Business partnerships can be a strong force of nature or unpleasantly dysfunctional – they’re rarely anything in between. They either work brilliantly or they’re a car crash.
The best examples rely on a perfect blend of skills, where one partner’s weaknesses are compensated by the other’s strengths and the chemistry of values and culture make for a happy relationship. The worst usually break down because of a mismatch of contribution where one partner strongly feels the other is not pulling their weight or there is a fundamental disagreement on the direction of the business. Or both.
Ending a business partnership is a lot like ending a marriage when, quite rightly, your key priority is protecting the children. In this case, the ‘children’ are the people in your company – staff, customers and suppliers. If they get hurt by a sordid break-up, reputation and credibility can be compromised and the business can quickly go into meltdown. How do you avoid this happening when emotions are running high but the order book is running low?
1. Face up to the fact that it’s not working
It’s got to be crunch time – you don’t want to throw away all your hard work together if you can work through your problems. However, if it’s clear the only option is a permanent separation, you need to bite the bullet – otherwise, things will only get worse.
2. Appoint a mediator if necessary
If the stress and tension between you has become unbearable, appoint a mediator. Someone you both trust and pay an equal fee for their services. The mediator will have their work cut out, as they need to be a commercial animal, mentor, and peacemaker general. If you can’t find this rare breed of individual, appointing a person or people from your senior management to mediate can work, although baring your soul in front of them might be a pretty uncomfortable experience.
3. Agree a tight timeline and stick to it
This is a crisis and needs to be handled with urgency. No procrastination allowed.
4. Assess your options
There are three options and, on the face of it, they’re pretty simple: you go, they go, or you both go and agree to appoint someone else.
5. Leave your egos at the door
You need to ask the honest question: who can most effectively re-build trust and take the business forward? This all sounds logical and practical, but the problem is almost always that emotions and resentment get in the way of objectivity. Either don’t let them or make sure your mediator knows what they’re dealing with.
6. Tell your top team what’s happening
Like the kids in an unhappy marriage, they will have known you weren’t getting along for ages and will be feeling very vulnerable. Try to reduce their uncertainty as much as possible and make them feel part of the process.
7. Don’t involve lawyers or accountants from the start
Agree first on heads of terms, which set out the deal in principle but aren’t generally legally binding. You don’t want to get tied up in the nitty-gritty of contracts straight away.
The whole process, especially the financial aspect of the deal, requires buckets of compromise on both sides, or you’ll get quickly bogged down in detail and how it looks to the outside world. Being flexible enough that you can reach an agreement, keep the business unscathed and get on with the rest of your lives should be what drives you both towards a speedy solution.
Andrew Morris is the head of the Academy for Chief Executives