December 23, 2017

The Balancing Act: The right partnerships can get you ahead

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Editor’s note: Since September 2015, Worcester Sun has chronicled the busy life of Sun contributor Giselle Rivera-Flores in the serial “A Mother’s Journey,” as she explores ways to help her daughter and other Worcester families find affordable educational support. We used to describe her as an aspiring business owner; now, she’s a full-fledged entrepreneur and acknowledged leader in the startup community. As Giselle has evolved, so has her story. Welcome to the first installment of “The Balancing Act.”

Giselle Rivera-Flores

The adage “Two heads are better than one” may explain the reason many entrepreneurs and small-business owners team up to form partnerships. In fact, new research by Carnegie Mellon University professor Anita Williams Woolley and her colleagues suggests that the intelligence of a group can exceed that of its individual members.

Well, if the right conditions are met.

Read Giselle’s previous chapter, Don’t starve the artists , or scroll down to explore more of her story.

A partnership doesn’t always equate to more brainpower or productivity. Some partnerships, while equally healthy on the surface – personalities are a match and there are some shared worldviews – are not always healthy on a business level. Friends often find themselves starting partnerships with other friends only to realize, after months of demanding work on one end and no work on the other, that the partnership was a bad idea, and in turn, is ruining a perfectly good friendship.

As a habitual entrepreneur who has launched several companies — both successful ventures and total failures — I’ve had my share of partnerships. Although I haven’t experienced a partnership like investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, I have had some great, and some epicly awful, experiences. But through it all, I’ve learned that there are three main traits needed to make the “two heads are better than one” adage accurate.

Not surprisingly, the first trait in any business connection is that it must be based on trust. Too often, entrepreneurs and small-business owners are sold appealing business ideas by less-than-trustworthy individuals. Because they’re blinded by the illusion of endless money, they sign partnership agreements and force a connection despite the lack of trust.

Denise Morrison, president and CEO of Campbell Soup Co., stated that “trust implies that both parties participate in the relationship with both ‘gives’ and ‘gets,’ and the attitude of giving a full commitment to the partnership will usually result in getting the same commitment in return.” Morrison, to me, gives the clearest definition of trust and its implications on a business partnership.

If trust determines the commitment of each party, then the goals and results quantify the trust. And there’s a problem when it doesn’t add up: A 100 percent commitment from one party multiplied by zero commitment from the other party equals zero success in the partnership.

With trust as the foundation of a partnership, it’s only right to follow up with mutual respect as the second trait. In famous partnerships like that of tech pioneers Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, there is an evident level of mutual respect. There is also a recognition of the strengths and weaknesses each possesses for the greater good of the business.

Assistant professor Lee H. Igel of New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies stated that each partner needs to “acknowledge that no matter who did what or how much, nothing could have been accomplished without the work and contribution of the other.” If one partner is doing all the work, then we must look back to the network of trust. But if each partner does a significantly different amount of work but stays within their own strengths, then there should be a mutual level of respect.

All partnerships are different. Some, like that of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, are unique to their industry. Richards, an expert musician, relies on Jagger’s skills as a vocalist and businessman to make the magic happen. Bill Gates’ innovative software development, coupled with Steve Ballmer’s ability to drive ideas from concept to implementation, made them an ideal pairing at Microsoft.

After trust and respect, dedication to the end goal is the third trait. When evaluating a potential business partnership, I have learned to look at my weaknesses and ask myself if the potential partner possesses the right qualities and skills to counter those weaknesses.

While two of me may not be a bad deal, I am actually trying to achieve something greater than my own capabilities. Partners’ skills should complement each other, but they should also sync perfectly in their missions and dedication to reaching a targeted goal.

For me, over the years, this has been the leading cause of partnership breakups. At first, the relationship is great. The trust seems solid, the mutual respect for one another’s abilities is evident, then it all falls apart in the dedication to the mission aspect. This year alone, I’ve experienced a partnership breakup that had immense potential, but simply fell apart because of differences in the amount of dedication to the cause.

While I thought the business concept would take months to gain traction, the other partner felt that four months was long enough to determine the business concept’s chances of success. In the end, it was a great decision to part ways but unfortunately, it turned out to be a waste of my time and dedication to the business. Lesson learned.

As the opportunities for partnerships approach, be sure to evaluate them with a checklist that will propel your business to the next level. Above all else, keep your own head in the game. Two heads may be better, but you only have control of one.

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