Why your co-founder should drive you (a little) bonkers

Last month, Heather shared her perspective on our co-founder journey as the first of a two-part series. 

We both believe that there is a harmful stigma around discussing co-founder conflict, especially because finding a co-founder who thinks and operates differently from you is one of the best things you can do for your venture, but only if you can learn to make your strengths and weaknesses work together productively. 

This month, I’m sharing what I’ve learned throughout the past three years as we’ve been consciously investing in our co-founder relationship. 

Discovering the root of our conflict

For the first four years of our working relationship, Heather and I did not take a proactive approach to communication. Our outlet for talking about our frustrations with each other was over margaritas — and the lubricant of alcohol definitely opened us up enough to dig in. While this relieved the immediate pressure, the benefits were short-lived. It did nothing for developing our actual communication skills. 

Eventually, we found ourselves in a very bad place. The tension had built up to the point that our entire relationship — and Doyenne — was on the brink of collapse. We knew we needed to talk, but we didn’t know how to find our way to the conversation. Over the years, we had accumulated emotional baggage that we brought to every interaction, which made the idea of actually talking about things quite scary.

That’s where Tricia Perkins came in. Tricia is an HR Advisor at Lake Effect HR & Law in Madison. Her presence as a third party created the safety net we needed to begin to talk to each other. We felt that, if the conversation went off the rails, Tricia could pull us back. She could call a timeout, sum up what she was hearing, and help us move it forward. 

One critical thing we’ve invested time into exploring is how we handle expressions of emotion. This is one of the most profound things I am working to change in myself in order to improve our co-founder relationship. And, let me just admit, it is REALLY hard.

I grew up with a very volatile mother, whose emotions (positive and negative) dominated the room every day, every week, every year. From a very young age I learned to be hyper-vigilant, watching for signals of her emotional state and responding to try to keep things calm and safe – physically and emotionally. This early training has carried forward into every aspect of my adult life. 

On the up side, I’ve honed the ability to read people and connect with them. I can gauge the energy of a room and act to reduce the level of stress and anxiety. I can do things to create a safe space for people to be fully themselves, without fear. It is one of my most useful strengths — until it’s not. 

On the downside, when you take on the responsibility of navigating and supporting others’ emotional needs, your own emotions and needs can get sidelined. I’m almost dysfunctionally good at hiding and controlling my emotions. My instinct is to put my own needs in a box, hide them away, and deal with them on my own timeline and my own terms. When I was growing up, there was no space for me and the consequences of expressing my needs were ugly. This doesn’t mean I don’t express emotions, but when I do, it often means I’ve already processed them and feel pretty in control.

Heather feels her emotions very intensely and expresses them more overtly than I do. When that is paired with my tendencies (nature and nurture), it becomes easy for Heather’s emotions and needs to dominate the relationship. Additionally, when Heather and I founded Doyenne, I was 40 years old and Heather was 27. That is a significant gap in life stage and lived experience.

For many years, when tension or conflict arose, I slipped immediately into coach mode. I focused on Heather, helping to make sense of what was going on and problem solve, so she could move forward. I would do this regardless of what I was feeling about this situation. It was just automatic. And, to some extent, I think Heather needed and wanted this level of attention and patience. 

But, let’s be clear, there is a significant difference between the role of “coach” and the role of “co-founder.” As a coach, the focus is on the other person. Good coaches don’t make the conversations about themselves and don’t make demands of the person they are helping. This not the case for co-founders. By consistently slipping into the coach mode, I inadvertently short-circuited our ability to develop our co-founder relationship.

It created a situation where I didn’t feel like there was room for my stress or frustration. There was no room for things to not be okay with me. Heather was working to navigate her own challenges, so how could I load anything else onto her? I felt very alone to figure things out or to make things better. And, I felt like I was doing it so seamlessly that Heather didn’t realize it was happening and didn’t appreciate it.

It was a very slippery slope. Gradually, I felt like I couldn’t make requests, set expectations, or hold Heather accountable for anything. She was able to tell me how I was failing her, but I couldn’t do that in return. I felt like I always had to take the high road. I started feeling resentment and impatience. Yet, I just kept behaving the same way. Ugh.

When I began reflecting on that time, I realized I was creating a  “martyr” narrative for myself – one that I didn’t really want and one Heather certainly did NOT ask of me. We both were enabling a dysfunctional dynamic. 

When we started working with Tricia, I shared with her that I wanted to figure out how to be a co-founder and not a coach with Heather. I could see that Heather and I were in this vicious cycle that wasn’t healthy for either of us. But, I couldn’t break my habit, and maybe she couldn’t either. Habits are fucking hard to change. Seriously. 

Learning how to be fully present with each other

There are two things I am focusing on to become a better co-founder: 1) I want to allow Heather’s expressions of emotion to be present, without becoming the focus; and 2) I want to become better at sharing my own emotions to create more authentic interactions between us.

To make space for Heather’s emotions, I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with her tears and/or angry expressions, and not see them as a sign of a crisis, or making them the immediate problem to address, or dropping my needs in that moment. When Heather is stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated, she feels these things very intensely and expresses them overtly. Crying is often a necessary release. It’s a normal and healthy and part of her processing, as it is for many people. 

I now realize that Heather doesn’t want us to shift focus to her emotions when they arise. I think this has been part of her own evolution. She wants to keep the attention on the challenge we are trying to overcome or tensions we are trying to address. I think she can’t be herself if she feels she has to fight back tears or manage her expressions for fear of it derailing our work. We are both learning to take these expressions of emotion in stride. 

