Couples working together has always been a no-no. But increasingly, they’re not only negotiating that minefield successfully, but surviving and thriving, writes Anne Schauffer.
A generation or two ago, you had to be an extraordinary couple to work together. It was a standing joke that it was the kiss of death for a relationship. But that was then, when far fewer women worked, child-raising was exclusively women’s work, and gender roles were clearly defined. Today, it’s entirely different – yet still, chatting to new and seasoned husband and wife workmates, working together is no walk in the park.
Clearly, there are numerous advantages, notably the flexibility these mums have with children, and there are others too. For these wives, it’s about working with, not for – and that good working relationship doesn’t happen by itself, or overnight.
Abi Suttie joined husband Roland at Quattro Finance three months ago. She was a La Lucia stay-at-home mum, and an artist: “Roland’s PA resigned, and I offered to help as our kids are getting older, and stay at school longer. I was also keen to use my brain again.” Abi admits to having a lot to learn: “I’m even rusty with a computer,” she laughs. “But seriously, there are a lot of legal requirements, and at times it feels like I’m learning Chinese, but I’m getting there.” She admits, “Roland and I are both strong individuals who go about our day differently. Communication has perhaps been the hardest, as he says I’m cheeky. I do push back when I’m not happy with something, which he’s not used to, as employees usually comply and don’t ask questions.” To, ‘What do you do to make sure it works?’, Abi laughs loudly, “Drink lots of champagne … no seriously, we have worked hard on our marriage, and have had to learn to listen without reacting.”
Employee or wife or partner or all? It’s a fine line, but to work it must be a team. Roland admits it was tough in the beginning: “Still is. Showing your wife the ropes, and also setting boundaries with clients that this is no ordinary PA, it’s your wife. “Still,” he laughs, “she is cheeky, and I’ve suggested she listen better, and call me Mr Suttie.”
From the outset, a sense of humour is essential. So, too, some rocky roads in the early days: “There might be some voice notes on my husband’s phone of some interest to you,” says Alex Jones drily.
Alex was in the interior decorating industry and joined husband Brett three months ago at Ancient Waters, a water treatment and purification business based in La Lucia. Her motivation was clear: “I wanted to help build our family business and be part of his success. He had become very busy much faster than he thought he would, and needed help.” Alex describes herself as “an absolute organiser of note (her nickname is Badger)”. “To be able to organise Brett is the cherry in my champagne! Brett knows how I work, and that I always gave 110 percent, so for him it was a no-brainer.”
Another advantage of couples working together, is the absolute knowledge that the finances are in trustworthy hands.
Alex recognises her biggest challenge: “Being told what to do. I’ve realised I’m not someone who takes well to step-by-step instruction, especially when I’ve been given a task – I need to be trusted to action it. I have had to be strong with myself, to stop, listen and learn about how his brain processes – and how he wants certain things done.
For Brett, the toughest aspect initially, was learning to delegate. The proverbial Catch 22. You’re so busy you bring someone on board to assist – but being hectic there’s no time to fill them in: “I realised I had to make time. Alex made it work though. I need her in our business, I can’t do it all by myself. Her having a vested interest makes all the difference.”
Alex’s advice to others walking this path: “Breathe. Don’t take things personally. And a must is a de-briefing most days to talk about what happened during the day, and how you could have done it better. That is my best time of day actually, sitting down with Brett, a glass of wine and chatting about how we can improve OUR business!”
Considerably more seasoned are Samantha and Calvin Thompson of Hillcrest, working together in DMY Accounting (Pty) Ltd – financial services – which Calvin started in 2012. Prior to having children, Sam was in PR: “I loved my job, but it wasn’t conducive to how I wanted to parent, so we made the call for me to work from home.” Why? “Sheer madness I suppose,” she laughs. “But we are the sort of couple who don’t let feelings linger, and we knew this would be part bed of roses, part boxing ring.”
Sam does the internal bookkeeping: “Self-taught, or rather Calvin taught me. The accountant babble definitely took time to learn – still learning – but it was key for both of us that I could be flexible and around for the kids. Luckily my role is just that – something that can be caught up at night or during odd hours.”
Sam says her biggest challenge was being able to tie down Calvin to get work decisions or answers finalised: “With a spouse, it’s far easier to put them off for a day later.” She adds: “Oh, and being made to feel like his glorified secretary at his beck and call – with requests he probably wouldn’t have asked of another colleague.”
To make it work, Sam says, “Having defined roles and expectations is key, and we are a constant work in progress, always finding new challenges and ways to improve.” She adds, “It also takes a special sort of person to work with a married couple.”
Calvin, too, found those early days challenging: “The constant questions and teaching was tough. I realised we all learn and communicate in different ways, and that was hard.”
“When you’re in a relationship with someone you work with, accountability and responsibility are sometimes blurred, because you are supposed to share everything equally. In business, it’s often nice to have an employee where you can say ‘just do it like I said’. In relationships, one of you is always making a smart-ass comment back to the other and in business that’s not productive.”
“Knowing Sam is involved and fulfilling those needs for our company, while being at home and available to the kids, is an absolute win-win.”
Sam’s advice to others? “Go for it – if it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger. I believe you need to know your partner extremely well before you decide to work together. Know their faults, their strengths and how they deal with people (clients) before you sign on the dotted line. Many couples have no idea what sort of person their partner is when they’re in their office space, or how they fill their working day. If you have that understanding then why not – just try to leave work at work.”
Separating work and home is a challenge, and all four couples put that as a reality, and a priority.
Of course, couples working together don’t necessarily work 24/7 in the same space. One partner can be largely or fully out in the field. Leanne and Shaun Saddington of Mount Edgecombe are that couple – Saddington Electrical handles industrial, commercial, domestic and residential, and “Shaun’s often spinning,” says Leanne. Me being in the business frees him to be out there with his teams.
In her previous life, Leanne was a beauty therapist, then did her honours in psychology. Once her children were born, she chose to be a stay-at-home mum: “My mum worked for Shaun for about seven years before I took over. To have an absolutely trustworthy person doing his books, invoicing, checking bank statements, and chasing money is essential. The job’s not rocket science, but you have to keep on it.”
Leanne identifies the biggest challenge as switching off at the end of the day, and not discussing work again: “We are really patient with and understanding of each other. I would definitely say speaking nicely and communicating in a respectful way is key – not him talking down to me or losing his cool. We have a lot of respect for one another, so we have a good working relationship.”
Not being together 24/7 makes life easier, but still she laughs, “More than once I’ve resigned on a Friday, and rehired myself on a Monday.” For her, it’s toughest when Shaun is under heavy stress: “I say ‘You’re not a surgeon, no one’s going to die on the table if they don’t get their chandelier hung before Christmas. Breathe’.”
Shaun talks about the early days challenge. “If I needed something done, I would tell Leanne in a very straightforward way exactly what I needed. But if I was under pressure she sometimes took me to be rude or demanding. But once we established a few working parameters, everything went pretty smoothly.”
“In the beginning the most difficult aspect was differentiating between the working and non-working environment,” says Shaun. Leanne is adamant about two things: “Take time out for yourself, and schedule a date night.”
It’s all about a new kind of balance, and not unlike building a marriage, it takes hard work, commitment, and mutual respect. Enjoying that level of trust and accountability, sharing the same vision of success and being able to celebrate that together, is a big deal. A really big deal.