Invest in your Co-Founder partnership, not just your business
Back in 2017/2018 I noticed where entrepreneurs were spending their time and money and observed that Co-Founders of start-ups and their investors seemed to be missing out on protecting and developing a core business asset.... the Co-Founder partnership.
The quality and dynamic of this relationship holds a critical key to building a sustainable venture and investing in it early could help minimise the likelihood of a third of start-ups failing from people related issues (1).
In this article, hear how and why two best friends and Co-founders of this amazing venture Sanctus, George and James, took the unusual step of working with me, a workplace relationship coach, within the first year of their business. Learn from their experience, and see how understanding and strengthening your Co-Founder relationship could work for you.
A signal to invest
Seeing a business you respect take a turn for the worse, both its culture and performance was a signal to George and James. They watched a business they admired, disintegrate following a breakup of a Co-Founder partnership. Employees no longer wanted to work there and the company drifted from it’s mission.
Whilst there are a number of reasons why start-ups don’t make it, those related to people issues account for over a third. CBInsights gathered data from the post-mortems of 101 start-ups to show that two factors: ‘Not the right team’ & ‘Disharmony amongst the team/investors’ accounted for 36% of failures (1).
Workplace relationships are a business asset to be nurtured and grown just like the client base, proposition delivery. The Co-Founder partnership being the pivotal relationship asset because it forms the backbone and shapes the infrastructure and culture of the business.
George and James wanted their business venture to add a new dimension to their friendship and in turn, for their relationship to add strength to their business. They also wanted to work together in a way that was congruent with their business mission. The vision of their venture is to become the Nike of Mental Health. Top up your mental health regularly; stay mentally fit and well rather than letting things go and waiting until it becomes harder to get back to well-being. So working on their relationship is very congruent to who they are and their work.
When I heard that they were looking for a relationship coach, I got a bit over-excited for a few reasons:
They were my ideal clients for this type of work: just starting out together, experiencing growth, aware enough to know they needed some support and, they had a budget!
Off the back of my MSc I'd literally only just decided that I wanted to work with entrepreneurs on their relationships and how they impacted culture and wellbeing, so the timing felt like serendipity
I'd never actually heard anyone actually ask for a 'relationship coach' within the world of work and it gave me confidence that there is a market for the work that interests me.
When we all met in the summer of 2017, I heard that they wanted to take a positive pro-active approach to building their relationship. They recognise that they have a great friendship, but weren’t quite sure why it’s so great and wanted to learn how to transfer friendship into a great work partnership. Their brief to me was to support them to build a joint understanding of their relationship and to convert this understanding into practical steps & actions that they can use weekly to support their performance & well-being.
"The main reason we’re doing this is for the upside and the positive impact this will have on our relationship and the business… We want to know more about ourselves, each other, and how we work so we can get the most out of our relationship and when we’re at our best, we know this will have a huge positive impact on the whole business"
The value was clear
By May 2018, we'd been working together now for 10 months; for 2 hours, once a month. We worked face to face, typically in their offices. Although we've just switched location to help them get away from the distractions of the office. You can read more about the focus for the first few sessions in the section below "What actually happens?'.
"Committing to spending 2 hours with James every month has been huge for us both personally, and for Sanctus.
Felicity has created a safe space for us that we couldn't replicate alone where she helps us openly discuss and explore our relationship as best mates and business partners.
It's great to be able to not only say out loud how I'm feeling about things, but also to hear James speak honestly about himself too.
I can look back to a number of important decisions we have made with the business this year that have been a direct result of our sessions with Felicity”
"For me it's a chance to spend quality time with George where we both slow down and actually connect. That's valuable in itself and having a dedicated space to do that is amazing.
Then, being able to work on our relationship as a whole, understanding how and why we work well (or not) and exploring that in a safe and exciting way. It's great to be able to observe George learning something about himself or exploring something as I feel like I get to know him better as he's doing it.
It feels good for me too to be able to chat through things with you infront of George, I feel like I'm giving him more of a chance to get to know me"
From my perspective, it’s been so exciting to be alongside George and James at this point of their business. To see their relationship evolving, and hearing about how it impacts their decision-making and shapes their business growth. Most importantly, each month, they speak to each other openly about how they are experiencing their work & life. It keeps them connected, supported and minimises the risk of burn-out which can be common in the early stages of a business.
I’ve greatly enjoyed being able to take my experience of coaching communication, leadership and relationships from corporates and translating it into an approach which works well for Co-Founders. I see it as a huge privilege to support the growth and sustainability of entrepreneurship in the UK, through helping balance the performance and well-being needs of the Co-Founder relationship.
