We spend a lifetime thinking about life partners. We're inundated with movies, books and poetry that speak of our need to connect with that special someone.
But what about that other partner? Yes, that one whose personality must work with yours to keep a business from going under.
Unfortunately, many people forget about the individuals with whom they will spend a good portion of their lives. And those individuals have ideas about the work and about each other's role that will virtually make or break the business. Ignoring the people side of things can mean the business side of things will crash and burn, or simply never take off at all.
Several years ago, Ken Clansky, owner of a small Bethesda business that created government databases, kept bumping into a man who had a nearby company that was similar to his. Rather than being two very small outfits competing with each other for the same market space, Clansky thought it might make sense to at least consider joining forces. The other business owner agreed, and they decided to become equal partners in the new entity. But one thing had not been considered: whether it was a good partnership.
"There was a certain amount of envisioning the company that went on, but the first thing we did there was to incorporate and legally establish the business," Clansky said. Looking back, he realizes the first thing they should have done was come up with some sort of partnership understanding.
Separate from the main business in which the two were equal partners, Clansky had a small, related business of which he was president. Because of that, his partner took the title of president for the larger company. But eventually, they decided to merge those businesses into one, and Clansky's partner naturally kept the title of president. "In the early days, it seemed like, who cares what title you take?" Clansky said. "But the title or position began to become more and more of an issue as we disagreed more on the day-to-day operations."
The title problem became a power issue. Clansky suggested the two rotate in and out of the position, but that wasn't acceptable to his partner. "It was very difficult to have a business with two people whose styles differ, as we discovered ours did," Clansky said. "We were both trying to run the show."
And that created all sorts of problems, including a confused employee base.
The partnership eventually fell apart and Clansky moved on. He is now in a far different world, earning a degree in theology. "I'm only now thinking about what to do next," Clansky said. "A business partnership is much more complex than it seems."
David Gage, a partnership mediator in Arlington, said potential partners should do much more than create a partnership agreement before they combine. A partnership agreement lays out the legal niceties of the collaboration, explaining who will get what if the partnership dissolves. But partners should also create a charter that would "serve as a guide for running a business and dealing with one another," Gage said.
A partnership charter, as Gage calls it, should lay out the range of understandings that partners need to reach if they are going to work happily for years to come. It should cover both the business and the interpersonal side of being partners. The process of creating what he calls a partnership charter "is just as important as the document itself," said Gage, author of "The Partnership Charter: How to Start Out Right With Your New Business Partnership (or Fix the One You're In)."
Lynne L. Wallace was hired in the 1990s at Matsen Insurance Brokers Inc. in Santa Rosa, Calif., one of four employees handpicked to take over the business eventually. The owner, Ralph Matsen, told the group that they should run the company as a partnership. But because of their different personalities, and their different strengths, he suggested they find a mediator to help them create a charter -- "not because we weren't getting along, but because he thought we needed some glue," Wallace said.
They agreed, and spent a couple of days going through the process of identifying one another's strengths and weaknesses, and how they viewed the future. "We could start to see how we would work together and come to some agreement regarding our roles," Wallace said. "Not just how we see our own role, but are we in agreement with the other person's role."
Even now, several years later, the group refers back to its charter.
Without that charter, she said, "I think we would have bumped around and come to some of the same conclusions. But if something's going to change, we have the freedom to change it. But we have the freedom to know where we're all coming from."
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