He Said, She Said

Spouses or life partners working together may seem like a recipe for disaster. But when you examine the challenges with awareness and openness, the results can be incredibly rewarding. The business, as well as the relationship, can benefit from the candid insights of the person closest to you. But there are important do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.

While we aren’t experts on the topic, we do have more than 14 years of experience working together at Morris! Communication in San Diego. Throughout the years, we’ve worked in different capacities, but the fact that we’re still speaking to each other is itself a grand accomplishment. Spouses or life partners may play different roles in a design firm, whether they’re equals or one person is subordinate to the other. And that division of labor is important to note. If you’re both owners of the business, then you’re entrepreneurs, which means you must be comfortable with taking risks. Having a solid relationship at home and at work is critical for you to succeed at both. If the division of labor and decision-making is unequal, then open communication and a strong sense of self are crucial to success. Regardless of your positions, you’ll encounter difficult decisions, either together or separately. Your belief in one another, your trust in your partner’s instincts and opinions, and your ability to separate work and home will be central to your ability to not just survive working together, but to thrive.

Here’s a little about us: We’ve been a couple since 1991; our working relationship began in 1994, one year after we were married. We had just moved across the country, we had no savings and Steve was starting a new design business. Chris was employed elsewhere, but she was also the bookkeeper for the firm. Throughout our tenure, Steve has always been the owner, and Chris has worked primarily as the bookkeeper and payroll coordinator. (She tried a brief stint in new-business development with Morris!, but quickly realized that wasn’t a match for her personal strengths.) Our working relationship fits into the subordinate roles category. We’re both very opinionated and have strong personalities, so our challenges lie in the realm of sense of self and leadership sensitivity—which is putting it nicely. As we look back, we’ve boiled down many of the potential challenges into four major issues: Relationship, Communication, Employees and Financial. They’re all interlinked, but we’ll separate them for the sake of explanation.

Your Relationship
Any thriving relationship requires good communication, respect and trust. When you work together, these are often put under the microscope of the workplace. At the same time, you need to separate the professional and the personal.

That’s not an easy feat, as we learned from experience: In 2001, Steve’s design firm took a significant downturn. We had to lay off employees and we didn’t pay ourselves for months. We had little to no savings and a lot of debt. We also had two small children and a mortgage, which added to the stress. There were many nights when Steve questioned why he was running a business and if it was really worth all of this energy and effort. And it was an extremely scary time for Chris: She was working part-time and was the primary caregiver for the kids. She had little sense of control over her life. It was draining both physically and emotionally.

How did we get through this tough period? We took turns venting stress and fears. When one of us was freaking out, the other acted as a voice of reason and a shoulder to lean on. It took practice for us not to take each other’s worries personally. There were certainly a few heated discussions during this time, yet we came through it by trusting and listening to each other, by clarifying what we wanted and why we were doing what we were doing.

We’ve both always accepted the risk-taking that’s inherent in owning a business. (It’s a real challenge if one partner isn’t comfortable with this “life on the edge.”) Another aspect of maintaining a healthy relationship is balancing your time, both individually and together, away from the business. What are you doing to ensure time for yourself? Are you spending too much time together? Too little? Which is the priority: the relationship or the business? We’ve adapted  to this challenge by being clear about when we’re “on” and when we’re “off” at home—when talking about work is appropriate and when it isn’t.

One solution we implemented early on was to plan date nights where we wouldn’t discuss business. Another designer couple we know declared their home spa off-limits to professional talk.
We also got into the habit of taking vacations just before the New Year’s holiday, when it was easier to leave the firm for several days. We discovered that if we didn’t plan vacations, we didn’t take them. As a business owner, taking time off is taxing, especially in the beginning when there’s no one else to babysit the firm while you’re away. Realistically, though, it’s important to set times when you don’t answer the phone or e-mail. It’s OK to be unreachable for a few hours, a whole day, even a week. It’ll all be there when you come back.

Your Communication
Communication with your spouse or partner also requires your attention as you work together. Power struggles can occur in both partnerships and boss/subordinate roles; they generally happen when each of you is emotionally invested in your own point of view. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it takes finesse to negotiate. Face it: You live together. You know each other’s hot buttons and you know how to push those buttons better than anyone else. As you’re negotiating a tense business discussion, try using a code word or sign so your partner knows when you need to step away, cool off and continue the conversation at a later time.

When you work together, you’re more personally invested on all levels, period. The rules aren’t the same as with a partner or employee that you don’t have an intimate relationship with. Set guidelines so you both know the boundaries between work and home, between business and personal. And be prepared to renegotiate those guidelines as your relationship and your business mature.

Your Employees
When you have employees, you’re the boss, mentor and manager, the good guy and the bad guy. You’ll invariably have to deal with their personal “stuff” too. As a leader, the attitude you carry into the studio is contagious. If you and your spouse bring your latest spat from home to the office, everyone around you will feel it and will be affected.

We try to avoid situations where one partner is the mediator between the other partner and a staffer, by guiding the employee to work directly to resolve the issue. For example, we once had an employee who was nervous about approaching Steve in the studio when he was in a focused mood, so she would first go to Chris and ask for advice. Chris helped the employee learn how to approach Steve on her own.

Your personal relationship may also affect your employees in a subtler way: Your spouse is probably your go-to person for talking through a difficult decision. Your familiarity and your “shorthand” form of communication mean you can quickly solve challenges together. So you may tend—even subconsciously—to not involve key staff or to neglect sharing your decisions with your team. It’s imperative to keep your employees, especially the most senior people, well informed; they care immensely about the events of the studio.

What’s more, having a partner makes it tougher to attract to your studio strong, experienced employees who want an advancing career path. Your intimate “inner circle” creates the perception that staffers have limited potential for growth at your firm. If you embrace an open, communicative and transparent culture throughout your firm, you can help break the glass ceiling that prospective leaders among your team might perceive.

Your Finances
Here’s the one issue that can ignite all others. Your relationship, your communication and your team may be strong, but when you face financial challenges, an easy situation can become incredibly intense. Again, ground rules are essential: First, spouses who work together should create an ownership agreement that defines roles and obligations and outlines the outcome should the relationship or the business fail. Your firm’s corporate attorney can draft a legal and binding contract. Establish this agreement when things are going well—ideally before you even shape the business. Then, create business and marketing plans. Setting all your hopes, dreams, ideals and creativity down on paper is not only incredibly empowering, but it also helps you to sort out what you really want—and what you really don’t want. Clarity and awareness can circumvent many pitfalls.

For example, we learned how handy it was to have a couple of lines of credit available for when the business didn’t show a substantial profit. Plan for those “what ifs” and be ready to act should your finances become threatened.

In our experience, working spouses who communicate respectfully, honestly and openly often stand a much better chance of getting along well at work and at home. We’ve also found that creating a clear separation between business and home is vital to both sense of self and sanity.

Yes, this might mean taking separate vacations or discovering that you’re not suited to work together. Running a design studio isn’t a 9-to-5 profession, and if either or both of you are owners of the firm, this infringement on your personal time is demanding. You may say that your relationship comes first, but when there’s a phone call at home from a client, do you answer it? Define what’s acceptable and manageable to both of you, and you’ll create the foundation for a thriving personal and business life.

Steven Morris is principal of Morris! Creative in San Diego. Christine Morris has been employed at the firm for 14 years, where she’s currently payroll manager. She’s also a mom, a bodywork professional, a teacher and a very busy woman.

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