Co-founder ‘couples therapy’ helps avoid company-killing pitfalls

My co-founder and I go to couples therapy.

Our partnership is not romantic — we’re both married to other people — yet as co-equal parents of a venture-backed startup, we live our professional lives under similar strain. Our “kids” don’t always get along. We don’t always set the right boundaries or model the right behavior. Problems in our company that I consider small agitate my co-founder, who doesn’t shy away from conflict if he thinks it will lead to a better outcome. I think he creates more unnecessary conflict, he thinks I avoid conflict and let problems escalate. We both have a point. As with many romantic couples, the co-founder relationship is a forum in which old patterns reemerge disguised as basic questions. Our patterns run through questions about our company. How should our product evolve? When should we raise our next fundraising round? Should we let our team work remotely? Each question is a litmus test revealing both our wisdom and our insecurities. Without high degrees of self-awareness on both our parts, the resulting conversation can devolve into a cold war. So, we go to co-founder therapy to stay aligned. Here are three pitfalls that co-founder therapy has taught me to avoid: < ol>
  • Being the good cop. My co-founder is an instinctive, emotional leader with a keen sense of strategic direction. When his instincts draw his attention to a growing problem in our company, he doesn’t wait for our executive team to wind its way toward resolution. He becomes animated and aggressive, confronting other leaders and provoking action. His bad cop approach can be beneficial — problems are not left to fester — but it also creates tensions that can linger and grow into other problems. I’m a natural good cop, the interpreter-in-chief, a go-between who helps the other execs understand my co-founder’s psychology. Therein lies the problem. I prefer to work with them, to help them see past his reactive exterior, to understand his underlying intentions and motivations. I have a harder time working with him. I dislike conflict and when my co-founder is upset I can let my conflict aversion prevent me from giving him hard feedback on the downside of his approach. Our therapist helped me realize that by not giving this feedback, I was failing to uphold my end of the co-founder bargain. Co-founders need to balance each other. When stress causes one founder to behave unwisely, it is the other’s responsibility to intervene.
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