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5 Tips For Great Partnerships

You say tomato, your partner says to-mah-to. When to talk it out--and when to yell.
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Ben and Jerry. Batman and Robin. De Niro and Tarantino. Partnerships bring the best of two people together to create something much bigger than each could have accomplished alone.

Whether it’s ice cream or movies, what makes a partnership thrive? What happens when the opposing points of view combine for the worse--not the better? And how do you overcome the challenge of negotiation to reach a really groundbreaking result?

We're well versed in creative partnerships. We founded design and branding firm Carbone Smolan Agency 35 years ago and since then, we’ve weathered three recessions, the gain and loss of clients around the world, and management of a staff that has ranged from 15 to 50. We couldn't have done it without each other--no easy feat, given our yin and yang approach to business and creative problems. 

To achieve great results for your company or team, learning how to maintain a healthy partnership is more than half the battle--but it can bring double the reward.

Whether partners in business, in life, or as part of a larger team, here are five tips for getting it right.

Find Your Common Goal

It's important to share the same end goal, even when you have different ways of achieving it. This common ground becomes a tool for overcoming any challenge that comes your way--and a great mediating device. Does each of your ideas support the goal you set together? 

Each of us views design through a unique lens: Ken loves drawing, Leslie loves art directing. He begins with images, she begins with words. We approach any given problem from opposite perspective, leading to some colorful discussions. We're equal in willpower, but at the end of the day, we're always working towards the same goal: creating great work in every area of design.

Celebrate Your Partner’s Strengths

Even in an equal partnership, there must be a division of responsibility. His and her clients, his and her roles. It’s still a partnership, even when one of you has to take the lead. Learn to divide and conquer. If you both try to do everything, nothing will truly be exceptional.

Neither of us is shy about declaring our domains--our different personalities and interests help us divvy up obligations and utilize our strengths. We’ve always been able to delegate based on which of us can better meet a client's needs. The other half provides consulting and input, ensuring every project receives the best of both of us. Integrating Ken's left brain and Leslie’s right brain thinking is at the core of our business. Strategically, it lets us offer a wider breadth of expertise to our clients.

Know When to Call A Truce

Strong personalities make for a strong partnership--and strong disagreements. New challenges tend to shine a spotlight on our differences. When we spar--and we often do--it's our unspoken rule that whoever cares most, wins. 

One of our most serious confrontations was over the use of computers, back in the age of IBM Selectric typewriters. We sat in a Chinese restaurant arguing about whether we should invest in one of Apple's first computers. Ken got so angry that he stormed out of the restaurant and didn't speak to Leslie for a few days. Leslie won that argument, and shortly thereafter, we had one of the first Apple 3 computers in our office. 

Differences are highlighted most when pitching a new account. Each of us has our own opinions about what to present, how much to charge and who’s best to lead the pitch. One of us will make the final calls, and we generally end up at that sweet spot in the middle. 

Take Advantage of Your Differences

For the day-to-day, we have clearly outlined roles and responsibilities. Leslie manages the finances: budgets, overhead, year-end tax planning. Ken’s domain is the physical office: art in the hallways, conference room improvements, phone systems. With the basics nailed down, it gives us the freedom to explore everything else. Balancing our strengths and responsibilities together keeps us in check.

About three years ago, we'd reached a point when we needed to give each other more autonomy and let our separate identities emerge. Ken, for example, wanted to be able to express himself as an artist and create the work with his own hands. We developed more clearly defined roles: Ken emerged as the firm's creative director, and Leslie assumed the role of director of creative strategy.

Don't be Afraid of Dialogue

On every project, one of us takes the lead while the other chimes in. This approach works because we've never needed to clarify or credit who had the initial spark of an idea or who brought the idea to final execution. We're both able to recognize a brilliant approach and always welcome the other to build on it. The best work comes from an open dialogue.

Last updated: Dec 5, 2012




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