DAVID GAGE IS used to seeing small-business partners at their worst: when they’re at odds.
As a psychologist who mediates partner disputes, Gage knows the devastating impact a faltering relationship can have on a small company, its employees, and even the partners’ health and well-being. “When partners are struggling, there’s usually so much at risk,” says Gage, co-founder of mediation firm BMC Associates in Arlington, Va. “Lives can be turned upside down.”
When business partners get along, it’s usually their mix of complementary skills, good rapport and shared ambitions that can turn a fledgling venture into an entrepreneurial success. But when there are disagreements — often, triggered or worsened by rigorous schedules, pressures to succeed and shifting job responsibilities — the opposite is true.
When Sarah Welch began butting heads with her partner, Alicia Rockmore, she knew the two had to work out their differences to keep their business thriving and their close friendship intact. The two, who met in 1996 while working on a corporate branding campaign, launched a company that sells products that help people get organized called Buttoned Up in 2004. They were fortunate to quickly land contracts with Target and The Container Store. But when “you go from no distribution to national distribution, that is a crash course in stress,” she says.
By early 2007, their complementary-but-different work styles were leading to tension. Welch, more of a creative, “big-picture” type, frequently found herself at odds with Rockmore, who is more of a detail-oriented, task-minded type. The two sought help in mediator Danny Frankel, of Martin Frankel Associates in Winston-Salem, N.C. “We didn’t want to waste our energy on stupid frustration that shouldn’t be there,” Welch says. At an all-day session (inside a meeting room at their lawyer’s office in New York), Frankel worked with them on identifying the trouble spots, finding ways that both could constructively voice frustration, and figuring out ways to handle future disagreements.
“We rolled up our sleeves and recommitted ourselves,” says Welch. “It was probably one of the best things we did.” Not only have the two repaired their relationship, but their company reached $1 million in annual sales by the end of 2007, a new milestone.
Business partners who are unable to find common ground might consider using the services of a mediator trained in conflict resolution. Those services, however, usually aren’t cheap. Gage, for instance, charges as much as $20,000 for a three-day retreat in which the struggling partners work out their troubles with the help of a two-person team (typically, one specializing in business, the other in psychology).
Here are other tips to get a business partnership back on track:
Have a sit-down . Meet outside the office, in a neutral place where you can focus on the problems without being distracted. That can be in a quiet restaurant, a hotel conference room or a rented meeting space in a conference facility. And come prepared. “Each person should make a list of what the issues are before they get together, and then review the list with one another,” suggests Gage.