A situation I have been faced with many times as a coach is working with partners, or multiple business owners, most frequently at professional services firms. These are typically well-educated professionals who have degrees in fields like law, accounting, manufacturing, medicine, marketing, architecture and others. Usually, there is an unspoken belief that because of the advanced degree, they are automatically adept at business and leadership, and usually, this is not the case. Even those with MBAs are schooled in theory, case study, and the basics of business, but leadership remains elusive.
At one time I was coaching the leadership team of an architectural firm and there were three equal “partners” or owners. No one had an official role other than architect and the business of running the business largely fell to whomever had a little extra time. The result was that projects were late, they never had enough people, and there was resentment among the partners about “whose job it was” to run things.
Bottom line, just like there is never a real “merger” because one company always ends up as the big dog in the deal, there are rarely equal partnerships when it comes to actually running a company. The reality is, one person has to decide, one person has to be in charge, or else you end up with a dysfunctional culture that results in the situation described.
The first thing we did was sit down and go over everyone’s strengths finders profile. Any personality profile will do, but you should use one. This helped to determine where the three partners were most happy – in development roles, in management roles or actually doing the work. Next thing we did was to look at the org. chart and list the functional roles of the leadership team, CEO, CFO, COO, and a role they requested be included, Chief Designer. We looked at the three partners and each identified with a different role (thankfully). So in addition to doing the work on projects, one was designated as the CEO, one took on the role of CFO and COO, and the third liked the role of Chief Designer. We then went through each job description so everyone was on the same page with what it meant. After further discussions, we came up with a communication plan for the rest of the firm.
The funny thing that happened when the announcement went out to the staff was a collective sigh of relief and also a reaction of “duh.” The staff had naturally been gravitating to each of the partners in these roles for a while, but because it was not official, they had been including everyone in the decisions that could easily be made by the one with authority over that area. The other thing we were very clear on was that just because two of the partners essentially reported to the one with the CEO title, it did not negate their ability to vote on company or board related issues as an equal owner. We separated the running of the company from the ownership of the company.
I’m happy to say that this solution worked well and the company continues to thrive with this structure, and with about 40 more employees than they originally had. The structure allowed them to grow and make decisions whereas in the past lack of structure and decision-making were actually constraints.