In 2010, Anna Birch fired her husband from the company they had co-founded in 1997. Anna is president and CEO of Adventure Links, a Clifton, Virginia, outdoor-education and leadership-development center. Until his dismissal, her husband, Austin, was the company vice-president, overseeing finance and data management. The spouses had different visions about company culture, Anna explained. She wanted to promote autonomy and accountability in the leadership team. Austin struggled with trust and desired greater control.
"We were impeding growth of the company and our individual leaders through micromanagement," Anna told me. "They weren't clear about the degree of freedom they had to make decisions. I wanted to create a culture where they could own their own roles. Austin wanted to supervise. We were also chiseling away at a perfectly wonderful family life by allowing our differences to spill over into our family and marriage."
Austin not surprisingly, responded angrily to being fired. For her part, Anna felt confused and isolated, no longer sure what to share with him about the business and what to withhold. "Austin's attitude was, 'You wanted me out of the business. So now you make it work,'" Anna said. "I felt I had to continuously defend the company's progress."
Working with your spouse can be divine or difficult. I've interviewed many entrepreneurial couples that love working together and can't imagine building their life's dream with anyone else. But differences that are complementary--even charming--in a personal relationship can make both spouses bristle in a business context. And working together can reveal quirks that might never have surfaced in domestic life.
My husband and I were more like Anna and Austin. I worked in Gary's company, Stonyfield Yogurt, for a couple of years before we both realized it was not a good fit.
Since the firing, Anna and Austin have worked hard to identify each person's best and highest use. Anna knows her strength lies in growing her company. From the beginning, both spouses recognized that Adventurelinks was Anna's passion. Now, Austin is working to find his. "At one point, Austin told me I'd given him a gift: the opportunity to reflect on what he really wanted to pursue," said Anna.
Austin hasn't left the business entirely. He still spends 20 percent of his time there, working only on tasks he enjoys and is suited for. And the two have resolved their disagreements. "Austin gets what I was trying to achieve culturally with the team," Anna said, "and he sees that I've accommodated some of his concerns."
Anna believes that, in the end, the experience has been good for the couple. "Unfortunately, it had to get ugly to see what wasn't working," she said. She advises entrepreneurial couples to develop clarity around each spouse's role in the company and at home, and to check in at regular intervals to discuss what is and isn't working. "Coasting is not good," Anna warned.
I heartily second Anna's advice about clarifying roles and stepping back periodically to reevaluate the arrangement. Such check-ins are not performance reviews. They are relationship reviews, with the option of re-configuring either spouse's role. If differences can't be reconciled, one person should gracefully bow out.