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Female Business Partnerships That Work

April 05, 2019 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Writing is a solitary profession as we well know. And when we were lucky enough to be introduced more than 30 years ago, we quickly realized that we had similar interests and goals. Both of us were driven by the simple desire to do good work fueled by ideas that we wanted to express through words. We gave our writing partnership a try. That was in 1985. After a honeymoon period when we penned a 30-page book proposal together which turned into our first book, “Corporate Bloodlines,” we knew this was a good match. We also understood that our relationship could unravel if we didn’t establish some guidelines and adhere to the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

People still ask us: How have you two managed to work together for such a long time and remain good friends? It has meant conjuring up all the honesty and trust that we can muster. We communicate. Voice our concerns and opinions. And we are secure in knowing that we can say whatever we need to say in a gentle way. We are not out to attack the other but to improve our work and our relationship. We do not take criticism personally—it’s too long, it’s a bit corny, make it more heartfelt are critiques we have shared back and forth. It’s about the work. And, hey, we really like each other. We have fun. We gossip, laugh and confide in each other about our work and our lives. At the same time, we stick to our guidelines. We work together but also have our own work. We also acknowledge we have different strengths—and weaknesses. And we are always supportive of each other’s efforts whether it’s something we’re working on together or an individual basis, or even a personal crisis or success. Every writer needs an editor and confidante.  

Many might think the idea of two female business partners is a near impossible feat to pull off. Betsy Polk and Maggie Ellis Chotas, business partners and co-presidents of Mulberry Partners for more than 15 years, an executive and leadership coaching and consulting firm based in North Carolina, are strong advocates of women partnering to achieve better results. They’ve addressed this phenomenon in their book, Power Through Partnership: How Women Lead Better Together (Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2014). They say, “When two women work together, they discover a level of support, flexibility, confidence, accountability and freedom to be themselves that they rarely find in other work relationships.” Their book draws on the two women’s partnership as well as 125 women business partner interviews. 

Recently, we interviewed Polk and Chotas. Two other female partnership interviews will be featured in next week's blog. Is there a formula that makes these partnerships work out well? Find out by reading below. We each have also learned from what we’ve read, that another benchmark of a good partnership, may be the ability to see the business model evolve as each grows and lives change. The Q & A follows, which has been condensed and edited 

How and when did you meet and team up? 
Betsy: Maggie and I met in an English class in 10th grade when we were teamed for a project. We had so much fun. Working together sparked our shared creativity. We joked then that we had to do this again someday, but we weren’t sure when and how. We took different career paths. Maggie is in education and I’m an organization development consultant. We kept in touch and eventually got to the same area code and same life spot. At that point, both of us were thinking about what our next thing would be. We were talking on the phone day when Maggie threw out the possibility of getting another graduate degree.  At that point, the words of her mother, a therapist, came to us, “Women think they need one more thing before doing something.” The heck with that. We knew the time was then and launched our consulting practice as a result in 2002. 

In your book, you interviewed 125 female business partners. How did most of these people meet and end up working together? Were they friends first?Maggie: One of the questions on our mind when we started researching for the book was how necessary was it to be friends first to make the partnership work. From the 125 women in partnerships we talked with, we learned there were many different paths to partnership. Some were match-made by a mutual person whom both women trusted, saw skills and suggested two women work together, perhaps within an organization. They worked on a project together that grew into a business partnership. Or, a partnership arose from competitors who teamed up. Each had a certain market segment and the pair realized if they teamed up, they could have a bigger market share. The bottom line: how women business partners get together is not a predictor of success. It’s what you do when you find each other and put the partnership in motion that matters.   

If two women are friends first and then business partners, does it make it harder or easier for them to work together? And what happens if the partnership dissolves? Is that the end of the friendship?
Betsy: This is a business, and it’s important to outline goals, work that each of you is going to do to set up the partnership, sustain it, and not take the partnership for granted. The women who wrote, The Nanny Diaries together, who we interviewed, said it best: “This is not a going out for brunch relationship.” If you team with a friend, be mindful to sustain the partnership above all else. The focus must be about how you take care of the partnership. 

