Op-ed: Yes Dear, You’re the Boss. Now Do as I Say

If your business is a 50-50 partnership, who really makes the final decisions?

BY Jim Burba and Bob Hayes

April 08 2013 4:10 AM ET

Jim Burba and Bob Hayes

In our last article we talked about the crucial need for balance between the personal and the professional life when you work with your life partner. Time for yourself, time away from the business, and equitable division of responsibilities between partners being keys to success.

But what about the balance of power and decision-making in the office when two life partners also run a business? Who thinks he is in charge, who really is in charge, and who do the employees think is in charge? Interesting questions and challenges.

At home, we are almost 100% balanced in terms of who does what and how we do it.  We often have lengthy discussions about what to do and how to do it, and we give and take on the final decision making. After almost 23 years together, we pretty much have this nailed, and we are in sync most of the time. Seldom do we disagree (strongly) on household or personal matters.

In the office, however, it can be a different story.

You know the old saying—“too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soufflé.” Well, too many bosses in the office can bruise the business. We both have healthy egos and assertive personalities. We both bring different skills, experiences, and decision-making processes to the business which sometimes leads to us coming to different conclusions.

So who is the ultimate “decider” at our company? That’s an interesting question, and the answer is—it depends.   

We collaborate on almost everything, but we have clearly defined roles in the business. By title, Jim is the “president,” and Bob is the “vice president.” Jim is the creative force behind delivering the existing product and creating new product ideas. He is the face of the company, traveling to all of our hotel events around the world.  The hotel industry (our customer) knows Jim. On the other hand, Bob is the back-of-the-house guy who manages the business of the business. Finance, marketing, and office/employee administration are his prime roles. Many of the “who is the decider” questions get answered according to these roles.

While Jim appears to be in-charge, Bob frequently says in a wry sort of way, that he is the “power behind the throne” because he controls the money. Since Bob controls the money, does that make him the boss? He often thinks it does, and actually, Jim often agrees with him because a business is all about the bottom line. Without a healthy one there may be no business.

Front-man Jim often has grand ideas about how to spend money, time, and resources. Fiscally prudent Bob always presents the questions: “How much does it cost, who is doing the work, and what’s in it for us?”

We’re balanced that way. If Jim ran the company 100% of the time, the company may have ceased long ago because of overambitious plans that didn’t pan out financially. If Bob ran the company 100% of the time, the company may have suffered a similar fate because too much fiscal prudence kills innovation.

How do our employees feel about having dual bosses? Sometimes it feels as if we have kids playing parents off each other.  Happy pappy Jim will say “yes, great idea,” and mean mommy Bob will say “no, it’s too expensive.” More and more we see that our employees will go to Bob first to get ‘fiscal approval’ before going to Jim for ‘final approval.’

Not every decision falls neatly into our carefully crafted roles at work, and sometimes one or the other of us will feel strongly about something the other is responsible for handling.  So that employees don’t feel that they are stepping into a bossy bitch fight, we don’t decide on important or contested issues right on the spot or in front of the team.  When it’s not clear-cut, or we don’t have consensus, we talk privately first so that we present a unified front to our team. Is it easy for one of us to capitulate? Sometimes no. Who gives in, and who decides? Again, it depends.

Big decisions take a lot of discussion to balance all the pros and cons, which may be different for each of us. Jim usually focuses on the innovative idea side of an issue.  Bob usually focuses on the fiscal and implementation considerations of an issue. We try to take a balanced approach to most decisions. And who wins? Once again, it depends, but ultimately the business wins because we both have its success at heart.

You may have noticed that we seem to talk to each other a lot about issues, responsibilities, and opportunities. Besides balancing power, time, and responsibilities, great communication is probably the most important key to our success, and we’ll talk more about this later.

JIM BURBA AND BOB HAYES have been partners in life and livelihood for more than 20 years. As co-founders of Burba Hotel Network, this couple has formed a power partnership that has become the worldwide leader in developing and producing conferences for the hotel and tourism investment community. Since 2000, their events have attracted nearly 80,000 international delegates in 22 countries.

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