Fighting Founders Part Two Conflict In The Middle

Last week I wrote about potential pitfalls and solutions to starting a creative company with someone else. 

This week and next I’m going to take a look at challenges that happen after the partners have gotten through the startup phase and are in medias res – in the middle of the action. They have an office, clients, a dozen or so employees, and revenue. They’ve learned to work together pretty effectively. But challenges can crop up at this time. 

Mom and Dad are fighting
Conflict is inevitable. But some conflicts escalate or can’t be resolved. When this sort of ongoing conflict arises, how do you address it? First, recognize it. <See my post on culture blindness>. Too often leaders blame external things for their problems: the market, employees who don’t know how good they have it, overly demanding clients. These may all be valid factors—but there could also be a conflict between partners. 

Next, understand the impact this can gave on the organization. Anyone who has helped lead a company or department with less than 50 people knows that a family dynamic can arise. Leaders can become parental surrogates, and a tension and conflict between them can unsettle the whole place. 

Also realize that your business partner or partners can bring up unresolved family issues for you. More than once I’ve had founders confide in me that the partner with whom they have difficulty is exactly like the parent they couldn’t stand or the abusive ex. If the conflict or the dynamic feels strangely familiar, you might want to check your own baggage and see what you’re bringing that might be impending resolution. 

Keep it out of the office. Don’t fight there. Avoid triangulation or talking badly about each other to anyone else at work. 

Make sure you are taking care of yourself. Ongoing conflict can be exhausting, and when it’s your job/company/livelihood it is even worse. Do what you can to release that energy positively; exercise, meditate, write in a journal, take a trip. 

Be clear with each other about what you need. Start the conversation by remembering why you started the company in the first place. Celebrate your successes. Then ask for what you need. This kind of vulnerability can be risky when you’re in conflict, but it can help. 

I find that the partners who are most successful in navigating conflict have been with spouses or romantic partners for a long time. Many of the skills required to sustain a long-term partnership are useful whether the relationship involves business or romance. John Gottman, the famed marriage researcher, talks about solvable versus perpetual problems. Perpetual problems cannot be solved, but they don’t have to break a relationship. Figure out of your problem is solvable or perpetual and then act accordingly. Patience, tolerance, humor, good will, commitment, and a realistic understanding that we are all fallible are vital. So is doing your own emotional homework, and making sure that your baggage isn’t getting in the way. 

Next Week: What to do if you change roles? How making a founder into a CEO can rock the boat. 

Fighting Founders Part Three Changing Roles In Medias Res

Fighting Founders - Part One Starting Out