Picking a Partner: Harmony Is Overrated

Sometimes Loud, Noisy Relationships Work

By Published on .

Millie Olson Millie Olson
What makes for a successful partnership? As we think about enlarging the leadership team at Amazon, I realize that the answers are obvious mostly in hindsight.

Take the relationship between me and my business partner, a term I belatedly learned to use after a few prospects' eyebrows were raised upon meeting two tall female agency heads calling themselves Amazons.

We've worked together for most of the last two decades. We launched Amazon Advertising together more than 12 years ago. And we've run it together successfully if not always smoothly ever since.

If I had it to do over, I would still pick her as my partner.

But many have found the success of our partnership difficult to grasp.

This began with our husbands, who'd listened to enough battle stories from the earlier years of our rather stormy relationship, that the idea of the two of us starting a business came as something of a surprise.

"Don't do it," my husband said with his usual succinctness. (Actually a lot of people said don't do it, and especially don't call it Amazon. But by the time we heard them all out, we were already zipping around the country on some pretty interesting assignments.)

Around the office, the harmony between us has continued to elude many.

Voices have been raised, whole octaves have been scaled.

Doors have been slammed, sending others scurrying for shelter.

Indignant but extremely literate e-mails have been exchanged. (We are, after all, both copywriters by training.)

And there was an evening in Cincinnati where I jogged in circles around a hotel bar to calm down. (Women rarely duke it out, especially while wearing stilettos.)

But we've beat the odds and built a successful agency, one that's in good enough shape to merit a second generation of leadership one of these days.

Because of that, I've been thinking about what makes for a good partnership.
  1. Agreeing on the big stuff. We've almost always been in accord on the kind of work we want to do, the kind of clients we want to have, the kind of people to hire, the kind of environment to create.

  2. Shared work ethic. My partner has amazing stamina and passion for the business; she never eases up or takes shortcuts. Most of our staff avoid sitting next to us on long flights.

  3. Honesty. We share a financial straightfowardness that's borderline obsessive. (Said one large bank client to Amazon several years ago when we sent back a check for unused monthly retainer hours: You must be kidding.)

  4. Resilience. Making the hard decisions and swiftly returning to optimism after a new business disappointment, the death of a beloved campaign, even after the dot-com implosion.

  5. Shared aha's. There's often a moment in focus groups when we both feel people leaning in, when we both note the same vivid phrase from a consumer, and we know that this is powerful work, or this has a fatal flaw and we must kill it now.

  6. Appreciation of each other's talent. After all these years, the brilliance of my partner's writing and the insightfulness of her strategic thinking can still blow me away. That's worth a few jogs around the Pyramid.

  7. Appetite for risk. Our key employees asked us recently, "What's kept you up at night?" And through the roller coaster ride that's included the mysterious disappearance of one controller, the simultaneous deaths of our three dot-coms, and the reluctance of a couple of clients to pay bills, the number of sleepless nights can be counted on one hand.

  8. Camaraderie. Even when we've had it with each other's faults, there's always something to talk about over a glass of wine -- articles and books we know the other must read, ironies only other will understand.
It's all this we're looking for as we think about expanding our own leadership team, because together we've created something we want to go on. Even, some day, without the irreplaceable, irascible, yin-and-yang of the two of us.
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