Case Study: Trouble in Paradise


Tom and Jerry* were the joint managing directors of a successful small business.  The presence of joint managing directors is always a warning signal:  usually because strict and clear division of duties can’t be defined.  In this case, I guessed that Tom wasn’t going to allow Jerry to have the upper hand by being the sole MD, and nor was Jerry likewise.

When I met them, the business had been going for ten years and its business model clearly worked.  It had kept its head above water financially.  Maybe Tom and Jerry would say there had been times in that decade when it had positively prospered. 

Yet, for the entire duration of the business, Tom and Jerry had been in a fight;  a conflict characterised by antagonism, bad feeling, personal insults and undermining.  Any success the business had had had happened despite the relationship of the two JMDs.  Considerable energies were spent by others in the business dealing with the inevitable incidents of fallout.  And Tom, at least, had clearly been worn down by the experience.  There was no ‘creative tension’, no ‘constructive conflict’ here.

I knew Tom rather better than Jerry, so I’m not sure of the long term effect on the latter, and it was Tom who raised with me the idea that I work with the pair of them to help them resolve their conflict.  Of course, Jerry would have none of that, probably simply because it had been Tom’s idea.  Though his stated reason for rejecting the idea was that I was an a***hole.


In this case, I am certain that the conflict between the two of them had not arisen from problems they encountered in the business for the simple reason that Tom had told me the pair were at each others’ throats before they started the business.

Whether the original issues that gave rise to the conflict were to do with one or more things that had happened between them I don’t know.  If I learned that, in fact, each had brought their own stuff to the relationship from the start, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.  After all, to start a friendship, have it go sour and then decide to start a business partnership seems odd to me.  Whereas, to embark on the ‘friendship’ with all issues already in place is more likely: we all enter into relationships in order to deal with our stuff and Tom and Jerry could each have recognised in the other a suitable foil for them sorting out some of theirs.  (All perceived subconsciously, of course.)

What we would People are the Key have done?

Clearly Tom and Jerry needed to participate in some business relationship coaching.  Whilst this would focus on the business’s needs, in our experience clients will often open up about the underlying issues, and these are almost always relevant and help to resolve what’s going on at the surface.

This does require willingness, or at least a suspension of disbelief, from both parties.  Whilst it is always possible to work with one person in such a relationship, the coaching is more about helping them cope with the relationship. 

Once some progress is made, it would be time to work with the whole business which, after so many years, had been deeply affected by what had been happening at the top.   Team-building, self-reliance, awareness of others and wellbeing are all topics we would cover.  It is important that people understand the ways in which they and their colleagues behave in order to change them for the better.  Most importantly, (re-)engaging staff with the business is paramount—and teaching Tom and Jerry how to do that engagement would be key.


* Not their real names.  Whilst all the trivial details of the story have been changed, its general thrust is true:  the models of the story are real people.

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Your organisation

  • growth in size (clients, staff, services/products, etc)
  • growth in income (if desired)
  • other types of growth, as deemed important to the client
  • financial security.

The people in the organisation

  • engagement
  • communication
  • teamwork
  • respect
  • well-being
  • productivity
  • insight
  • initiative (being proactive
  • motivation (wanting to be proactive).


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