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NOVEMBER 24, 1999


An Entrepreneur's Moment of Truth: My Business Needs a Professional Manager
A spouse may seem like the obvious choice, but it probably wouldn't be the best one

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One of the toughest periods for entrepreneurs is the transition from sole practitioner to employer. With employees come the responsibility of meeting payroll and the need to manage them.

Some entrepreneurs are so ambivalent about this that they kid themselves that they're not really employers — they just have a little "help" on the side. One sign that business owners have a head-in-the-sand approach is when they prefer to rope in family members to manage the administrative aspects of their business rather than hiring a professional or finding a partner. That can be risky if the person is unqualified because poor staff management can lead to lawsuits and hurt the company's reputation. It also backs you into partnership with a family member — most likely a spouse — which is not something to be undertaken lightly. That's what almost happened to one woman who wrote to me.

Fortunately for her, her marriage, and her business, the scheme backfired. The experience made her realize that she had a serious business that needed a professional approach to growth. Read her edited letter: "As a business coach, do you find that many entrepreneurs begin to lose it when their business grows? This is what I have experienced. Most entrepreneurs are idea people. Once we need to begin managing the business in earnest, we get into areas where we lack expertise. That frustrates the entire organization.

"I actually married a very good manager. We explored the idea of having him manage the business. However, after much deliberation, he wouldn't leave his job. I had assumed erroneously that he really wanted to work with me. I finally got tired of waiting and withdrew the offer. My sense was that if it's that difficult to make up your mind about a job, it isn't right for you, simple as that. Fortunately, we are both very comfortable with this decision. Our marriage is stronger than the desire to be in business together.

"We are now looking for someone to become a manager, who would handle the financial aspects of the business and the daily operations. I am a firm believer in incentive plans and am looking for someone who will be more commited than just an employee. How do you think I should approach this?"

I commend you for the way you handled this awkward situation. Just because your husband's skills match your business needs doesn't mean that it would be good for your marriage or the business for him to become your partner. Business partnership places enormous pressure on a marriage.

Married partners can run businesses successfully. But when one partner participates under duress, it's a recipe for disaster. Your husband was wise to listen to his gut. First, it's your company, and you'd be his boss. Second, no matter how much in love two people are, they may not relish spending day and night together. Third, there's the risk of depending entirely on your business for your financial security.

Presumably, you thought of going into business with your husband because you trust him more than a stranger, and because you assume he, knowing you so well, would be able to anticipate your needs and wishes. Whether it would be to your husband or someone else, it would still be hard for you to give up control of "your baby." Don't let this stop you from getting a manager, because you've had an important realization: that you lack the skill and time to do it all yourself.

You state that you believe in incentives to ensure the person's commitment. No salaried employee will be as committed as you and your husband are. Don't expect a compensation plan to work magic. The best employees will always be in demand. Unless you offer a career path that fully challenges someone of the caliber you seek, you risk losing the person to another bidder. You're not just creating a job. It's really a partnership and should be treated as such. Do you want to run this business for the rest of your life? If not, maybe you are hiring the next owner. Even if that's not your plan, treat this manager as if that were the case.

Don't just put an ad in the paper to fill such a critical position. Explore other options. Maybe someone who works for you now could be groomed for the job. Alternatively, network, and maybe you can cultivate a relationship with someone you feel you could trust as much as you do a current employee.

Have a question on how to handle the pressures of running a business and the impact on your personal life, marriage, and family? Contact Azriela Jaffe at Please put "BW Online question" in the subject field. Your real name will be kept confidential if you request, but please give an E-mail address, phone number, and your hometown so she can contact you for more information. Because of heavy volume, Azriela cannot guarantee that she will answer every query.

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