5 Steps to Prevent Co-Founder Conflict

Nigel Wylie
Apr 22, 2017 · 7 min read

When it comes to serious co-founder conflict, prevention is the best cure.

There are a great many articles on the subject of co-founder conflict, but few resources out there that provide a complete solution. Our aim in designing this resource is to give you a step-by-step guide for nipping co-founder conflict in the bud.

Going through this process early on in your startup journey will provide you clarity on how to operate with your co-founder and strengthen the working relationship within your founding team in the process.

(The following article is from the team at The Resolution Co. dedicated to helping co-founders prevent debilitating conflict.)

In the following 5 step process you and your co-founder will:

  1. Identify where you and you co-founder stand relative to each other, your company and your working relationship
  2. Diagnose root problems that have the potential to turn into serious conflict down the road
  3. Facilitate open discussion about these topics, gaining awareness about them and solving them together
  4. Make Agreements with each other on how you want the working relationship between you and your co-founder to be moving forward
  5. Maintain the relationship and regularly address issues as they come up.

Let’s get started, shall we?

#1: Identify the Symptoms

We’ve got to get a good idea of where we’re at on the map of co-founder conflict. Now is the time to evaluate where you and your co-founder/founding team are in the context of your relationship.

Reflect on your co-founder relationship(s) through answering the following questions (individually):

  • Do you and your co-founder hold the same vision and values for the company?
  • Can you be open and honest about your weaknesses with your co-founder? Can your co-founder be open with you about their own?
  • What does the ideal founding team relationship look like to you? (i.e. supportive, flexible, accountable, motivational, prioritizing company objectives over individual needs, etc.)
  • What problems stand in the way of actualizing your version of the ideal founding team relationship?
  • Which particular topics or issues are you or your co-founder especially sensitive toward? Are these issues personal or do they pertain directly to the business? (usually there is some element of both involved) Have you brought up these issues with your co-founder(s)?

Now that you can gauge where you are, relative to the ideal founding team relationship you’ve just envisioned, it’s time for your co-founder to answer the same set of questions (on their own). Everyone involved in the relationship needs to know where they stand in order to get a clearer picture of the team’s overall vision and what stands in the way of achieving that vision.

Don’t share your answers with your co-founder just yet.

If your team finds the above questions difficult to answer, then take our Founders’ Diagnostic to get a quick summary of where your team stands.

#2: Diagnose the Root

Diagnose your team to find out the root problems/issues that need to be addressed:

  • What is really going on underneath the surface of your relationship?
  • Who assumes ownership of the problems the company is facing?

Oftentimes, one needs to remove him or herself from the problem or seek assistance from a 3rd party to truly be objective, when dealing with the problem at hand. Take ample time to reflect (either by yourself in nature, or with a 3rd party neutral) to properly diagnose and address the root of the problem, or you risk the issue coming up again in the future.

A conflict resolution expert with startup experience can help you to identify areas of potential risk within your organization. They can run your founding team through a reflective process that seeks to identify the root causes of your internal issues and highlight how each individual within the team directly contributes to the problem, at hand. This expert can also draw upon their own experience to identify areas of potential future conflict and recommend that appropriate preventative measures be taken..

The Resolution Co. offers a free evaluation and consultation phone call to assist in diagnosing potential problem areas within your team. We recommend that every startup team takes advantage of this opportunity!

#3: Foster Open & Authentic Discussion

Now, it is time to discuss what you have each identified and diagnosed in the open with your co-founder(s).

  • Make sure you are sitting across from your co-founder so that you are able to see each other’s face and eyes clearly. Give your best effort to make eye contact and sit upright throughout the discussion. Make sure you turn off your cell phone or any other devices that will distract you from being fully present.
  • Since you will be talking about sensitive issues it is key to find a common ground that you can both agree on. The common ground between could be as simple as the fact that you both want the company to succeed. Remember this common ground throughout the discussion, especially when you or your co-founder get triggered. Also, remember to breath naturally.
  • Throughout the process, show respect by deeply listening (trying to hear what they are really saying, repeating it back to them verbatim for greater clarity: “What I heard you say was…”) and speaking one person at a time. You do not have to agree with each other but make sure you co-founder is feeling heard and your judgements are not getting in the way of what is really going on. Stick to the facts!
  • Share your vision and answer from Step #1 with your co-founder
  • Listen deeply (without judgement) as they share their visions and answers from Step#1
  • Share your diagnosis from Step #2 about the root issues with your co-founder
  • Listen deeply (without judgement) as they share their diagnosis from Step#2
  • Give ample time for both you and your co-founder to speak on each of your perspectives of the issues that you diagnosed.

