There is a common expression that entrepreneurs hear frequently about business partnerships: "Being in business together is like a marriage." Neither relationship is easy, and the survival rate can cause some to question why people attempt either one.
However, there are many families and couples who have learned how to successfully navigate both terrains. I am the principal managing partner of Cober Johnson & Romney, a legal and business consulting firm. I'm also a newlywed and one of my business partners of three years, Harold Johnson, is my husband. I know that there are many areas of our personal relationship that strengthen our partnership.
For starters, we have distinct and unique skill sets. Harold is a 25-year veteran in commercial real estate development and project management. He has worked within large-scale public and private entities. He has developed relationships and experience in those areas that help create business opportunities and blueprints for the growth of our company. Conversely, I have been an attorney for 20 years and a small-business owner for 15 years. I love processes and systems and implementation and organization. I focus on training, development and team building. When the vision and the implementation come together in a firm, it can create a solid foundation for a company.
—Kimberly Lewis, CEO, Project XYZ
So what does it take for a couple to maintain both a successful marriage and business partnerships? I recently met Kimberly Lewis, the chief executive officer of Project XYZ, a Huntsville, Alabama-based company. She and her husband of 14 years, Larry Lewis, own and operate the technical solutions company, which is celebrating its 15th year in business. Lewis was also recently awarded the Best Woman-Owned Business Award by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, so she and her husband are indeed valued resources when it comes to sharing strategies and advice about business and marriage.
I also have the pleasure of knowing Adam Gorman. His family has owned I. Gorman Jewelers in Washington, D.C. for more than three decades. Gorman's maternal grandfather was a jeweler and owned a chain of stores; his father, Ivan Gorman worked in one of those stores. In 1981, Ivan and his wife Bonnie opened their own business. Now they own the jewelry store with their children, Nicole and Adam.
Both of these families offered several strategies for people who go into business with family members.
1. Know how to communicate a different opinion.
"If it's not worth going to the courthouse, say your two cents and be done with it," advises Larry Lewis. Larry has learned the art of diplomacy and he knows "how to pick my battles," he says.
Entrepreneurs can be strong-willed individuals with opinions about everything. But being judicious about asserting a contrary opinion is a coveted skill set both at home and in the office. The need to be right in your business partnerships can be balanced with the need for peace and respect for your partner's opinion.
Gorman agrees. "Communication between my partners is only effective when we enter a discussion with no expectations of how we want the others to react to a particular scenario," he says.
2. Decide who is going to take the lead on projects and issues.
This is a simple yet important principle in business partnerships. "The lines of communication between my family and me really became effective after roles and responsibilities within the company were well established," Gorman explains.
The Lewises agree, saying that the old "stay-in-your-lane" division of labor style of management works well for them. If they are working on a project together, "we decide ahead of time who will lead the project, and the other will follow," Larry says. "This prevents us from having to discuss who should perform a certain task and eliminates the amount of wasted time it takes to get on the same page. It also enabled us to make decisions in a timelier manner without feeling like we are stepping on each other's toes."
3. Understand how your partner analyzes issues.
The Lewises dated for six years before Kimberly opened the company. Larry understood and supported her concept, and lent advice and experience that he developed during his years as a defense contractor. (In fact, he even gave her the name of the company, Project XYZ, as it was a name of an entity he was considering to develop.)
Later, once he officially came on board with the firm, the mutual understanding they share has definitely benefited the firm.
"I'll often say to my team, 'Now you know Larry isn't going to go for that, so let's try something else,'" Kimberly says.
4. Communicate with little emotion.
Gorman says that being objective and dispassionate help his family avoid communication hurdles. You may find this piece of advice helpful in your own business partnerships with family members and loved ones.
"We deal with each other with as little emotion as possible, which keeps us focused and on task," he says. "Emotional conversations, especially among family members, usually get convoluted and end unproductively."
5. Respect and trust your partner.
The final point is arguably the principle that helps ensure the success of most productive and healthy business partnerships and relationships: Have respect and trust for your partner.
"It's important to remember that your partner is just as committed to the goal as you are," Kimberly says. That knowledge can help breed trust and respect both at home and at the office.
Though business management and family relationships are challenging, those who practice the above strategies may experience success in both arenas.
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