Are you in business with your friends?

One of the most misleading lines, often cited from The Godfather is: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

An entrepreneur will smile wryly whenever this line is thrown about. Business for entrepreneurs is rarely “strictly business”. It is very, very personal. Which brings us to the title of this post.

The short answer to that question for me is “yes”. I have client relationships with several friends, who are professionals in their chosen areas. My ventures too have always involved friends as co-conspirators and service providers. The tougher questions arise thence. How and when to switch on/ off your friend persona versus your client persona? Is there a priority order of personas, which one can invoke in a situation of conflict? Do all roles/ personas co-exist and you dance seamlessly from one to the other?

Here’s what I have learnt about working well with friends (and not falling out with any of them. Yet.)

Understand each other’s work styles. One of my friends mixes work and non-work so much that he fears no work gets done between gossip, coffee and often a meal. I prefer to work to agendas in work meetings. We now have a happy mix of the two work styles and it works for us. We both work on the agenda, taking segues and tangents, that often enrich our conversation. I am the one in charge of bringing back the tangent to the agenda. He is the one in charge of ensuring we stick to it. In the end we are both in charge of ensuring the other person didn’t feel hemmed in, screamed at or generally disrespected.

Trust each other’s professionalism as much as you trust each other. And be professional yourself. This absolutely cannot be overstated. Professionalism is symmetric — if you are a professional service provider, and I am a client who doesn’t know her brief, pushes you around and is unreliable with her side of the bargain, I shouldn’t expect to be seen as a “professional” client. It either works from both sides or doesn’t work at all. Your choice.

Know when and how much to push back. This is the tricky bit. I have been in a situation, where I have had to defend a professional service provider we engaged, with my collaborators. My friendship was an asset in this conflict but equally possible was that my collaborators thought of me as favouring said friend, because, well, she was my friend! And it did happen. The first couple of times, I tried to explain gently that it was not the case. But at the third instance, I made it amply clear that I did not appreciate the insinuation of impropriety and lack of integrity. I also made it clear that I was working hard to make things work, because others were not fulfilling their job of building an independent relationship with the professional, taking the easy route of “Oh, she is Shefaly’s friend!”. The push back seems to be working. I have taken a back seat in managing that particular relationship, and one of my collaborators is working to build his own equation with the service provider.

Professionalism #fail does not mean friendship #fail but lessons are learnt. In one of my ventures, we hired a professional to render essential services. He is a competent professional in his field but turned out to be most unreliable in many ways. Despite several reminders from me, an engagement letter was nowhere to be seen for months. Absolutely no advice was forthcoming on broader matters. Finally we disengaged. We are still friends but having seen his competence being compromised by his loose professional standards, I do not recommend him as effusively as I used to.

Communicate. Emails. Phone calls. Twitter direct messages. LinkedIn messages. Whatsapp. Google Hangouts. Whatever works for you. But, communicate. It prevents confusion that silence may create. Communicating about what pre-occupations may be keeping you from responding quickly on a mutual matter can foster trust and can enable the other person to extend help as a friend rather than just be the professional you engaged to do some work.

Know your bottom line. What will you walk away from? Every human interaction is but a negotiation. And while there are best outcomes we would like, we also need a back up. So it is best to think ahead: if you had to choose between the friendship and the professional engagement, what would you walk away from? It is a harder call than it looks. Something to think about. In advance.

Coming back to The Godfather, in my view, the trilogy is an object lesson in vision, strategic thinking, organisation building, leadership styles, ethics, “work life balance”, the political economy of business, individual freedom, and heteronormative patriarchy and its discontents. And the futility of it all.

Which brings me to the line that I find most affecting in the film.

“Your father did business with Hyman Roth; Your father respected Hyman Roth; But your father never trusted Hyman Roth.”

This line sums up why being in business with friends can and often does work.

Vito Corleone and Hyman Roth were never “friends” but they did business together. Between friends, however, there is pre-existing trust. Also, hopefully, shared values, a consideration for one another’s well-being and mutual respect. The business comes at the end of all this and benefits from all this.

If, however, in the end, business triumphs at the cost of friendship, it is worth remembering that above all, The Godfather is a story of distrust and mistrust. And this is how it ended.

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