The two business partners

What do you do when the long-standing collaboration with your business partner suddenly takes a turn for the worst? When you find your trust is being abused and you are forced into the role of an ‘outsider’. How do you respond in such a situation? Is there any future in such a partnership? And how do other management team members act in the circumstances they find themselves in? What interventions need to be undertaken to ensure that the partners and the team ultimately emerge from the situation stronger, rejuvenated? Just a few questions that a management team (consisting of 3 men and 2 women) is currently struggling to get to grips with. At the moment, now that the situation has existed for some time, they are ready to tackle ‘the issue’ with each other through supervised co-counselling, with the head of the HR department as the driving force behind this initiative.


If you were asked to coach this team for 4 hours, how would you approach the situation. What would be expected of you as the process overseer? What aspects would you constantly keep in mind? Would you use specific methodologies for these kinds of issues? Which pitfalls and challenges can you see that would need to be avoided? And so on.

For a change, instead of an article, I want to present you with a case study and ask you to respond (or to react to other people’s responses). The description of the case study has been presented to the team members and all members have agreed to take this as the starting point for the approach. I’m really curious to hear your thoughts, ideas, opinions, arguments, approach, etc.

Case study

They have been working together for years. Karel, with his finely tuned eye for market developments, a helicopter view, and an outstanding ability to envision possibilities for the future for their company. And Peter, unequalled in his capacity to translate a vision into a mission in terms of strategy and effectiveness, full of determination, but above all passionate in creating well thought-out and feasible means of realising innovative products. As a duo they are unbeatable – at the personal level but also at the work level.

Last year. Karel had thought up a new product concept. He and Peter would talk about it a lot, occasionally deep into the night. And it was Peter of course who transformed the vague ideas into a concrete, feasible form.

Developing a new product demands time and energy. So accurate product analyses were initiated, combined with global and precise risk calculations, as well as financial models, discussions on expectation management and commercial market research. Both contributed their own expertise, together with a project group of specialists supervised by Peter – the people person and networker par excellence; all in strict confidence of course.

Until the moment that Peter started getting the feeling that Karel was not reacting to his ideas, proposals and plans in his usual enthusiastic manner; as if his attention wasn’t fully focused. Until the day he heard that Karel was involved in serious discussions about ‘their’ product with another party.

Peter allowed a weekend go by before confronting Karel. This was to be an interesting conversation to say the least. Karel hardly responded to his questions, telling him ‘by the way’ that he had found someone else more suitable to develop and market the new product. “Really, believe me Peter, it’s for the best.”

This came as a huge shock for Peter: as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do – without consulting him and even without making it known, either verbally or in writing. Because it had been Peter who brought up the subject. Neither would Karel respond to any indirect comments that Peter made. And soon, that initial feeling of shock turned into one of astonishment, outrage, and rejection.

Shortly afterwards, Peter came to realise that it had been a question of ‘interests’ that had led Karel into the arms of the other party. Karel had felt ‘obliged’ to collaborate with this party regarding the new product. It was this aspect that troubled Peter the most: the fact that interests had played the major role, that these interests had caused him to be brushed aside as a business partner. And again, without there being an open discussion about it.

It took Peter several months to come to terms with this. In the meantime Karel and Peter worked together as well and as professionally as possible, but something was missing: that innate trust in each other, that feeling of spontaneity, being able to joke about things or share aspects of their personal lives with each other. The shine had worn off.

They remained business partners, but not with that same intensity or passion; it was different now. The company also seemed to have become more mediocre: ‘the dynamism’ had gone. The logical result when a cohesive managerial duo becomes two separate individuals.

So… how would you deal with this issue? Let us know what your ideas are, or respond to other people’s comments. Let’s create a great opportunity to learn from each other.

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