Questions Owners Should Ask One Another

Questions initiate, form, and shape conversations. Conversations are the means by which owners articulate values to one another. Without these conversations, without an accurate perception of the other owners' values, we have less information to understand the future actions of those who will influence the future conduct of our life.

The importance of conversations lies not just with the words, for the literal meaning of what is said must be perceived with the understanding that we all obfuscate, mislead, embellish, and understate with our words. The important thing is to maintain the relationship and have the conversation so that we perceive more information: the body language, the tone of voice, facial expressions, and other things that allow us to form a more complete understanding. The purpose of the conversation should not be to receive promises or covenants but to understand and confirm the relationship.

If we go forward without meaningful conversations among owners, then we will rely on assumptions about their intentions rather than having more reliable information. Assumptions often lead us to presumptions about intent and conduct that are incorrect and result in bad feelings and controversy among the owners. The quality of humility and the emotion of empathy exercised in conversation allow the owners to understand one another. Often what is perceived as a negative intent is better understood when more is known about the circumstances.

So what are the questions to ask, and how to ask them? There is no magic phrasing or perfect time. In the conversation, the parties need to desire a sincere exchange. This can be done directly or indirectly. There are topics of interest that should be commented on by all owners, one to the others. The questions that follow frame the topic and are not intended to suggest the literal question.

What are your intentions toward the business?

What would you do if you did not own the business?

What happens if you become disabled?

What happens when you die?

Will you tell me if anything changes?

Obviously, these are not yes or no questions. Some owners may view the business as a lifetime activity and others merely as an interesting investment. There will be owners whose self-image is tied to the business and others who own businesses without personal identification with the business. The death or, more likely, the disability of any owner will have effects to the business that should be understood and anticipated. Each owner should indicate to the satisfaction of the other owners that if something changes in that owner’s relationship to the business, there will be a communication to the other owners.

It is best if the owners of a business maintain a relationship that includes meaningful and continuing conversations about their relationship to the business. This is the beginning of the planning process, and, in terms of providing a productive result to the owners, the most important part of the planning process. When such conversations between the owners are ongoing, there is less probability of conflict, and, where conflict does occur, a better chance of resolving the conflict without damage to the business. The quality of the planning process determines the success of the business. Where owners ask one another questions and have conversations, the quality process has begun.