(By Marina Kim)
“As any cofounder will tell you, there is an eerie set of similarities in the relationship between cofounders and the relationship between spouses. You are committing to be together over many years, you often speak to each other multiple times every day, you make many important decisions together about how to build your life (or your venture) and your family (or your team), you learn how to communicate and move past conflict, as well as ensure that money worries don’t tear you apart. You depend on tolerance, acceptance, and mutual appreciation when you face uncertainty or external shocks. And you also have to know how to enjoy yourselves together when times are good.“
It is virtually impossible to find one person who can display all the requisite skills for effective leadership as a single founder. Cofounders can often split the workload in different ways—startups often have technical cofounders and business cofounders, businesses often have CEOs and COOs—and there are many variations. The bottom line is that there is a huge amount of energy and a variety of complex skills that are needed to successfully get a new venture off the ground.
Building a Life Together
I recently got engaged, but my fiancé has learned to be comfortable with the fact that I already have a “significant other.” I have long been committed to Erin Krampetz as my partner in all things social change. We started out over a decade ago as co-student leaders for FUSION (Future Social Innovators’ Network) at Stanford University, where we were building out student opportunities to intern with social sector leaders, helping other students launch their own social ventures, and practicing problem-solving around the world. More recently, we co-founded an initiative called Ashoka U, which we created over five years ago to spread social innovation culture and curriculum at colleges and universities around the world. (Ashoka U is a division within the global social entrepreneurship organization, Ashoka.)
As any cofounder will tell you, there is an eerie set of similarities in the relationship between cofounders and the relationship between spouses. You are committing to be together over many years, you often speak to each other multiple times every day, you make many important decisions together about how to build your life (or your venture) and your family (or your team), you learn how to communicate and move past conflict, as well as ensure that money worries don’t tear you apart. You depend on tolerance, acceptance, and mutual appreciation when you face uncertainty or external shocks. And you also have to know how to enjoy yourselves together when times are good.
Four Tips For Balancing Co-Leadership and Friendship
1. Design Your “Leadership Legacy”
When we were starting Ashoka U, we did the requisite market research and strategic planning and wrote a four page Ashoka U Concept Note. That’s all necessary stuff for the organizational side of an endeavor such as this, but the most important document for our co-leadership and partnership was created during a half-day meeting in which we envisioned a larger purpose for ourselves. This included the legacy we wanted to leave as leaders in the social sector, the leadership culture we wanted within our team, what we each wanted to learn from each other through our leadership journey, and our ultimate lifestyle preferences and non-negotiable leadership values. We wrote out several bullet points for each of these sections, read them out loud to each other, and affirmed that we would support each other to accomplish them.
This document has been more powerful than we ever expected, and it has served as a touch point that continues to ground us and remind us that the day-to-day challenges and frustrations are not the main things to focus on—we have a higher purpose with our work. To this day, we continue to strive toward realizing the leadership legacy we set out over five years ago.
2. Know Your Superpowers. Leverage Relative Strengths
It’s not only essential to know what you’re good at individually, but also to know what your partner is good at relative to you. That helps allocate the right time and resources to each of your areas of greatest strength. Erin and I are both junkies for personality quizzes that help us understand what we’re good at and how to work best together. Over the years we have tried many different kinds of self-assessments, and we have found two personality quizzes particularly useful in honing our professional dynamic.
Entrepreneurs’ DNA traits: There is an amazing list of entrepreneurial traits that we use and rank ourselves according to a scale of 1 to 3. After using the list to assess our own level of proficiency for each entrepreneurial trait, we then shared our scores with each other and also gave feedback on whether we thought we had rated ourselves too high or low.
Myers-Briggs: The Myers-Briggs typology is really helpful to bring together team dynamics. We have used it to help understand our own differences, for example, with issues in the team, particularly when we have to navigate strong differences.
Talking about these self-assessments and having an awareness of our differences has helped us use a common language around our relative strengths. We have used this awareness to ensure our roles are designed around our personality types and strengths, and we have also carefully built a team that complements skills and areas where neither of us is strong.
3. Expect Excellence and Push Each Other
Over the years, we have developed a practice of staying very professional within the work context and pushing each other to grow as leaders. We can keep each other accountable to strict timelines, budgets, and to do lists. While we do it very politely, we are often tougher on each other than we are on other team members because we want to be held to an incredibly high standard of professionalism.
The fact that we have worked with each other for years and that we keep a solid friendship alive does not get in the way of efficiency, effectiveness and productivity. We try hard to be personal, warm, and friendly, but can also be professional and give direct, open feedback to each other on work performance as needed.
4. “Friendship First” and “Date Nights”
While we’re professional, we don’t forget to be friends. We schedule regular breakfast or dinner meet-ups where we try to keep work talk to a minimum. We make sure to hear how things are going with our families, our significant others, our friends, our health, and our holidays. By nurturing our personal relationship and supporting each other to be healthy, happy and rested, we are then able to push each other harder when that’s needed in the work context.
We also recognize it when we don’t have our “date nights” frequently enough. Recently we went for a few months without any one-on-one time away from work, and it led to more frequent misunderstandings and less empathy for the stresses happening in our families or personal life. Once we got caught up, it affected our happiness and productivity, and we recommitted to doing our meet-ups more frequently. While it may seem frivolous and less important than the workday priorities, it really does make a difference!
Expanding Leadership Beyond Cofounders
We are lucky to have built an incredible team at Ashoka U. Over the last five years, as Ashoka U has evolved as a program and a team, everyone has moved up to more senior roles—meaning everyone in the team has a lot of leadership opportunities. So while Erin and I are cofounders, we operate as collaborative leaders with the rest of our team.
We celebrated Ashoka U’s five year anniversary 2 years ago. It’s was an opportunity to take time to look back and celebrate how far we’ve come as a great way to keep the love alive.
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