One of the most challenging yet rewarding aspects of my role as a growth strategist is working with companies that have multiple co-founders. I often engage with these companies after one of the partners reaches out to me to discuss their growing pains.
Through my 20 years of business ownership experience, my professional training, and my 18 years of parenting, I’ve learned to live by the motto, “trust but verify.” While the partner that contacts me always provides valuable insight, I must gather the perspectives of the other partners to see the whole picture. In addition, I must earn 100% trust & buy-in from all partners to proceed, or we will all be set up for failure.
I’m currently working with an 18-year old company that has three co-founders. I won’t work with any companies that have more than three co-founders. Two co-founders are relatively easy to align. Three co-founders is a challenging situation in a fun way. Four or more co-founders would be very difficult to align.
My client has ambitious growth goals, but the owners have divergent ideas on how to achieve the goals. The most important step to achieving these goals is to get all of the owners on the same page. Through a series of Successful Culture tools and processes, I have each partner work individually – with a promise to not consult with one another – on worksheets that tell me how they perceive themselves and how they perceive the other partners in the organization.
I ask them to follow the same exercise with organizational values, mission statements, and company vision.
The results always show critical disconnects and misunderstandings. In some of my client organizations in which I’ve had executives describe their roles & responsibilities and those of their colleagues, the results have been so contradictory that you would think these “team members” are working for different companies.
Imagine the problems that these disconnects can cause: misaligned and unmet expectations, resentment, disappointment, poor communication, loss of trust, and confusion among direct reports, just to name a few.
The good news is that with open-mindedness, self-reflection, and a willingness to subjugate a personal agenda in favor of the organization’s best interest, the owners can expunge the different perspectives they may have with these critical foundational elements. One of my close friends and favorite mentors is a leader in the higher education space. He has built and sold multiple companies, starting with his first company that he built while a sophomore at U Penn. Every time we talk business, I walk away smarter. He taught me that the best leaders are always willing to sacrifice their own personal agendas for the good of the company. This is especially true in co-founder situations, where multiple egos and agendas may be fighting for dominance or survival.
Business partners must share the same story when building a company. They can’t be telling or living by their own stories. This sounds logical and simple, but it contradicts human nature. The human brain hates ambiguity. It craves a beginning, a middle, and an ending of every story. Even when the ending is false, the brain seeks comfort in knowing the outcome.
Business is unpredictable. For our own comfort, we often project. We write the endings of our stories in our minds, and then act in accordance with that ending. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a single business owner does this, he/she can build out the company according to that ending. If multiple business owners in a single company do this, and they don’t communicate their endings to one another, then they are all chasing down different endings.
One of the most important conversations I have to lead with my clients is the conversation around personal agendas, and the need to sacrifice these agendas for the good of the company. By being able to demonstrate how far apart owners may be in perceived roles, values, mission, vision, strategy, etc., I’m able to gently bring them back in alignment.
Only then can the real work begin to meet the growth goals…creating a clear roadmap to the desired end state that aligns with values, mission & vision; assigning roles & responsibilities; instituting accountability; tracking progress.
When our cars are out of alignment, and we keep driving them, they ultimately pull to the dominant side, and they cause expensive and sometimes irreversible damage. The same thing happens in an organization. Misaligned perceptions, outcomes, and stories will ultimately erode the balance of the company, and can damage it beyond repair.
If you have partners, or an executive team, when was the last time you checked your alignment? Please share your stories about bringing and keeping alignment within your leadership team.
If you’re at the beginning stages of a partnership, you’ll find great value in my previous column, 9 Strategies to Avoid Business Partnership Purgatory.
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CEO, Successful Culture
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