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Four (Subtly) Toxic Partners - And How To Detoxify Them

One year, almost to the day, after joining a certain startup as a partner and founder, I was asked out to a drink by my business partner and co-founder.

We had grabbed a drink many times over the past couple years since we met, but I could tell from his tone that today’s drink was different. In fact, today was the day that he would tell me my “services were no longer needed”.

You see, we had just received a second round of funding and as the “gray hair” in this tech startup (I was 44 at the time, so yeah), my role was apparently obsolete. I was kept around just long enough to get us to funding - it had gotten that bad.

This relationship, which started out so great, hadn’t been working for a while, and I just didn’t want to admit it - I believed so much in what we were creating.

Had I known what I’m about to share with you, though, I might have been able to either avoid this partnership in the first place, or better manage it to avoid this outcome.

Overall, when I look back on this business relationship and others I’ve been in (and those I’ve  heard about from clients and colleagues), I know that partnership can be amazing - for so many reasons!

Partners can complement skills that you don’t have - for example, you hate making sales calls but your partner loves it. Awesome!

Partners make sure that someone always has your back, and can pick up the slack when you are low on sleep.

Partners can brainstorm with you, vet your amazing fantastic world-changing ideas, and reality-check the wiseness of sending that email to a nasty client.

I’ll have a whole post on the benefits of partners soon, but for today, I want to talk about the four types of toxic partners, the kind you really want to avoid. Or if you can’t avoid them (maybe because you’re already stuck with them, or because the benefits outweigh the downsides), how to handle them to make these traits less toxic.

1. The Blame Shifter

This partner always has an answer to why things didn’t get done or went off the rails, and it’s never about them. They won’t say “it’s my fault” (though they sometimes say “I’m sorry” which is not the same, because sorry isn’t the point - it’s responsibility, not shame we are after). Their excuses always fall outside of themselves, usually technology, client mistakes, or your misunderstanding of their intention. They rarely accept personal responsibility whether in dealing with clients or with you.

How to handle them: With blame shifters, as with any of these toxic partners, it is important to know that you may not be able to change their behavior. It helps to understand why they are behaving that way, so you can still manage it for yourself and change your experience of them. Communication skills are key here (well, in any relationship, but especially with blame shifters). As best you can, you will want to convey to them that they still have a responsibility regardless of external factors. If it becomes too much, you can always choose to not engage.

2. The “Great Idea” Generator

This partner seems wonderful at first, a genius even. They come up with so many great ideas and always amaze people with their enthusiasm for those ideas, because they present them with such passion and confidence. But forget about getting those things done. They won’t see them all the way through, because they have already moved on to the next shiny object.

How to handle them: When you are the partner of a Great Idea Generator (often, as in the EOS framework, called a Visionary), you need to either be an implementer yourself or have someone on your team assigned to this role. Without someone specifically tasked with project managing and getting the ideas of the Great Idea Generator done, all those great ideas will remain just that.

3. The Minimizer

One clue you’ve got a Minimizer: The Minimizer talks. A lot. That’s not what they minimize. Instead, by taking over every idea, plan, meeting or conversation with what’s important to them, they subtly convey that everything and everyone else is less so. They don’t celebrate even major wins of their partner or team, but will announce their own trivial accomplishments. That’s a passive minimizer, but some minimizers are active and will make a point of downplaying the contributions of their partner and team, take on the other partner’s roles, and in the process make the other partner look and feel less valuable.

How to handle them: The best way to manage a minimizer is to not buy into their version of reality. It’s easy to get sucked in to a dead end argument if you do. Speak up for yourself when they try to put you down and acknowledge team members publicly and one-on-one to ensure they know their value to you and the team. Find opportunities to get a word in when minimizers dominate the conversation and redirect it back to already established priorities.

4. The Show Stealer

A variant of the Minimizer, the Show Stealer will take the ideas of the other partner and claim them as their own, usually after dismissing them in the first place. How this looks in practice is they will first dismiss the idea or claim it as a lesser priority when expressed by someone else on the team, even their partner. Then suddenly a few weeks later, lo and behold, a revelation from on high of an amazing, wondrous new idea… which is the same idea from before repackaged or rephrased. Classic Show Stealer.

How to handle them: Everything above applies to show stealers as well. One additional approach you can try is to follow up a verbal conversations with a written summary sent via email including the show stealer. You can use this to document where ideas came from and if it ever becomes contentious, these contemporaneous notes will be your best friend.

Of course, not all of these partner types are like this all the time. And, of course, many of these qualities come along with amazing and wonderful qualities in the same person, like in any human being.

Knowing these four types and the clues to identify them are critical, though, when you are evaluating a potential partner - whether to merge your companies, bring on another partner, or start a new venture together. And if you choose to partner with them anyway, now you know how to keep these traits in check, so their best side - and yours - can shine and your partnership can be a success.


If you have any thoughts on this post or would like to share your partnership stories (good or bad), I would love to hear about them.

If you are looking for some support in navigating, creating, or working in a partnership, let’s have a chat. We can talk about where you are, where you would like to be, and how I might be able to help get you there. And if we are a fit, we can talk about what that would look like to have me as your advisor. Either way, the call is free and no obligation, and I promise you’ll walk away with at least one very powerful action step you can take right now.

Go ahead and request your free consultation now.

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