How to avoid Co-Founder conflict


At a recent event for entrepreneurs a stalwart in the startup ecosystem told me the story of how he was approached by two very successful founders to help them resolve their conflict.

I know they were committed to trying to find a solution for their problems and save their business because: a) they sought outside help from someone they trusted and respected and b) they paid big money for this. However, he couldn’t help them see eye-to-eye and decided to return the large sum of money.

The company is still going but one founder left, a childhood friendship is in tatters and although giving the money back speaks of high integrity, it is that part of the story that had people in awe. Possibly because founder fallout is so endemic that it is almost seen as an inevitable outcome that founders should resign themselves to.

That is where the problem lies. You can’t avoid conflict. Not with family, not with friends and not with your co-founders but you can learn how to manage it much better earlier on.

The problem is not the conflict. Constructive conflict can be an amazing energizer and impetus to get things going and unstuck. It can lead to much deeper understanding of what really matters to someone and it can create magnificent opportunity for self-awareness and personal growth.

The problem is our mental model of conflict, the emotions we attach to being in conflict, the history we bring to the situation, how we behave and what we say during conflict.

Preempting and preventing conflict with your co-founders aren’t only about better communication. Healthy friction includes communication, self-awareness and self-mastery, as well as an understanding of personalities and an acceptance of difference and diversity.

Here are my tips to help you focus on communication, self-awareness and self -mastery:

Have true conversations

1. Discuss issues way before they become problems.

Schedule time to talk before things are loaded and emotionally charged. If a daily conversation is too much, then have a set weekly meeting to have a true conversation and a more formal meeting once every six months with a mediator or facilitator.

2. Agree on guidelines for all conversations.

Allow each other to say what is on your mind without interruption. You can use a talking stick or ball to help with this if constant interruption is a current behavioural pattern. Allow all voices and pay attention. Have a time-out sign if things get too heated. Have a time limit for the meetings.

3. Be authentic and be willing to be vulnerable.

Don’t agree to something just because you want to keep the peace. If you are reluctant to speak up but harbour anger and resentment, this will leak into your relationship with your co-founder or team. Don't see criticism of an idea as a personal attack.

4. Be curious. Allow for differences. Ask questions. Listen attentively.

Try to really understand where your co-founder is coming from and what values or aspirations are driving her and her ideas for the business. The nugget of agreement and a potential solution that works for both of you might just be hiding in the misunderstanding.

5. Understanding does not mean agreement and vice versa.

Don’t assume that your co-founders have the same vision as you, or that they are automatically aligned on how you would handle situations like a pivot, an exit, a failure or an expansion. Don't assume that you have a shared understanding of terms and terminology either. A classic example is 'a couple'. Does it mean two, or does it mean less than five?

Know yourself and know your partner

1. Self-awareness is a key skill to successful relationships

Be really clear on what matters to you at the deepest level. If you could only cling to one thing in life, what would that be? If someone stands in the way of that, what would it mean?

2. What is it that you want out of this partnership and this business?

Where does it differ from what your co-founder wants? Have you ever discussed it or were you only swept up in the heady emotion and excitement of starting a new venture and changing the world?

3. How do you act in times of crises and uncertainty?

As difficult and devastating as Covid-19 has been in social and economic contexts, it has also been the ideal opportunity to experience how similar or different you and your co-founder approach crises and uncertainty. What did you learn about yourself and your attitude towards your business in difficult times? What did you learn about you partner that you didn’t expect?

4. How do you feel about difficult conversations?

Do you engage, or do you avoid it because you are too scared of what the fallout would mean for you on a personal or professional level? Are you concerned about derailing the business or the friendship or relationship if you speak up? Are you scared of the actual conversation or the fact that thinking about it makes you feel anxious and unsettled?

5. Be aware of the fault lines in your relationship

Keep track of the words, incidents and behaviours that trigger you. If you find a pattern, dig deeper to find out what is actually going on. Are you really upset because your co-founder made a decision without you, or do you actually feel sidelined and disrespected?

Master your emotions and stay centered during conflict

1. How do you stay centered during conflict?

Once we are emotionally flooded our fight, flight or freeze responses take over and our rational brain shuts down and the interaction becomes unproductive. What are some of the tools and techniques you use to get back to calm from the chaos when you are spinning out? Prepare and practice these in moments of peace so you can access them when you need to.

2. Be aware of how you express yourself

You can’t take back what you say while you are in conflict or heated conversation and this can cause irreparable damage to a relationship if you let rip without restraint. What words are you using? What is the tone and attitude you are bringing to the conversation?

3. Choose your battles and your time

Self-mastery includes knowing what to argue about and when. Directly after an unsuccessful funding pitch is not a good time, neither is blowing up because there is a dirty spoon in the sink.

4. Do you know how to make up?

Have you ever asked your co-founders which gestures or actions reestablish healthy dynamics and foster a sense of being seen and heard in them? Are you able to articulate what works best for you to feel back on track and reestablish trust? What steps will you put in place to ensure that you don't argue about the same things again and again?

You can’t avoid conflict, but you can change the way you deal with communication and conflict to get into better alignment with your co-founder, establish healthy dynamics, make better decisions and focus on the interest of the business.

If you are interested in having to a pre-mediation conversation with your co-founder or team contact me at naett@naett-atkinson.com

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Tiny Empire,

37 Buitenkant Street, Cape Town

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 naett@naett-atkinson.com

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