Sharing power with your co-founder. How can you make it work?

All quotes in this piece are taken from this paper by Leroy Yau.

Co-founder relationships are unique for many reasons. One of the most unusual is the nature of power in this relationship.

"At no other stage in a business lifecycle does such a collaborative group of people having such a direct influential impact on the outcome of the company exist. Essentially, the leadership team members lay claim to equal branches on the same power structure, influencing and affecting one another.”

Having two people both laying claim to the overall direction of anything is typically a shitty idea. It’s why we have one elected figurehead, one General, one lead singer, one head chef. It’s no secret that sharing isn’t great when it comes to power.

So let’s assume that the idea of a defined and clear leader is good. We make that happen with those 3 letters - CEO.

We’ve got roles allocated. A leader defined. But for most, being a co-founder matters more than what role they play. So we’re still stuck with a power struggle. What to do?

Take advantage of sharing

As an only child it’s hard to admit. But, sharing has its perks.

If you can establish a trusting relationship with your other business half, shit will get done faster. Speed is often the best weapon a startup has in its tiny, cash starved, time strapped arsenal.

So by recognising that you can both make decisions, both move things forward, both take action - even when it’s not ‘your remit’ - gives you a massive advantage in sweating the asset of speed.

But with shared power, and decisions taken independently, we can guarantee that it’s only a matter of time before someone gets fucked off. Thanks, human condition.

The good news is that, as the consummate professional you are, you understand it’s just business.

Disagreements about tasks or decisions don’t carry over into your personal feelings.

Bull. Shit.

How to manage your relationship

Thankfully, the naive 1950’s vision of the soulless corporate executive is starting to fuck off to the history books. But it’s got a long way to go. The emotional side of people, business and startups are all still undervalued and under discussed. Co-founder relationships are no exception.

So how can you navigate this swamp of shared power in your co-founder relationship? How can you take advantage of its massive potential benefits? And mitigate its massive potential for conflict?

1. Mission and vision

Conflicts will happen. Resolving these might be messy.

"The evidence in this study suggests that the methods [to resolve conflict] are often very basic (from shouting matches to departmentalising their duties)…"

It’s ok to fight. Healthy even. And sometimes it gets messy. But what keeps you together? A real shared sense of why the hell you’re both subjecting yourself to the torturous rollercoaster of a startup.

It’s the thing that allows you to focus on the bigger picture when times are tough in the relationship. It’s the “let’s do this for the kids” that couples use when they find out Karen has been engaging in a whole different kind of performance review with Darren from the finance department.

The shared mission and vision is something that a lot of founders miss. Or don’t value at all. Or misunderstand.

It has to speak to a bigger ‘why’ (cheers, Sinek) for it to work. A lot of founders, myself included, default to money as a goal. That’s ok. But trust me, it’s limiting vs. something truly impact led.

Get this right and you can use it to manage the power dynamic and arguments that follow. Because when you disagree you’ve got a higher purpose to fall back on - "ultimately, they realize as long as the “other” co-founder wins, they win.”

Being able to work through shit for a greater good doesn’t happen if you don’t know what that greater good is. What’s yours? And do you share it?

2. Conflict is good. But it can hurt.

"The authors examined the relationship between affective and cognitive conflicts in relation to the growth of the new venture. Cognitive (or task) conflict positively correlated to success, and affective (or relationship) conflict did not, as Ensley et al. (2006) observed"

So conflict is good. As long as it doesn’t get personal.


"It is not difficult to see that some task conflicts, presumably often, might have a carryover effect on the relationship conflicts. Everyone wants to be professional and not allow emotions to interfere with business, but this is extremely challenging. Emotions are not always defined by carefully crafted logic; it is naïve for founders and researchers alike to ignore this important fact."

Arguments are good for the health of the startup. You both should care enough that you’re going to disagree.

But maintaining a conscious awareness that just because you’re arguing about business, it doesn’t mean that it’s not chipping away at the personal foundation of your relationship.

Are you thinking about your relationship during a tough discussion? Making space for the personal impact of professional disagreements? Do you consider how you communicate? Are you aware of the other person, not just their logic?

3. Get help

Founders will surround themselves with all sorts of helpers. Advisors. Mentors. Board members. Investors.

And usually none of these people deal with the soft stuff that’s actually the core of everything else - who you are.

How do you react to certain things? Why? What are you fears? What are you unconscious behaviours and how do they impact your daily life?

Being a great partner in any relationship is about trying your best to bring your best self. And being supportive to the other when they can’t.

"I’ll look after me for you, if you look after you for me” is a quote one of my best friends shared with me. And it sums it all up when it comes to any relationship. Co-founders included.

Yes, looking after me for you means I eat well, exercise, sleep - all that. But really looking after me means getting to know ME. And that doesn’t happen in a book, or a Medium article, or a podcast, or a mindfullness session.

You need help to get this done. Investing in therapy and life coaching are amazing tools for you to know you. For you to understand you. And for you to take better care of you.

These are tools that are almost always accessed in crisis. But provide amazing strength, insight and wisdom without the need to suffer first before you start. What’s stopping you giving them a go?

With great power comes great responsibility

The shared power of co-founders is an advantageous but fragile state. With anything fragile, being careful and purposeful about how you handle it makes the difference between it being brilliant or smashed into a thousand pieces.

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