There are fascinating stories of Co-Founder couples who have created great companies and also of those couldn’t take off. The next 3 minutes is for all those who worked, still working or maybe joining Co-Founder couples in the future.
“Can I join your company?” asked my wife recently during our morning coffee, I didn’t know if she was serious. I instinctively said ‘no’ without asking for details and lost my rights for the weekend at home 🙂
Needless to say, I love my wife, my entrepreneur journey is taking baby steps, its long hours at work now. I would love to see my wife more often than I do, but not sure for that she needs to be at the office too. Can she add value to my work? absolutely! There are a whole lot of tasks which I am not good at, she can easily walk into it and free my time for what I am good at. It will save time/money in hiring colleagues to do the same work, not to forget the trust which comes easily with her. But, some baggage’s in my mind refuse to die down. Two of my employment stints had founder couple at the helm, I have mixed memories.
One disastrous and one memorable. So, all my rant is based on my not so good memories which are easy to remember :-), as always read it with a pinch of salt!
When Founder Couple are in leadership positions (difficult to picture them differently), it does put the other staff at unease. You won’t know if you are dealing with one person or two. I define them as ‘one’ when they agree and ‘two’ when they disagree with the same decision. The challenge is most of us aren’t used to this ‘work setting’ so maybe we see it with a magnifying glass. Strange isn’t it as we must be used to seeing our parents running the family. Hence, we must be have seen the workings of it closely for much of our growing up time. I know it’s a peculiar comparison but think about it again.
Many transactions in organisations involve decision making. We evaluate the merits of organisations based on how they make their decisions, whether its sales strategy, people related issues, communication at various levels; it is about how the organisations choose to behave, which involves taking a few decisions. When it involves founder couple we tend to see it with an extra lens as we suspect there would always be a conflict of interest.
At one of my employers, few meetings used to be awkward, we used to go around the room for a decision, the CEO would then glance at the spouse before his/her final decision came by. For us, it used to be a fascinating sight when their eyes used to meet. Especially if the spouse had a different opinion than the rest of the leadership team. As you can imagine such decisions were never taken and stalled most often by the CEO 🙂. We used to come out scratching our heads as to why we spent so much time if the decision was to be taken on the dinner table at home!
Some of the Co-founders go on to say their roles are segregated and they don’t mix personal and professional stuff. How on earth is it really possible? The same person acting differently with his/her partner just because they came to a different location. It is difficult to comprehend! The roles could be different, but we know in leadership roles they all circle back to the Co-founders quickly. So, in spite of professionalism that we pledge ourselves to, it is difficult to believe that relationship allegiance does not influence their roles.
The larger challenge comes when there are conflicting situations. Imagine if the Spouse is the Sales Head and does not agree on a pricing/sales strategy. Can you think of going to the Co-Founder CEO quoting that your spouse disagreed? Yes, we can argue ‘here’ that it has happened to you before and there are professional Sales head CEO couples out there. It is also possible that some of those proposals have been passed. But then, you very well would know how that would be a minority statistically. Can we also admit that it is awkward to confront one of them in others presence when you have a divergent view of any situation? It’s quite possible that we would be careful while challenging any of them when the spouse is present. You think we would care otherwise in a non-couple founder setting?
Been There Done That
I would be unfair to my own experience if I keep writing against the Founder-Couple organisation concept any further. My longest tenure as an employee has been for a Co-founder couple. All the challenges described above in terms of decision making and conflict of interest used to be common too in that setting. But, I thought they handled that with right professionalism which I found it hard to live by in any promoter instinct driven setting. Maybe I am limited and biased with my experience. However. many of my colleagues there also allude to the fact that it was difficult to picture them as a couple in our work setting. The role clarity they had and how they avoided nepotism is something even I can’t think of replicating!
My isolated tenure though personally significant is an outlier to many such organisations out there. I would still be wary of joining Co-Founder Couple led organisations. I think it isn’t easy to navigate or feel your professional worth consistently.
The CEO always drowns alone, so pay him for the risk to keep himself afloat.