Prenup for a Startup 2 - Are you leaving me?
Most people like certainty and comfortable longevity in relationships. We like to know what the future holds and who will be at our side to face uncertainty and victory. Generally we don't like sudden unexpected change and we like it even less if we have no input into how relationships with our co-founders come to an end.
Some time ago one of my co-founders announced she would be leaving the partnership to pursue another opportunity. Out of the blue, completely unexpected, curved ball news delivered during our weekly catch-up call. Unexpected for me. I'm sure she had been wrestling with the decision for weeks.
In our case the exit was smooth, supported, without rancour or recrimination and a pull towards a better opportunity, rather than a push from a bad situation. I accept the change in the team and am learning to embrace the unexpected.
The co-founder leaving made me think of how often the signs of what is going on for someone else are there, but we don't pay attention to them because we are either too busy, too self-involved or too scared to notice them. In retrospect, there where many signs I could have paid more attention to that would have helped me preempt the separation.
Paying attention to changes in behaviour that signals someone might want to leave is not meant to change the person's mind or the outcome, but it will help to be less surprised and more prepared when the decision is finally communicated. It will also give you the opportunity to prepare for a discussion about the signs you are noticing or start thinking about contingency plans to ensure the future of your business.
Here are five signs to pay attention to if you suspect your co-founder might be thinking of leaving:
This is by no means a definitive list but in my experience really helpful to gauge long term commitment.
1. Vagueness about future plans
People who are committed and invested in going the distance are clear about the plans they have in mind for their own, as well as the company's future. Of course things can change but the guiding principle to make people feel safe is that you have the same vision in mind. This is where the what, when, where and who align with enthusiasm and concrete actions to make that happen or not.
2. Non-committal about future arrangements
There is a standard joke in the city I live about people who say something regarding an arrangement to get together but don't really commit, or have no real intention to honour their suggestion. So you bump into them once a year in an art gallery or similar space and they say; "We must do lunch." Except lunch never happens. Sometimes one of you might make a half-hearted attempt but you don't get it together because authentic commitment and true desire to connect are lacking.
Regardless of how busy we are, how sick we feel, how much we have to do; we make time for the people and things that matter to us. We know that it is in the connection that we will feel better, inspired, calmer, more balanced, loved or appreciated and that it was worth giving up the time to maintain the relationship.
With your co-founder who is not so sure if that is the place they still want to be, look out for signs where the words and the actions often don't align.
3. Non or late delivery
Your head shifts long before your body does. When you are thinking about leaving a space, you generally start moving your focus and energy away from it. It is only natural because you are getting excited about a new future with new possibilities and you want to think about that, not about where you currently are and what still needs to be done. This has an impact on delivery of big and small things.
Maybe the task is as small as writing a blog or as big as getting a meeting with a VC, maybe the reasons for not doing it are really valid, but you know your co-founder and should notice if the pattern of delivery has changed.
4. Focussed on fluff
The person who is thinking about leaving and actively pursuing other opportunities, know that they are no longer committed they just haven't told you yet. But, start-up founders are generally high achievers, driven, motivated and invested in their reputation and legacy. It is not in their nature to just bow out or fade away. All of us want to feel relevant as long as possible.
When your business partner doesn't deliver on the tasks allocated to them but instead focus on tangential issues that are neither important nor urgent, you need to sit up and take notice.
5. Nitpicking or disinvesting
Sometimes partners are just not a good fit and it difficult to agree on anything. In that case, if everything feels like a battle and you are tired of constant nitpicking, you should move on to a space that flows easier. Other times when we really like the people we work with and we are not sure about our decision to leave, we look for reasons to justify our decision. Similar to picking a fight in a personal relationship simply to justify a behaviour or reinforce a gripe.
Alternatively partners who have checked out mentally and emotionally might also disinvest. If they previously had lots to say about a project and were seriously invested in the outcome and now there is nothing but silence, then you need to take notice. Disinvestment is different from stonewalling. Stonewalling is chosen negative passive aggressive behaviour, disinvesting is not caring any more about the outcome.
If you notice some of these behaviours in your co-founder, ask, don't jump to conclusions.
Don't accuse, don't blame, start with a neutral label. Some suggestions:
It seems that your head is no longer here, do you want to talk about it?
You seem to have checked out?
I notice you don't stick to our arrangements anymore, what's up?
I noticed that you are very irritated lately ....
I know people move on, is that what you are thinking about doing?
At best they might have been waiting for an opportunity to tell you that they are moving on, at worst they might not be thinking about moving on at all but don't know how to tell you about the things that are bothering them, in which case it is a great opportunity for a heart-to-heart conversation and re-alignment of commitment.
If you need help to prepare for the conversation contact me for an introductory chat. I specialise in assisting founders have important conversations.