Michelle Coyle is president of BGSD Strategies, where she provides strategic advice for political business owners. Have a question about your business? Email her directly at [email protected] and she’ll answer them here.
Q: I made some serious lifestyle changes during the pandemic. Specifically, I stopped drinking, which was fine when happy hours were on Zoom. Now that everything is back to in-person, do you have some suggestions for navigating alcohol and networking? I really don’t want to go back to my old habits.
A: Oh hey there, alcohol culture! We didn’t miss you at all these past two years.
I’ll teach you a trick I first learned when I was an ambitious up-and-coming consultant/girl-about-town at 24 and got pregnant with my first child. Curtailing my networking activities wasn’t an option in my mind at the time. Still, I hated feeling left out at the bar when everyone else was drinking. I solved this problem by designating orange juice as my “special drink.” I only ordered it when I was out with drinking people, and I never drank it any other time (which is how I had treated alcohol prior to pregnancy). Doing this satisfied the part of my brain that wanted a differentiated drink to mark a special occasion.
You may or may not find success with this exact strategy. The point is that when you find yourself fixating on a specific action (“how will I not drink when everyone else is drinking?”), try to get one layer deeper. Ask yourself why you’re tempted to drink. What need would it fulfill? Then, brainstorm all of the other ways you could meet that need in ways that would help you feel aligned and proud of yourself. Better yet, brainstorm all the ways that exact need is already met in your life, and observe how instantly calm and happy you feel.
Your mind can get you higher than any drug ever could when you learn how to wield it.
Q: How many hours a week should I be working? I know that’s a relative question, but I’m curious if you have a ballpark. For context, I’m a partner at a digital firm and am married but child free.
A: Well, as you’ve acknowledged, it’s totally relative. What’s the goal?
No matter what your conundrum in life, asking yourself that simple question will move you closer to the answer.
You’re an entrepreneur and you’re in a highly cyclical business, so there are likely going to be times that you’re working quite a lot in order to achieve the goals that you’ve set. Instead of trying to settle on an average number of hours worked or some kind of working hours cap, you could try thinking in terms of sprints and breaks. There might be a six-to-eight week period once or twice a year where you really need to go head down, ignore your friends and family, and Get Shit Done.
A lot of people in your life are going to try to make you feel like you shouldn’t ever do that. Those people likely aren’t small business owners, and they definitely don’t work in politics.
The secret to success here is defining the duration of the sprint (never more than eight weeks!) and sticking to your boundaries. It’s totally unsustainable to let 70+ hour weeks become your ongoing lifestyle, especially if you’re over the age of 25. And for every week of the year that you work over 50 hours, you must have a week somewhere else in the year where you work less than 20. You must also, regardless of how many hours a week you work, have at least two weeks in the year where you don’t do any work at all.
If you don’t already have a mindfulness practice, please start one. This will help you become more aware of when you’re approaching your “red zone” of burnout and answer your own question about where your personal working limits are. Trust me: no productive work happens in that red zone. If you’re getting anywhere close to it, stop working and go home and rest until you’ve calmed down a bit. Never show up just to show up, or you’re likely to do more harm than good.
Now, you didn’t ask about this part, but I’m going to answer it anyway: you may not, under any circumstances, expect anyone in your firm who isn’t an equity partner to work these hours unless you have their express buy-in and you are paying them extra. I know that sometimes it doesn’t feel fair when you’re working twice as hard as your staff, but it is fair. You get a bunch of money when you sell the business, and they don’t. Why should they sacrifice time with their family and friends so that you can get a payout? You can reasonably expect 28-35 hours per week of actual work from your full-time employees — max. Learning to take care of your people will help you take better care of yourself in the long run.
Q: We’re thinking about elevating a senior member of our team to partner, is there a set process for this? We’ve never done it before.
A: Assuming that you mean “equity partner” – and I really hope that you do. Please don’t call people partners without cutting them into the equity. Yes, there’s quite an involved process.
You referred to “we” so I’m going to assume you’re starting out with multiple existing equity partners. If that’s the case, the first step is to come to an agreement among yourselves about what you’re willing to offer to this person and why. Are they an absolutely indispensable part of your business? Would they be someone who could conduct themselves with grace and compassion if things don’t go as planned and you all need to get a “business divorce?”
Is everyone on your existing partnership team comfortable adjusting the decision-making dynamic to include this person? Whose existing equity is going to get carved up in order to bring this person in? What will this person’s role in the administration of the business be? What will be their areas of ultimate accountability, and does everyone trust them to make wise decisions and take right actions there?
Once you’ve talked through all that, it’s time to bring the person in question into the discussions. At this stage, it’s vitally important to make sure that you’re explicitly framing these discussions as collaborative brainstorming sessions, not official offers or promises.
The idea here is to make sure that your potential partner is aligned with all of the things that you and your existing partners have agreed on. They likely will have their own caveats and ideas, and you’ll have to go back and forth for a bit until you can settle on something that’s going to work for everyone.
Once you’ve got that general baseline established, it’s time to bring the lawyers in.
Don’t do this without legal counsel.
First, you and your existing partners will want to meet with your business attorney, brining your ideas to the table and listening to all of their cautionary advice. If your lawyer is ok with you moving forward, ask them for their assistance drafting offer documentation and amended business filing paperwork — the exact type of paperwork will depend on the tax election of your entity.
Your potential partner should get their own lawyer, who will then review everything you put forth and likely come back with some suggested changes.
Once things get to this stage, it’s best to let the lawyers take over the back and forth until you can reach an agreement that everyone is satisfied with.
Lastly, please regard this as a marriage. Take it that seriously. Think through your worst-case scenarios. Partnerships aren’t easy to undo.