If there’s one thing that makes or breaks a new venture, it’s the quality of the partnership at the center of it. A good business partner can support you, elevate you, and make your company, product, or goal come to life. A bad business partner, on the other hand, can stymie you, frustrate you, and sink a new venture from the start.
Which means that choosing the right partner — whether it’s in a start-up, a small business, a traditional company, or a philanthropic initiative — might actually be the single most important decision we make in our professional lives.
When it comes to friendship and dating, there’s a ton of advice out there about choosing the right partner. Look for people who are kind and empathic. Gravitate to people who are authentic and ambitious. Avoid toxic and avoidant personalities.
But when it comes to business partners, the guidelines are hazier. Maybe that’s because we don’t think of these relationships as long-term (though they often last years). Maybe it’s because we don’t usually think of business partners as intimate, meaningful relationships (which they definitely are). Or maybe it’s because we tend to overlook certain qualities when there’s money at stake.
Whatever the reason, we’re setting ourselves up to get into bed with the wrong people.
So how do we know which qualities to avoid in a prospective business partner? And how do we identify the qualities that signal that someone would make a great one?
Let’s start by talking about the most common red flags in a prospective business partner.
Business Partner Red Flags
They’re all about ideas.
Every venture needs a balance of big-picture thinking and practical execution to succeed. It takes both a grand vision and minute follow-through to make a product, goal, or mission work. Without a strong strategy, a team often devolves into a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off. But without strong execution, a strategy is ultimately just a bunch of nice ideas.
In other words, business partners need an optimal mix of strategy and operations.
But if you meet a prospective business partner who tilts heavily toward one or the other, that’s a signal worth paying attention to. And all else being equal, my experience is that people who lean heavily toward the strategic are usually more of a liability than people who lean heavily toward the operational.
Because an Ideas Guy — while useful — often can’t convert their fancy models and exciting concepts into action. A Pure Operator, on the other hand, might not have a strong direction, but can actually get shit done. And by getting shit done, a Pure Operator can stumble into a viable strategy, or reverse-engineer one based on what they learn along the way.
(To be fair, though, I’m biased here because this is how I tend to work. I’ve fallen ass-backwards into a successful business because I’ve tested so many things that I finally figured out enough to develop a strategy that worked, almost through sheer brute force.)
In many cases, this approach turns out even better than whatever the Ideas Guy cooks up in a vacuum. The Pure Operator at least understands where the rubber meets the road. And given that virtually every company will pivot at some point, an overly engineered strategy is rarely as valuable as it seems.
Obviously, an ideal business partner has a good balance of both skills. Or the team you’re putting together achieves that balance by drawing on the skills from multiple people.
But in almost every case, someone who talks exclusively about the big picture without delving into the details will become a problem.
So how do you spot someone like this?
Well, the Idea Guy often reveals themself pretty quickly. They tend to talk abstractly about the vision (“We’re gonna be the Uber of custom socks,” “Let’s make people proud to be our customers”), dream big about opportunities (“We could be #1 in Luxembourg,” “Let’s partner with every Indonesian rapper who loves cat backpacks”), and get excited about vague metrics or grand results (“We could own half of all Gen Z users,” “We’ll be acquired in three years at a 10x valuation”). Meanwhile, they struggle to articulate how they plan to achieve all this. They also tend to get pumped about lots of high-level opportunities, rather than homing in on the one or two things that the company absolutely must get right in order to succeed.
They gravitate to these hazy ideas because this is the arena in which they feel safe and competent. Visions, diagrams, and end games are easier to get excited about than roadmaps, processes, and numbers. They also prefer to play in the world of ideas because there’s little accountability for making them happen. Eventually, you usually realize that all the real work will fall to you.
But let me be clear: I’m not saying that all strategists are bad, or that all strategy is bullshit. Strategy is powerful. And at some point, it does become crucial.
But when someone only thinks strategically — or they feel that they’re “above” getting their hands dirty — that’s a serious red flag.
So how do you diagnose this quality in a prospective partner before you find yourself wanting to throttle them for throwing a bunch of diagrams up on the whiteboard and calling it a day?
