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A strategy for vetting business partnerships

How do we assess whether a partner is a good fit beyond a typical, surface-level analysis? In this episode of Toughest Call, Dr. Dianne Tyers talks about her decision to end a business partnership that would have a significant impact on her company’s revenue for several years.

Though she was an entrepreneur at the time she made this tough call, Dianne is now Dean of the Faculty of Open Learning and Career Development at Dalhousie University. She shares what she learned about the importance of ensuring you share the values of an individual or organization before you enter into a partnership.

Dianne Tyers: I got to the point where I need to be true to who I am, I need to be true to the values under which I established this organization that I'm running, and I just need to make this decision.

Chaz Thorne: Welcome back, or welcome to Toughest Call, a podcast for organizational leaders where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career-defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz Thorne. 

In this episode, I'm talking with Dr. Dianne Tyers about her decision to end a business partnership that would have a significant impact on her company's revenue for several years. Though she was an entrepreneur at the time, she made this tough call. 

Dianne is now the Dean of the Faculty of Open Learning and Career Development at Dalhousie University

In organizational culture, we rely on internal and external partnerships to get things done. Sometimes these collaborations help us achieve our goals. But far too often, they hinder us. 

How do we assess whether there is a fit beyond a typical, surface-level analysis? Dianne talks about what she learned about the importance of ensuring you share the values of an individual or organization before you enter a partnership.

Dianne Tyers: I was running my own business in the education sector, and that business was founded on having a lot of partnerships. 

We did a lot of B2B-type work. And typical of any small business owner trying to get traction, trying to push ideas out, I was working crazy hours, I was doing 78 hours a week, I hadn't taken a vacation in years, literally. And you know, you're in a state of almost exhaustion all the time, it's challenging to sleep, it's challenging to push yourself through each day. 

So it was, you know, obviously a very, very high-stress situation for a very extended period of time. And anyone who runs their own business totally knows what the situation is, like—

Chaz Thorne: What led up to you being confronted with this difficult decision that you had to make?

Dianne Tyers: Yeah, so the decision I had to make was whether to continue with a particular business partnership with the company that I was running. 

And, you know, hindsight is 2020, you look back on these things. And you say, Okay, I should have seen this, I should have seen this. And this was right in front of me. And I didn't see it. And you know, how did I miss all this stuff? But, you know, I just gradually over a number of months, I started to see that there were things happening that I was, there's kind of my radar, for want of a better word. And so it was just constantly at the back of my head, there's something going on here, there's a problem here, we're gonna have to make a decision at some point. 

And it was just this growing sense, constantly with me that something was not right. And that there was only a limited time span that I could keep this current situation going.

Chaz Thorne: Was there something specific that led to you going, alright, I can't put this decision off anymore.

Dianne Tyers: Yeah, you always think there's going to be this big lightbulb or, you know, something's gonna automatically say, got to make the decision now, but it just starts to become cumulative. 

And interactions with the business partnership that I'm specifically referring to just became more and more problematic, and more and more energy draining. And there was, you know, always this underlying tension there. 

And so that just kept building and building and, and then you reach a point where you know what, this needs to stop. And I need to make a conscious decision for the business. And I need to make a conscious decision for myself that, you know, this needs to end. And it's very difficult to get yourself to that point. Because you're, you know, when you end something, there's always a saying, you end something, you begin something else, but when you end something you never, you don't know what's going to come afterwards. So there's this big unknown and this big chasm that opens up in front of you. And you just have to make the decision and leap.

Chaz Thorne: How are you feeling emotionally leading up to having to make this choice?

Dianne Tyers: Yeah, you're feeling this crazy wide range of emotion. So one of them is you're just afraid because literally you are launching yourself off into yet another unknown and as you run your business, you know, there's always unknowns. You're dealing with unknowns every day. And in this situation, you're actually making a conscious decision to launch into an unknown. And so fear is a big thing I experienced, you're constantly as a business owner. And so there was just a lot of fear. But then there's also hope. You know, when it comes to making these tough decisions, you make them because there's a hope that once you do make this decision that things will change and that they will get better, as opposed to getting worse. So it was this balance of fear and hope?

Chaz Thorne: Did you have any sort of tangible process that you followed, or someone that was advising you that it may be, you know, a colleague that had gone through something similar or anything like that, to, to help you in this process of, of making this decision?

Dianne Tyers: It's a really interesting question, because for this particular decision, no, I didn't, I was making this one on my own. 

