Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed

Why do partnerships work well? That’s the question Michael Eisner explores in Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed.

Some of the most successful and accomplished people are really teams: Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Bill and Melinda Gates, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard (who’ve won multiple Academy Awards), Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank (who started Home Depot), Joe Torre and Don Zimmer… the list could go on forever.

Partnerships (at least the successful ones) … encourage a series of characteristics—trust, teamwork, a regard for someone else, and continuing checks and balances.

Why is it that sometimes you can take two people, add them together and get a more successful result than either would have achieved working alone?

As I thought about (that question), I found myself wishing I was an artist rather than a weekend writer. Inspired perhaps by Marc Chagall, I would paint three canvases to make my point, all of a man riding a horse. The first would be a tiny man atop a giant horse, the second would be a giant man atop a tiny horse, and the third would be a man and a horse of equal sizes. In the first scenario, the horse would be too strong, and too uncontrollable for the man. The second would be equally unsuccessful, for a tiny horse can’t move with a giant man weighing him down. But the third match would be perfect, with the man and horse able to move successfully in concert. The man represents intellect, the horse represents emotion. Both need to be equally balanced for any leader to succeed.

You can’t do this stuff on your own. “Even Einstein,” says Charlie Munger, “wouldn’t have been successful if there weren’t other people he didn’t talk to all the time. Total isolation does not work. You need interaction, putting your own thoughts into expression; you learn things just from doing it.”

The best combination, (Eisner) learned, comes from partnership, when two people balance each other, constantly reminding the other of the need to keep the conscious and unconscious in harmony, to make each other smarter, make each other better.

One of the reasons that partnerships fail is that the spotlight accommodates one person a lot better than two. “But,” Eisner writes, “it takes real trust and understanding for both partners to be satisfied with that arrangement.”

Everyone was telling Michael Eisner that partnering with Michael Ovitz, the head of Creative Artists Agency “and the media-anointed most powerful man in the entertainment business” was a great idea. Buffett advised Eisner to pass on the partnership.

“Both of you want the spotlight,” I remember him saying bluntly. “Take Charlie and me: I want the spotlight, but he doesn’t. So it works. And Charlie has integrity, which further ensures that it works. You will be in conflict with Ovitz from day one, and you will never trust him. Don’t do it.”

(Eisner) did (the partnership). And Warren was right—the partnership lasted barely a year.

The key to good partnerships, says Warren Buffett, is trust.

They have complete trust, complete faith, and complete belief in each other. And that reverberates through every phone call they have, every deal they discuss, and every decision they make.

“You cannot keep score,” says Warren. “It just doesn’t work with the best of human relationships. It shouldn’t be even suppressed—it should be something that doesn’t even exist.”

And this bit was key for me. You can play the alpha-role in some parts of your life but you need to know your role in the partnership. Consider the Buffett-Munger partnership:

Munger is not the standard model for the kind of partner who prefers to lie low and fade into the background. Everywhere else in his life, Charlie Munger plays the alpha role—with his family, in board meetings for the variety of companies and charities with which he’s involved, with me when I visited him at his office. I usually don’t have trouble getting a word into a conversation. Talking to Charlie Munger is different—I did a lot more listening than talking.

“That’s one of the beauties of the partnership,” says Charlie. “I am in so many activities where I am the dominant personality. Most people do not ‘fit into’ that mode—they can only operate in that mode. Yet I am particularly willing to play the secondary role. Warren’s a more able man in doing what we’re doing, so it’s the appropriate response. There are some times you should be first, some times you should be second, and some times you should be third.

Partnerships also encourage humility. “It’s not letting ego or jealousy or your own personality take over,” Munger says. “Intelligence takes over.”

Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed argues that the values of effective partnerships run counter to the factors “that contributed to the sequence of economic messes of the past ten years.” Now, then, is the perfect time to encourage partnerships “devoid of envy, jealousy, and rivalry as a way to escape from the toxic culture that has given the business world a bad name, and to instead help people chart a new, often overlooked path toward a better way of working.”