by Stephanie Overby

Partners: Find the Right One and Improve Your Career

Oct 12, 2009
IT Leadership

New research by Gallup executives suggests partnerships make us happier at work and can improve your career potential.

Let’s face it: As CIO, you’re lonely. You’ve got teams of people working below you, a boss and board weighing in from above and executive peers who don’t get what you do. What you need is a partner.

Not the kind of partner that’s become a C-suite cliché—”We’re partnering with a new vendor” or “We have to partner with the business”—but a real honest-to-goodness collaboration between you and another human being reaching common goals you could never achieve individually.

“Isolation is quite literally unhealthy—as bad for you as smoking or lack of exercise,” explains Rodd Wagner who, with fellow Gallup executive Gale Muller, coauthored the book Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life. “The more we collaborate, the more we accomplish.” In fact, Wagner and Muller, who studied thousands of one-on-one collaborations to determine what makes them successful, found that the highest levels of happiness and engagement kick in when a person has five to 10 good alliances.

To read more on this topic see: Collaborative Innovation: Five Steps to Successful Technology Partnerships.

Raytheon vice president and CIO Rebecca Rhoads credits some of her success to alliances formed with peers in engineering, finance, supply chain, communications, HR, business development and legal. “They often give me new insights,” she says.

Potential partners can be found among your direct reports or in the C-Suite Wagner says. The problem is you can’t just throw any two people together and expect a fruitful relationship to flourish. To create more perfect unions, Wagner and Muller layout eight requirements: complementary strengths, a common mission, fairness, trust, acceptance, forgiveness, communicating and unselfishness. That means the assistant that doesn’t exactly share the workload may not be partner material. And that VP who sees you as his main competition? Not a partner.

Also avoid partnering with your corporate doppelganger. “You don’t need another person just like you as a partner,” Muller explains. “You need someone who has what you don’t.”

Savvy IT executives should foster solid partnerships among their staff, too. Employees with one collaborative relationship are 29 percent more likely to say they’ll stay with their company for the next year and 42 percent more likely to say they’ll intend to stick it out for their careers, according to Gallup research. Wagner and Muller also discovered that workers who are well-partnered generate higher customer satisfaction scores, safety, retention, creativity, productivity and profitability for their companies.

If it seems your reports are competing rather than collaborating, take a closer look at your incentives. “There is a pervasive bias for shining the spotlight on one person. You can see it in how the press wanted to know whether Edmund Hillary or Tenzing Norgay stepped first on the summit of Everest,” says Muller.

Although serious violations of trust are rare, even the best relationships can go astray. “There are crucial moments when one of the partners has to make a leap of faith,” says Muller. “This often means forgiving an error or being willing to give more. Partnerships need to be fair, but fair doesn’t mean equal.”

If all this sounds like foreign territory, that’s because it is. Corporate history may contain examples of successful partnerships—Disney’s Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard—but business books tend to focus on how to be a great leader, not a great better-half. “We have a culture that emphasizes being the all-around hero, even though research is quite clear that each of us is a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. It’s a real blind spot in business strategy,” says Wagner. To forge good partnerships, “you have to recognize both that you need help and that you are also the help someone else needs.”

Stephanie Overby is a freelance writer living in Massachusetts.