Signs You’re Dealing with an Ideas Guy
- They largely speak in abstract terms, corporate jargon, vague metaphors, and end results
- They talk in overly aspirational or motivational terms, rather than in the grounded language of planning, responsibilities, and execution
- When you try to pin them down on the specifics of their strategy, they deflect, evade, get uncomfortable, or grow frustrated
- They don’t express interest in critical details (milestones on a roadmap, assumptions in a financial model, targets/metrics/KPIs, etc.), and maybe even signal that they’re “above” rolling their sleeves up and delving into the details
- They struggle to speak in meaningful detail about past operational experience (i.e. what they actually friggin’ did every day in their previous position)
Questions to Ask an Ideas Guy
- How long do you think it’ll take us to achieve X?
- What would we have to do or change as a team to get to Y?
- What will we have to learn or understand to make Z happen?
- What do you think your day-to-day job would look like if we were partners? What roles and responsibilities would you handle on your own?
- What do you enjoy doing the most? What do you enjoy doing least?
- Tell me about your last job/company. What were you responsible for there? How did you manage your projects? What was your favorite part? What was your least favorite part?
- How do we get from where we are today to where we want to go?
- What should our company look like in one year, in two years, in five years?
- Where do you get your ideas, data, and assumptions? Which sources (experts, industry reports, trade magazines, etc.) do you rely on?
- How much time can you realistically dedicate to the business/project?
If the answers to these questions don’t address the practical realities of building a product and running a company, then that’s a sign you’re dealing with an Ideas Guy.
A good strategist should be able to speak to the requirements of their strategy, what it would look like in action, and how it would play out day-to-day — even if they won’t be as operational as you. But an Ideas Guy won’t even be willing to entertain those questions, even at a high level.
It’s easy to be aspirational as a business partner. It’s a lot harder to be disciplined. So if you encounter someone who resides in the world of ideas at the expense of the details, think twice.
In my experience, you want someone who’s ~30% ideas and ~70% execution. Every venture and every team is different, of course. But when you’re putting together a partnership, especially in the early days, execution is king.
Beware the people who only talk a big game. Gravitate to the people who live in the details.
They’re obsessed with productivity.
As we just saw, the ability to execute is crucial. But execution can easily tip over into mindless productivity — another red flag to look for in a business partner.
Now, this might seem like a contradiction, given that I just went on and on about how important it is to find someone who gets shit done. But the Productivity Nut is just as problematic as the Ideas Guy. Where the Ideas Guy gets lost in the concepts, the Productivity Nut gets lost in the weeds.
So how do you spot this type of partner?
Well, this personality tends to take a lot of pride — often too much pride — in their systems and techniques (“Check out my bullet journal!”, “I just saved 12 minutes on email by spending an hour and a half creating templates!”, “Can’t talk now; I’m on the Pomodoro!”). They’ll also invent unnecessary tasks, such as booking multiple calls, sending redundant follow-up emails, and creating additional stages of a project — without keeping an eye on the end result. They tend to work at a level of abstraction, where they derive more satisfaction from servicing their systems than from actually accomplishing their goals.
The Productivity Nut gravitates to hyperproductivity because it’s gratifying and comforting. It gives them a sense of control and achievement (which is ironic, since it puts more distance between them and their work). As long as they’re checking things off their list, shaving time off of tasks, and finding new hacks, they feel like they’re moving forward. And to be fair, sometimes they are. But when they prioritize productivity over results, they mistake the map for the territory.
(Plus, in my experience, these people are SUPER annoying. No one wants to work with the person whose entire personality is based on their FranklinCovey planner.)
So how do you suss this quality out before you’re stuck listening to your partner rant about productivity intervals and Gmail shortcuts over lunch every day?
Signs You’re Dealing with a Productivity Nut
- They organize their day around checking as many things as possible off of their list, rather than identifying the highest-impact work that will move the company forward
- They create tasks that don’t actually need to exist as a way to create the illusion of progress
- They’re overly obsessed with discussing productivity hacks, apps, and techniques, and seem a little too eager to convince you to adopt them too
- They spend valuable time and money acquiring new tools and methods, rather than investing those resources into doing meaningful work
- They micromanage you and other employees’ performance on mundane tasks
- They derive an unusual amount of pride or gratification from performative productivity, often publicizing to other people how much they’re getting done
Questions to Ask a Productivity Nut
- What would be the most impactful thing we could achieve in our first six months?
