Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Q: Years ago, my partner and I set up a catering company. We have since married and have two teenage children. The business is still a success, but I dread going to work. Having told friends and family how great it was to work with my wife, I'm now finding it claustrophobic and isolating. I feel I'm constantly on the verge of losing my temper with her or walking out altogether. How can I avoid ruining either our marriage or our business?

A: I wonder if you realise just how much you reveal about yourself in these few words? I suspect you don't, so let me try and do a bit of text analysis in the hope that it may help you.

The fact that you've spent years telling friends and family that it was great to be working with your wife seems to weigh heavily with you, as if it makes it difficult for you to admit that things are now different I can understand that there's pride involved here, but you mustn't let it influence any decision you might make.

Then you don't come clean about your real feelings for your wife. Is it only at work that you're on the verge of losing your temper with her?

You mention 'walking out altogether' - which suggests that even at home it's all got pretty edgy. Is that the case?

And finally, of course, is the apparent fact that you've kept all this to yourself. If you'd tried to talk it over with your wife, you'd surely have mentioned it to me. So, presumably, you can only guess at her own state of mind, and whether she shares any or all of your sense of desperation.

It seems obvious to me that you must open it up. But before you do so, be as clear as you can what you want to achieve. If your home life is happy enough - and would be even happier if you felt less claustrophobic at work - then you must explain all this to your wife with as much affection and delicacy as you can. If she's had no idea that you feel like this, give her time to absorb it all. But in six months' time, at the very outside, you should aim to be doing a totally different job.

Putting it starkly: your business may well survive if you leave it; your marriage won't.


Q: I've had to lay off staff from our manufacturing firm, many of whom are friends or colleagues I've known for years. I've been told I need to tell another 20 to leave next month and I'm dreading it. Is there any good way to break the news?

A: No. There are bad ways and not-so-bad ways, but no good ways. You've just been through it once with friends and colleagues, so you know what it's like. You've probably also learned a bit in the process. Here, anyway, are some thoughts that may help you.

Try to avoid rumour and speculation. If that's not possible, get the bad news out as soon as possible. When you're breaking the news to each individual, be as generous as possible with your time. Your instinct (because you're dreading it) will be to get it over with as soon as possible; but that's to put your feelings before theirs.

Always offer a second conversation before you end the first. Don't appear to blame the decision on others, implying that if it had been left to you, things would have been very different. You'll only lose respect.

Remember that they'll have to break the news at home, so give them not only honest reasons for their termination, but ones that help them maintain their self-respect. Leave them with at least a glimmer of hope for the future.

Consider doing it all on a Friday if you can. It gives people a couple of days to sort their heads out. But don't be surprised if they come back in on Monday with renewed resentment. That's when the second conversation may be needed.

Never, never, never imply that this is hurting you as much as it's hurting them. I feel for you, but I feel for them more.


Q: Within my PR agency, we are told to forward proposals about new ways of winning business to one of the company's partners. I had some ideas, so dutifully e-mailed them off. A month went by with no response, so I e-mailed again. Three weeks later I still haven't heard. Should I push further, and risk being labelled 'cocky', or assume that my ideas were no good and just leave it?

A: Much the most likely explanation for this disconcerting silence is the partner's incompetence. Busy, probably, and a bit disorganised - and always putting the need to react to the immediate demands of clients before long-term thinking.

So you should certainly not assume that your ideas are no good. Unless and until you get feedback, you'll never learn and never gain confidence.

You presumably have some sort of boss between you and this unresponsive partner? If so, confide in him or her and ask for guidance. Then, almost every PR company has regular new-business meetings - you should ask if your ideas could be discussed and assessed at one of them.

Resist the temptation to send an all-staff e-mail exposing the partner's sloth to the gaze of the world. It might be deserved but will do very little for the advancement of either you or your ideas.

Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of J Walter Thompson, is now a director of Guardian Media Group and WPP. Please address your problems to him at: Management Today, 174 Hammersmith Road, London W6 7JP. Or e-mail: management.today@haynet.com Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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