It’s the age-old question. How do you ensure you don’t ruin the very thing that brought business partners together? People like to work with people they like, admire and trust—we absolutely believe in that. Business partners tend to bring with them pre-existing relationships, and that was no exception at Tiny Prints. So, isn’t there only downside, since working together inevitably will create tension and conflict?
We viewed the challenge not too dissimilar from marriage. When two people decide to tie the knot or commit to a lifelong relationship, you could argue the same uncertainties exist—that kind of relationship only introduces tension, conflict and downside…thus the term “honeymoon phase,” right?
Not if you are inspired by the countless couples who make marriages work, and not only work, but thrive. Do those relationships have tension, conflict and discomfort? Absolutely. But for every step you take back, those relationships take thre giant leaps forward, and that is the principle the Tiny Prints partnership is built on from the three founding members to every individual that now calls this place home.
Early on, Laura, Kelly and I figured out some fundamental differences and synergies about ourselves to respect as people. The first acknowledgment was that we were good at different things. This actually helped a lot. Laura was the creative genius. Kelly was passionate about technology. I was much more of the numbers guy. That understanding, along with the verbal agreement to respect each other’s areas of “expertise” allowed us to drive consensus without bruising egos, wasting unnecessary time and causing politics or power struggles. And yes, we did drive consensus early on and many would say that we still drive consensus (across the company) despite our bigger scale. Now those folks know where it comes from.
We discussed everything from whether we could afford to put an ad in a new magazine to strategic decisions and people strategies. And while more discussions were three-way than probably at other companies, we seemed always to be efficient and drive decision instead of indecision. Respecting each other’s strengths (and weaknesses) certainly was an important factor. I believe the other factor was much more intangible and interpersonal. Just like our backgrounds, we share many common traits and values but also have distinct personalities. Laura is competitive inside but with a compassionate and warm demeanor (yes, I said passive aggressive). Kelly is mild-mannered and impossible to faze. I’m completely hyperactive, yet introverted. Despite our differences and quirks, I tend to think we’re all genuinely nice and empathetic. So I credit this intangible dynamic for the lack of politics, power struggles and cage match conflicts early on. And by welcoming on board people who share that same sort of EQ since then, we hope it’s helped reduce the politics normally seen in an office environment.
Having said all that, it was and is impossible to avoid tough conversations. Our philosophy when those situations arose was to go all in, not dance around such topics. By acknowledging that we were about to have a tough conversation really helped. At one point, we needed to have a conversation about our individual contributions to Tiny Prints as our personal life circumstances changed over time—a topic that can lead to lots of conflict and falling out among partners. What did we do? First we acknowledged that we needed to have that conversation and that it would be uncomfortable. Then once we agreed that was the case, we constructively put together a formal partner agreement (without lawyers–it was just something we would enforce via our friendship) that made sure it covered all possible circumstances and future proofed our relationship and company.
So when people ask about our rules of decision making, managing conflict and leadership, I find myself pointing to three really important ingredients. First is fairness. In everything we do, we defer to the principle of being fair. It’s very straightforward, but hard to get right. Is it fair for all parties? Can you legitimately put yourself in the other person’s shoes and feel okay? These are important questions to ensure fairness.
Second, do not avoid conflict. Embrace it head on and fully acknowledge that you’re about to have a tough conversation. Setting the bar always helps. It’s helped avoid putting people on the defensive more times than I can remember.
Finally, work with genuinely nice, empathetic and selfless people as much as you can. It is a core dimension we look for when we recruit. We don’t always get it right, but this helps a lot. If the intent is good, the odds of a good, positive outcome are greater.
Are all three needed? Not always, but it really, really helps. Depending on the situation, leadership often requires you to take each situation on a case-by-case basis. We’ll be talking about some of those specific examples in upcoming posts.