- What would be the most meaningful contribution you could make in your new role?
- How do you prioritize tasks? How do you decide where to direct your focus and energy on a day-to-day basis?
- What are your favorite tools and habits to get stuff done? Why do you like them? What happens if they don’t work or you don’t live up to them?
If the answers to these questions suggest that the person doesn’t have their eye on the bigger prize — the crucial task, the bottom line, the ultimate goal — then that’s a sign you’re dealing with a Productivity Nut.
Does this mean you want a partner who’s sloppy or inefficient? Of course not. You obviously want someone who can put their head down and get shit done. If these techniques help them do that, then great. But you also want someone who can look up once in a while and remember where they’re headed. And ideally, someone who doesn’t confuse productivity porn for meaningful execution.
A solid partner should be able to be highly operational without getting bogged down in systems. They live and die by their habits, like any good leader, but they don’t value the infrastructure over the results. They don’t over-engineer their work or drag their colleagues into their tedious methods. And they don’t value themselves — or other people, including you — by how much they’re seen to be doing, but by how much they’re actually doing.
So beware the people who get more excited about their bullet journal, their shortcuts, and their Pomodoro timer than they do about their results. Gravitate to the people who get stuff done without fetishizing it or creating an identity out of it.
They’re overly concerned with publicity.
Marketing is usually a key part of any successful venture. But when a partner is overly obsessed with publicity — for the company or, even worse, for themselves — that’s usually a sign that their priorities are off.
Because publicity is a very narrow form of attention. Sure, it can increase your company’s exposure, lend some legitimacy to your brand, and help attract new customers. But in most cases, chasing publicity is more trouble than it’s worth. The ROI is vague, the benefits are short-lived, and the coverage usually serves to stroke the egos of the people involved. (And if it’s in service of someone’s personal brand, it’s even more questionable.) In my experience, unless publicity is well-executed as part of a thoughtful strategy, it’s usually pretty overrated. But that won’t stop the Publicity Hound from courting it.
The Publicity Hound gravitates to good press as a barometer of success. They tend to find a lot of gratification in public attention, which often speaks to their underlying narcissism. (Healthy narcissism isn’t bad in and of itself, but if it’s a driving factor, it’s usually a liability.) They tend to rely on press to reach new customers, rather than focusing their energy on creating an undeniable product that customers will flock to on their own. In many cases, they chase publicity to shore up their sense of self or build their personal brand, which can easily eclipse the mission of the company. As a result, they often conflate the company’s public profile with its health — even though any entrepreneur worth their salt knows that publicity has a poor correlation with long-term success.
So how do you clock this red flag before your partner is spending every waking moment trying to get Forbes to include them in their next 30 Under 30 list, or spending half your marketing budget on a publicist to get your product featured on some influencer’s Instagram page?
Signs You’re Dealing with a Publicity Hound
- They’re willing to spend a lot of money and energy courting the press or engaging in superficial “look at us” marketing (a mention in a magazine, a plug on a podcast, an award from a trade group)
- They seem to get an unusual amount of validation from public attention
- When they get negative or insufficient press, they get frustrated, worried, or hurt, and maybe even start to doubt the viability of the company
- They prioritize publicity above effective marketing and meaningful brand-building
- They spend an inordinate amount of time developing a personal brand that is separate from their role in your venture
- They like talking about the company more than they like working on the company
Questions to Ask a Publicity Hound
- How valuable is publicity? How effective is press in driving revenue?
- What role do you see publicity playing in our strategy? How do we know whether it actually works?
- How much time would you spend trying to get media coverage?
- How do you measure the ROI/impact of publicity?
- What do we have to do internally (product, sales, marketing, operations, etc.) to make the most of good publicity?
- Do you have a personal brand? How would you describe it? How much time/energy do you spend maintaining that brand?
- If we didn’t get publicity for a while, how would we reach new customers?
- If we got any bad press, how would we interpret that data and put it to good use?
If the answers to these questions suggest that the person is highly motivated by external coverage, then that’s a sign you’re dealing with a Publicity Hound.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all publicity is pointless, or that a partner who wants to get featured in the New York Times is a malignant narcissist. Great publicity is helpful, and it can even be a game-changer. But when someone’s interest in publicity sucks up too many valuable resources, or prioritizes “awareness” above creating a great product, then that’s usually a red flag.
