FounderFuel: How co-founder retros (or partner retros) keep your most important work relationships performing at their best

It’s fair to say we’re all pretty used to the idea of retros as founders – project retros, quarterly retros, even team retros – all designed to review performance at a qualitative level and seek out improvements that can be collaboratively implemented. We do it because we know that proactive improvements every week, make a big cumulative difference to our startups as a whole.

This same ethos can be applied to the most important relationships in our work lives too. Whether it’s with a co-founder, senior leader or peer in your team, Partner or Co-founder Retros can make a huge difference to your relationships – instilling a mindset of continuous-improvement, improving communication, and in turn, combined performance.

The why

Applying the retros process to your most important relationships helps drive:

  • Powerful relationships: Retros invest in the most important relationships to optimise collaboration and quash potential conflict day-to-day
  • Personal & leadership development: Retros support behavioural improvements and accountability, which is often hard to find as a founder / senior leader
  • Culture: Retros instil a culture of continuous improvement by applying it at a people level and modelling it at the top

When it comes to startup failures, the oft-cited 2016 study plants failures squarely at the door of people problems, not business issues – with 92% of 13,000 VCs surveyed identifying the management team as the most important factor in startup failures. This reminds us how important it is to have these tools to aid effective communication at the top.

Keep your emotional bank account topped up

Those of us with experience as co-founders often joke about the relationship being more like a marriage than anything else, and even as a sole founder, there are still those vital relationships that our businesses depend on. These relationships all require deep understanding and investment to thrive.

But how much time do you spend working on those relationships?

Perhaps one of the most common causes of relationship conflict arises when a tiny issue that has not been dealt with, becomes a cumulative issue later. It’s like we have an emotional bank account with other people: A small thing happens, the bank account goes down, another thing happens, the account does down more. When the account hits zero, what we often experience is an overreaction to a seemingly small issue, but really the reaction was cumulative.

At the core of dealing with disagreements before the account hits zero is understanding, and that’s where the retros come in.

Building the retro habit

Partner or Co-founder Retros are regular meetings to discuss what’s going well, what’s not going well, and how to improve as a partnership. The effects can be transformative to a relationship, with each party feeling listened to, understood and ultimately appreciated. The focus on improvement leads to tangible business or leadership improvements too.

Some of our founders do co-founder retros every week, but most do it on a fortnightly or monthly basis – either way, it’s always a dedicated session so it doesn’t get wiped out by other business matters. They don’t have to be in the office either, it’s much easier to have tricky conversations when you’re not facing each other – so try out different settings, like walking retros or sitting side by side with a good view.

Here are two different formats to experiment with for your partner or co-founder retros:

Retro format 1: Great for leadership development

You can use this framework on a regular basis to address challenges and share developmental feedback between the two of you effectively. It’s designed to help you both improve as individuals and as a leadership team overall. 

The focus of this format is on behaviours (never work tasks) so it’s great for helping each other develop and improve those soft-skills as leaders. A great way to kick off these retros is by sharing the development areas that you’re each working on (perhaps areas that were identified in your performance reviews) and then you can build this into what you reflect on and hold each other to account to in your retros.

All feedback in this retro should be shared using the Situation-Behaviour-Impact direct feedback framework, which focuses on specific and recent examples and helps to avoid generalisations and accusations. You can brush up on the SBI framework here.

The structure:

Ahead of the session…

In the session:

  1. Each person shares feedback on something they saw the other person do well recently 
  2. Each person shares feedback on something that they feel the other person could have done better recently
  3. Have a collaborative discussion on ideas for improvement and how you can help each other

The aim is that the Retro feedback time is balanced and you each take it in turns. When receiving feedback, the intent should be to seek to understand the perspective and reflect on it. When delivering feedback the intent should be to share your perspective and seek to understand the others’ perspective and build on this together.

Retro format 2:  Great for improving leadership collaboration and understanding

Whilst the Retros ethos remains the same with this framework, this one looks at all the aspects where co-founders/peers have collaborated that week/fortnight – this could be anything from handling an underperforming employee to investor updates. Then a performance score is added to each – so it’s focused on improving performance with feedback and may include task-focused feedback as well as behavioural.

The structure:

Ahead of the session…

  • Each person adds to a shared list of ‘Things we collaborated on’ – this could be on Notion or Drive – and you usually end up with around 10 items.
  • Each person adds a rating of how well it went. You can choose your own scoring method but a method we love from one of our founders is Smashed it! vs OK vs Ouch!
  • You may also experiment with including a short, written reflection – It works for some and not for others.

In the session:

  1. Review the priority items on the list:
    • Take it in turns to explain your perspective and share your feedback (again the SBI framework is helpful here)
    • Be sure to explore the items with coaching-style questions to help understand the other person’s perspective and overall context (it’s amazing how often context shifts perspective!)
    • Be mindful to discuss positive ones as well as developmental ones from the list! Sharing what you feel made an incident a ‘Smashed it!’ score is brilliantly validating of positive behaviours
  2. Have a collaborative discussion on ideas for improvement and how you can help each other

Once again, the aim is that the Retro feedback time is balanced and you each take it in turns. When receiving feedback, the intent should be to seek to understand the perspective and reflect on it. When delivering feedback the intent should be to share your perspective and seek to understand the others’ perspective and build on this together.

Don’t forget Golden rules:

It’s worth setting up some behavioural standards for your Retros at the start – which can iterate as you go too. Ask yourselves the questions:

  • what do we need to do to get the most out of this time?
  • how do we need to behave to get the most out of this time?

You may also want to set a mission or goal for your Retros (ie. “To take our relationship from good to great!”) as a way to re-steer if discussions go awry.

These questions create a set of behavioural standards, or “house rules” like we have in FounderCircles. They will be unique to you as a pairing, but things you might like to include would be:

  • Genuine active-listening (and no interrupting!)
  • Positive intent (when speaking and listening)
  • A positive to negative feedback ratio
  • Practicing openness and vulnerability
  • Encouraging feelings
  • Practicing humility
  • Committing to no negative conflict behaviours (such as name-calling, stonewalling, generalising or personalising feedback)

To build world-class companies we need to communicate well and make proactive improvements every single week.  Retros help us do just that with the most important relationships in our work-lives. We can choose to waste energy on conflicts or invest energy in positive proactive relationships – these frameworks help us do the later and the sooner we can start the better.


This article is part of a series on feedback and conflict:

Boost performance with regular positive feedback

Co-founder conflict resolution

A simple framework for effective feedback with your team

And coming soon – How to boost performance with self-led feedback in your team

FounderCircle members can also access the accompanying tools in the Hub Toolkit for Co-founder Retros and the SBI direct-feedback framework

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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