Seven Tips for a Thriving Business Partnership
January 2013 | Collaboration
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Seven Tips for a Thriving Business Partnership

By Bryan Bayer

In the context of law, business partnerships come in many forms. From the traditional long-term founding partners / co-owner relationship, to a simple short-term referral partnership with someone in another industry, these seven tips will help your partnership thrive:

1 - Share a vision.
If you and your partners are headed in different directions with the business, problems are bound to arise.  So it’s important to clarify your collective vision of your work together first.  

While your purpose for partnering may be different, the high-level objectives need to be the same.

Practical Tip: Block out some time to discuss with your partners your company’s vision.  Paint a picture of what the ideal business will look like, and what its purpose should be. Put it in writing, and use it to guide your decisions.

2 - Identify and take advantage of the strengths of each partner.
Often you’ll be inclined to partner with people with complementary strengths.  Some of these will be obvious, but others, when brought forward, can make a big difference in motivation, commitment and success of the partnership.

Rob and Andy’s firm had reached a plateau after two years in business. Andy was in charge of managing the staff; Rob the business end. With some outside guidance, Rob realized that one of his personal strengths was his public speaking ability and interest. When he decided to connect his public speaking with the business, it created a new lead source for them, boosting sales for the next several months and pushing them out of the plateau.

Practical Tip: Make note of your personal strengths and ask your partner to do the same. Then discuss how you can apply these to the business.

3 - Identify and address each partner's needs & expectations.
People step into partnership for various reasons, such as expertise, a client base, reputation or connections. These purposes aren’t always expressed, yet they remain as an often-unexpressed underlying expectation. If you can make these expectations explicit, and ideally put them in writing, you can head off potential upset later.

Allen and Linda had a personal injury law firm that was struggling with growth problems. Then Allen became sick and was out of commission for several months. In the interim, Linda bore the brunt of the business load.  While she was able to keep up with it, when Allen came back his energy and motivation had changed, and he wasn’t able to pick things back up.  And since Linda wasn't prepared to carry it alone long term, frustration and conflict soured their partnership until they made time to discuss their expectations.

Practical Tip: Share your expectations with each other.  Keep your partners informed as your business and life circumstances change your expectations – and ask that they do the same.

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4 - Handle disagreements, disappointments and frustrations early.
Conflict will arise at some point, as it does in every partnership.

In these situations, it’s best to directly address the points of conflict as soon as possible before they erode the quality of the partnership.

When Brad made hiring decisions without checking in with Jessica, it created a strain on the relationship. Jessica was reluctant to bring it up directly, but found herself making comments to others about it.  She became less and less engaged, and the business suffered as a result, before she realized that she needed to address this situation with Brad directly.

Practical Tip: Schedule a regular meeting, at least once a month, to check in and address any problems or opportunities as you see them.  Bring a proposed way of dealing with the problems so that it’s not simply a gripe session, and it gives everyone a direction forward.

5 - Set company and individual goals.
Building off of the vision you created above, start with identifying business goals, then create goals for the individuals that support those company goals.  They should be concrete, measurable, and align with the expectations you have for each other.

Tony and Francisco were doing solid business with their two-year-old patent law practice. They verbally agreed on target numbers for the firm, but didn’t create their personal accountabilities to reach those goals. When they missed their numbers in the second half of the year, finger-pointing ensued and things got ugly.

Practical Tip: Create and regularly update your company goals together.  Then, set personal goals that align with the company goals, ideally taking advantage of the strengths of each partner.  Get it in writing, with a commitment from each partner towards those goals. This will clarify any questions about who’s accountable for what.

6 - Define job roles for each partner, including accountability.
Most partnerships haven’t taken the time to write down explicitly their job roles, which results in frustration and disappointment.  Job roles are a simple list of tasks and responsibilities for each partner. 

Brenda knew she was the primary business development person for their firm. And while it hadn’t been clarified in writing or much discussed, she expected her partner to bring in at least some leads. When she saw him handling personal business during work hours, she flipped.  They had different mental pictures of their roles, and it was time to get clear on what the job roles were for each person.

Practical Tip: List and define each task and outcome you’re responsible for, and have your partner do the same.   Have a shared document you can refer to, so that you can be accountable to yourselves and each other.  If there are gaps in the work load, this may be an opportunity for a new hire. Either way, you need to make sure all jobs are covered, and responsibilities assigned and acknowledged.

7 - Know when it’s time to part ways
All partnerships have ups and downs, but sometimes even with the best intentions, it just doesn’t work out. Perhaps there’s too much conflict, or maybe one partner wants to take a new direction in his career.  If you’re starting a company, or even if you’re in the middle of a partnership, consider drafting an exit agreement before potential conflicts make a partnership no longer possible. Follow these simple tips and you'll have a solid platform for a successful, thriving partnership and a strong and profitable business.

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About the Author

Bryan Bayer is the co-founder of Thriving Partners, a business coaching firm.

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