June 4, 2009

Dissolving a Partnership


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partnership Imagine meeting three ad agency partners for the first time in a nice private dining room to get acquainted before facilitating a strategic planning session the next morning. As the evening goes on things get so tense that one of them screams, throws the bread basket in another’s face, and storms out not to be seen again that night.


When we’re brought in to diagnose why an agency is stuck in neutral, the first thing we check is how healthy the executive team is. Or not. A single meeting is usually all it takes to see if the family is dysfunctional. And if it is, the whole agency culture is usually infected.

The problem children always stand out: they’re the excuse-makers, the naysayers (“We tried that before and it didn’t work”), they throw boulders in the path of progress. No matter what, they’re blameless when something goes wrong. . . or so they’d have you believe.

What to do?

First, remember that this is a business, not a counseling or rehab center. So put your emotions aside. If the senior team has an ineffective, overly-entitled member who effectively deselects him or herself from contributing to the agency’s success, don’t allow one person to hold the whole place hostage.

I’ve seen entire agencies scuttled by just one soured individual. Don’t let it happen at your place.

And don’t make excuses for not taking action.

Cost too much to buy them out? There’s always a way to set up a payoff over time; believe me, it will be cheaper in the long run. Been with you 20 years or more? So what. If they no longer contribute commensurate with their salary, it’s time to go. Seniority, after all, is about the past, not the future.

Too painful? OK, so you go through a rough patch working out the details of departure – isn’t that better than waking up every day with the problem over your head and seeing the agency falter for the next 5 -10 years?

Then there’s the “It will hurt them too much” excuse. Of course it will. But if they’ve risen near the top of your agency then they’re talented, capable, and smart. . . and they’ll find something else, no doubt a lot more satisfying. A new environment or challenge will be best for both them and your agency in the long run – how many times have you seen that happen when others left?

Easily 75% of our consulting work is bringing focus to dysfunctional agency leadership teams. Occasionally that means facing the music and making the changes that, believe me, everybody – staff, vendors, and even your clients – know are necessary.

By the way, the story at the top is true and had a good outcome. The food-fighter eventually left and went on to thrive in his own business. The other partners reconstituted and the agency continues to prosper.

You can write a happy ending, too.


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