“We Never Disagree”

I was a partner in a law firm for a number of years and at various times I was told by each of the two senior partners that they never had a disagreement. More than once I heard the phrase: “We are just one, big, happy family.” As I think back on what I saw and experienced of their relationship, I realize the reason they thought they never disagreed is that they did not have meaningful conversations about the business – they each simply did as they pleased. When there was a contingent event that forced a discussion about the business and a coming to some sort of agreement, they were unable to have the discussion. The firm acrimoniously came apart.

There are businesses where the owners think they get along, but when a crisis occurs and there has been no planning, the owners are unable to respond with group decision-making and a coherent response. Many times a crisis caused by a contingent event causes a rift among the owners preventing them from responding in a way that would be in the best interest of the business.

When I encounter a business without planning, I ask about the relationship among the owners. I am often told: “They never disagree.” That tells me that they do not have serious discussions about the business. If owners are talking to one another, they may agree on many things, but they will also disagree on some things. They should know what these things are and have thought about them.

Another litmus test is to ask do the owners have the ability to articulate their values with respect to the business? By values, I am not talking about virtues such as honesty or loyalty. Values with respect to the business have to do with the role of the business in the life of the owner. If the owner has founded and built the business, the business is probably a critical part of the owner’s self-identity. Often this type of owner has no concept of life without the business. Other owners view the business activity as something that enables a different endeavor – perhaps a spiritual quest or a demanding hobby. Some owners see the business as a source of family activity, while other owners see nepotism as a very negative practice. Even if an owner has thought about values with respect to the business, often the owner has not expressed those values to the other owners.

The act of planning – activating group decision-making – and then executing on and revising a plan is the requisite experience for facing a crisis. Without that experience, the prospects for sustaining the business are poor.

But what about the other side of the coin? Why not leave well enough alone? What if articulating values about the business leads to a disagreement before it otherwise would have been apparent? The answer is that planning usually makes things better. If the owners cannot get aligned, they can work together to go in different directions in the most advantageous way, rather than wait for a crisis with disastrous results.

Why is it then that many businesses do not have written planning? The broad and general answer is that it is difficult and uncomfortable to do.

It takes time and effort to consider what the business ownership role is and should be in your life. It takes preparation for you to acquire the skill of being able to articulate your values with respect to the business. It takes thought and editing for you to write out goals. It takes humility for you to understand the values and concerns of others and be involved in group decision-making. As actions are taken to reach goals, you must focus attention on the reality of the effect of those actions and you must change actions or amend the goals as is appropriate. This group decision-making, execution and revision process should be continuous. The reward for all this work will be the increased probability of the business to succeed in longevity, profitability, and value.

As with many daunting and complex tasks, avoiding the effort rarely makes things better. While it is human nature to procrastinate, successful business owners have found a way to deal with these issues. The most successful owners as leaders have created group decision-making cultures that have enabled their businesses to approach its highest potential value.