As a professional development coach, I spend a lot of time helping clients determine who they can trust in their careers. It’s a charged topic.  Professional relationships are often as emotionally fraught as personal ones.  Nothing, however, compares with the intensity of an entrepreneurial partnership, where an entire career can be ruined by a single act of betrayal.

Your first instinct in evaluating a partner may be to judge his or her professional reputation or skill set.  But you can’t overlook how you personally interact.  If you don’t communicate well, the business is doomed from the start. To avert such an unpleasant fate, I have my clients ask themselves these four questions about their partners.

What principles drive me, and does my partner agree? 

Begin by making a list of five principles that define your business. Ask yourself: What do I want from my business?  It could be money, prestige or even fun.  Unlike a mission statement, these values are not for public consumption. No one needs to know that you value flexibility, say, so that you can get some exercise each morning.  With your values defined, knowing whether you have a match becomes infinitely easier.

What practices won't I tolerate, and does my partner feel the same?

 No relationship is perfect. We’ve all suffered through painful meetings with obnoxious people to reap long-term rewards.  Nevertheless, there are certain personality traits that are intolerable.  Where is that line in the sand for you? 

 One client–a co-owner of a clothing retailer who was in conflict with her partner—identified her limits when she invented a company mantra:  “Run the Business with Financial Integrity.”  Her goal clashed with that of her partner, and she realized they were working at cross purposes.

 Using your values as a gauge, weigh the benefits versus the drawbacks of your business relationships. Are you willing to give a discount to a client who has clout in your industry?  How about launching a joint project with someone you find socially unbearable?

Does your partner help you focus on what you do best?

 Whether or not you realize it, you are naturally talented in certain areas and these talents are the key to your success.  Your partner‘s strengths should complement those talents of yours, so that you can focus on what you do best. If you are a subject matter expert but weak on numbers, for example, you don’t want a partner who forces you to spend all your time keeping the books.

Does your partner's personality energize you?

 Like everyone else, you have negative voices in your head–think of the cartoon devil sitting on your shoulder—whose only role is to remind you of your insecurities. The voices tend to pop up just as you embark upon something ambitious. Let’s call those nagging thoughts the “saboteurs.” 

  “Saboteurs” rarely arise out of the blue; rather, they stem from an earlier experience in your life.  For instance, I have a client whose parents were highly risk-averse union employees. Now that she has left a high-paying position to launch her own company, she often obsesses over her financial security–an internal “saboteur” she must combat regularly.  Imagine if she were to partner with someone who made comments like, “Maybe we aren’t ready for this next step” or “What if we lose money on this new product?” While that might only be mildly annoying to one person, those comments would awaken my client’s saboteurs and sends her into a panic.

Ideally, the best partners keep each other’s ‘saboteurs’ in check.  That’s why it’s wise to have a partner whose strengths and motivators are different from yours.  In the case of my client, she would work best with a partner who has a relatively high tolerance for risk.  

 Before agreeing to a potential partnership, consider how you feel after spending time together. Are you (a) brimming with ideas and new possibilities, or (b) completely deflated?  If your answer isn’t (a), you’ve got the wrong person.