Working with a Spouse

Working with a Spouse

Ask Andi: Working with a spouse? It’s a family business, all right. My spouse is in the thick of it with me, pitching in wherever help is needed. She has good advice, but sometimes we don’t see eye to eye. And sometimes it feels too much too close. Any suggestions for maintaining marital harmony as we deal with the ups and downs of our business?

Thoughts of the Day: Working with a spouse in a family business, know who’s responsible for what. Make sure the business can afford to support both of you. Be the diplomat, but settle disagreements, or agree to disagree. Have a written plan to follow, and hold each other accountable for meeting deadlines and standards. Regularly check in: is this what you both really want for work. Schedule down time and time away from the business.

Working with a spouse

Who’s business is it, anyway? Yours? Your spouse’s? Or equal shares? Decide, and issue voting shares of stock to confirm the decision. Then decide on an organization chart, and lines of authority. Who’s good at what? Think it through and make job assignments accordingly.

Once jobs and lines of authority are assigned, respect them. If it’s not your turf, don’t go butting in. If you think your partner is heading for trouble, ask if help is needed. Make suggestions, but back out if you’re asked to. Be willing to listen to your partner talk through challenges, without giving out orders about what to do next.

It can be really hard to let go and watch someone else make mistakes or struggle. Keep in mind, you’re not perfect, either. I’m sure you have your own laundry list of things that have gone wrong. Working with a spouse, allow freedom to experiment, get it wrong and figure out how to recover – that’s where the best learning can come from.

Hiring strictly by merit

Listen attentively when a partner has something to say. Allow for differences in communication style: men and women tend to tackle problems differently. Set up rules for how to resolve disagreements, and then follow the rules. If you strongly disagree, get an outsider to provide advice and support.

Think about why you’re in the business together. I hope it’s because you both realize that two partners pulling together can grow a business significantly faster than 1 owner going it alone. Make sure that there’s enough revenue and profit to pay both your salaries. If one of you ends up working “for free”, that’s a warning sign that the business can’t support both of you. Working with a spouse. Consider having one of you take a sabbatical and get another job that pays better. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, if that basket isn’t strong enough to support you both.

Make sure you’re both heading in the same direction by writing out goals and plans for reaching those goals. Meet regularly to review the plans, to be sure the business is on track. Assign accountabilities in writing. When there’s disagreement or breakdown, set aside time to discuss it when you’re cool headed.

Family business with your spouse

Conduct regular reviews with each other, just as you should do with employees. How is the job going? Is it still a fit? What do each of you want to learn about and do next? Train your replacements so that if either of you wants to step back you can. Make sure someone else can replace both of you, so if either of you gets sick, it’s not an emergency.

Regularly take time off from the business. Set a rule that no one talks about the business after a certain hour in the evening. Take weekends off. Plan vacations. Have a hobby to pursue outside the business. It’s important to recharge, especially when so much of the day to day conversation is likely to be focused on the business.