So watch out for the people who value the opinions of publications, social media, and the community over their own. Be wary of partners who view your venture as one more selling point in their personal brand. Gravitate to the people who would rather spend their precious time creating a killer product than convincing a journalist that it’s worth including in a product roundup. These choices speak to deeper values that have to be aligned for the venture to work.
They’re bad communicators.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many partnerships, it’s that a business relationship lives and dies by communication. I’m talking about communication about the big stuff — major decisions, key values, healthy disagreements — and communication about the small stuff — deadlines, opportunities, logistics. If a partner doesn’t engage with you openly and fairly from the start, then that’s a major red flag.
Because communication is the lifeblood of any good relationship. It reflects our most fundamental values: empathy, respect, curiosity, trust, commitment. The way a person communicates is the way they think, act, and navigate the world. It’s also how you and your partner get to know each other, understand each other’s priorities, and set the entire tone for your entire relationship.
So if a prospective partner’s communication is lacking, then it’s probably not just a question of style. It speaks to who they fundamentally are as people.
As Gary Nealon — e-commerce expert, serial entrepreneur, and strategic marketing consultant — put it to me, a great partnership “comes down to communication and knowing each other’s skill sets. In most cases, when a partnership fails, it’s because they are not on the same page.”
You can spot this personality type by how they engage with you from the jump.
The Poor Communicator discounts or straight-up avoids open communication. In some cases, they can’t stomach conflict at all, so they avoid difficult conversations at all costs. Or they work very hard to keep every interaction pleasant — which can be tricky to diagnose as a red flag, because it can seem like they’re just easy to get along with. In other cases, they just don’t prioritize time for communication. They will often hide behind email or other colleagues. If you do manage to sit down for a real conversation, the Poor Communicator will struggle to speak truthfully, appreciate your perspective, or be pinned down to a specific position. Any healthy conflict or interpersonal challenges will be extremely treacherous, if not impossible, for the Poor Communicator to navigate.
So how do you catch this red flag before you’re sending your ninth calendar invite to schedule a simple conversation or find yourself being stonewalled by a conflict-avoidant partner who would rather bury themselves in paperwork than resolve a disagreement?
Signs You’re Dealing with a Poor Communicator
- They don’t articulate their positions clearly, specifically, or concisely
- They avoid being pinned down or held accountable for their views
- You struggle to understand them, connect with them, or locate them (physically, intellectually, or emotionally)
- They don’t take a healthy, respectful interest in your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives
- They’re uncomfortable navigating disagreements or tough conversations
- They work hard to make everyone happy, sidestep conflict and keep things on an even keel
- They take a long time to respond to emails or phone calls, or they overly engage in emails or phone calls at the expense of meaningful interaction
- You can’t trust them to reliably relay information you’ve shared with them to a third party
Questions to Ask a Poor Communicator
- How do you like to communicate and stay in touch? Why do you prefer one medium (email, phone, text, etc.) to another?
- How important is it to you to respond to people in a timely manner? Do you have any policies for yourself around that?
- How do you prefer people to communicate with you? How quickly do you expect a response?
- How often would you like to check in with each other as partners? Once a day? Once a week? As needed?
- How did you communicate with your colleagues in your last role? How did they communicate with you?
- When a difficult subject or disagreement comes up, how should we handle it?
If the answers to these questions paint a picture of someone who struggles with connection and conflict, that’s a sign you’re dealing with a Poor Communicator.
Is this an absolute dealbreaker? It depends. Some people are open to growing in this department, and you can help them improve their communication and tolerance for conflict. If you sense an opening there — for example, if a prospective partner says, “You know, I’m not great at dealing with disagreements, and my last company made it hard for us to be honest, but this is something I’d like to work on” — then that’s a good sign. But if a partner seems uninterested in taking their communication seriously, or blames past difficulties on other people instead of taking their share of the blame, then I would stay away. The roots of that avoidance tend to go pretty deep, and it’s extremely difficult for a new person to resolve them.