I have also had to work to share more of my emotions with Heather — to learn to trust that she will step up and support me. And, to see that she wants to do that. This has been a consistent lesson in my relationships at home as well. It took me years to recognize that I’m allowed to have expectations in my relationships, but that I have to express my needs in order to have them met.

Interestingly, this has led to a new discovery for me. (Now this may be obvious to others, but cut me some slack here.) When I express more of what I am feeling and ask for what I need, Heather feels less stressed and, maybe a bit less emotional herself. It seems a bit counter-intuitive to me, but it actually makes sense.

Two of Heather’s strengths are harmony and consistency, meaning she avoids conflict and she likes to know exactly what’s expected of her. When I don’t articulate my emotions or needs, she has to play a guessing game to figure out how to maintain harmony, and to figure out what I need from her. Because our natural tendencies are so different, she often fills in the blanks incorrectly.

If we’re not careful, we can both contribute to a vicious cycle. As her emotions escalate, I de-escalate mine. I feel like I’m sacrificing my needs to spare her the pressure of seeing my emotions. But, trying to guess my emotions exhausts and frustrates her. We are quite the pair, right?

We’ve learned that consistent, face-to-face contact helps us stay connected to each other and avoid these downward spirals. We need to spend time together…both work time and fun time. We are also getting better at knowing when we need time away from each other, and not taking that distance personally. 

Recently Heather and I had a tough conversation without Tricia in the room. I was able to say things that three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate. Both of our emotions were in the room, but they weren’t dominating the room. After that conversation, we felt like we had graduated from Tricia’s coaching. We can now get to the conversation without margaritas! (That doesn’t mean we are giving up our beverages though!)

Why our differences make us stronger

As Heather mentioned in her article about co-founder conflict, she and I are opposites in many ways. We knew this intuitively, but by taking a few different personality tests, we’ve learned to appreciate our differences and communicate better about them.

Just take a look at some of our Top 10 Strengths from the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment.

Chart of Amy and Heather's differences: 

Strategy: They create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues. 

Arranger: They can organize, but they also have a flexibility that complements this ability. They like to determine how all of the pieces and resources can be arranged for maximum productivity. 

Activator: They can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. They want to do things now, rather than simply talk about them. 

Woo: They love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over. They derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection with someone. 

Deliberative: They are best described by the serious care they take in making decisions or choices. They anticipate the obstacles. 

Analytical: They search for reasons and causes. They have the ability to think about all the factors that might affect a situation. 

Responsibility: They take psychological ownership of what they say they will do. They are committed to stable values such as honesty and loyalty. 

Discipline: They enjoy routine and structure. Their world is best described by the order they create.

Building a venture is very much like planning a journey. You need a destination, roadmap, some people, and some tools. I am pretty good at running through scenarios, choosing an ultimate destination and the major stops along the way, and recruiting people. Heather is really good at anticipating what we might encounter along the way, what we’ll need at each stop, and masterfully choosing and organizing all the tools for the trip.

I will help us decide that we are making the trip to California (vs. New York or Florida), that we are going to take a more northern route, stopping in South Dakota, Wyoming and Nevada, and we are hiring a driver for our tour bus. Heather will make sure we have a driver we can trust, we have the hats and coats we will need for South Dakota, the snacks we need to avoid hangry, and that we maintain the schedule.

I can get us heading in the right direction with the right team. Heather can make sure we actually get there on time and in one piece. This is what makes us a great team, but only because we are committed to continually learning together. We respect how irritating we are to each other, so we can reap the benefits of our differences. 

I love having Heather as my co-founder. And, I love being hers. Even though we drive each other crazy many days. I want and need to see the world the way Heather sees the world. She’s attentive to things I’m not always attentive to. She is insightful about people in a way that I sometimes overlook. She sees red flags sooner than I do. And, I think I can help her find the right strategic direction. I help her set the framework within which she can execute the details. I can highlight possibilities when she may be consumed by all the ways something will go wrong. 

Heather is very loving, and she does both big and small things to create a sense of caring, like bringing flowers into the office, or leaving notes for the security guards in the building at Valentine’s Day. I can’t get my shit together to do nice gestures like that. She’s thoughtful in the way that we need desperately in our space and our relationship. 

And she’s funny as hell. She can make me laugh until I pee my pants!  As I am learning to be a better co-founder for Heather, it’s helping me become a better person overall. 

Invest in the human part of your venture

No individual holds all of the skills that a business needs, which is why your co-founder should drive you a little bonkers. Otherwise, you may not have the right team. You need to intentionally build a team of people who rub you the wrong way sometimes. 

To find the best solutions, you need to have team members that you can debate with. To last as an organization, you need to be able to have those disagreements and still be friends afterward. 

Your company culture starts with the co-founding team. The dynamics between co-founders are the foundation on which the rest of the house stands. If you don’t make the investment in the human element of your venture, it will cost you in the end. Unfortunately, this often gets overlooked. 

As startup founders, we don’t think twice about hiring experts to help us with our legal, accounting, and IT needs. But, we rarely hire experts to help us cultivate our co-founder relationships and our company culture. You have to make the investment to get the return. Don’t wait until your business is on the brink. Do it now. Please. 

Doyenne develops & funds women-led ventures.

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