Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Partnerships are Challenging: Part 1

In a class in business school on purchasing companies, the professor said on multiple occasions that "partnerships are hard." It occurred to me recently that I have yet to write a post on this topic directly. One reason that I call this point out in particular is that many people take it for granted. For those coming from Corporate America, you may have the experience of being able to escape those with whom you have challenges. In small business, however, there is no place to hide. And when you are partners, you will learn the extent to which many things you take for granted (priorities, decision-making, etc.) are not necessarily shared by others.

I definitely do not go as far as some to say "never have partners." I believe and have first hand experience with the benefits that you can enjoy (that will be a separate post), but these benefits can be quickly overshadowed by the challenges if you are not alert. Rather than a litany of the challenges, let's focus on one.

Shared focus is one challenge within partnerships. In small business, organizational structure is typically either non-existent or less meaningful than in Corporate America. One result is more of an "all hands on deck" approach. Another result can resemble "swarm soccer" (think: 6 year old soccer game where positions mean less than chasing the ball). For those looking to stay within lanes, this can quickly become frustrating. For those looking to micro-manage, you will quickly frustrate those around you.

The solution (are you ready for this?) is communication. Ta da! Seriously, though, there are ways to define roles and responsibilities and to invite group participation when appropriate. For those who can't wait to jump into someone else's business, your challenge is to give direct feedback if that is the heart of the matter rather than the passive-agressive approach of bypassing this and just jumping in "to help."

Successful partnerships rely on establishing clear expectations. I would suggest focusing less on trying to translate that into an org chart, since it will likely be obsolete by the time the ink dries. Do focus, however, on roles and responsibilities and establish communication intervals and vehicles that work. Setup check-in's every other day at 9am and make them sacred, for example.

Partnerships can work and may be necessary in certain businesses, but beware the rose-colored glasses. Raise the bar on your communication and keep an eye out for the assumptions that I guarantee will come back to bite you later.

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