Volume 132, No. 52  - Friday, June 30, 2008

There is a joke about the difference between heaven and hell. In it, heaven is likened to a party organized by the German’s, hosted by the English, and cooked for by the French. Hell is the same party, only the French do the organizing, the Germans are the hosts, and the English do the cooking.

My purpose is not to offend our valued allies, but to set the stage for exploring what it means to work effectively as business partners. Like with children, the only people who really seem to know what to do are the ones that never had any, and they are only too glad to tell, by the way. Those who have are more humble.

People invest in businesses for many reasons. Two of the most common types of investors are financial and entrepreneurial investors.

If you ask them, financials will tell you they invest because their careful research told them your business affords a return on investment higher than the long term average return on Wall Street, while entrepreneurs love to talk of “vision,” investing because their gut tells them they’ll be able to roll up their sleeves, and make some money.

While financial investors, bless them, tend to leave the operating partners alone as long as they get expected results, entrepreneurs, want to pitch in. That ever so rare quality, common sense, would dictate that each be encouraged to apply themselves in the area they are strongest, by talent, inclination, training and experience, like the heavenly party described above, allowed to function with the full support of their partners.

Sometimes, however, other dynamics besides common sense, like human nature, take over, and you end up with another kind of party.

Most of us, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, are mostly interested in “what’s in it for me,” and deeply believe “its all about me.” When partners’ self-interests are in harmony with each other and the material world the chance of success is good.

Ask someone what is in their self-interest in business, most will say, making money, but the truth is murkier. We are motivated by many things, and we bring not only our selves to any partnership, we also bring our upbringing, cultural preju dices, and our frailties.

If money was the real motivator then more partnerships would make money, and would involve a lot less maneuvering and manipulation.

If the truth be told, more partnerships than anyone would care to admit start out wrong, and turn worse. Second guessing, back room shenanigans, grandstanding, stepping into the expertise of others whether or not one has the credentials or experience, dividing and conquering, betrayal, blaming, denial, fear of confrontation, talking around others rather than communicating directly, scapegoating, and passing the buck, all the lovely conceits of a Shakespearian tragedy unfold against the background of supposedly serving self-interest.

We all deride politicians, but given the right circumstances tend to act just like them. One thing we can all agree on, I hope, is that losing money is in no one’s self interest.

Entropy is the physical law that states that things tend to fall apart unless a great deal of energy is put into holding them together. Successful partnerships sooner or later realize the necessity to put structure into their partnership. At the outset is best, but more often it grows out of a crisis.

Whether the crisis comes from bad behavior, or something other, dealing with the crisis as partners means changing “business as usual,” and in severe crisis, both the best and the worst of our qualities can come into play.

Again, far more often than most care to admit, even in the loftiest pillars of corporate America, help is brought in to help uncover, clarify, express, redefine and move forward. For better or worse, it is one of the things I am good at.

Knowing this, why would anyone want to join a partnership? Is it that self-interest is easily blinded by wishful thinking? Sometimes, but mostly I think we end up in partnerships because we don’t have enough money to move ahead on our own, or because we don’t want to risk too much of what we have. Shared risk makes partnerships.

So, what does this have to do with the price of cheese in the futures market? As one who has been in partnerships, and one who is asked to step in and help uncover, clarify, express, redefine and find a way to move forward, I want to share with you that there are steps that can be taken that work, if you have the stomach for them, preferably at the outset, but with hard work, in in the midst of a crisis as well.

Crisis is part of the business cycle. Ironically, people tend to behave better in adversity than in comfort. Crisis can shock us out of wishful thinking and petty politics and bring us back to earth, giving us the grit to face things as they are and the courage to deal with them.

A crisis can turn an operatic partnership into a cohesive working unit in a hurry. If this opportunity is taken to clearly define roles, and responsibilities, that cohesion will not be lost when the lights come back on.

To remain focused on what is real, right in front of them partnerships need clearly defined limits and a road map for working together. Since this is the USA, what better examples can we find than our own basic organizing documents, the Bill of Rights and The Constitution.

Every partnership should clearly define the rights and responsibilities of each and every partner and of the partnership to each and every partner. Every partnership needs a carefully written organizing document, like a constitution, clearly explaining how the partners and partnership will work together, and constant energy needs to be put into making them real, or entropy takes over.

If this isn’t done, then when crisis rears its ugly head, and it will, to survive demands the putting aside of perceived self interests to confront the dicier parts of the group dynamic without compromise. One of the best ways to do this is with the Fishbone, or cause and effect chart.

Contentious things can be digested when pictured graphically, and the names of those responsible conveniently disguised in the third person.
This is a time for “one” instead of “you” or “me.” Truly time to put aside the “I” for the “We” if you want to protect your investment.

Once the roots of the way in which the partnership is working against itself are made clear, solutions will be obvious, and there will be more than one. Putting aside petty differences for the good of the order is hard, but the alternative is worse.

When money walks everyone talks, and in any group, everyone is to blame. The Russian writer Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina with the telling sentence: “All happy families are the same, all unhappy ones different, each in their own particular way.”

To avoid this sort of mess, take my advice, put each partner in charge of the area they have the most talent, training and experience in. Support them in those roles, don’t second guess them. Remove obstacles to their doing their work, instead of building ones up. Being a partner means it is no longer just about me, but about us as well.

If the group is lacking in a set of skills, hire to get them, and remember the adage, too many chiefs! Everyone will have an area to lead, and a time to follow.

When the American composer Duke Ellington was asked what was the secret to his success, he answered something to the effect that he finds out what someone does well, then gives them a chance to do it often.

Re-read the first paragraph.

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at


Other Strongin Articles written for Cheese Reporter

dot Diamond Cutting:
It's What You Don't Know That Can Hurt You
dot Integrity and Ethics
dot Pricing:  The Perceived Value
Designing the Effective Sell Sheet
Common Sense
It All Begins in The Mouth
Of Cars...

The Gathering Storm
As Our Industry Evolves, So Should Our Terminology:

Other Cheese Reporter Guest Columnists
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