Some of the biggest business successes are attributed to unique partnerships at their origin: Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s.
In her new book Partnering, out next week, Jean Oelwang argues that partnerships are at the core of most significant human achievements. Oelwang, the founding president and CEO of Virgin’s Unite foundation, defines partnerships somewhat broadly, focusing on professional and personal relationships where people have “Deep Connections” that equip them to advance toward a goal and unite others around them.
“You might have heard the proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together,’” Oelwang writes. “But what has become clear to me…is that the only way we can go both fast and far is together.” (p. xxii) Ben and Jerry, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Desmond and Leah Tutu, and the lesser-known scientists behind the movement to ban ozone-depleting CFCs are among the partners she highlights.
Partnering sets out to equip you to create such partnerships yourself, with lists and sublists of approaches and principles to deploy. It’s an uneven book, whose broad use of the “partnerships” concept dilutes its focus and utility. But it’s also a helpful reminder of the ingredients of good, lasting relationships in work and life, with specific recipes for approaching them.
Chapters four through six are especially useful, outlining how to create a strong relationship, highlighting the importance of “magnetic moments” to strengthen ties, and identifying techniques for working through disagreement.
In chapter four, Oelwang provides six key “virtues” for building “Deep Connections” with a wider range of people:
- Enduring trust—Assuming good intentions of a partner while also having hard conversations are foundations for such trust. Airbnb’s management talks about communicating openly about “elephants, dead fish, and vomit.” “Elephants are the big things in the room that nobody is talking about, dead fish are the things that happened a few years ago that people can’t get over, and vomit is that sometimes people just need to get something off their mind and you need someone to just sit there and listen,” Oelwang quotes them as saying. (p. 84)
- Unshakable mutual respect—Scholars Robert P. George and Cornel West come from opposite ends of the political spectrum but have a longstanding friendship founded on respect. Their conversations include long stretches of silence when they’re processing each other’s thinking and testing their own. “‘The world stops’ when you are listening to your partner,” Oelwang writes. (p. 89)
- United belief—”It is a shared confidence in each other, as well as a faith that together you can make the impossible possible,” she writes. (p. 91)
- Shared humility—”Shared humility is about remembering how little we know and coming to everything with a curious, learning mindset,” Oelwang writes. (p. 97) She cites the example of Bill Draper, the pioneering venture capitalist who recruited 26-year-old Robin Richards Donohoe and gave her an equal partnership and billing in their new firm.
- Nurturing generosity—Jacki and Greg Zehner, former Goldman Sachs executives who started a foundation, have a competition to see who can be more generous and grateful to the other. Sharing any glory and practicing extreme altruism are ingredients of this virtue.
- Compassionate empathy—This is not just standing in someone else’s shoes, Oelwang writes, but “walking alongside them in a respectful, equitable way and helping to alleviate their suffering.” (p. 107) She cites Lester Bailey, whose best friend was wrongly imprisoned and who he drove 10 hours roundtrip every week for 28 years to visit in jail. Letting go of judgment and getting close to each other in a meaningful way are components of compassionate empathy.
Oelwang defines “magnetic moments” as “intentional experiences that allow for people to be present together.” “Magnetic moments give space for spontaneity and wonder to flourish,” she continues. “Creating them takes thought, planning, and effort, but they are worth it because of the way they increase the depth and meaning of the connections you form.” (p. 119) She identifies four categories:
- Joy and play—When Oelwang worked on setting up The Elders, a group of global moral leaders including Carter and Tutu, she had initially crafted an 8am to 6pm schedule for the group. Richard Branson, who with Peter Gabriel was behind The Elders idea, quickly tore it up so that people could play together in the afternoons.
- Curiosity and wonder—Activities around nature and music are among those that bring people closer together.
- Space for honest communication—Married couple Jo Confino and Paz Perlman go to a cafe every Friday to listen to each other talk about positive things that happened that week, any regrets, and anything that upset or worried them.
- Time with a supportive community—The design firm IDEO uses rituals including end-of-project celebrations where every participant is recognized, three-minute group workouts, and sharing of hopes and worries at the start of every project.
Critical components of magnetic moments include evolving them over time, giving individuals space for expression and disagreement, sharing ownership, consistent use of them, and tapping into the four categories above.
Oelwang suggests approaches to dealing with disagreement, to turn them into learning moments that strengthen rather than erode partnerships. They include:
- Asking yourself “What if the other person is right?” Even if you don’t ultimately change your mind, this creates the possibility of deep listening.
- Allowing partners to have veto power. Ben and Jerry decided that either could block any decision they really couldn’t live with.
- Having positive amnesia. “Successful partnerships can work through bad experiences and then release them, forgiving and literally forgetting so they don’t undermine their collaboration by hanging on to any negative reflections,” Oelwang writes.” (p. 166)
To be sure:
- Through her work with The Elders, Oelwang had direct access to people like the Carters and the Tutus. But the book isn’t a work of critical reporting, and much of the analysis of relationships feels observed from a distance or based on taking the protagonists’ observations at face value. The writing is also gauzy in places, for example: “Sherry and Mario lived their values every moment, like a spiritual operating system that guided every word and action.” (p. 73)
- While partnerships can be magical, they also can be exclusive. Jimmy Carter notes with pride that it was Rosalynn, and not his secretary of state, who he dispatched on some key diplomatic missions. Maybe a cabinet official would have been better equipped than his partner for such political missions?
- Mythologizing partnerships as an approach also risks excluding underrepresented groups, who can be subject to bias or lack connections, from access or power. Silicon Valley’s co-founder obsession, for example, has been linked to a lack of funding for female entrepreneurs.
- A central, recurring narrative in the book—about the scientific and political community that linked CFCs to depletion of the ozone layer and successfully campaigned to ban them—lacks drama and feels overly forced and disconnected from some of the most successful parts of the book.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- The Carters acknowledged that they “almost broke up” over disagreements when writing a post-White-House memoir. They stopped talking to each other during the writing and communicated by leaving messages in a file on a computer on their kitchen table. An editor ultimately helped them work through the disagreements about the details of the stories they were writing about.
- At the founding meeting of The Elders, Jimmy Carter stood up and said “I don’t think this idea makes sense. I don’t believe in it.” (p. 92) He worried that it would be just a “talking shop” with no action—and the organizers had to quickly regroup to keep things moving forward.
- Legendary Silicon Valley thinker and activist Stewart Brand and his wife, Ryan Phelan, live in a 1912 wooden tugboat and bathe together every night “in a deep Japanese tub.” (p. 132)
- Some Okinawa residents are members of “moais” groups of five friends assigned to each other in childhood who meet weekly or more often to support each other’s social, financial, health, and spiritual interests.
- “The world needs a relationship reset.” (p. xvii)
- “We’ve created a false myth that work and personal relationships must be kept separate.” (p. 10)
- “A desire for collective success ultimately helps relationships weather inevitable ups and downs.” (p. 17)
- “Choose carefully to surround yourself with greatness, people who will challenge you to move out of your comfort zone, pull you back when you are out on a limb, and stretch your thinking—not hold you back and limit your dreams.” (p. 24)
- “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive, is too small for you.” —poet David Whyte (p. 25)
- “The question should always be, ‘Am I loving enough?’” (p. 43)
- “Go out and find a friend who unsettles you.” (p. 88)
The bottom line is that Partnering is an imperfect chronicling of standout personal and professional relationships. But it also is a useful reminder of the planning and effort that go into meaningful, world-changing partnerships and a source of tactics for forging them.