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How to get out of a business break-up amicably

Once upon a time, when I worked in corporate, a more senior colleague told me a story that has stuck with me for years.

It was the story of his wife and him. They began life, as most couples did, close. They had children and his focus turned to his career. His wife made the choice to invest her time in their family. My colleague rose up the ranks at work, accepting an overseas assignment. His family moved with him, leaving their lives back in Australia.

My colleague launched headfirst into his role, which was a more senior posting. However, for his wife and family it was a different story. Slowly they began to drift apart.

As a child of a divorced family, I’ve always grown up brutally aware that many relationships don’t last forever. Business is no different. In many cases when I work with firms, some of the most obvious and damaging issues aren’t about pricing or marketing or systems or even staffing. Often the most poisonous thing in a business can be the venom of a soured partnership.

Why does it happen? Well, people change. Whereas two individuals might meet with the clearest of aligned goals, it’s almost inevitable that over time those objectives will change. Expectation is another one, especially when it’s combined with poor communication. One person passing a comment can easily become anothers’ promise. Then there are aspects of personality.

Someone with a specific set of values may find themselves (at least in the early days) unchallenged by another person opposing values until a key event comes along which puts them in a clear confrontation.

Frankly, it’s inevitable that at some time in your business career, you are going to reach a point of serious difference with your partners.

So, what can you do to avoid it? And, if the time has come, what can do you to extract yourself from the situation without it coming to hardcore unpleasantness?

To begin with, realise that communication is king.

  • No matter how agreeable your future partner may seem, do your background checks. Speak to those who’ve worked with them before.
  • If the opportunity presents itself, consider agreeing to undergo personality profiling to understand hidden personality traits like propensity to blame, reaction to stress, honesty and other values-based drivers.
  • Take your time agreeing on terms and plan for every eventuality, however unpleasantly unlikely it may seem. Business relationships can be harder to get out of than a marriage.
  • Ideally, experience an argument early in the relationship. How people argue and resolve a disagreement is a big indicator of future prospects.
  • Be 100% honest about where each party is at. If you’re starting off on promises and commitments build on nothing but hope and goodwill, you’re asking for trouble if it amounts to nothing.

During the relationship.

  • Sit down at least yearly to make sure your goals are still congruent. If they are starting to differ, have an honest and adult conversation about whether both parties’ ambitions can still be fulfilled.
  • Revise your Agreement regularly. Make sure that the way you’re agreeing to work together and make decisions is still relevant to your business model and situation.
  • Be clear about who does what in terms of role and function and the value it adds to the business. Never sweep issues under the carpet, but also don’t sweat the small stuff either if it doesn’t really matter.

And finally, if it’s over.

  • Catch it early. The longer partners are allowed to drift along their diverging paths, the more likely resentment, mistrust and animosity is likely to grow.
  • Seek a win-win position to exit. The only person that wins if it goes legal is the lawyers. You may not get everything you want, but nor should you expect to. It pays to leave a bit of honey behind to stop the bees chasing you home.
  • Don’t look back. Everything in life happens for a reason and lessons are learned from every situation. Get over it, no matter how hard done by you may feel, and get on with the next phase.

The good news is my colleague was able to catch the situation, and reconnect with his wife and family. If it weren’t for the realisation on their parts, it’s highly likely they would have divorced as strangers.

They remain happily married today. Whilst the same can’t always be said for broken business relationships, it pays to walk away, if not as friends, then at least not as enemies.

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