In the midst of providing Business “Marriage” Counseling to two or more business partners, there is a moment when I have to predict a course. See, there are only a couple of paths we can take. People who come to me to work on their intra-company relationships have usually reached a point of no return – strife and silence have invaded the office. The three possible paths are: (1) Status quo; (2) rejigger the relationship to keep working together; or (3) bust it up. To me, maintaining the status quo is failure. Rejiggering the relationship – the most common path – entails forging new agreements on responsibilities and power alongside discussions to repair  relationships. But, when the parties are beyond reconciling or their aptitudes don’t match their expectations, it’s time to bust it up. We don’t bust up a company with dynamite. We try to figure out how we can continue the core ventures that produce revenue for all the parties.  I often feel a sense of urgency to figure out the course quickly – not only does it drastically shape our work together, but the wrong course compounds the expense. (Contrary to common wisdom, some lawyers – myself included – strive to minimize fees.)

So, how do I know when a business “marriage” needs a break up? Here are four signs that start to tip my recommendations.

  1. Unaccountable. If at least one of the partners refuses to look at his role in the deterioration of the relationship, I know it can’t be saved. Business “marriage” conflicts are still human conflicts even if they occur in a commercial context. Human conflicts require some level of cooperation and validation. A partner who won’t wonder about how he helped get to this dead end is someone who demands too much compromise and submission from his partner(s) – they get resentful. Worse, the partner who won’t consider his behavior also won’t fix his behavior, so whatever problems arose from it remain. The business can stumble on for awhile, but eventually, someone has to go.
  2. Contempt. Personal conflicts that simmer eventually metamorphose into contempt. By the time contempt has set in, there is almost no reservoir of good will, affection, trust or respect left to get the people to adjust their own expectations and actions. Even in actual marriages, contempt is hard to shake, leading to divorce. But, in actual marriages, there is more acceptance for heavy, emotional, therapeutic work to save the relationship, which at least gives peace a chance. In a business “marriage,” therapy and catharsis are deemed unacceptable or unprofessional, making the personal work hard to approach let alone get through.
  3. Cluelessly Unskilled. There comes a time in many businesses in which one of the partners turns out to be both stupid and arrogant. That combination – dumb and above reproach is a double whammy of challenge. Anyone acquire a skill if he is teachable. But, an arrogant worker is unteachable, taking offense by suggestions that he may need to sharpen his saw. If your partner is both dumb and arrogant, he can’t contribute the work and expertise you need and he won’t see the deficits he is causing. This, by the way, is the toughest situation for me to divvy up the business, because it’s hard to pluck out parts of the company that the dumb and arrogant one won’t run into the ground.
  4. Drunk or Stoned. When I see or discover that one of the owners drinks or drugs too much, I move very carefully. I don’t want to be the cause of some guy’s destruction and I don’t want to overreact to alternative coping skills. But, since my charge is to identify and help resolve the relationship pain points, I have to openly discuss the partner’s substance abuse. That’s when things can get tense. If we wind up at problem Number 1, we’re on a path to breaking up.

The object of business “marriage” counseling is to preserve the relationship of the owners or, failing that, the material investments in the venture.  Honestly, most of the time, the situation between the business partners is neither dire nor urgent – sometimes, it’s just a couple of people figuring out how to work better together. But, when people come to me, showing any of these warning signs – unaccountable, contemptuous, cluelessly unskilled or drunk/stoned, I start to suspect that maybe this business partnership is going to have to go to that great Minute Book in the sky.

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