I run a small creative services business with a partner. We’ve had many long years of almost freakish success. We’ve accomplished amazing client work with great employees who have been dependable and excellent at their jobs.
Over the years, we’ve also had our ups and downs—but lately it has been mostly downs. My partner is the creative genius and I’m the business guy. I’ll spare you the gory details, but over the course of the past year we’ve lost several employees to clients—and with them has gone some critical business.
I want to rebuild, but I am becoming more and more concerned with my partner’s behavior. He has always been a little flaky—he is a brilliant artist, after all—but he is becoming more and more erratic. He is either late for client meetings or doesn’t show up at all; he misses deadlines; and, worst of all, he shows substandard work to clients because he changes direction at the last minute.
When I take him to task, he tells me that I don’t know how hard it is to come up with good ideas and that he can’t rush the creative process. He confuses our remaining employees, who we can’t afford to lose, by giving them feedback that conflicts with mine.
I am losing heart and finding it hard to pitch new business when I have less and less confidence that we will be able to deliver. This business is our livelihood and I feel like I’m watching the whole thing swirling the drain. I’m torn between feeling resentful and feeling incredibly guilty for thinking about dissolving the partnership. I have some savings so I would be okay, but my partner has a large family to support and has zero cushion.
I feel terrible about the idea of cutting him loose but feel like I might have to in order to save myself. What to do, Madeleine?
Being in business for yourself is hard. Being in a business partnership compounds the complexity. Many people dream of starting their own company, but tales like yours are a powerful deterrent. It sounds as if you and your partner have had a great thing going for a long time with the sum adding up to more than the parts. And now one of you is not fulfilling his end of the bargain.
What, if any, agreements did you make in the beginning about the eventuality of one of you becoming unable to perform? Of course, your partner would first need to be accountable for his lack of productivity before you could bring up any agreements you might have made together.
The next option is the difficult “crossroads” conversation. This conversation needs to be identified as a critical juncture in the road, not just hard feedback. This is the big kahuna discussion where you both get everything on the table, hash things out, sift through it all, and start to work out a solution. I highly recommend you consider using the Heart to Heart Process created by Paul and Layne Cutright, a couple who have devoted their lives to helping people in partnerships of all kinds. You can find a step-by-step description of the process here.
I have used this process myself many times—I have a business partnership with my husband and I work in his family’s business, so I have an arsenal of communication tools! And I have used it to facilitate many difficult conversations for others. The key is for both you and your partner to trust each other enough to say what needs to be said so you can face reality together.
Hopefully you have enough history, respect, and affection for each other that you will be able to do it. You may discover some things that cause you to change your mind about ditching the whole business. You may very well fix the situation and get yourselves back on track. You may even hear some feedback that helps you to be a better partner yourself. Or you may hear enough to convince you that it is time to go your separate ways.
Ultimately, you will learn what you need to learn to make a sound decision and to do what you need to do to take care of yourself without guilt. And if you really make your best effort to talk things through, you will have nothing to feel guilty about.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!