So pay attention to the early signals you receive here. Over time, we tend to overlook or explain away this data. But in the beginning, we still have enough sensitivity to notice when a partner is throwing up a strong signal that they’re not great at communicating.
Avoid the avoiders. Embrace the embracers. Choose partners who have enough respect to talk to you openly. Gravitate to people who share bad news and invite difficult feedback, even when it’s uncomfortable. These are the partners who share your values and will help you weather the many storms ahead.
They’re focused on short-term rewards over long-term growth.
All business partners eventually have to discuss compensation. In this negotiation, there will always be tension between short-term rewards and long-term dividends. But a prospective partner who thinks entirely short-term is probably throwing up another red flag.
Because a good business partner is in it for the long haul. They’re eager to own a piece of a company that generates sustainable revenue in the future, rather than trying to squeeze out as much money as possible right now. They don’t treat the venture as an easy way to invent a job or create their own personal piggy bank. The Cash Grabber, on the other hand, is more obsessed with maximizing their short-term income from the business than investing in its long-term success.
So how do you spot this type of partner?
It’s actually fairly easy. The Cash Grabber tends to approach all decisions through the lens of their own personal gain. They become highly adversarial about their compensation, and they often speak in terms of what the company can do for them — financially, emotionally or reputationally. They tend to spend a lot of money in their personal lives, especially on non-essential goods, like nice clothes, fancy cars, and extravagant trips, which require a steady source of income to support. And they’re usually unwilling to make a sacrifice for the long-term health of the company — for example, by taking a pay cut and living beneath their means for a period of time to get the business off the ground.
The Cash Grabber views the world this way because they are, at the end of the day, looking out for number one. They need to feel (or be seen as) successful, powerful, and valuable. They fixate on short-term assets and struggle to appreciate future value because they have a scarcity mindset, lack self-confidence, or know deep down that they’d jump ship if things got rocky. In some cases, they’re just very materialistic and hedonistic (other values to pay attention to). In other cases, they’re extremely jealous of their assets, envious of other people, or paranoid about being taken advantage of by a business partner.
“When I come across anybody whose first motivation is money, it’s just never going to work out,” says Todd Herman, bestselling author and performance coach. “The motivation should be building something fantastic, not just right off the bat thinking about how much money you’re going to make. Both times I’ve had business partnerships go sour, it was because they valued wealth more than anything I could care about.”
Of course, it’s not unreasonable for someone to make sure that they’re being compensated fairly. There will always be a healthy negotiation over salary, equity, commissions, deal terms, and so on.
But when a partner’s interest in their compensation eclipses the vision of the company, or they become overly rigid or predatory in their demands, then that’s a sign that they’re putting their own needs ahead of the partnership. That also signals that any tough financial decisions down the line — negotiating a raise, taking on new investment, hiring more employees, cutting costs — will probably be a battle. And it probably means that they value rewards more than input.
Or, as Todd put it, “Oftentimes, I’ve found that people who are motivated by money aren’t necessarily the hardest workers.”
So how do you catch this red flag before you’re making a personal loan to pay for your reckless partner’s fifth jet ski? How do you know you’re dealing with this personality before you’re negotiating an exit package after a year that lines their pockets while leaving you in peril?
Signs You’re Dealing with a Cash Grabber
- They spend an unreasonable amount of time negotiating for the compensation they want, and they’re overly combative in their approach
- They refuse to give up some short-term compensation in exchange for long-term gains, or they generally seem less motivated by equity than by salary
- They get defensive, adversarial, or paranoid when discussing financial matters
- They enjoy a lifestyle that is at or beyond their means, and they’re committed to maintaining it no matter what
- They view any financial decision as a zero-sum game, and they’re constantly looking for personal upsides and downsides
Questions to Ask a Cash Grabber
- What’s more important to you: Making a high salary this year, or owning a larger piece of a company that will generate a lot of revenue in three years?
- Would you be willing to take less money upfront in exchange for more equity in the company?
- If we both had to take pay cuts for a period of time to help the company get through a rough patch or invest in new opportunities, would you be okay with that? (The less hypothetical you can make this question, the better.)
- Do you have any other sources of income?
- What was your compensation structure like in your last job? Were you happy with that?
- Which metrics should we use to determine our compensation? To which KPIs, targets or goals should we pin our compensation?