Why team up in the first place?
Maggie: Two heads are better than one -- assuming you have a structure that allows the best of two parties. Women working together, we’ve learned, offer a reciprocity and support that can be incredibly important. There’s also a dynamic between women partners we’ve observed, that we’ve labeled “the powerful partnership dynamic.” Women with an intentional lens of partnership can create new cultures within organizations or their own entities. It is an inclusive dynamic that breaks old models of leadership that tend to be more command and control models.  

Do women make better business partners than men and how are they different? How are they alike?
Betsy: Our question wasn’t necessarily are women better business partners than men, but why aren’t we seeing more women in partnership? When we started working on our book, men in partnership were everywhere, while women in partnership were really under the radar. We found these working relationships weren’t getting any light shined on them, while at the same time, men basked in the glow of partnership. Think of the name brand appeal of Ben and Jerry’s, Proctor and Gamble, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. But who came up when we started looking for women partners? Lucy and Ethyl, Cagney and Lacey, Thelma and Louise. There was a big gap between powerful men working together and the fictional dynamic duos. But women are out there working together in amazing, powerful ways! Partnership is a great way for women to work together! You can be successful. You can be supported. This is what we heard over and over from the women we interviewed: “Without my partner, I couldn’t live the life I want to lead.”

What about a man and woman partnership? What are those dynamics?Maggie: We found in our research that there can be a difference between equality and equity. Even when a man and women are equal in terms of the way they work together, think about each other and divvy up the roles of running a business, there can be a push from external sources that projects the traditional gender roles onto the partnership. Not that it can’t work, but it takes another level of consciousness and intentionality to make it work equitably. And then, even with that level of real clarity, there can be a default to traditional gender norms. 

What are some common threads that make these partnerships work?Betsy: We mention three essentials in our book: complementary skills, talents and interests; shared values, and compatibility. One critical thing is clarity about who is doing what and what each brings to the table. We interviewed someone who had a previous partnership that failed and found out that she and her partner had overlapping skills. But they wanted to work together. There were huge gaps in the partnership with both doing the same thing. Margaret Heffernan, who writes about women in leadership, told us, “If you’re both doing the same thing, one of you doesn’t need to be there.” I work with students and will ask them: What do each of you want to do? We want to do everything together, they might respond. Both must be willing to do hard work, trust the other, give the other one room, have a commitment to communicate and figure out the balance in communicating. (In the beginning of our partnership, Maggie and I overcommunicated). So, set boundaries and show mutual respect. It is so important also to know that your partner is going to celebrate you. Maggie and I have other work outside our partnership, but I am always carrying Maggie on my shoulder. We cheer each other on. We each make connections for the other. We help each other regardless of who’s doing what. 

How do you know if you can work together?
Maggie: Have a pilot project together as a test and have a good solid conversation. 

Can you talk about a partnership that went south—and why? What often makes these relationships unravel?
Maggie:  Part of spreading the word about partnership is making sure women know that it can be a flexible way to respond to what is needed at a given time over the different phases in life. For example, we interviewed one of the women in a partnership who described how her partnership had imploded. Things were going strong for the pair until one had a baby and she was all ready to come back to work until the nanny she had carefully chosen fell through at the last minute. That’s when the stress got to both partners and it just seemed easier to dissolve it. The woman who had been holding down the fort took the business solo. 

We want partners to know that sometimes you need to take the long view. Think about navigating life phases together and the fact that those life phases don’t last forever. It’s the rubber band phenomenon. It can stretch. We interviewed the two women, Marcia Greenberger and Nancy Duff Campbell, who run the National Women’s Law Center. They have been together a long time and have been through many different life phases. Since the partnership is strong, they’ve had vision, worked through their relationship and were able to weather so many things. Their partnership model is elastic—it moves out and comes in and they’re strong together. It’s all about what the partners do to weather ups and downs, transitions and changes. 

