I have had a film/video production business with a cofounder and partner for about seven years. We have been friends since college. I am the business operations and sales guy; my partner is the creative one. Some difficulties in our company were coming to a head right before Covid hit. We ended up taking quite a long hiatus because of Covid and are now back in the trenches. All the problems we had previously are now intensified, and I am beginning to think I need to just walk away.
My partner—I will call him K—has become increasingly unstable. I am now seeing that what drives his terrible behavior is anxiety, which ramped up during the pandemic and is now really interfering with our work. When I bring in new projects, even though he participated fully in creating the plan so I could price it and staff it, he calls and yells questions at me. On jobs, he contradicts himself so that our employees and contractors get confused and make mistakes. Then he yells at people, telling them they are incompetent. He has fired a few people who were completely adequate. Of course I am the one left to clean up the mess, talk people off the ledge, make excuses for him, and find new people to replace the ones he fired for no reason.
I am worried someone will sue us. He is often rude to clients and has put many different projects at risk. I know there is always a bit of an expectation that creative people are volatile—but his extreme behavior is ruining the business and my life.
He is brilliant when he isn’t acting nuts. I have spoken to his wife about it, and we both agree he needs to get help and, hopefully, medication. I am not really sure how to proceed. I would appreciate your thoughts.
Tired of Cleaning Up the Mess
My heart aches for you. This is an old friendship, your professional reputation, and your livelihood all wrapped up in one big disaster.
When it comes to mental health topics I am way out of my league, so I can’t advise on what exactly is wrong with K. However, I have had a fair amount of experience with people who struggle with anxiety and are affected by unreasonable behavior so I can certainly empathize with how tricky dealing with this situation can be.
The very short story here is that you must take care of the business, yourself, and, as much as is possible, K. In that order.
The longer story is this: If you weren’t tied up in business with K, and literally at his mercy in terms of your clients, your employees, and your income, you could draw some boundaries and leave it at that. But in this situation you are essentially being forced to do something. You just can’t allow this situation to continue or, God forbid, get even worse.
It is good that you have K’s wife’s support, because I think the two of you will have to sit down with K and have the hard “you need help” conversation. In some circles it might be called a psychological intervention. Again, this is not really my field, so you might consider hiring a consultant who knows what they are doing to help the two of you plan and execute something that could work. You might consult the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) website to get more information and find resources.
If you are thinking, “Oh no! I don’t think things are that bad,” I say, “Think again, my friend.” What you have described is not okay, and you must put a stop to it. The one thing I know from experience is that we all tend to normalize behavior that is out of bounds in an effort to keep the peace and not rock the boat. We do this until there is an incident that we can’t normalize, and you are headed straight for one of those. There will be a lawsuit—or worse, someone will get hurt or feel threatened enough to call 911. Please don’t wait for that.
Sit down and make a list of all the incidents you can remember where K’s irrational behavior caused loss of time, money, or staff members. It will probably shock you, and that would be a good thing. You need those concrete examples to make a coherent case for need for a change.
In the meantime, you need a Plan B. Explore potential partnerships with other creative talent who can step in, either as a stop gap or permanently, to keep your business going. Review your legal agreements to see what you can do to protect yourself in case K quits in a huff or needs to take time off.
I understand your desire to walk away. If you and K weren’t such longtime friends, you probably already would have. But you clearly feel an obligation to your partnership and to the friendship, so you will regret it if you don’t at least try to impact this situation. It might end up costing you, but if you have your ducks in a row, at least it won’t cost you the business. You will be sad but not destitute.
If you don’t take action, you could easily end up losing everything you have built. There is simply no other option in the face of a brewing mental health crisis.
Not the answer you were looking for, I am sure. I am so sorry.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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