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The Partner Trap

Is your partner making decisions without you? Are you making decisions without them?


If so, you’re in the Partner Trap. To get out of it, the first step is to figure out how you got in it. And if you think that has anything to do with your partner, you’re wrong. You trapped yourself, and only you can get yourself out.


It is of course natural and essential for partners to split responsibilities. But each responsibility area has decisions that need to be made by both partners. And when decisions are made without those needed, it leads to poor decisions and erosion of trust which can ruin the partnership.


The Partner Trap is a potential pitfall for many types of partnerships. Business partnerships, marriages, parent/child, etc… As an example, here is a theme between CEO and CTO co-founders of technology startups I’ve helped improve in multiple organizations.


The Problem

It can be a healthy division of responsibilities for the CTO to be in charge of the tech side of things, and the CEO to be in charge of everything else. The problem starts when the CTO’s opinion on items such as culture, benefits, and fundraising is not included in decisions.


The CEO has no outside perspectives on decisions and their opinions are not challenged. They are not held accountable. When people are held accountable, their individual performance improves and it strengthens the culture of the organization.


Claim Your Seat

This is my call to partners out there to wake up, claim your seat, and hold your partner accountable. I don’t think you should do this so that you can have more power and protect your position. You should do this to improve decision-making and accountability in your partnership.


For CTO/Co-founders, some areas that need your co-founder opinion include:

  • Fundraising

    • This includes terms and deciding who to take investment from. This does not mean you should be on every possible investor call.

  • Culture/People/HR Decisions

    • You don’t need to be involved in all planning meetings, but your voice should be included in all decisions.

  • Board Meetings

    • You should be at every one. If your company doesn’t have board meetings, you should be cc’d on updates to investors from the CEO. Ideally, you provide feedback on messaging to the board/investors.

  • Company Financials

    • You should be involved in decisions that have a significant impact on your financials. You should know your burn, runway, and engineering-related costs.

  • Product Strategy

    • I put this last as I’m assuming as the head technical resource you are in these decisions already. If not, this is the first thing you need to change.


Own Your Part

If you find yourself in The Partner Trap, what should you do about it? First, recognize that you trapped yourself. Look closely at how this happened and what was your part in it. If your answer to this question in any way makes you out to be the victim of your partner, you don’t have it.


For example, I’ve seen scenarios where the CTO/Co-founder was so busy building the product, that they willingly allowed their CEO partner to start making decisions without them. The CEO then assumes that their CTO partner is not interested, and removes them from all non-technical decisions.


Another way this happens is the CTO/Co-founder starts making product architectural decisions that have an impact on cost and/or delivery timelines, which sets the norm that the co-founders don’t need to talk to each other on important decisions. This inadvertently gives the CEO permission to not include the CTO in non-technical decisions.


A New Way of Partnering

There should be an explicit agreement between the partners on what decisions can be made without involving the other. If there is not an agreement ahead of time, then during your regular meetings, you should discuss what decisions you are in the process of making, and see if the other wants input. This can be tricky if either you or your partner have a tendency to get over-involved and can’t let go. Your agreement should accommodate for this.


Once you’ve discovered how you trapped yourself, you can have a frank discussion with your partner highlighting the problem, owning your part, and together create a new way of partnering.


Moving Forward

In what ways are you not claiming your partner seat? How did you fall into it? Since every situation is unique, you may need help with this. This is an area where I’ve helped many, so please reach out by replying, commenting, or finding thirty minutes with me here.

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