Sometimes you have a completely self-aware, open and receptive co-founder, who is willing to have discussions with you on sensitive subjects (like reflecting on their own weaknesses, true intentions with the company, their relationship with ego, money, etc.) and focus on what’s best for moving the company forward…

In reality, very few people within the startup ecosystem fit this profile. Most founders will require an open & safe space that is facilitated by a 3rd party with extensive training to manage potential triggers and process feelings associated with the belief that they are being personally attacked.

There are volumes of books written on the subject of having safe and open conversations. (read Crucial Conversations, a classic on the subject) Still, even the most diplomatic founders fail to maintain open conversations with regularity.

This is a fact of founder life, where what you do translates into who you are. It is common to be protective of your “baby”, the startup company you are dedicating your life to. This dilemma pits the founders internal fears against the overall growth & development of the company and, in many cases, their relationship with their co-founder.

4#: Agree & Anchor

You’ve created meaningful discussions, worked out the kinks (and potential areas of conflict), and gained mutual understanding about where you and your co-founder are each coming from. Now, is the time to combine all these insights into a collective agreement that you can use to guide your working relationship together.

Collective agreements can be either formal (like a Founder’s Agreement, or amendment to your existing Founder’s Agreement), or an informal agreement (like a Values, Principles or Culture Manifesto).

Either way, the agreement between you and your co-founder is put into writing, signed and serves as a reference for the future way you will work together.

Ultimately, the most effective Founders’ Agreements govern the actions of founding teams and impose frameworks to improve operational efficiency. These living, breathing agreements help to strengthen both your connection, as founders, and your motivations for coming together to build the business.

Resources:

#5: Maintain & Integrate with Ritual

How do you maintain a relationship for the long-term?

Rituals are crucial for the upkeep and maintenance of your relationship, as founders, because they provide a space to regularly check-in, voice concerns, and gauge their progress together. In order for a ritual to be effective, it requires a regularly scheduled meeting time, so you get accustomed to interacting with one another in a certain way.

The key here is regularity, so you can address potential problems as they arise.

We have witnessed two different types of maintenance/rituals that are effective:

Facilitated

  • Weekly call with a coach/advisor, who helps identify new potential issues and keeps the founding team aligned with their vision (of their business and team dynamic) by asking open ended questions that facilitate deep reflection and healthy dialogue.
  • The founding team meets afterward and agrees on a plan for next week’s execution.

Self-Facilitated

  • Founders meet each week to give space and time for each other to openly check-in, communicate their feelings and concerns, and check in for the week (without judgement or interjection by the other founding team members).
  • The meetings have a clear section dedicated to fostering accountability by asking the group and relevant persons the following:

Are you in accountable with yourself and your team?

If not, what did you choose to do instead (with your time)?

How can you be more accountable to others/yourself?

  • Afterwards, founding team members are given an opportunity to collectively address the needs that were brought to the surface and work toward improving overall accountability within the team.
  • Lastly, the team outlines action items for the following week that address these specific needs and concerns.

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Congratulations!

We hope that you have now reached a greater level of clarity on how you and your co-founder(s) will move forward on your startup journey. We know that the relationships you form and the products you create out of these relationships will be better for the hard work and visioning you have done upfront. The startup journey continues…

Sincerely,

Nigel & Chris

The Resolution Co.

Reach out here for a free consultation.

Nigel Wylie

Written by

Building Communities of Practice & Purpose. Former Entrepreneur @ThriveWater @SwarmX @ResolutionCo

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