The Secret Business Partner

March 31, 2015

The Secret Business Partner is not the same as a silent partner (who puts in capital and provides little to no advice). And the Secret Business Partner I’m referring to isn’t someone who needs their identity hidden–either because they’re famous or infamous. The Secret Business Partner I am talking about is highly influential and often outspoken, but also invisible and unheard from when it comes to 99% of the organization.

As an executive coach, I speak to clients about their impediments, opportunities, influences, fears, strengths, and goals. Because I’m hired to help and support them, they feel comfortable sharing some things with me that they wouldn’t (and don’t) with coworkers, employers, or even friends. There is only one person who gets the kind of honest admissions and assessments that I do. The significant other.

Significant others are, in effect, Secret Business Partners. They can act as sounding boards. They can ask questions others may be too afraid to ask–ones that often begin with “Why?” They can also use their knowledge of their partner’s strengths, failings, and personal history to add context and make judgments. Significant others can even have the last word on key business decisions–particularly when it would mean more work or responsibilities (and time away from home) for the executive.

When I meet with clients, I talk to them about their work, of course, but also their lives outside of work. I look not only for indications of work/life balance, but for intellectual influences and emotional stakeholders. I look for who holds sway, when, and how.

The conversations that leaders have at the end of the day–when they’re tired and “off duty”–may seem like just a typical wind-down routine, but these conversations can have a huge impact on the next morning’s work. Coworkers may feel like they’re starting off where they left off the day before only to find out that the landscape/conversation has changed dramatically. They will feel like they missed something, and they have.

Significant others can and often do prevent their partners from making poor decisions, simply by being good question-askers and by providing emotional support. Their lack of investment in the daily goings-on and work dynamics can be an asset as well.  But significant others can hold too much sway. And because they don’t witness work dynamics firsthand or have access to a full range of information, they may push too strongly for changes that will cause more harm than good.

Here are 8 signs that a leader’s Secret Business Partner is having too much impact on your business:
  1. You reached an agreement yesterday, and the leader comes in and reverses his/her position.
  2. A verdict or opinion given by the leader doesn’t come with a sound explanation (just evasive answers).
  3. Patterns of decisions are being made based on a value set that does not align with the organization’s or the leader’s.
  4. The leader’s significant other shows up and walks into the office like he/she owns the place–even more so than those that have been hired to run the place.
  5. The leader mentions his/her spouse a disproportionate amount of times during any given day.
  6. The leader frequently says, “I need to sleep on it” or “I’ll get back to you tomorrow on that.”
  7. The leader behaves differently in the presence of his/her significant other.
  8. The significant other behaves like the Alpha with the leader.

Depending on how much power Secret Business Partners have and exercise, they can make day-to-day operations difficult and unpredictable. Since they don’t hold an official role in the organization, how exactly should employees communicate with them? There’s no good or easy answer to this question, which is why employees often left to read the tea leaves–cues gleaned from the leader’s behavior, retractions, and unexpected pivots.

When the significant other holds an official position in the company, it’s easier to gauge who wields the power–officially and unofficially. Still, I would never join a firm as a senior executive where a spouse was a key employee of the company. This is not about effectiveness of the working relationship or talent of both parties. Sometimes the less senior significant other may actually be more capable than the leader. The problem lies not with talent, but with communication. When significant discussions and decisions are being made at home, rather than at work, the people at work will start to feel left out and under-appreciated. They will feel like they aren’t being treated fairly, on merit, and they’ll be right.

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