- What do you plan to use your earnings from this company for? (You probably won’t ask this one out loud, but you can glean the answer from other information.)
If the answers to these questions suggest that they’re motivated by short-term gains over long-term success, then that’s a sign you’re dealing with a Cash Grabber.
Of course, you have to balance this value with a healthy regard for your partner’s wellbeing. I’m not saying that you should nickel and dime them on their salary or place them at risk by forcing them to take more equity. Everyone needs to keep a roof over their heads and partake in the success of the company. And a healthy negotiation isn’t automatically a sign of greed. But if the scales clearly tilt toward short-term self-interest, I’d pay attention to that. Usually, this red flag comes along with several others.
Partner with people who share your commitment to the long-term vision. Work with folks who would rather make a ton of money in a few years than a little more cash right now. Choose people who are more motivated by an exciting product than by a slightly bigger paycheck. These are the people you want in the early days. And these are the people who will stick with you when times get tough.
Business Partner Green Flags
Just as there are red flags with bad business partners, there are also green flags — qualities, skills, and values that signal the probability of a successful relationship. Now that we’ve talked about the kind of people you want to avoid, let’s talk about the kind of people you want to keep close.
They have a good balance of big ideas and detailed execution.
Good partners can think big and execute small. They can toggle between a grand vision and daily goals. They don’t spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the big picture or indulge in romantic conversations about dream scenarios. They know where they’re heading, they keep their nose to the grindstone, and they understand that a venture lives and dies by how well they execute.
If they lean strategic, they can help their partners execute on the plan. If they lean operational, they can run with someone else’s strategy or create a strategic direction out of the details. They understand which high-impact tasks to prioritize and how those achievements move the team closer to their goal. At the same time, they don’t get lost in the weeds or obsessed with meaningless productivity.
Todd Herman’s advice for creating a partnership like this?
“Dot your I’s and cross your T’s,” he recommends. “Get an operational agreement together and sort out roles and responsibilities. You can quickly find out if someone is going to push back against doing work that they don’t want to do or aren’t suited to in the very beginning. And if they’re pushing back against that responsibility, they probably don’t have the resilience, persistence, and work ethic to make it through to the end.”
And if you want a more formal way to assess these skills from the get-go, you can always use a personality and skills test, such as The Predictive Index.
Gary Nealon has actually done this on his own and with various business partners to reveal what their strengths and weaknesses are, as well as “how to most effectively work together without pissing each other off.”
At the end of the day, a great partner’s skill set should fit well with those of the team, creating an optimal mix of talents that allows for big-picture thinking and disciplined productivity.
They’re focused on creating a great product.
Partners who prioritize the product, service, or customer experience are ideal partners. They know that the venture’s success depends on whether it fulfills a key need or meets a crucial opportunity. This goal then becomes their North Star. Everything else is just noise.
This type of partner tends to avoid petty politics, ego-driven publicity, or short-sighted demands. They tend to have a lot of respect for the customer, the product, and their partners. And they peg their gratification to the long-term success of the company, which helps them avoid getting lost in day-to-day distractions and sidestep unproductive conflicts.
This personality is also a ton of fun to work with, because they genuinely nerd out on the product and are obsessed with what the company is designed to do — precisely the kind of partner you want by your side, especially in the early days.
They communicate effectively.
Partners who communicate well are dream collaborators.
They nip problems in the bud, avoid dysfunction, and gravitate to difficult decisions (where the highest-impact work tends to be). They have a baseline respect for their colleagues, and they take their relationships seriously. They listen well, they speak candidly, and they’re open to receiving feedback. They lower the friction around tough conversations by making themselves available to their teammates, and they’re unafraid of the tough conversations that lead to major breakthroughs.
On a more practical level, they also maintain an open channel with their partners, so everyone is on the same page about how the partnership will work. This is especially crucial because we tend to assume that other people will operate exactly like we do — that they’ll be as dedicated or flexible or hardworking as we are — when in reality, most people have their own way of working.
As Gary Nealon put it to me, “Having a strong operating agreement that includes defined roles, expectations, and what happens if one party doesn’t live up to expectations — that’s super important. A business partnership is like a marriage, so why not treat it like one?”
They’re open about their past.