We continued our work together for four years through various growth stages of the business including a new CEO coming on board and James stepping back and out to role of Board Director. The pandemic meant we shifted on line and was a critical time to maintain the quality of the relationship when in-person was not possible.
I continue to feel hugely grateful to George and James, for being excited to be my guinea pigs for this approach. My work in this area continues to attract a few new Co-Founders every year.
What actually happens?
Whilst start-ups are used to bringing in expertise to help them with other aspects of their business. The idea of working on your relationship can seem a bit daunting. So what does it actually involve? Here's the framework of the Co-Founder Partnership Programme.
Our starting point is to meet jointly and to agree the purpose. This is the point to share what works well in the relationship and what might be a bit more tricky. Answering the questions ‘Why now for you, your business?’ and ‘How will you know it’s of value?’ helps to give depth and your uniqueness to the purpose.
In the first few hours of working together, we explore the story of your relationship. As Co-Founders, you trace your relationship from how and when you met, through to the current day. This unearths what shapes your current patterns of interaction.
The next session looks at how your motivations and work preferences are similar and different. It is a chance to look at if you are working within your natural preferences or needing to find the energy to adapt. Identify the red flags for clashes and burn-out.
If it's appropriate, in preparation for session three, a brief questionnaire is sent out to team members, stakeholders, family members to share their experience of your relationship. This provides valuable feedback into your partnership from those that know you well. Depending on the size of the team, you map each team members proximity to your relationship to reveal your team strength and potential areas for investigation.
By session four, you are in the swing of coaching and attention turns towards how your business is orientated towards performance, growth and well-being. Understand how your partnership dynamic is creating the culture of your business.
The final session pulls all the threads together and focuses on building self-sustaining practices to support the dynamic of your relationship. Time is spent reviewing the value to the relationship and the business, plus identifying the potential trigger points to know when reconnect with your coach.
At this point, you might choose to conclude coaching, or to continue with additional sessions as George and James did as they were finding it so valuable.
What’s key to the workplace relationship coaching approach is to take 1 founder + 1 founder and support them to add up to more than 2 founders who simply share the workload. Its effective because by talking about more than just work and who’s doing what. By activating connection points of social belonging, personal growth and learning, plus organisational growth and learning, the purpose of connecting together layers strength to the relationship and shifts the quality of communication.
Research by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, has shown that communication is the number one factor that differentiates a high performing team from an average team (2). Using sociometric body trackers which pick up body language and gestures, face direction, tone of voice; the split between speaking and listening, interruptions; and even levels of extroversion and empathy, MIT have monitored the quality and quantity of communication within teams and discovered that it’s the energy, engagement and exploration of communication that makes the difference, not the content. And in simple terms, more quality communication between more people makes a difference.
How to know when it’s right for you?
I see 3 key moments to pause and check in on your relationship:
1. At the point of deciding to work together as Co-Founders.
Review if you’re the right team to grow & deliver your idea; understand what you each bring and what you don’t. Learn how to build a healthy Co-Founder relationship.
2. When you’ve got investment and are going for growth.
Create a space to stay connected during this time of expansion that can pull you apart. Learn how to optimise your similarities and differences for the benefit of your company. Uncover your red flag relationship points and establish your process of how to work through them well together.
3. Your business is in flow, your partnership has found a rhythm and you can’t imagine it ending.
Surface how the shift in pace is impacting you both. Check in on your aspirations for your company and how it fits in your life plan. Review what you have learnt so far together. Question, what pattern of interaction in your relationship might need to shift to best fit your future.
The top tip is to regularly check in with what is changing around you and how it's impacting your relationship both adding strength and potentially weakening it. A little regular time doing this builds elasticity for those moments of pressure.
So if you’ve ever had the following thoughts & questions about your Co-Founder… why do they do that, or why don’t they do that? Then it’s a sign that your partnership might benefit from relationship coaching!
I'm always interested in hearing from potential new clients to work with in this way, so if you’re an investor or a Co-Founder who would like to find out more about the workplace relationship approach, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org. or check out www.bendtheriver.org.
The Co-Founder Partnership Programme, ideal for those going for growth for 12hrs of joint coaching, covering:
1 Your co-story - who you have been together and how did you get to this point today?
2 Others - who are the significant others who experience your relationship? How do they experience it? How do you experience them?
3 Situation - what is your business context? How are the dynamics of performance, growth and well-being showing up?
4 Future - how does your relationship need to evolve to support your desired future?
The Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail. CBInsights.com.
The New Science of Building Great Teams. Alex “Sandy” Pentland. Harvard Business Review. April 2012