Leadership to the Power of Two

A woman and a man dressed as superheroes

Few things generate debate amongst fans of the reality TV show “Survivor” like romantically linked power couples. While developing partnerships with other players in the game is widely seen as a strategic move, forming partnerships with emotional bonds is often frowned upon by so-called super fans—who consider “showmances” foolish because they make both partners a target for being voted off the island at the tribal council.

As “Survivor” host Jeff Probst noted last year, romantic relationships lead other players in the game to develop an unconscious bias against power couples because they see two people openly relying on each other for support. “‘Survivor’ can be extremely lonely,” Probst says, “and to have someone special to lean on is a powerful advantage, and can cause even more resentment.”

In the real world, romantic power couples don’t have to hide their feelings. Think Melinda and Bill or Barack and Michelle or Beyoncé and Jay-Z. But being half of a real-world power couple isn’t easy. As University of Minnesota sociologist Phyllis Moen pointed out in a recent BBC analysis of how dual-working romantic partnerships survive, committing yourself to another ambitious person requires committing to their career as well as your own—which creates challenges that must be overcome to benefit from the partnership. After all, committing to two careers often requires one partner to take a time-out from their ambitions.

Lost in most discussions of power couples, of course, is the fact that the real power of power couples is only tapped when both members of the partnership are focused on the same goals. When two people share the same career objective, the pair’s combined energy, skills, wits, and actions are enhanced. As an old proverb states, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” This people sharpening can’t happen on a reality TV show where only one player can take the prize. But it is something budding entrepreneurs should keep in mind because it helps explain why two founders working toward a common goal will often fare better than one working alone.

“Lost in most discussions of power couples is the fact that the real power of power couples is only tapped when both members of the partnership are focused on the same goals.”

You’ve likely come across some wonderful handcrafted wooden toys that harken back to another era, which are the handiwork of Melissa and Doug Bernstein, co-founders of Melissa & Doug. There’s fashionista Kate Spade, who pioneered fashion trends in a fiercely competitive industry by partnering with her husband Andy Spade. From luxury handbags to sunglasses, the Kate Spade brand resonates with the fashion-conscious demographic it serves. But for every well-known success story, there are thousands of other business couples tapping into the sharpening power of two.

I certainly have benefited from the couple business partner model. In 2005, after mapping out an idea on a napkin at our kitchen table, my wife Stephanie and I co-founded Voices.com, a global voice-over marketplace that connects businesses with professional voice talent. Last year, our company—which now has over 100 employees—ranked in the top 100 of the annual PROFIT 500 list of Canada’s fastest growing companies thanks to five-year revenue growth of 1,166 per cent.

This success stems from our partnership of personalities. But like everything else in business, making a couple business partnership work requires strategic planning. We recommend following three key practices.

First, one spouse must not report to the other. This will help mitigate the risk of casual dinner-table conversation turning into a performance review.

Second, define leadership roles. We began the process with a simple partnership agreement—which in our case was simply a piece of paper with a line drawn down the middle to separate key responsibilities. To help do this, both partners should consider taking a personality test to identify similarities and differences. The results from a personality assessment will equip you with language to better communicate with each other. You will learn why word choices matter when working with someone with different skills and a different personality. You will also learn how each partner feels about feedback or workplace quiet time. You may be surprised by the results. I was.

Third, celebrate your business successes as a couple. Sharing significant milestones and enjoying the fruit of your labour is a great source of delight for two people sharing a life together.

When the end game is the same, of course, romance isn’t required to benefit from the sharpening generated by leadership couples. Most leadership teams, for example, can benefit from having a combination of technical and creative partners. The same can be said about introverts and extroverts.

As the technical introvert in our company, I have been more inclined to develop a master plan, not to mention a plan B, plan C, and so on. Stephanie, a creative extrovert, is more adaptable to change as long as we continue moving forward. Having an outgoing personality, Stephanie also gains energy from being around other people. She is most effective in a crowd, walking the conference floor, participating on a panel, and exchanging ideas with groups of other people. It’s an admirable trait. But I need alone time. Some people might dismiss my introversion as being part of a quiet and aloof personality without obvious benefit. And yet, I gain energy by effectively using alone time to recharge, self-motivate, and work toward the next great idea. Both our personalities are pieces of the puzzle in forming a great business partnership.

Other important pieces include receiving and interpreting information, making decisions based on personal factors or external factors, and effectively using and managing your time. One partner may naturally speak on a theoretical level and discuss concepts, while the other may need to see concrete details and real-world applications in progress. Whatever the case, the potential of a founding team working toward the same goal, while drawing from different strengths, is incalculable.

Having both a technical introvert and a creative extrovert on our founding team allows for thoughtful planning and spontaneity. Neither personality type is better; both generate valuable life experiences, passions, and insights, so they both bring value and uniqueness to the leadership table.

From the initial business plan to product development, the technical aspect of any business is critical. But it is only half the story; the creative aspect breathes life into brand narratives and establishes company values and guiding principles. At Voices.com, I am good at the technical side of things. But while Stephanie and I both deeply care about delighting our customer base, she has become the face of the brand because she excels at it as an extrovert. Her presence at events, in the media, and through customer interaction has delivered a level of engagement and performance that is natural only to a creative partner.

Simply put, as co-founders with different personalities, our different strengths require us to listen to each other, but they also allow us to encourage each other when we need it most. Working together, we become unstoppable. So, if you are thinking about entering the marketplace’s version of “Survivor,” consider finding a co-founder who is your opposite, someone who can complement your strengths and skills. That won’t guarantee success, but it will make you a stronger competitor while offering a certain amount of invaluable immunity to many leadership challenges.