Startup Advising: Disagreements with Founders (and What to Do)
Imagine you’re an adviser and a founder just spent the last ten minutes explaining the business plan for their next million-dollar idea. While the idea sounds viable and the founder is already visualizing an influx of new customers, you realize their intended target audience is misguided. What do you, the trusted and supportive adviser, do?
Disagreements are natural in the business world, but in the adviser-advisee relationship squabbles can feel especially awkward. Discord can eventually drive a wedge between the adviser and the founder if not dealt with properly. Consequently, advisers should learn to adapt to deal with disagreements rather than avoiding conflicts altogether.
But what is the best way to deal with disagreements while maintaining a healthy adviser-advisee relationship? What does an adviser do if they disagree with a fundamental aspect of a founder’s venture or business idea?
I cannot recall a single project where I didn’t have some disagreement with the founder over crucial issues such as marketing, brand strategy or other key aspects of a growing business.
Effective advisers should first understand that disagreements will occur frequently. While most people view disagreements as awkward at best and fractious at worst, seasoned advisers view disagreements as part of a healthy adviser-advisee relationship with a founder.
There are no winners in a debate between an adviser-advisee. maintaining a healthy relationship is paramount.
Secondly, there are no “winners” in a disagreement. The adviser should work with the founder to help the founder make better sense of the adviser’s argument. Remember, the founder is the decision-maker, not the adviser, so an adviser should work to cultivate a mutual understanding and let the founder decide on the ultimate course of action.
Don’t Make it Awkward
Disagreements are naturally awkward, but they don’t have to be. How the adviser handles the disagreement can have lasting effects on the adviser-advisee relationship; effective advisers should clearly communicate their disagreement, specify the issue they have identified, and consult with the founder collaboratively to resolve the issue. Sometimes discord can be resolved with further clarification or a small tweak to accommodate the adviser’s concerns. By clearly communicating the issue and working to resolve it together, an adviser can avoid spoiling the trusted relationship they have built with the founder.
What happens when an adviser disagrees with a new product idea or the founder’s vision for the future of the company? If an adviser seriously objects, they should clearly articulate to the founder that they disagree and clearly explain why.
Dissenting objectively carries more weight and respect toa founder than an objection laced with subjectivity.
To object objectively, an adviser should be honest with the founder about why the disagree and ensure the founder understands the dissent is objectively formulated. Priming the conversation is imperative, an adviser should approach disagreements with as much objectivity as possible. I often begin this type of conversation with a primer; “I’ve thought about this issue from multiple angles and have tried to understand your motive, but I think there is a better strategy.”
Framing Advice (or Criticism)
Advice should always be constructive. Whether or not an adviser disagrees with the founder, an effective adviser gives actionable advice that the founder can consider and take action on. Framing advice does not mean an adviser should “spin” their criticism positively to avoid conflict.
An adviser should remember to keep an objective, neutral tone that avoids judgment, conflict, and provides context for the founder to take into consideration. An adviser’s primary position is to break down the issue from an objective standpoint and give the founder enough information to make an informed decision.