4 Secrets To Making Your Partnership Succeed–Or Fail

They don’t tell you this in business school, but success comes from keeping a leadership team of two together.

4 Secrets To Making Your Partnership Succeed–Or Fail
[Photo: Flicr user Francisco Osorio]

There’s one skill they never taught me in business school, and ironically it’s the most valuable trait of any successful business today. In fact, back in school they considered it “cheating,” but in real life it’s more often called “teamwork.”


Sure, we learned to balance the books, market the company, and persuade investors to bet on our companies in business school, but we never learned the fine art of partnering.

Our society is so fixated on the hero as an individual leader–the one person who takes all credit for innovation. But the secret to success in life and work is to find someone who can support your weaknesses and encourage your strengths.

Most of the greatest, most admired businesses started with two partners, like Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Apple’s Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, or Hewlett Packard’s Bill Hewlett and David Packard.

The great success stories make it look easy to keep a partner, but it’s a lot harder than it looks. Why do some last and others fall apart? Here are four tips on what really makes the teamwork:

1. Find The Strength In Your Partner’s Uniqueness

When you study the partnerships that are working vs. the partnerships that don’t, we noticed that in the partnerships that last, each partner sees the other person’s differences as strengths and assets rather than finding fault with the difference.

Judgment kills relationships because it means we don’t try to understand the other person or seek the benefit of their perspective. Understanding will always build a better relationship. We need to see the benefit of their perspective.


Surprisingly, people who have successful long-term relationships don’t necessarily share values, but they do support each other’s values. They detect their partner’s goals and aspirations and support them. They would give their partner time and resources to do what was important to them even if they didn’t care for that activity.

2. Divide And Conquer

I recently had the opportunity to meet some of the top performing partners at Hawthorne Retirement Group, a fast growing company providing retirement and assisted-living communities. This firm hires the managers of their communities as partners because they believe the family-feel that they want starts at the top.

These top performing teams were amazing, and everyone opened our conversation with “who does what,” a clear division of labor. “Sue handles the accounting and I handle the marketing.” These clear lines of who is doing what reduces a lot of detailed communication. When each partner has clearly defined roles and responsibilities, it saves everyone a lot of time. The great partnerships divided the work according to each person’s interests and talents.

Unfortunately, when work is divided, it’s easy for one person to see their role as more important than the other. For the partnership to last over the long-term, there needs to be a sense of equality. It doesn’t work to have one person to “be the boss.”


Even though they have a strong sense of who does what, they each were willing to do whatever it takes to serve the cause. There wasn’t one person in these interviews who wasn’t willing to sweep a floor or serve some coffee if that action would support the partnership’s mission.

3. Admiration Is A Skill

Admiration builds strong relationships. You don’t have to approve of everything your partner does to admire them. Pointing out what they do well encourages your partner to focus on their strengths.

Dr. John Gottman became a student of the “masters and disasters of relationships.” Studying married couples to find the best predictor of how long a relationship would last, he found that the amount of positive to negative conversations was the strongest predictor of success. In fact, long-term relationships were usually marked with five positive comments to every one negative comment. People who are able to find what people are doing right are going to have stronger partnerships in business and life.

4. Communication Is About How We Receive Messages

When we think of strong communication, we think of speaking clearly or writing well. The most ignored communication skill though is the skill of receiving other people’s messages.

Dan Ariely of MIT wanted to find out how important it was to receive the work and ideas done by others. He had three groups of students complete worksheets. The difference was in how the papers were received.


The first group turned in their papers and the session leader reviewed the work, nodded, and put the paper in a pile. The second group of students who turned in their papers had the session leader simply put their paper in the pile without acknowledging it. And the third group’s papers were received with the session leader shredding the paper. Each time a student completed the paper, they were paid a dollar or less for the paper.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the group that had their papers acknowledged did more work than the group that had their papers shredded–about twice as much work. The interesting scenario was the response of the second group whose papers were ignored. They responded by doing almost half the work as well. When we ignore people’s work, it’s just like shredding it.

It may feel that you are saving time by disagreeing with your partner, but taking the time to receive what they have said or done can be a shorter path to resolving the issue. You may strongly disagree with a person but if you receive their perspective you will get much less resistance from them.

The skill of partnering is something we need to perfect every day. It builds great companies, families, and communities.

Bonita S. Buell-Thompson is a New York Times best-selling author and 30-year HR executive for Bank of America, Levi Strauss, Genentech, and other global firms. Board member for the Peter Drucker/Hesselbein Institute, she received a U.S. Congressional commendation and California State Senate award for STEM education and holds an MBA from U.C.Berkeley.


Mark C. Thompson was featured in The American Management Association as one of the world’s top executive coaches and Forbes listed him as one of America’s best venture investors with the ‘Midas’ touch. As a New York Times best-selling author and a founding patron of Richard Branson’s Entrepreneurship Centres, Mark is an active speaker both with Eagles Talent Speakers Bureau and other speaking talent firms.