The co-Founder partnership is forged when ideas and a vision are shared amongst two people. It is not unlike the romantic notion that when we fall in love we believe we share the same vision of a future together. Fast forward 2 years or more, past the honeymoon stage, the reality of working with a business partner can be quite different to that which you expected.
The metaphor of family is helpful as a means of explaining some of the dynamics that emerge when co-founders build a business together.
When two co-founders start out, they bounce off each other, sparking off each other’s company united by the vision of the ‘The Organisation’ similar perhaps to the vision of creating their own family. They make big and exciting strides together as their seedling of an idea takes shape and starts to become a reality. They make their first hire (their first baby boy or girl), rent an office space (their home) and begin to form an increasingly clearer picture of what the next year or so might look like (they make plans). The energy (their libido) directed towards success stays high except for a few hiccups where disagreements can be either covered over with continuing the business (not now, I’m busy) or dealt with in such a way that is remembered by one or the other but not fully expressed (usually brought up at a time of conflict in the future).
They make their 2nd, 3rd and 4th hire. The family is growing except baby number one now has to share the co-founders (parents) attention with their colleagues (siblings). Despite some excitement about their colleagues’ entrance to The Organisation, emerging resentment towards the co-founders builds as promises get forgotten, while their work is subject to less recognition and praise.
Baby number 3 and 4, get together with the newly hired baby 5 and 6 and play a game, one that baby number 1 and 2 are not invited to. The siblings become aggressive to one another (sibling rivalry) and they bring decision making and conflict to the attention of the co-Founders repeatedly as they are unable to deal with this on their own as the co-Founders have not made explicit the rules of the game. It is often the case that new co-Founders don’t know the rules of the game themselves.
The co-Founders feel overwhelmed and look at each other as perhaps the source of the problem and the relationship stumbles or is ignored with continued business. The reality of The Organisation becomes one where the co-Founders are solving problems for the children rather than empowering the children with a safe framework of rules and positive encouragement (good parenting).
The co-founding relationship continues to suffer. They ignore problems and sometimes hope they’ll disappear. The original vision is partly successful and there is now a bigger Organisation to look after which adds pressure to the relationship. By one metric or another the organisation may also be successful, so we are doing things right.
The co-founders spend less time with each other and their behaviours start to vary considerably giving mixed messages to the family confusing the children who are more equipped to make a nuisance of themselves and are more entrenched around their issues.
The more grown-up children exploit the split in the founders and the views of one or more important grown-up children are taken more and more seriously by one of the co-Founders creating further divisions in the co-founders’ partnership.
After a while, one teenager flies the nest unexpectedly, perhaps in a cloud of conflict and the idealised vision of The Organisation is called into question. Blame for this is directed towards the other co-Founder or another more outspoken sibling who never liked their brother or sister anyway.
This sibling feels victimised and is subject to neglect and blame and decides it’s their time to leave the nest, closely followed by sibling 4 and 5. All the while sibling 7, 8 and 9 are hired into a chaotic and unstable Organisation where they are expected to begin playing the game without knowledge of the rules once more. And so on.
Like any couple in a state of distress, the answer to a fruitful relationship often begins in making the time to be with one another, to confront there is an issue and to make clear what it is that each other needs. Being effective co-Founders is also about recognising that the expected idealised version of the future is not always going to be the reality. New conflicts will arise, new skills need to be learnt and new behaviours need to be modelled as co-Founders also need to be role models now.
co-Founders need to be united in their opinions and philosophy for the family, being consistent and allowing the children to take some risks without fear of reprisal and or withdrawal of their attention.
Robert Rees is a Director of The Grove Practice in London. He is a Psychotherapist and Executive Coach, leading The Grove Practice At Work: an organization committed to bringing good mental health to the workplace – thegrovepractice.com
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