Have you’ve ever worked together with your partner or a close family member? If so, you’ll know the grit it takes to deal with the extra relationship dynamic that enters the frame when you mix home and work life, and the fact that the challenges you face in the workplace often follow you home!
We learned this one the hard way when we first set up in business together almost 25 years ago. It almost killed our marriage back then (still only in its second year at the time)… and our finances too! But we managed to pull through by learning some key skills in the school of hard knocks and embracing the lessons along the way. As a result, if ever there was a topic we’ve earned the right to speak on, we believe it’s this – How to survive and thrive as partners in business and in life!
Without us knowing it at the time, the agony and trials turned out to be birthing pains. And over the last 20+ years, this has formed the basis of the content we have used to share with countless couples to help them on their own personal journeys. The wider work we do with couples and relationships generally today is a direct result of the key learnings we took away on how to overcome the challenges of working closely with someone you need to maintain a relationship with both in and out of the office. We are living proof that not only is this possible, but when you get it right, both the relationship and the business benefit.
In so many ways our personal success in business comes down to our success in relationships…
Our story goes back to 1989 when Jon and I first met at business school. When he tells the story, his favourite line is that I returned to the UK to get my Masters and ended up getting my Mr too!
We both went into professional careers in the City – Jon went into Investment Banking and I into Management Consulting. We definitely earned our stripes in high pressure environments, personally experiencing the impact that long hours, huge deadlines / deliverables, lots of travel and lots of extended time apart can have on your relationship.
At the time we were enjoying the life of DINKs – Dual Income No Kids – so we had less to juggle. We had an amazing experience living and working in Tokyo, Japan for a year. So much so, that we convinced ourselves we knew all there was to know about each other. At the end of our time there, we figured that with such a strong relationship, management degrees and corporate experience, why not pursue the entrepreneurial dream of starting a business together – how hard could it be?
We were about to find out…
With bold faith we set up a Search & Selection business on London’s Oxford Street, specialising in recruiting senior level executives on behalf of the big Management and Strategy Consulting houses.
It took all of three months before the wheels started to come off…
We found ourselves grating against newly discovered differences – like our work styles – and the added financial pressure of having all our eggs now in one basket meant “discussions” heated up very quickly. We found that in a work context we both have “Lion” personalities, and what do lions do under pressure? They roar.
And we roared…a lot!
Simple things started to irritate and frustrate us, provoking endless arguments.
For some couples it’s the toilet seat up or down that triggers an argument. For us, the predictable trigger was the state of our desks. Jon’s was very organised and mine was… let’s say… more “creative”. Back then we had to swap desks to use the single computer we had – which of course was on Jon’s desk! Arguments started when Jon felt he needed to reorganise things on my desk to work there, which frustrated both of us. I’d be screaming “don’t touch my piles!” and he would be snapping ” How can you possibly work in such chaos!”. The previously fun, easy going relationship descended into constant snapping, criticising… crushing.
Everything spiralled downwards quickly.
And because we were together 24/7, of course, the problems followed us home. There were many nights of tension and lying hugging the edge of the bed rather than each other, desperately trying not to touch toes. Definitely no touching of anything else for that matter!
We argued over crazy stuff – how to divide work and roles both in the office and at home, what the priority spends were (and weren’t!), whose work was “more important”, who “worked harder”, who should do chores and admin, who was more central to the business succeeding. Anything, everything and nothing in particular.
These constant arguments were a real shock to the system. Frightening actually, because the relationship we knew no longer existed, and now our very survival – financially and as husband and wife – depended on us pulling together.
We had agreed up-front that we were in this for better or worse, but the future was looking very grim.
In desperation we looked around for help and came across some material that created light bulb moments for us and transformed the way we related to each other, for the better, forever. As Einstein said “you can’t solve a problem using the same level of thinking that created it”. Making the investment of time to get more understanding about our differences changed the narrative in our heads and allowed us to really see things from each other’s perspectives for the first time.
We discovered that the things that irritated us the most were actually our strengths unrecognised, unappreciated and out of balance. It’s always easy to see the weaknesses in the other person while being blind to our own. And often we are so busy “correcting them” and trying to get them to become a “mini-me” that we don’t see their strengths at all.
We learned that it’s okay to be different, necessary even. As one friend said, if we were both identical one of us would be redundant! Even more importantly, we learned that by genuinely understanding and respecting our differences, we could uncover the strengths we each brought. Jon was exceptional at detail and follow through, I was very good with people, and so we were able to agree roles that played to our strengths and covered for each other’s weaknesses. We both had responsibility for client and business development but Jon focused on the legal, the accounts and all the operational stuff that kept the company afloat. I looked after growing and developing our internal team as well as ensuring our strategy for finding, assessing and recruiting top performers delivered the results.
We got it wrong a few times before we got it right, but eventually we discovered the strengths in our differences and the powerful team we could create. Instead of forcing each other into the straight jacket of doing things a certain way, we gave each other the space to flourish and be energised by working “in the flow” of our individual strengths, affirming our differences and removing the need to edit or justify ourselves.
So many partnerships and teams miss out on the synergy and high performance they could achieve together because they get stuck in the cycle of frustration that comes from inevitably bumping up against differences, with no understanding of how to work through the issues.
Getting MORE Understanding allows you to Be MORE Understanding and build high performance teams of 2 or 22.
Habits for success
Through our experience and those of many others we’ve worked with over the years, we have identified four fundamental habits that govern the quality of relationships. When these habits are a natural part of daily interactions with your partner, you enjoy a successful relationship. When one or more of these habits is missing, your relationship is likely to fail at some stage. It’s as black and white as that.
The four fundamental habits that separate successful from unsuccessful relationships are:
- Be CURIOUS, not critical – which is about building our knowledge of the many ways in which we are all wired differently, discovering the strengths in our different workstyles, communication skills etc. and getting over the hurdle of stress and frustration that comes from expecting everything to be “our way”.
- Be CAREFUL, not crushing – which is about developing the skills to “turn up better” in the inevitable conflict situations, getting over the hurdle of poor conflict resolution approaches and minimising the stress and damage they can cause in relationships.
- ASK, don’t assume – which is about developing the skills to have courageous conversations over issues arising from opposing yet deeply held views, values and beliefs, learning how to build trust and mutual respect through asking and discussing rather than assuming and stereotyping.
- CONNECT before you correct – which is all about getting better at communicating real value and appreciation frequently, and holding back on that need to give “constructive feedback” that so many of us are all too good at! It’s about developing the vital habits and disciplines to feed the relationship and maintain connection, warmth and good humour.
The challenge is that no one is providing a way to build these skills and habits of successful relationships consistently… until now.
Is it worth it?
Last week Wednesday (April 17th) Jon and I celebrate 26 years of marriage, still going strong, still creating strength in other relationships along the way and now running this enterprise together. Was the pain 24yrs ago worth it? Absolutely. I dread to think about all that we could have lost if we had gotten stuck and bailed out half-way. So many teams and marriages lose out by quitting instead of getting equipped. Let that not be you.
If you’d like to develop the 4 habits for yourself, get our book on ‘The 4 Habits of All Successful Relationships: Improving your relationships at home, at work and in life’, here.