Sitting at One Horn’s Freight Agent Retreat last weekend, I noticed we had four husband/wife teams at the table, each with very different personalities and work styles. Although their approaches were different, they each successfully worked well together. Back in 2004, when my husband/business partner Louis and I decided to become entrepreneurs and run a business together we got some very mixed reactions. Some of our friends were purely supportive, saying, “Wow, that’s great!” Others pulled Louis aside and said, “Are you sure you want to work with your wife?” I didn’t take it against me personally, being the wife. I felt that they were indicating more that they could never work with their own wives. I did have some friends who said they would never work with their husbands, because they would be too bossy. But Louis and I were committed to do so. One of our greatest advantages is that we were both MBAs with similar training who wanted out of the Corporate lifestyle for similar reasons. We also had similar business philosophies, spending philosophies, and visions of what we wanted our life together to look like.
Realizing that we are very fortunate with that foundation, I took a look at how we can help others who are embarking upon business life as a couple or who are currently experiencing some bumps in the road. We would like to offer you six keys to successfully working together as a couple:
- Define clear responsibilities: In our experience, knowing who will take the lead on what area of the business is essential to having a smooth working relationship as a couple. Louis has two engineering degrees in addition to his MBA, so he loves staying in the office working on the operational and IT side of our business. With my marketing MBA and professional background, I prefer my role as the face of the company, working on the marketing, sales, recruiting, and social media. We share the strategy function, bouncing ideas off each other, oftentimes in our hot tub/think tank on Sunday nights. And although neither of us loves the finance or accounting side of the business, we split up the responsibilities so that things get done. We actually have an organizational chart with each of the roles and our names in the different boxes. By defining who the lead person in each area is, we are not stepping on each other’s toes trying to do each other’s work. Sometimes Louis asks my opinion on how to solve a technology issue, and I give him good ideas. Other times I am struggling with a messaging issue and Louis helps me clarify things. In the end, since we have a foundation of mutual respect and each defer to the other by area of expertise, we can avoid conflict.
- Have your own space: Louis and I have different ways of organizing our offices, so we have separate offices. When we first bought our trucking company, there was a large office that could have accommodated both of us together, but we recognized we would work more effectively if we each had our own space. One of the reasons is that we love talking to each other so much that we would never get anything done. Other more business-related reasons are that our phone-talking styles could be distracting to each other; I like to listen to music when doing mindless work, while Louis can’t concentrate with music playing; and we each have cleaning fits at different moments. So each of our offices is set up the way we want it so each of us can be more productive. Funny enough, there are some days when I feel like I never see Louis, and we reconvene to share our day’s progress moving the business forward. If we were in the same office, I don’t think we would have the same business results.
- Be aware of your different work styles: When working on projects together with a joint deadline, it is important to be aware of each other’s work styles. I tend to prepare more in advance, while Louis prioritizes his day by getting things done when they need to be done. When we are working on a sales presentation, for example, we need to agree on deadlines so we meet each other’s expectations regarding when the work is done. I learned from the Buddhist teachings that suffering happens when expectations are not met. So by knowing each other’s work styles and establishing realistic expectations, we avoid conflict and move our company forward.
- Establish rules of engagement: In order to get the best work out of each person in the couple, agreeing on what I like to call the rules of engagement has been important to us. What I mean by this is when and how we speak to each other about business. If you work and live together, business discussions can take over every waking moment of your life, which is not very healthy. Everyone needs downtime. Louis is a morning person. He wakes up energized and full of ideas first thing in the morning, as some ideas come to him in the middle of the night. I, on the other hand, need to ease into the day starting with a quiet, solitary workout. Similar to a first-time parent who watches their baby asleep, waiting for them to wake up to play and engage, the minute I wake up, Louis would love to jump right in with all his wonderful ideas. Although I have tried to become a better morning person, Louis kindly waits until I finish my morning ritual and am ready to engage. Also, it is important to agree on how to let each other know when we don’t want to be disturbed. When Louis is entranced by coding or I am deep into writing a blog, instead of barging into each other’s offices saying, “I need you to focus on…”, we ask when the other person has time to work on our priority. In a professional work environment we would behave that way, so treating each other with the same respect makes us stronger together.
- Communicate openly: We have found that open and honest communication is key to working together as a couple. We let each other know when we are struggling or having a bad day, so the other person can lift their counterpart up and not bring them down with even more bad news that can wait. We celebrate our successes, and praise each other’s contributions. It is important to share both the good and the bad, openly and honestly. Maybe one person is facing a challenge the other can easily handle. By carrying the weight together, we help make each other stronger. When problems arise, being solutions-focused, vs. critical of the other person’s role in the problem, also helps keep the peace. In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz teaches us that instead of making assumptions, we should ask the other person for clarification. This is a great way to avoid needless misunderstandings and conflict. Great communication builds stronger relationships for couples in both their professional and personal lives.
- Remember to be grateful: It is truly a gift to be able to work together as a couple. Most people spend more time away from family and loved ones between commuting and working apart. If you work a ten-hour day and have an hour commute each way, you can be away from your spouse or significant other for 12 hours a day. One of the reasons we decided to become entrepreneurs was to be able to have the freedom to design our own lives, and part of that was to see more of each other and our kids. During the Great Recession, things got very tough for us, but we made it through because we reminded ourselves that the alternative was going back to working apart in large corporations and barely seeing each other and our kids during the week. We remained grateful for the opportunity we created and pushed through to the other side, reinventing our company several times until we found the right model. So when things get tough, remember what is important to you, why you are working together in the first place, and it will help motivate you to make it through together.
I love working with my spouse! It’s not for everyone, though, so I hope that sharing some of the ways we have made working together successful will help couples who are considering embarking on the entrepreneurial path together or who are feeling some bumps in the road. Communication is key, so keep those lines open. I wish couples working together the same joys as we have had in building One Horn!
– By Cheryl Biron, President
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