Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The high wire balance of working with your Spouse

So you want to start a business with your spouse. The title alone is intimidating. I'm sure some of you think it's full of blue birds singing and soft harp music, but most will admit, even in front of their spouses, "I couldn't do it!" They're right, it's definitely not easy. Lorri and I have been married 26 years. Good communication behaviors are the keys to a successful marriage and it's no different for working together.

After graduating college, Lorri worked her way up from public accounting to Accounting Manager, to Assistant Controller, to the Controller. She was the Controller at three different companies and in two of those, she was responsible for significant changes that helped improve the companies.

I say this only to introduce the fact that a better title to this blog might be, "Working with your spouse when you're both the Boss!" It's been over three years and we're still trying to figure it out. I have over 30 years in the restaurant industry, so while we both have every intention to share the leadership 50/50, it's not that easy. Sometimes when I think I'm sharing, the perception is the opposite. At times, we're both guilty of leading in directions that the other doesn't support. Recently I was speaking to our employee team at one of our meetings. I get really pumped up and inspired during these meetings. At some point during the meeting, I was confronted with a question which I answered. Shortly after answering it, as my eyes moved through the room and fell on Lorri, I could clearly see that she didn't agree with my answer. Welcome to Marriage Business Partnership 101.

Having said that, there is really nothing like sharing a dream with someone you love. Lorri and I balance one another and bring different strengths to the table. This is one of the reasons we are successful. This is also why we choose to run the company together. Conquering the obstacles, a marriage business partnership brings to the table, requires constant discussion and collaboration, but so does any business relationship.

So here are five keys, as I see them, to a successful Marriage/Business Partnership:
1. First and foremost, you must truly want to work with your spouse. If work is your sanctuary away from home, don't do it! If only one of you wants to work together, you are in for some stormy weather.
2. You must have defined roles. In our case, we both share equal authority at home as well as at work; however, we still have defined roles. Don't kid yourself, this is where you will get into the most trouble, defined or not. What decision is in her defined role or in mine? Can it be decided without seeking the others opinion first? I would describe this as a rocky climb with many dangerous pit falls. There is no perfect answer, because on any given day, the rules are subject to change. After all, by default, this often falls under the marriage umbrella, which doesn't necessarily share the same rules as the business umbrella.
3. You should always pre-discuss meeting agenda's a day before conducting a management meeting. It is not a good practice to disagree in front of the team, but rather, you should show up united. I would also recommend never reviewing the agenda on the way to the meeting. This is a relationship where home can be brought to work. If the discussion creates a disagreement, the emotion of this being so fresh, could make an appearance in the meeting.
Years ago, as a young married couple, Lorri and I were arguing fiercely about some subject neither of us remember now. At the tail of the argument, with emotion at it's peak, the door bell rang. We both went to the door. A family friend greeted us. Lorri immediately smiled and welcomed her into our home. We all sat at the kitchen table. The conversation lasted for some time and was both upbeat and full of laughter. At some moment in the conversation, I gently touched Lorri's hand with affection. She smiled. I thought to myself, "This is great! She's not mad at me anymore!" An hour later, we walked our friend to the door. I held Lorri close at the door. To me, the sun seemed a little brighter and I could hear birds singing songs of discovery in the distance. I had stumbled on some ancient secret to help forgive an argument. After saying good-bye and closing the door, the sun seemed to disappear completely. The birds were quick to abandoned me as if sensing some warning sign I wasn't smart enough to see coming. Immediately, Lorri pushed away from me and said, "Quit touching me!" The friend did not deserve to be in the middle of an uncomfortable situation and Lorri made sure they weren't; however, she had not yet forgotten nor forgiven my role in the argument. The moral is that it takes time to move past your emotion after a disagreement. There is no ancient secret.
4. Always be willing to compromise. Lorri and I have much different management styles. We also both have successful track records. What if we try Lorri's idea that is much different than mine? Maybe I think mine is the greatest path on earth, but in reality, Lorri's is probably just as good or maybe even better. Learn to trust one another.
5. Never be afraid to disagree. 'Yes People' have never prevented a mistake. If you cherish your company, find a way to work through this. I believe this can be the most important key to overcome. If one spouse hates conflict, poor decisions are more likely and resentment is inevitable. You must figure out how to present or hear the disagreement by respecting one another. In marriage, one doesn't always have to have a reason to have a disagreement. For example, you're driving to dinner with your spouse. One of you ask the other where they would like to eat. The response, "How about La Palmera?" The reply. "I don't want Mexican tonight" This could be because they had Mexican for lunch, but then again, it could be because they are not that hungry and the thought of Mexican just isn't doing it for them. Those of you that are married surely understand that the why is simply not necessary to investigate, nor is it usually prudent to respond with "...then, you decide?" It is a best practice to continue choosing restaurants until the other finally says OK. Business decisions; however, are more complex and should not be made based on today's emotion. At our management meeting boardroom, we welcome other opinions, but expect any disagreements to have merit and be accompanied with a well thought out alternative solution. The same idea works for disagreements between married business partners. You need to work hard to communicate your disagreements as business executives rather than a married couple. Often times, when Lorri and I still disagree, even after both supporting our thoughts with good information, we will share our disagreements packaged as 'different options' at our management meeting boardroom and let the team help make the decision.

Lorri and I are the first to admit that we're far from perfect at these five keys; however, understanding these keys, knowing our own short comings, and constantly communicating with one another, helps keep us on the right path. Thanks for sharing this moment with me.

David Jones, CEO/Co-Founder
Blazing Onion Burger Company

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