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My business partner refuses to adapt - how should I handle it?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I am a director sharing a small business 50/50. Times have changed over the years, and I have developed skills to remain productive. Unfortunately, my business partner seems stuck in a rut and unable to apply himself. He is also spending long periods of time on the internet, private eBay bidding and viewing pornographic content. I have worked with him for nearly 18 years (not on equal terms) and find I cannot approach him to discuss my disapproval and disappointment at his lack of interest in adapting to survive. How would you handle this?

A: What's happened, of course - which I'm sure you realise - is that you've postponed making an issue of your partner's inadequacies for so long that you now find it absolutely impossible to raise the subject. Meanwhile, he goes blithely on, presumably choosing to be unaware of your dissatisfaction, while your own frustration and sense of injustice continue to fester.

The risk is that you'll finally snap and accuse him of something that seems relatively trivial - his use of pornography, for example - when the malaise is far deeper than that. It's like the old story of the deeply unhappy wife who, after years of silent misery, finally loses patience with her husband for leaving the top off the toothpaste. The result: instead of making a reasoned and entirely justified case for change, the complainant emerges as petty and vengeful. The argument is lost before it has been put.

What's clear is that you can't drift on like this. Moreover, nothing is likely to happen of its own accord that would prompt an open discussion of your relationship. So I strongly suggest that you find - or if necessary invent - some reason for a formal review of your business: the start of a new year, some imminent change in market conditions, an anniversary; it hardly matters what pretext you choose as long as the review is seen to be long-term and general. It would also help a very great deal if you know of someone, knowledgeable enough about your business but strictly an outsider, who could act as a disinterested moderator. Ideally, this person would be both known to and trusted by your partner.

If he objects to this suggestion, you have every reason to air your dissatisfactions immediately. In fact, you have no choice. If he agrees, then it should be quite clear by the end of the review that the contributions that the two of you are making are deeply inequitable and that changes urgently need to be made.

None of this will be easy, or probably bloodless. You'll have to think through the financial implications very carefully beforehand, as buying him out will certainly be an option. But I can think of no other way by which essential resolution will be reached.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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