possible to flush out potential mismatches in agendas so as to avoid future problems.

There are all sorts of reasons for starting a company. For the minority, they've thought up a brilliant idea and they're keen to exploit it. For others, there is the lure of making lots of money for themselves and the desire for greater autonomy than corporate employment offers. Many are refugees from other organisations, motivated less by a specific vision of the enterprise they want to build than by the desire to extract themselves from an unsatisfactory situation.

Given this diversity, it is hardly surprising that, once the thrill of the launch has waned, members of the founding team often discover differences between their individual needs and aspirations - which can lead to unhappiness.

Interesting work done years ago by Edgar Schein at MIT identified 'career anchors', core motivations affecting choices in work. Though a number of factors usually govern our job satisfaction, research showed that most people have an overriding preference when making career decisions. So for someone whose principle anchor is security, stability of income and reassurance of continuing employment are more important than the prospect of greater reward with greater risk. For others, the prime anchor is the desire to become more expert in their field, so that a promotion to a senior management role that takes them away from their special interest is likely to deliver a low level of job satisfaction.

It sounds as if you and your partner have different ambitions and career anchors, and it would be worthwhile discovering what these are so that you can come to a shared view on whether and how they might be accommodated.

However, another issue is implied in your question: not only are you frustrated by your partner's lack of ambition, you are clearly irritated that the division of labour and reward between you is not equable. It's important to recognise these feelings and to address the cause, otherwise what started as a business based on friendship and equality is likely to end badly.

You could schedule an offsite discussion of how you both see the business in three to five years' time. Ideally, you'd have an objective third party present, a professional facilitator or someone who knows both of you and your business well and who you both trust to be even-handed. You may decide to involve a few senior colleagues or to keep it to just the three of you.

A technique that works well is to get participants to draw a picture representing the future. One might draw a positive picture of everything going very well for the firm, the other the negative view, where everything goes horribly wrong. Both then talk about what has happened to create their scenario. The quality of the drawing is not important. Indeed, graphic ineptitude often generates some fun and acts as a leveller. But images are eloquent and, since we don't know how to be economical with the truth when we draw, the results can often be a lot more illuminating than plain discussion. Then compare your drawings, agree on the key issues they show up and spend time exploring solutions. Aim to leave the session with decisions on what you will do and a time-frame for their completion.

The gap between your needs may be so big that your futures lie in different directions. Alternatively, you may both be able to see a change in role or structure that allows both of you to add value and be rewarded on a more meritocratic basis. There are, no doubt, several different options.

The important thing is to explore them while there is still enough goodwill to find them.

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