And one of the learnings I took away from making this decision is that I actually needed an advisor, you know, one or more people that I could take these tough decisions to. And, you know, they had been through these types of decisions in the past in their careers. And so one of the things I did after making this decision is I actually went out and sought an advisor and I brought up, I was fortunate enough to connect with a retired business person who was looking for something to do and looking for someone to support and he became my volunteer business coach for I was a relationship that lasted for about 12 years, until he retired again. Yeah, at the time, I did not, I think one of my big learnings was these tough decisions are always going to come up and you need a team behind you when you're making these decisions.

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So you make the decision. What was the decision?

Dianne Tyers: Yeah, so the decision was to terminate this particular business partnership. 

And it was, it was not easy. And the reason I came to this decision, I'll back you up a little bit. Prior to this event, you know, I formed business partnerships, based on looking for complementary skill sets. So I would form partnerships with individuals or other organizations because we complemented each other. So my business and myself, I could bring something to the table, and they could bring something else to the table in terms of skill sets, or contacts, or knowledge or products, or whatever it is. 

And so I was always looking for that complimentary piece. And through this experience, I learned that yes, you need that complimentary piece, but you actually need something more. And that's something more is unique complementary values, or similar values, sorry. And you need to put importance on the same things. Because otherwise, when things get tough in any business partnership, it is those underlying values that start to tear you apart. It's very rarely, you know, a lack of skill set or anything like that, in my experience that pulls a business partnership apart, it really is those different values. And that really only comes into play when things get tough. 

And so I had gotten to this realization that it didn't matter how complementary our skill sets, word products, and so on. Our value systems were simply too different. You know, I had a high-quality value system, a customer-oriented value system. And in just a very hard work ethics system, for about value, you know, I enjoy working hard, and I enjoy seeing the outcomes of my hard work. And so the values were just very different. 

And I just reached the point where I need to say, this is not going to work because I'm not going to change my value system. And I could possibly ask the business partner to change theirs. But that's just not realistic. So, I got to the point where you know what, I need to be true to who I am, I need to be true to the values under which I established this organization that I'm running, and I just need to make this decision.

Chaz Thorne: What was the immediate fallout of you communicating to this business partner The decision that you had made?

Dianne Tyers: Yeah. You just kind of brace yourself for what reaction you're gonna get. And I'm glad I braced myself. 

But the immediate reaction was anger, just fireworks of anger, you know, how dare you, you know, I can't believe you're doing this, you're betraying this, blah, blah, blah, you know, just a lot of anger. 

And then finger-pointing and blame, you know, you did this wrong, you did this wrong, you got this wrong, you failed here, this was the partner, you know, throwing the blame at me. 

So just massive, massive negative emotional waves. And it didn't stop. You know, I would get them verbally and in verbal conversations or get them via email. You know, it was just this onslaught of, of anger and blame and frustration, and it was very, very overwhelming.

Chaz Thorne: How did you process that in the moment? And did it make you second guess your decision at all?

Dianne Tyers: It's interesting, because it actually reinforced my decision. Because, you know, when I saw the behaviors coming from my partner, I was like, okay, this is actually a good thing that this is coming out now. Because if it was something even bigger, and this is what would come out of the partner, I'm much better off not being in this partnership. 

So as difficult as it was to deal with, with what came at me emotionally from the business partner, it completely validated my decision, completely validated it.

Chaz Thorne: If you were faced with a similar decision, where you needed to make this, this tough call around ending a business partnership. Would you do anything differently in terms of that process?

Dianne Tyers: I would—I learned a lot about what to do in forming partnerships and questions to ask and probing to do prior to forming the partnership. 

So that I think was where a lot of the learning came, is what to do and not to do when you're forming partnerships. 

I'm not sure I would have approached the termination of the partnership any differently, or I'm not sure I would approach it any differently now, except to say, have more trust in my decision making, because I mentioned, you know, when it came time to make this decision, I was terrified, I was absolutely afraid. Because I was just launching into this big uncertainty, the unknown, I had no idea what would unfold after this. 

And so I think one of the things I take away from this is just much more trust in my decision-making, more trusting my instincts. But process-wise, I'm not sure I would actually do anything different. In a similar situation, except emotionally, I would actually trust myself more.

Chaz Thorne: You launched into the uncertainty. What happened—

Dianne Tyers: Um, they live happily ever after.

No. Life doesn't happen that way. I wish it did. 

Um, it was tough. This had represented a significant amount of my business. And so I had to go out and find new partnerships. 

And, you know, anyone who runs their own business, they know how much effort goes into getting any client, any, any business partnership, any customer, you have to, you know, you start from the ground up, building relationships, trying to find the right ones, that will work. And that will take your company and their company in the right direction. 

