Yes, a man can work in his wife’s business. Here’s how…

Ed Challinor

In this article I’m writing a response to Nicola Cook’s insightful commentary in her Company Shortcuts blog for International Women’s Day, ‘Can a man work in his wife’s business.’

You can read it here.

I came across the blog having met Nicola at a mastermind event and agreed to write my response from the unique perspective of being the second in command in my girlfriend’s business.

I was especially interested when Nicola posed the question;

How do you maintain a healthy personal relationship privately when as a female you may wish for your partner to take the lead in your relationship, yet reverse those roles on a daily basis professionally?

I immediately jumped when reading this because it’s a problem that I believe I have solved.  Have I solved it easily?  No – it’s been three years of trial and error and like any business solution it’s not a magic bullet but a series of small victories that create something bigger than the sum of their parts.

My business journey has taken me to about the lowest a person can get.  I, the lawyer and counsel failed to read a contract that almost ended in our business – everything we had built – failing.  That’s pretty hard to bounce back from but I will give you modern men out there some tips for not only surviving but flourishing in both capacity as second in command and also a knight in shining armour.

So here’s what you need for the relationship to work at home and at work.

Define your roles from the outset

You wouldn’t make a hire into your business without first writing a job description so why do you husband and wife teams just play jazz when deciding who does what in your business?

The book you need to read to understand this principle is Michael C. Gerber’s classic, ‘The E-Myth’.  To avoid conflict in any relationship, whether it be domestic or commercial, you need to have well-defined roles and know what’s expected of you.

In our business I used to man the reception desk.  I’m a truly dreadful administrator and frequently used to let patients leave without paying!  I used to (quite rightly) wind my other half up enormously and cause friction.

Avoid recruitment headaches

Hiring a receptionist and getting way out of there was one of the best decisions we ever made.  Not only did it mean I wasn’t forever making mistakes but also that I could focus on what I was good at.  It’s cruel and unusual torture to make someone do something they’re not good at.  And it can make even the most charming, handsome and intelligent man feel like a useless klutz.

Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re not playing to your strengths.  If you’re struggling with admin, accounting or sales then outsource or hire at the earliest opportunity.

You may not think you can afford it but when you look back in years to come you’ll cringe at how rubbish you were in roles you shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.

In a wider sense you also need to sort out the division of power.  MJ is the boss and used to get twitchy when I made decisions without her say-so.  This could be an immense cause of friction but it wasn’t because I recognised it and now make sure I run most of the big decisions (even about my part of the business) past her.  We have agreed that she is the boss so it’s my responsibility to make her feel comfortable in that role and not that I am nipping at her heels all the time.

When we are together in the practice we maintain a unified front and are professional and together on issues in public even though we might have divergent and powerfully opposing views once we get home.

There is only one thing worse than a couple arguing in public – and that’s a couple making out in public.  So both of these extremes are avoided for the good of everyone.

That said, our chemistry is very much present in the office and I’m constantly doing little things for her and making her seem special in front of the team.  It all goes back to how she feels.  If I revere her talents very publicly in front of patients and employees alike then both will feel like there are in good hands.

It can be hard for a couple in business when one person feels neglected.  I remember reading somewhere that an entrepreneur was beating himself up about not replying to a complaint within his contracted 10 min standard.  The wife was thinking ‘how can he care so much about missing a stranger’s complaint by 30 seconds and yet he doesn’t bother even doing the slightest thing for me around the house’.  More on this later – but it’s important to make her feel special and not expend all your energy making your customers happy.  The customer is number two in our business.  Right after MJ – my primary responsibility.

Sort out the financialsPositive cash flow, budgeting

One of the biggest early sources of tension in our relationship was who got what if things went south.  And let’s face it, for the first two years of running a business you think of little else than the thing folding and what dreadful consequences would flow from the collapse.  I didn’t have any money when we set up and MJ put in the initial capital and also got a loan from her parents.  On the flip-side, I had quit my career and devoted 100% of my time and effort into pursuing her dream.

So where does this leave us if we split up?

Business can be stressful and any spouse team who says they never faced the worst is probably not telling you the truth.

So I made an appointment with a mutual lawyer friend of both MJ and me and we went into the meeting with no idea of how to proceed and a great amount of anxiety.  After an hour or so we left with a plan in place and a signed document stating clearly what happens if we split up.  It was easy and we were both happy (and surprised that there were no real arguments.  We both had largely the same numbers in mind.

There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t feel blessed to have my part of the business and now that years have passed and I’m doing so much more I still don’t think of it.  We share everything and I get looked after well for the work that I put in.

My percentage stake is my insurance policy so I can set up my own business and get back on my feet should the worst happen.  The relief that we both felt after that meeting brought us closer than ever and meant we could focus on making it work rather than worrying about failure.

Stop neglecting your body

You are the man in the relationship and you owe it to your partner to stay fit and healthy.  It’s easy to let stress and pressure give you an excuse to let yourself go and end up a wobbly, dishevelled wreck.  Take pride in your appearance and don’t neglect your health.  Exercise helps you perform in business and I see people who’ve let themselves go and just think it demonstrates a lack of discipline.

It’s the same with alcohol and drugs.  If you can’t control what you drink, then how are you supposed to control your business and control your life?  Health goals are like any other goals and I include them in my business planning sessions.  The mind and body are intimately linked and if you want to be able to think and make decisions in an agile and efficient way then you need to be fit and healthy.

