Partnerships

August 1, 2012

I have been in business partnerships, on and off, for over 30 years. I was thinking about this sobering fact and the challenges of partnerships as I read Paul Allen’s biography, Idea Man, in which he accuses former partners Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer of conspiring to dilute his equity in the embryotic Microsoft. His lament is not dissimilar to the issue at the core of the movie The Social Network where Mark Zuckerberg is charged with reducing his partner’s equity in the company Facebook without involving him in the decision.

Workplace partnerships are forged in times of unbridled optimism and stress tested every single day thereafter. These tests are born of success, failure, personalities, egos, jealousies, greed, market forces, competition and time. And in each instance perceptions of fairness are the scales on which the partnership relationship is weighed.  Does the equitability on which the partnership was founded endure, or do creeping imbalances, real or perceived, corrode the relationship? Designer Coco Chanel was quite content to give 70% of her tiny fragrance business to her more experienced partner, cosmetics mogul Pierre Wertheimer. However as the Chanel fragrance became an iconic global brand, bitterness over the ‘unfairness’ of their respective equity positions destroyed the partnership and lead to years of courtroom acrimony. Similarly, the value which Mark Zuckerberg’s assigned to his administrative and financial partner waned as the business grew and altogether more valuable counsel clamored for his affection. In the annals of successful businessmen, the list of those with at least one partnership they outgrew or which betrayed them is long and illustrious.

Intuitively, one would think that partnerships work best in Gilbert and Sullivan-like scenarios (though theirs broke up) where one partner’s lyrics marry magically with the other’s melodies. The early partnership of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel is another form of this where one wove the tales of the Man of Steel while the other’s drawings brought the comic-book character to life. As one person wrote “In such instances we have two masters who are playing a concerto. Neither is subordinate to the other; each gives what is original, but the two, while neither predominates, are in perfect correspondence”. Such partnerships are common in business where one partner may be the technical or market visionary while the other focuses on execution (at Intel for example, it was said that “Andy Grove was the visionary but Craig Barrett made it happen”). Each partner is master of their domain with limited overlap of sphere and expertise and together the halves become a successful whole. Even these partnerships can be tricky however as the outward facing partner often receives the fame and glory (Think Giorgio Armani and Sergio Galeotti for example. That’s right, Sergio who?) and thus the personality and ego of the less visible partner must be able to cope with the disproportionate sunlight that falls on the other.

Of course for every intuitive rule of fit, exceptions mock the notion of any rule. There are countless examples of successful partnerships that shouldn’t work and others that should have but didn’t. In the end, partnerships resist facile or prescriptive characterizations and even the best ones take tremendous work. Perhaps my barber said it best last week when commenting on the retirement of his business partner with whom he worked side by side, six days per week for 28 years in the same small strip mall. A man of few words, he described their longevity and success as a ‘miracle’.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777