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Business Partners: When the Magic Disappears (or Does It?)

MagicianBusiness partners call it magic. Or they call it kismet. Whatever term they use, they are speaking about the chemistry that first connected them. And that chemistry is powerful.

When I first meet with business partners who have sought my help to remedy their partnership, they tell me how they met and about the spark that ignited between them. They are as clear as I am that the spark was more about their energetic attraction than it was about their technical expertise.

Business partners are entrepreneurs and embody the qualities of discoverers. They not only see problems to be solved in the present, but also divine possibilities in a future that most cannot yet imagine. They are creative, enthusiastic, driven, persistent, and hard working. They are impressive.

When they meet, ta-da! Ideas flow, energies soar, and passions multiply. The future seems limitless.

For awhile, sometimes years, business partners complement each other, blending the ingredients of their individual talents into a stronger brew. So strong that many of the business partners I’ve worked with came to me with successful, award-winning businesses.

But, then, poof! Something changes, not as instantly as the plume of smoke on the magician’s stage, but over time as events accumulate. They begin to resent each other, communicate less, and conflict more. Tensions rise, not only for them, but also for their teams. By the time I meet them, they are frustrated, angry, and confused.

What happened? Where did the magic go? Did it actually disappear?

In my experience, the magic is simply hidden behind a trap door. Here are three contributing factors to its disappearance.

1.      Unexpressed Feelings and Untested Assumptions
Like in any relationship, reactions, feelings, and thoughts occur. If unexpressed and unresolved, some of these can lead to strong negative feelings and untrue assumptions about the other person. One common feeling I see business partners struggle with is resentment. For example, one partner may think the other is not working as hard, contributing as much, or deserving of the same financial gain. The most common assumption I hear is about motivation. Partners assign incorrect interpretations to each other’s behaviors.

2.      Inaccurate Talent Assessment
Business partners often say some version of “I’m the creative one; she’s the business one.” Creative can be swapped with people oriented, revenue directed, leadership focused, or some other competency. If I hear that from one partner, I invariably hear from the other that her partner doesn’t understand all of her contributions. While there is undeniable advantage to identifying and leveraging the particular strengths of each individual, there is also a significant cost to so rigidly defining areas of expertise as to dismiss contributions made outside of those areas.

3.      Role Ambiguity
When business partners begin their work together they often touch every part of the business. It’s all hands on deck. There’s no need for clear roles. In fact, distinct roles may strangle the growth of the business in the early stages. As the business grows, however, this mode of working begins to trip up the partners as well as their teams. They can be working at cross-purposes, pursuing unaligned goals, duplicating efforts, communicating mixed messages, or micro-managing others.

If the magic is simply hidden behind the trap door, how does the trap door open? Fortunately, while the original attraction was magic, the remedy for finding it again is not. There are clear steps to regain the magic.

When I work with business partners I get to know them as individuals and as a team, and I customize my interventions to their particular personalities and situation. My role is not to get them past this particular moment, but rather to help them develop skills to meet these challenges going forward. Here are three essential areas I address with business partners. A recommendation follows each.

1.      Skillfully Engaging in Difficult Conversations
For all relationships to thrive and grow, the people in them need to be able to communicate together through differences, upsetting feelings, and conflict. This is not easy, whether at work or at home. I help business partners clarify their thoughts, feelings, and assumptions. This helps them identify what they need. Then I help them develop skills for sharing their new awareness with their partner in a way that leads to better understanding and more effective communication.

Recommendation: Teach yourself the Non-Violent Communication model. It’s understandable, easy-to-apply, and tremendously helpful for productive communication.

2.      Appreciating Contributions
As business partners discuss their feelings and thoughts with me, their emotional reactivity decreases. They can see the full spectrum of their partner, rather than seeing them through a constricted view. Thus, they can begin to see for themselves, as well as to hear from their partner, all the ways their partner is contributing and value those in a new way. For example, the business partner who originally said he was the creative one can now see that his partner also brings creativity to her work.

Recommendation: Take time to step away from your day-to-day work and ask yourself what you first appreciated about your business partner.

3.      Clarifying Future Roles
Once business partners are able to communicate their thoughts, feelings, opinions, and ideas, and can see the value each person brings to the business, they are in a position to assess roles. As the book title goes, “what got you here, won’t get you there.” Business partners need to evaluate continuously where the company is, what kind of leadership is needed, and what is required of them at this stage.

Recommendation: As a team with your business partner, assess together the leadership needs of the business and align your strengths with those needs.

In a magic show it looks like the magician has disappeared forever or the woman has been severed in half. But what we see for a moment is not the whole story. The magician reappears. The woman is whole.

I have found the same to be true for business partners. With the guidance of a coach and a commitment to practicing new skills, the magic can return and result in an even stronger, more resilient business.

Brett Penfil

Brett Penfil

Brett Penfil, MFT, is a psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapist (MFC #48447) in San Francisco. She works with individuals, couples, and business partners.

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