How do you ‘leave work at work’ when you sleep with your business partner?
Creating work-life-balance is the holy grail for all of us small business owners, but for husband and wife family business partners, being 100% ‘not-at-work’ can feel like an unattainable dream.
Husband and wife business partnerships can be really satisfying, they can be great vehicles for making money while allowing a couple to grow and develop together. But family businesses come with a unique set of challenges. (More about husband and wife family businesses here on Medium.com)
Clients of mine, let’s call them Bill and Lauren, have built a construction company together that turns over about $10M per year. Bill completed a carpentry apprenticeship straight out of high school and went back to school in his late twenties to get a building diploma, before starting his building company and Lauren is a qualified accountant. Bill and Lauren got married 10 years ago and Lauren joined the business to take control of the finances, the admin and HR systems. Now, they’re both getting to their forties, they have two young children, a dog and a rabbit.
Bill and Lauren have an office away from home, but neither of them have been very successful at closing the office door behind them at the end of the day. Lauren generally goes home around 3.30 and organises things at home and Bill makes it home around 5.30 most days. The conversations around the dinner table are all about the various crises and challenges of the day at work and planning and worrying about the ones they see in the immediate future.
After dinner laptops
After dinner, both of them tend to sit on their laptops, to complete the stuff they’ve fallen behind on during the day. Bill to finish quotes and Lauren to manage the rosters and budgets.
In the morning, Bill has to be at the office or on site at 7.00 am every day (the building industry starts early), so he generally leaves home around 6 am and Lauren organises the kids before heading for the office around 8.00 am.
On the weekends, there are the usual commitments around the children’s activities and shopping, but most minutes that aren’t taken up by ferrying the kids from soccer to birthday parties or standing in line at the Woolworth’s checkout are occupied with work. Bill and Lauren’s conversations, their time and their brainspace is rarely completely free of some preoccupation with work.
Bill and Lauren never used to mind working hard and doing long hours, they’ve both always felt they’re building something valuable and important for their family, but over the past couple of years they’ve started to become worried that the best parts of family life are passing them by, that by the time they’ve finished building that valuable and important thing for their family, they will have missed out on what actually matters.
I often work with family business owners and this experience of not being able to ‘leave work at work’ is a never ending refrain.
Two sides to the coin
To be fair, there are two sides to this coin. Knowing that your husband or wife really gets what goes on for you in your role as a business owner can be a great feeling and help you deal with your challenges and stresses more effectively. Some of my other clients can only dream of really being able to share their work challenges with their partners regularly. The most often repeated complaint I hear from single business owners is that they feel alone and overwhelmed.
But that doesn’t make Bill and Lauren’s challenges any less important.
In the past Bill and Lauren have tried to set rules around bringing work home. But usually one or the other will have a crisis within a week of setting the rule, and before you know it it’s back to the old patterns again.
A new approach
We took a different tack 6 months ago. I’ve told them that it is unrealistic to imagine they’ll ever be able to close the door to the office behind them completely. What’s more, that’s not even desirable. It’s actually not so bad spending a bit of time after the kids have gone to bed catching up on some work, or preparing for the next day and it can be quite pleasant discussing the strategy for the week ahead with each other, on the couch on Sunday evening with a glass of wine in hand. This is the other side of the coin I mentioned above, it’s one of the things that can make family businesses special and effective, as much as they can be stress inducing. It’s all in the balance.
This is what we did 6 months ago and with few exceptions Bill and Lauren have been able to stick to the system.
- All Sunday until after dinner is a work free zone. Family breakfasts, outings, picnics, watching movies, playing games, walking the dog, catching up with family and friends. Sunday during the day is sacrosanct.
- On Sunday evening, the two of them plan their week from a work, family and personal perspective together. The only rule is that one of the evenings of the week is to be work free and just about the two of them. They can go out or stay in, but one evening per week is just for them, no kids no work no nothing else.
- Weekday dinners are family time, the 4 of them eat together at the dinner table, no TV and no work talk, until dinner is over and cleaned up
Permission to fail
The keys to the success of this system are its flexibility, the Sunday evening planning time, and the allowance in the system for failure. By acknowledging that in their life, every week is going to be different, by taking 15 minutes to plan each week, and finally by allowing that sometimes plans go awry and that when they do it’s not the end of the world, it just means you need to make a new plan again; Bill and Lauren’s life has transformed.
Being in business together is Fun again.
As I mentioned above I work with Husband a Wife business owners a lot, because I lived the husband and wife business partner experience myself. I have written about my own experience here. I only ever work with people I enjoy working with, but helping turn a family business around give me the greatest buzz of all. Have a look at my web page about Family business here and download the 10 point check list about marrying your business partner. If you are in a family business you might also want to have a look at Family Business Australia here. The website has some great resources for couples who are in business together. I have also created my own family business resources page here.
Please also feel free to check out some of my testimonials from husband and wife family business owners here. You may also find my article about laying the foundations of a great business interesting here
I also really like this infographic on the Business Families Foundation website here