When Neil Sedaka wrote the song Breaking Up is Hard to Do back in 1962 I don’t think he had optometry partnerships in mind. However, the messages of his song ring true for the profession… yes there is much to be learned by delving back into those good old lyrics from the 60s.
We would like to think that relationships last forever, but sadly sometimes they don’t. There have been some very successful and long-lived business partnerships in optometry over the years and there have been others that have gone off the rails for a number of reasons… as they do.
Typical reasons for a business split include:
- Conflict over clinical standards and practice
- Differences in life priorities
- Perceived or real imbalance in contribution to operations or management of the practice
- Personal relationship issues and differences
- Divergence of vision and goals for the practice
- Failure to support each other with staff or other important decisions
- Airing confidential matters inappropriately
- Interference from family members or spouses
- Acting dishonestly or stupidly.
Over the 30-odd years in the health professions I have come across all of the above scenarios. Wives attacking business partners; partners running off with old boyfriends; optometrists failing to treat new patients appropriately; and those who assert that, “I’m the only one making money here! I’m off!”
The solution to a partnership break-down starts before the relationship goes sour…
Neil was right. Breaking up is hard to do… It can take quite some time for the relationship to get to a point where one or both parties are prepared to declare that they have had enough.
Typically, a lot of investment goes into building a relationship and it’s certainly worth keeping it alive if you can, but you have also got to know when it’s become toxic and it’s time to get out. There is no value at all in persisting when it can’t be fixed.
Although the process of dissolution will be painful, probably expensive and will likely get worse before it gets better, you’ve got to get on with it. Everyone will be grateful that you did in the end.
So what to do? The first requirement is to restore perspective. By the time you’ve got to a point where breaking up the partnership looks like the best option, the place is probably in a bit of a mess. It’s best to speak to someone who has no history and get an outside view.
Try to be as rational as you can. Make a list of the behaviours and beliefs that are at the core of the problem. Are they really as big as you think they are? Is your position realistic and fair?
How much are you a part of the problem? Be in no doubt that this is a two-way street. If your business partner is nuts, you probably are as well. That doesn’t mean you should leave it, but it might help to move things forward a bit easier.
Now the big one… COMMUNICATION. Have you been totally and completely honest and open with your business partner? Do they know what’s upsetting you and how important this is to you? And what you are considering?
As health professionals we try to avoid conflict, but the reality is that conflict happens all the time in business. It doesn’t have to get nasty but it does have to be sorted out. If you haven’t taken care of this, now is the time. Today. Not tomorrow or next week when we are both available… now. This is a crisis. Sit down together in a place that is private and you won’t be interrupted. Allow enough time, and say what’s on your mind. If you think you’re going to get emotional, use your notes from before and give a copy to your business partner. They might also need time to digest what you are saying.
Here’s the biggest tip for those who have a happy and healthy business partnership. The solution to a partnership break-down starts before the relationship goes sour. From day one, or as soon as you can, put in place a well written Partnership Agreement. Failure to have this could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars, literally. Not kidding. When everyone goes nuts and starts behaving badly, the agreement will determine what happens and how. If you have an agreement already, read it carefully and understand what it means for you in the current context.
If you are sure you are being fair, and you have discussed the life out of the issue with your business partner, and your advisors agree all is lost, make a decision. Stop stuffing about and decide exactly what you want. Write it down. Call a meeting and lay the cards on the table. And stick to it! You may doubt the wisdom at some point but have confidence in yourself and your supporters and press on. Don’t expect
an immediate response to your plan. You might have to come back in a few days to get a considered view from the other partner.
If you do agree on specific outcomes, make sure that these are written down and signed by both parties. Consider having a third party attend (with agreement) who can mediate and help to keep things on track.
Don’t Forget Your Staff
What have we forgotten?… Damn, the staff. You can be absolutely assured that they already know that the dung has hit the cooling apparatus. They are not stupid. How much they need to know is a very practice-specific call to make. There are many ways to handle this, and it needs to be discussed and agreed between you and your partner. Do try to keep the nasty stuff behind closed doors. Good staff love the practice as much as you do. They will be sad, scared, and distracted by the leadership turmoil. Give them support, feedback, and reassurance. Try to maintain patient focus and above all, if they ask, be honest.
A partnership break-up is a very traumatic and significant event in your business life. It will be a challenge for you and those around you, and will test your leadership, management skills and emotional intelligence.
Mark Overton has science and business qualifications and, for over 30 years, has consulted to or worked with major public hospitals, federal government, small and medium private businesses, medical research institutions, professional associations and small businesses. Mark is the CEO of Ideology Consulting and, on occasion, lectures at universities.