So basically, you go back to the basics, and do all of the legwork, all the groundwork, you're careful, obviously, about your decision. But it was just a lot of work. And I took a revenue hit. 

And I knew that going into the decision, I knew that there would be an effect on my revenue. And I accepted that fact. And I worked through it. So it took me probably about a year and a half to two years to recover to the revenue levels I'd had prior to terminating this particular partnership. 

So I just faced head-on the hard work. And my line is always, you know, at the end of the day or after a decision to cry with myself in the mirror and like what I see. And you know, if I can't like what I see, if I don't like what I see, I'll actually reverse a decision. And I'll just say, you know, I'm not comfortable with this decision. I should have made a different decision. But that's the barometer that I always use: go look at myself in the mirror and like what I see if I can't I change the decision.

Chaz Thorne: If someone came to you, a colleague and they were facing the, especially the beginning of a partnership, and that could be hiring someone, that could be whether or not to take on a client. If they're an entrepreneur or run an organization whether to take on a strategic partner or an actual partner in the business. What words of advice would you have for them about how to approach that process?

Dianne Tyers: You have to do the practical things like, you know, people make fun of having a pro and con list. But you do have to do that type of analysis and you do whatever analysis you need, you know, what's the revenue impact of the cost impact, you know, what, how's this going to change my ability to run my business, you have to do all that practical stuff. And sometimes the decision becomes clear once you do the practical evaluation of something. 

But if it's not clear, that's when you know, we talked about values, you have to go back to the values piece, and you have to do the values analysis and say, you know what, even though the decision might practically look like a good one, there's something you know, it's preying on my mind that that won't go away that I need to listen to you. And I need to listen to that voice. And that's the piece of advice I would give people, you know, do the practical analysis, by all means, but also listen to your inner voice. And if your inner voice contradicts the practical analysis, you do need to listen to it.

Chaz Thorne: It never ceases to amaze me how often values come up in conversations about business, or organizational culture, in general. And certainly what we've seen as strategic planners is, very often there's your, the values are treated almost like a PR exercise. And it's very much so about trying to make everyone happy and trying to show that, you know, everyone has a place under the tent. 

But when you think about your values, how you're using them strategically, is you're saying, this is how we do things around here. And you actually need to embrace that, and make a strong statement about it. 

In Dianne's case, that's really what it came down to is that she had never had the values conversation with her, her partner. So therefore, there was no alignment. 

One of the best articles which admittedly could be interpreted as a little bit scorched earth I've ever read about values is by Patrick Lencioni. He also wrote “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team'', the book, and this is an article in Harvard Business Review from 2002, called Make Your Values Mean Something. And here's a couple of really strong poll quotes from that article. 

The first is, “If you're not willing to accept the pain, real values incur, don't bother going to the trouble of formulating a value statement.” So in saying what your values are, and not some long list of generic meaningless words, actually choosing three to five things that make a strong statement about how we do things around here. 

You should alienate people. There should be individuals that decide, no, that doesn't align with who I am. The whole concept of strategy is of course, making actual choices. And when you dither, or you have really, really long lists of things. You're not saying anything people should be able to determine for themselves by looking at your values, whether or not they're a fit for you either internally or externally. 

Another great pull quote from that same article by Lencioni that I love is: “Values initiatives have nothing to do with building consensus. They are about imposing a set of fundamental, strategically sound beliefs on a broad group of people.”

I really could not agree more with Lencioni in terms of how he looks at values. And mostly because it goes back to the title of his article, Make Your Values Mean Something.

Too often, whether it's a small organization, as was Dianne's case, or a larger organization, there, they either don't clearly and concisely define how they do things around here, or they come up with this, you know, sort of, they either don't do the exercise at all, or they come up with a fairly meaningless list. 

And all you're doing is causing pain. Because it's your job as an organizational leader, to put in place processes for creating clarity around how it is you do things around here. And that in turn, helps people understand whether or not they're a fit, or they're not a fit. And there's absolutely no problem in someone not being a fit in your organization. But you can't use that as an excuse to shy away from actually making a strong statement about what your values are. 

If you'd like to learn more about Dr. Tyers, and Dalhousie’s Faculty of Open Learning and Career Development, you can check out their website

And if you'd like some assistance with your own Tough Calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to ToughestCall.Com to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to Toughest Call, please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I hope this conversation helps you when faced with your next tough call. 

Dr. Dianne Tyers

Dr. Dianne Tyers is the Dean of the Faculty of Open Learning and Career Development at Dalhousie University. Dianne has a multifaceted 25+ year international career as an entrepreneur and people leader in a wide variety of roles. She strongly believes that clear, simple, and consistent operational processes are the starting point to any well-run team and organization.

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