What’s more your positivity and mindset rely on you being full of happy endorphins from the gym and not being constantly in a drunken gloom.  My mind boggles when I see how focused a person can be on their work and totally let their body and health descend into an irreversible slump.  So you owe it to her to stay fit and healthy.  It will make her happy and it will make you happy, more confident and feel more in control.

Take the trash out

I clapped my hands together and declared “I AM INVINCIBLE!!!” – just like Boris from Goldeneye as yet another patient booked through my new form that I had painstakingly coded into our blog.  Around me, empty boxes of Chinese food, plates with scrambled eggs on and a bag of cat litter destined for the bin chute.  I thought, “I’m not tidying up, we have a cleaner who’s coming tomorrow and tidying up is below my pay grade.”

Wrong.  Do you want to know what she’s thinking?  “How can I trust this guy with our £5,000 a month marketing budget if he can’t even put out the rubbish?”  Like with exercise, there’s no excuse for letting the household chores slide.  She’s the primary breadwinner and without her there would be no business and no extraordinary lifestyle of freedom and creativity.  I made the choice to be part of her dream and I have learned that this involves doing my bit domestically and making sure there’s food when she gets back from a 12-hour shift.  After all – I work from home and get to take a break whenever I want so I use that to make sure the place is nice and tidy, cat’s are fed and the place looks nice.

I see so many couples arguing about this stupid bin and washing-up related stuff and it makes me sad.  Take responsibility for making breakfast, cooking at tea-time and even buying the odd bunch of flowers when she’s had a bad day.  It will make you feel good, make her feel wanted and show her that you’re fit to be taking on the important jobs and making the bigger decisions.

Stay strong and in control

Ok so don’t let all this washing up and pyjama folding go to your head.  This is not the 1950’s and you’re not a housewife.  Recently I wanted to hire a sales manager into the business and she said an emphatic ‘no’.  She came up with a load of very good reasons why aggressive sales are not appropriate in an environment of patient care and trust.

So what did I do?  I spoke to some of the most talented and experienced people I could get hold of, created a business plan with a detailed financial analysis of how the hire would affect P&L, cash-flow and the company culture.  Then I produced a remarkably persuasive scorecard and sourcing strategy for the hire.

I put it to MJ and me (the board) in such a convincing way that she’s now not only onside but helping me with the search.

Just because you’ve chosen to be the supporter doesn’t mean you’re automatically a subordinate.  Sometimes the leaders get it wrong and you need to maintain a level of confidence and credibility in your role to convince even the most belligerent ‘boss’ that your way is the correct one.  On the flip side too many men automatically try to get what they want with shouting and dominating the physical situation.  This is certainly not the right way.  You get what you want in business with numbers and well-formulated argument. What’s more, in business for everything you get right there are two or three things that go wrong.  So you need to be mutually bought into each decision or it’s going to spawn a sort of score-sheet of crap decisions that will be referred to each time there is conflict.

It’s easy to let the gender roles be reversed.  But I submit that we don’t want to let that happen.  You can still be the man and she can still be the woman in the relationship.  I don’t believe that men should be in charge and women should be supporters.  In fact, I firmly believe that in business, women are more naturally talented to suit leadership roles than men are.  I think the gender inequality is simply because men are still traditionally holding on to the top spots. At Smileworks we have a 95% female team and that’s simply because we find more women who can do their jobs better than men.

That said, I often see females’ dominant, leadership positions being overly aggressive or trying to act like men because that’s what they see as appropriate.  At Smileworks the female leaders are still female – and everything from our designer scrubs (produced by Oksana Anilionyete of London Fashion Week Fame) to the facial aesthetic work (that our staff enjoys at cost) is geared around making the leaders feel sexy and feminine rather than bossy and bullying.businessmeeting.coaching.mentor.corporate

So what does she really want?

I think business relationships are no different than any other relationships.  If a guy has any game he’ll know what she wants from him.  Probably the most important thing to remember is that men and women are inherently different.  And true equality is enjoying those differences without limiting anyone’s potential.  These differences are sometimes exaggerated in the workplace.  For example, men like to fix problems and there are lots of problems in business to fix.

But what you mustn’t lose sight of is that as well as fixing problems, women often want to talk about their problems because it helps them deal with stress and anxiety.  I think although I’m second in command, when work is over and we’re at home I will adopt the role of listener and by listening to her problems and helping her work through them systematically we can get a deeper understanding of priorities personally and in the business.

This approach is so much more successful than that adopted by most men which is a more dismissive, ‘this is obviously the answer – now go off and get it fixed before any damage is done’.

Listening is a skill that is as important in the boardroom as it is in the bedroom and the sooner you fellas get a handle on that one the better your life – and your business – is likely to become.

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Ed Challinor is the First Officer and Co-Founder of Smileworks, the most popular and fastest growing dental and medical aesthetics practice in Liverpool. He used to be a lawyer and brings his considerable skills of commercial law, advocacy and leadership to the business where he manages the sales and marketing function and formulates the business strategy with the most important person in his life, the supremely talented Dr MJ Rowland-Warmann.

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About the Author Company Shortcuts

Company Shortcuts works with a team of outstanding Sales Accelerators to deliver consultancy and training, who also guest blog for us on topics of interest to sales leaders.