Great partnerships are often comprised of people with different areas of expertise. There are tech founders who needs a partner who understands people, and visionary leaders who need co-founders with experience in operations. In other words, opposites attract. Constant changes in business cause co-founders to endure massive pressure under the demands of company growth.
In my work with Inc. 5000 founders and CEOs, it's easy to find co-founders very different in their perspectives. This primarily shows up during disagreements, meaning these relationships can implode without proper care.
Smart co-founders set up boundaries to support them as their business changes. These boundaries are like the guardrails on the side of highways around curves, they're installed to protect you.
1. Align on the core principles.
The best partners have the foresight to agree in advance on significant principles, aligning everyone on how the business will evolve.
I interviewed two co-founders about how they find team alignment on my "Growth Think Tank" podcast. Sam Khorramian and Oliver Graf met in their college fraternity, eventually starting Big Block Reality to combine excellent customer service with real estate transactions. The company ranked on the Inc. 5000 list between 2016 and 2018, ranked 26th, 31st and 33rd, respectively.
One reason Big Block Reality continues to grow: the core principles hanging on the wall in each founder's office. Khorramian said, "One principle we started with is the importance of customer experience. We call it the 'wow experience.' We are passionate about the customer."
To minimize significant issues down the road, agree in advance on the business's driving principles.
2. Respect each other's lanes.
With different areas of expertise, you must have the confidence to defer to your partner's strengths when a decision arises. All too often, ego gets in the way. It helps when you can share your thoughts in the areas outside your expertise and still defer to your co-founder.
Graf explained, "If the issue is in my lane, usually he is going to default to whatever is my decision is. And vice versa. That way we're not stepping on each other's toes."
One client I had, Ron Dod, co-founder of Visiture, shared how his company became an e-commerce-focused marketing agency. Visiture ranked on the 2017 and 2018 Inc. 5000 lists at 1,665th and 1,896th, respectively. Dod said, "The best partnerships generally are one plus one equals three. Finding a partner who complements your weaknesses with their strengths is key. Both of us together can excel in our roles without having to spend time in other disciplines."
3. Leverage mediators.
It helps to have a coach, mentor or third party you both respect to help make decisions when you can't work it out. It allows issues to be solved quickly rather than linger.
At times, I've served as a mediator for my clients to ensure team alignment. Dod said that during the company's initial growth, the team used me as more than a coach. "Having a mediator was critical for our growth," he said, explaining that having a tiebreaker created neutrality they had trouble achieving on their own.
I've coached many co-founders over the years to navigate defining moments and align as a team. This boundary can help before tempers flare out of control.
4. Learning to disagree and commit.
Confrontation isn't a bad thing. However, you must be able to live with the decision that's been made and hug it out with your co-founder.
Graf said, "We have had our fair share of battling it out. We've yelled at each other often about our opinion. We'll battle it out and if we can't agree, we agree to take it to vote with our management team. If I don't get my way, I'll shut up and live with the decision because that's the deal we've made."
The middle ground is dangerous and may not be the most potent strategy. The key is to disagree, yet commit when a decision has been made.
5. Be Students Together
Many fast-growth company leaders believe you must evolve or die. It helps when you're in the room together to absorb new ideas and discuss how they work -- or don't work -- for your business.
You want to look at experiences where you learn to lead together. I've seen the power of this firsthand when clients have gathered with other fast-growth leaders in intimate experiences where leaders evolve together.
A big part of co-operating a business is the ability to grow together. Khorramian said, "We go to events together. We learn together. We come back and strategize together. And that always rekindles the excitement for what we are doing and helps us stay focused."
Founders need to work as a balanced team. Boudaries can protect them -- and their businesses -- from danger.