When I was about three years old, my Dad—a thoughtful, compassionate person—entered into a business partnership with someone who is his personality opposite: a hard-nosed number-cruncher who lacked people skills. They thought it was a match made in heaven.
The partnership lasted a whopping 23 years before they couldn’t take it anymore, and ended with harsh words, hurt feelings and a slew of legal fees.
This situation is unfortunately common in small business situations. An entrepreneur invests not only their heart and soul into a business, but also their trust into a business partner. It doesn’t always work out.
(Note: If you are entering into a partnership, make sure to read my recent story: 6 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Choosing a Business Partner.)
So how do you get out unscathed?
Develop a strategy
Assuming you haven’t established an exit strategy already, Pat Lynch, Ph.D., president of Business Alignment Strategies, a management consultancy in Long Beach, California, recommends determining exactly what you want your exit to look like prior to initiating the separation. Ask yourself questions like: What relationship would you like with your partner after the split? What relationship would you like to have with your customers?
“If you just say, ‘I want out,’ you leave too many unanswered questions on the table; you need a strategy,” she says.
Distinguish real needs
Yes, you may want a lot out of this split, but what do you really need?
Lynch recommends approaching negotiations with a list of things of which you could let go of, and what you could not let go.
Hire a mediator
“If I couldn’t control myself and my emotions, I would hire a consultant to help me with my part of it—a neutral third party can really put things into perspective,” Lynch says.
If you can’t afford a mediator, consider asking a trusted friend or business associate to step in on your behalf.
At the end of the day, you may not get exactly what you want.
“Sometimes you have to give; remember that getting something is better than getting zero, and throwing a hissy fit can destroy the business,” says Ed Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, principal of LawBiz Management, a consulting company Venice, California.
Stay away from trash talk
Before resorting to harsh words, consider why you went into business with your partner in the first place, recommends Lynch. Chances are, the person has admirable qualities and wants the best for your customers.
“Bad mouthing is bad for a partnership and is a reflection on you and the business,” she says.
Focus on clients
Unless your business is dissolving along with your partnership, it is important to think of the welfare of your clients during the separation process.
“Think about what is best for them, how to handle them, and what your legal and ethical responsibilities are,” Lynch advises.