Want to be a Superstar? Find a Partner

Last Updated Apr 13, 2011 5:03 PM EDT

When Paul Allen attacked Bill Gates for his poor behavior during the early years of Microsoft, no one should have been surprised. Their falling out played to all the usual clichés of business partnerships: rivalry, sulking, tantrums.

No wonder so many people fear going into business with a friend. Steve Jobs no longer works with Steve Wozniak; Jerry Yang no longer works with David Filo and time will tell how Sergey Brin and Larry Page's relationship will fare as they have their different roles at Google. And let's not even talk about Facebook.
But the salient point in these stories is that it took two people, not one, to build phenomenal businesses. Partnerships may run the risk of turning nasty - but the bigger risk is that, working alone, your business idea is never realized at all. Even if (like Gates and Allen) the relationship doesn't last, working together brings incomparable advantages, especially in the early years.

Maggie Chotas and Betsy Joseph, who study and specialize in business partnerships (and, notably, are a partnership themselves) call this "powership:" the exponential increase in skills, confidence, personal health and growth that comes from working with the right partner.

Making the Dream a Reality

When you have a partner, you keep each other moving. On the days that you don't feel motivated, your partner will. And watching them work away will inspire you. Or at least make you feel guilty enough to keep going.

Chotas and Joseph point to AK Environmental as a classic example of powership at the very start of a business. Amy Gonzalez was the environmental engineer who knew how to help clients - but feared the detailed administration involved in running a company. Kelly Caldwell knew administration inside out but felt she had no big ideas to sell. The business only came into being because of the support and expertise the two colleagues offered each other. Alone neither would have made a move. That they had worked together closely in the past gave them the trust and confidence they needed to get started and keep moving.

With a 3 year growth rate of 844% and a recent ranking as #6 in the Top 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Led Companies in North America, they're not off to a bad start - but there would have been no start at all if each woman had thought they had to make it on their own.

The Power of Two

It isn't just at the outset that companies benefit from joint leadership. Every business goes through near-death experiences: cash flow crises, strategic funk, market collapse, ill health and personal tragedies. And leadership is lonely. You can't always confide in subordinates, friends get sick of your tales of woe and spouses feel honor-bound to endorse your every decision. At such times, a business partner could and should be a thinking partner, trying out ideas, challenging orthodoxies. If it's a true powership, debate and exploration will be unfettered - and that's how you'll solve your problems.

This kind of powership is what Chotas and Joseph say they've experienced first hand in their consulting business. They are big believers in collaboration because they've seen for themselves what it can do. "When powership happens, the results are exponential," says Chotas. "It makes everything better: work, other relationships, attitudes, health. Because, let's face it, a positive relationship that fuels you with confidence, encourages you along the way, takes the full burden off your shoulders, and provides the support you need to succeed is about as great as work and life get."

Are women better at these kinds of collaborations than men?
Chotas and Joseph think so; I'm not sure. I think collaboration is a true talent and some people have it while others can't get over their own egos. Over the next month, I'm going to be posting a number of pieces about collaboration and partnerships, in part because Chotas and Joseph have opened my eyes to how many are out there, how varied they are - and how powerful. The way we talk about business leadership has traditionally focused on soloists but I'd like to understand how else we might lead.

While I've never run a company as a partnership, my best customer and client relationships have felt like one. There's no doubt in my mind that, together, we've done better work than we'd have each done separately. Problem solving has been far more creative and it hasn't felt lonely. And it's been a lot more fun. What I've learned is that these deep collaborations take time, patience and respect.

But doesn't everything that's worth having?

Further Reading image courtesy of flickr user, ehud
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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.