If you’re going to work together, do you need to have a contract?
Betsy: Maggie and I started with our own contract. We outlined on paper our key values, what is important and how we’d divide work and work together. We felt that having this conversation was a litmus test of a partnership. Later, we went to a lawyer and developed a legal partnership contract. 

If something goes wrong, how do you handle stress points: Divorce. Death. Sickness. Disability.
Maggie: We’ve been through some of them and weathered it all. That’s power through partnership. If a partnership is set up in a strong and effective way, it is an incredible support for the challenges that life throws your way. The solidarity of a partnership keeps it afloat. For example, back in 2008, I had to take a short leave when I became very ill. It was a difficult and dark time, but the business stayed afloat. There was enough elasticity in the partnership that when my health was back, I could step back in. Without partnership, our business could have folded as it does for many solo entrepreneurs who hit a rough spot. 

Betsy and I both have jobs in different organizations now and because of the strength of our partnership, we can each do our own thing and continue as partners, as coaches for one another and enjoy the richness that comes as a result of that partnership. We have a very resilient model. 

How do you resolve conflict or disagreements in this partnership? 
Betsy: We call this our “conflict in cars” period. We had a dynamic for a while where we let whatever conflict we had simmer. And then it would come out in the car on the way to a client meeting or when we had a deadline--during fraught times. We’d sit in the car and go through the issue when it would have served us better to be focusing on the meeting we were walking into.  Conflict that matters doesn’t go away. It erupts if it’s not addressed. We now know we must talk things through if one of us is bugged or bothered by the other. One of the partnerships we featured in our book named a typical issue of conflict. One is a “pusher” and one is a “puller.” I would say to Maggie, I have an idea. What do you think, Maggie? What do you think? Maggie would say “woah,” why is Betsy pummeling me with all these ideas? We’d then get into a tug of war in times of stress. Once we realized this, we’d talk it through. We had a shortcut for stating how we felt, “Hey, we’re in a push and pull situation or entering stressful time.” And then at times, the roles would reverse. Maggie would push and I would pull. Our personalities have changed because of working together so closely.  

In the case of any conflict that the two of us might not be able to resolve, we agreed on a mediator, a third party. It is our attorney. 

What is one thing you’ve learned from each other?
Maggie: We’ll figure it out when we hit a new phase. We have no idea how something new might work out, but we have enough of a track record that we know whatever it is, we’ll figure it out because we have each other. 

Betsy: I never wake up in the middle of the night worried about how we’ll work something out. It’s a huge relief to realize that whatever problem might arise, we’re in this together. 

Are you now very close friends? 
Maggie: Yes. Our kids call me aunt and vice versa. They think of themselves as cousins. They’ve grown up together. We’re all very close. 

Betsy: At the same time, Maggie and I each have a wide circle of friends, and we are involved in our own communities. This enhances our work too. We have daughters who are two months apart and seeing their friendship reflected in our friendship is magical. 

When a partnership breaks up, can the pair remain friends?
Maggie: Betsy cites examples of long-term partners breaking up. One example is the result of not celebrating or shining the light. Two partners we worked with formed a friendship after they started working together. It was an internal partnership within an organization that ended when the project ended. Both went off to different places, but they kept up their connection. We recently learned that one of the partners had an opportunity to help the other and she wasn’t able to so. This eroded the partnership and the friendship. You must be willing to take risks for each other. 

Women make up more than half of the global labor pool. And today, in the era of #MeToo, women’s business partnerships are experiencing a higher profile as they start to shine the light on their successes. Authors Polk and Chotas mention such high-profile partnerships as comediennes Amy Poehler and Tina Fey; actresses Mary Kate and Ashley; and Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer from Broad City, a TV sitcom created by and starring the two women. More recent successes include: Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, Rent the Runway, a subscription service for fashionable clothing; Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, Birchbox, a monthly delivery of a box of beauty products to subscribers; Elizabeth Culter and Julie Rice, SoulCycle, a 45-minute indoor cycling class with more than 80 locations in Canada and the U.S., and Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, OWN Network, to name a few. 

Part II next week




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