Good partners are an open book. They’re willing to discuss their previous partnerships, they’re interested in learning from their mistakes, and they’re eager to apply their experience — good and bad — to make their next partnership as successful as possible.
People who are open about their professional history signal that they’re willing to learn and grow. They’re eager to share what worked in the past, and even more eager to correct what didn’t. They’re not afraid to dissect their patterns and take ownership of their role in past conflicts. They want to be transparent, because they understand that sharing their history with you will help both of you do your best work.
That said, a negative experience in someone’s past isn’t automatically a red flag when it comes to a new partnership. Ari Meisel, leadership coach and entrepreneurial strategist, pointed out that a business partner’s history doesn’t always tell you the full story.
“If somebody had a bad experience before — or you hear that they were not a great partner in the past — that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be an amazing partner for you,” he explained.
So much of what makes a partnership successful is the unique relationship between the two of you. And how their skills, experiences, and personality mesh with yours.
So as you assess a partner’s history, ask yourself whether the same variables would come into play in your relationship. Would you and this person encounter the same problems? If so, would you navigate them in a different way? It’s entirely possible that the landmines and liabilities in a partner’s past would turn out to be opportunities and assets in a different partnership.
But to appreciate those nuances, both parties have to be willing to talk about the past. So gravitate to people who are open to having that conversation.
They value the partnership more than themselves.
Great partners also prioritize the partnership above themselves.
They don’t think of themselves as a “one-man show” or adopt a rockstar mentality around their work. They’re more passionate about making the company succeed than in being recognized for their individual contributions. They praise their colleagues, take appropriate ownership of blame, empower people to do their best work, reward high performers, and embody the values of the company. They make sure they’re treated fairly, but they don’t value their income above the company’s viability. They get more excited about products and customers than they do about paychecks and options. Ultimately, they understand that if a venture succeeds, it’s because the partnership at the heart of it functions well.
As H.E. Luccock famously put it, “No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” Good partners understand this principle better than anyone.
They share your values.
All of these green flags come down to one central theme: a sense of shared values. If a partner exhibits these qualities, then they probably subscribe to the same basic principles that you do. If they don’t, then there’s a good chance that you guys are miles apart on the fundamentals.
So as you assess a prospective partner, consider discussing the values that matter to you most.
Invite them to talk about how they navigate conflict, how they deliver bad news, their priorities in a negotiation. Ask them how they value company resources, how they like to be treated by other people, how they deal with a-holes. Talk to them about whether they believe in meritocracy, how they manage bias, what kind of culture they want to build. Ask them what they value in life, how they like to waste their time, how they take care of themselves.
As Ari put it to me, “If somebody is too much the opposite of you, that’s going to create problems. If there’s too big of a cultural or ideological or communication difference — when the differences are so big that there’s no way to meet in the middle on anything — that’s a red flag.”
True story. Of course, strong communication can usually bridge that divide. But you still need to be fundamentally aligned with a partner in order to communicate well. Just like any relationship, a professional partnership depends on the core ideas that underpin it.
The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Business Partners
I’ve had my fair share of bad partners over the years, and I’ve even been a bad partner at various points. I’ve gotten tangled up in doomed collaborations, I’ve added to the dysfunction when I grew frustrated with them, and I’ve taken longer than I should have to get out of them. Over the years, I like to think I’ve become a better partner. It helps to have good and bad experiences on both sides of the equation.
But what I know for sure is this: As important as it is to spot red flags in other people, it’s just as crucial to spot them in ourselves.
In fact, the biggest red flag of all is a willful blindness to our own flaws.
“The whole question of ‘What are the red flags to look for in a partner?’ assumes that there are no red flags with you,” Ari told me. “I’ve seen too many business people who are successful in their own right who have failure after failure after failure, and the common denominator is them. So I don’t know if there are bad business partners, so much as there are bad business partnerships.”
I wholeheartedly agree. It always takes two to tango, even in a professional relationship. So watch out for these red flags, look for these green flags, but most importantly, seek them out in yourself. Address the roots of your own weaknesses, and keep investing in your virtues.
Because even if you find an incredible business partner, you’ll still have to be one yourself to make your relationship — and your venture — truly successful.
[Featured photo by krakenimages]