When my husband and I got married in 2011 we agreed to be partners in life--and in our life's work.
Many couples start ventures after they have been together for a while, but my husband, Ian Simmons, and I knew early on we wanted to combine our lives and assets. Our mission? Using the highest standards, we would put our money to work to maximize financial performance as well as social and environmental impact. And so, Blue Haven Initiative, our family office focused on long-term impact investing, was born.
While all business partners and coworkers need to learn to divvy up responsibilities, accommodate each other's work habits and manage conflicts, running a family office together can be especially challenging. Personal and professional lines are blurred. Everything is more intimate because it's our passion, our values and our assets that are on the line.
It hasn't always been easy, but along the way we've learned some important lessons:
1. Understand your partner's work style.
This is a big one. I like to have colleagues filter and distill information, then walk me through their findings. If someone is assigned to evaluate vendor proposals, for instance, I want to know everything relevant about the top choice and be satisfied that the necessary due diligence was applied in arriving at that choice.
Ian has a different process when it comes to making a decision. He likes to parse raw information and drill down on each of the vendor proposals before reaching a decision.
You might say I over-delegate, and he micromanages. To be sure, we find the other's approach to decision making frustrating on occasion, but at the end of the day I believe our decisions are stronger because of our different styles. And this applies at work and at home. If we're considering new dining room chairs, I will look at a few and know pretty quickly which I like. When I show Ian my top choice, even if he likes it he has to go back and see all the runners-up to make sure it is, indeed, the best of the bunch. We do eventually come to an agreement. (But I've stopped asking for his input on paint colors!)
2. Schedule regular business meetings.
Ian and I huddle to synch our calendars and discuss day-to-day business, usually over lunch, just like any two coworkers might. For more strategic exchanges, we've discovered that being in the car together often sparks highly productive conversations, so we take advantage of commutes and car trips. (I like to think it helps that we're both facing in the same direction--it seems less confrontational.) We try to make home a work-free zone when it comes to conversations. Let's face it: high-level discussions aren't going to happen when we're trying to get the kids to bed.
3. Observe and protect couple time.
Spending quality time together outside the office is crucial to keeping things in perspective and maintaining some sense of work-life balance. Ian and I plan date nights--we like to start off by doing something physical like yoga or playing squash together. This clears our heads for the rest of the evening and keeps our work day away from our date night. We also try not to let work sneak into family vacation time.
4. Keep conflict out of the office.
If couples aren't careful, squabbles between founders in the office--whether genuine or perceived--can sow anxiety among employees. This is especially true when co-founders are a couple. When co-founders are married, divorce becomes a business risk. Disagreements are inevitable, but couples need to handle them in a way that won't make people fear for their jobs.
5. Respect and leverage personal interests.
All business partners inevitably have separate outside interests that, at first, may not seem to be a fit for the organization or the workplace. But think about them. Is there a way the founders' side interests can help inform a company's approach to its audience? Perhaps one's love of biking can be turned into team-building excursion? (We sometimes do group yoga in our office.) Or perhaps a beloved cause can inspire the organization's focus for volunteering. We've found a way to do that by overseeing grant-making portfolios that are tied to our personal interests. Ian likes to help fund civic engagement initiatives while I'm drawn to supporting human capital development in sub-Saharan Africa. We're tying both to our family office mission.
I know we still have more growing, learning and rebalancing ahead of us and that it's not going to get any easier as our family office and our investments grow. After all, good marriages and good professional relationships take work--you have to put a lot into creating anything of value. But we're in this for the long haul. And based on our experience so far, the prospects look good.