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In Marriage and Business, Transparency is Absolute by Alex Charfen

In Marriage and Business, Transparency is Absolute by Alex Charfen

Alex Charfen is co-founder and CEO of CHARFEN, providing events, training, coaching and membership experiences for visionary entrepreneurs around the world. 


When you're married and running a business with your spouse, it can be one of the most rewarding and exciting things that you do as a couple. 

I not only know this from coaching spouse teams, but also from my personal history running a number of multi-million dollar businesses with my wife Cadey. I’ve found that if one spouse is an entrepreneur, it’s difficult for the other to stay out of the business. Cadey and I are both entrepreneurs, so it was a foregone conclusion that we’d create our success together. But this kind of success in business and marriage is not always easy.

I recently had an extensive coaching call with a couple in a really challenging place in their marriage, a place you really don't want anybody to ever be: they couldn’t communicate. They weren’t hearing one another. One was very angry about their situation. The other very upset and feeling personally hurt. I'm sure that if I had another call with them – at any other time – those roles could be reversed. But add to this combustible situation that this husband and wife are entrepreneurs and business partners.

So as a couple, they're headed toward disaster. They have kids. They have a huge, multi-million dollar business. Having all of this in a marriage leads to incredible pressure and noise, and makes it even harder to communicate and support each other.

In situations like these, I always go back to the two rules I have for spouses to achieve entrepreneurial success:

  • Your marriage is the most important thing in your life.
  • Transparency in your marriage is absolute.

Throughout my time as a consultant working with entrepreneurs, I’ve seen a number of spouse teams leading businesses. If you’re wondering if this is rare, it’s not. I actually see this often, and you can find lots of examples of super-successful businesses run by couples, even at the billion-dollar level.

Alex and Cadey Charfen

Alex and Cadey Charfen

However, this experience of running a business with your spouse can also be the most difficult thing you do. The situation is riddled with challenges, from tough decisions and disagreements to how your personal relationship evolves with the business. In my years working with entrepreneurial couples, and working with Cadey to start and grow a multiple businesses, I’ve discovered there are clear ways to both avoid disaster and recover from it when you have a business and a marriage together. They break down into three simple items: clarity around roles, clear outcomes and a communications process.

I say they’re simple and they are, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. Here’s an explanation of each, and why they’re so critical to the success of businesses and relationships for spouse teams.

1. Have Clarity Around Roles

If you and your spouse work together, there are two crucial items to decide: what you’re doing and who’s responsible.

Most entrepreneurs operate based on tasks, or the haphazard allocation of responsibilities, but this is a very difficult way to work with your spouse. If either one of you is doing tasks and you don't have clear roles, responsibility or ownership over them, then it can be incredibly hard to work together. Ultimately, one spouse ends up feeling like they're managing the other, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, unfairness, powerlessness or resentment.

It will be important to set aside some time for you and your spouse to discuss the roles you want in the business, the roles your business needs, and then who is most capable of handling those roles. These kinds of conversations can be difficult and require a high level of transparency, because they hit at the heart of your entrepreneurial drive, your vision for the future and for the business, and your dreams for what you want to achieve as a businessperson.

At times like these, it helps to go back to the two rules I mentioned earlier: your marriage is the most important thing in your life; and transparency in your marriage is absolute.

2. Clarify Outcomes

If the first item for spouse teams to achieve success in their business and relationship is clarifying roles and responsibilities over outcomes, then the second item is to clarify those outcomes. Often I'll be on a coaching call with a couple and ask, "What do you want?" I deliberately leave that question open-ended because I want to hear where each spouse is focusing their attention.

The answers are typically undefined or nebulous outcomes. "I want to be debt free. I want to be happy again. I want to stop feeling disrespected. I want to start feeling like I can communicate. I want to start feeling like I'm running a business." They’re all noble and important feelings, but because they’re not specific, they’re also very hard things for others to help with. If you have these desired outcomes, your support system won’t know how to help you succeed.

When you have clear expectations around what you want, you’re far more likely to get it. So when you go about setting clear outcomes, think about them in terms of these questions, and be as specific as possible:

  • Where are you going?
  • What are you working toward?
  • What do you expect to happen?

I know that most entrepreneurs have a difficult time being clear about any one of these questions, let alone all three, let alone when they’re working with their spouse. But the clearer and more detailed you and your spouse can be in answering these questions, the more likely you’ll be able to work together and achieve them.

3. Establish a Communications Process

This is the big one. I’ll start by saying I don’t believe an entrepreneur can separate their work life from their personal life. I’ve never seen it happen. An entrepreneur is who you are, not what you do. So any communications process that works for your business needs to work for your life and marriage as well.

Having a communication process in your business is critical, but having this process in a marriage changes everything for the better. I’ve had the great opportunity to work with Fortune 500 executives, even self-made billionaires, and discovered that these people rely on communications processes. But the entrepreneurs I've worked with rely on communications skill.

The most successful entrepreneurs on the planet relied exclusively on communications processes because of their own communications deficiencies. They created ways to ensure communications happened was consistently and reliably. Here’s what that looks like.

Specific communications happen at specific times on specific days. Whether meetings, memos or conference calls, the timing was absolute and so were the team members involved. These could be weekly executive meetings or monthly financial reviews with your spouse. Having them at the same date and time lets you anticipate the communications you need to have, and prepare accordingly.

Communications should also have steadfast rules, such as document formatting, strict meeting agendas and contingencies (if this happens, then that person provides an update). For spouses, this could even detail the ways in which to communicate with each other, for example: talking only about future decisions, not past ones; or we will only talk about this topic for 20 minutes.

By putting such systems in place, spouses will limit the stress and urgency around their own communications abilities, or the issues that have developed in their ability to communicate with each other. And since poor communications can be harmful to any relationship, I feel it's a requirement for spouses who work together create a communications process.

My wife Cadey once said: “Process in a marriage isn't sexy, but you have a lot more sex.” (Did I mention she’s brilliant?) And these processes have to work for your marriage and your business. If you work with your spouse and are having challenges in your marriage, I can’t stress enough how valuable it is to clarify your roles in the business, clarify the outcomes you’re driving toward, and then create a communications process so you can measure success and get perspective over time.

Working with your spouse is one of the biggest privileges an entrepreneur can experience. It's also one of the most difficult things we’ll ever do. If you follow these three steps, you can avoid marriage-business disasters and move into marriage-business success, because at the end of the day, any couple that works together is looking to create massive success together.

Here's to yours.

Only the Beginning: Succession Planning

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Do you have a succession plan?