Jamie Oliver’s sprawling business empire came under scrutiny on 29 August with the news that he’d recently had to pump £13 million of his own money into the Jamie’s Italian chain – at a point where it was just hours away from bankruptcy.

While providing a frank account of the chain’s crisis to the Financial Times, [1] the celebrity chef gave a staunch defence of his decision to hire brother-in-law Paul Hunt as CEO of the Jamie Oliver Group, telling the paper: “Do you know why I chose him? Because he’s many things. But he’s honest, and he’s fair. I absolutely trust him. His job was to come in and clean up. He has done the hardest and most fabulous job. I’m not saying that because he’s my brother-in-law. I’m saying it because it’s a fact.”

However, when similar questions surfaced about the Group’s performance just over a year ago – at a point where Oliver’s net worth had declined by £90m – Oliver hinted to The Telegraph that working with friends had created problems for his organisation. [2] While he said “I basically squirreled nothing away [and] had a slightly weird view of the recession,” he noted that he now has “lists of friends that I shouldn’t have collaborated with – never mix business and pleasure”.

In a 30 August article for Quartz at Work, [3] psychotherapist Diane Barth provides insights from a small, informal survey on this topic that she conducted with 25 professionals across the US. A male respondent who works extensively with friends said that he has run into situations where “it seems like a buddy isn’t pulling his weight”, and explains his priorities this way: “…if he doesn’t pull his weight in a particular kind of job, I might talk about it with him, just ask if he’d rather not do this kind of work again. Or I might just eat it, and then not do this specific kind of job with him going forward. But I’m always going to protect the friendship if I possibly can.”

Is that a workable approach? Or is there a more effective etiquette for how leaders should work with friends?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Just as at the beginning of a formal working relationship you have a contract that sets down expectations on both sides – and terms for what will happen if either side falls short of those expectations – having a conversation along those lines is essential for friends who are about to work together. Putting the friendship first is a good place to start: ‘I don’t want us working together to undermine our friendship – how are we going to ensure that isn’t going to happen?’ That sort of thinking encourages you to come up with safeguards.”

Cooper notes: “we must remember that it’s perfectly possible to hire or commission someone you don’t know at all to perform some work, and then it could end up being either poor, or not quite what you had expected or wanted. So that feeling of being let down isn’t rooted exclusively in experiences of working with friends. It’s a much more universal emotion than that. So you may have the same sort of response to the male in Barth’s survey: ‘I don’t think I’ll be working with that person on that type of task again.’ Or, you have a frank conversation about how the end product wasn’t what you were after.”

She adds: “the centre of this is accepting that you must have conversations that could be quite awkward – and then, most importantly, making yourself have them. It’s much easier to say, ‘What are we going to do if things go wrong,’ than square up to the sort of dialogue that is bound to ensue after things have gone wrong – where you’ll be in the position of trying to salvage something either professionally or personally.

“Many people would say, ‘Never mix business with pleasure,’ and perhaps that’s what works for them. But it’s really down to the individual choice of the leader in question and how they manage and prioritise their relationships. And if you do choose to collaborate with one or more friends, then ensuring that the scope of service on the one hand and supervision on the other is clear on paper at the outset will help the process to work smoothly. “

For further thoughts on dealing with conflict, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Source refs: [1] [2] [3]

Image of Jamie Oliver courtesy of Mr Pics, via Shutterstock

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