I remember the exact moment I knew Brit was my work soulmate. We were discussing our plans to roll out a series of sex-ed pop-up dinners — I’m a sex educator; she’s a chef and nutritionist — when I just got this feeling that she was going to say what I was thinking.
“This could be huge,” she said, twiddling her pen in her hand. “We could make millions just doing bachelorette parties in this town.” My thoughts exactly. I looked up at her, our eyes met, the stars aligned and boom — we started a project.
Every time I’d tried to do this with someone else, I’d sabotage it by allowing myself to be overcome with the duties of my day job or domestic life. I was perpetually “too busy” to do the one thing I wanted to do most, but when Brit came along, I was suddenly more than willing to lose an extra hour or two of sleep so we could roll out our plans of world domination, which, to my utter delight, we did (though we fell a few zeros short of the millions we’d envisioned). Nobody before or after her has brought out the kind of creativity, confidence or work ethic in me that she did, and I’ve been fascinated by why ever since.
History and pop culture are full dynamic duos whose catalytic relationships were able to move mountains — Oprah and Gayle; Steve Jobs and Tim Cook; Paul McCartney and John Lennon. These are people who wouldn’t have gotten to where they are (or did) without the other. They’re work soulmates who bring (or brought) out the absolute best in each other.
What makes a someone a work soulmate, though? Why do some people motivate and inspire us — and actually help us get shit done — while others just blow smoke up our asses about wanting to collaborate? What creates the right combination of interpersonal chemistry and work ethic to make creative or business partnerships work, and how do you know that you’ve found the proverbial “one”?
I interviewed a handful of successful collaborators, a business partnership lecturer and an organizational development expert to see if I could uncover the “it” factor that makes partnerships productive and fulfilling. To my surprise, they all said roughly the same, unexpected thing — that successful partnerships aren’t necessarily built on the foundation of merit or material accomplishments like a bang-up LinkedIn profile or an impressive portfolio. Rather, the good ones are based on a feeling. Like saxophonist Clarence Clemons famously said about meeting long-time collaborator and bandmate Bruce Springsteen, “Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything. We just knew.”
Much like you often just “know” when you’ve found the love of your life, it’s possible to “know” when you’ve found your work soulmate, too. “You either feel it or you don’t,” says CEO and entrepreneur Jenny Ta, who likens the sensation of “knowing” to fate — it’s a strong, but undefinable intuitive hit that tells you more about a person than any contract or round two interview ever could. “It’s like a pang of instant chemistry that makes you sit up and go, ‘Who the hell is that?’”
This is something she discovered when she met Shinta Dhanuwardoyo, the woman who’d soon become her partner. Though Dhanuwardoyo checked all the right boxes on paper — she already owned a successful tech company and clearly understood how to turn an idea into profit — there was something unexplainable about her that just felt “right.” Productive, too — within five hours of meeting each other, Ta and Dhanuwardoyo had come up with the idea for VCNetwork, an investment group that now houses more than 500,000 investors across five countries.
“Fate wanted me to meet this woman,” says Ta, who confesses that their initial meeting had been of “divine intervention” (there’d been a conversation with God, some fortuitous free schedules and nearly impossible last-minute plane trip involved). “It was a huge risk, but I had to trust my intuition about her. If you’re looking for a partner, it’s so important that you listen to your sixth sense about people and follow the spark.”
Feelings such as “sixth sense,” “intuition” and “spark” hint at a different, softer side of business relationships and creative partnerships than we’re used to seeing. While most of the language and culture around professional partnerships is unfeeling, buttoned-up and mechanistic — “human capital,” “performance,” “cog in a machine” — organizational human development expert Chris Sansone says individual partnerships are often far more intimate, human and even spiritual than the outside world gets to see (the fact that Tim Cook offered an ailing Steve Jobs part of his liver is a testament to just how close that bond can be). Problem is, the negative stigma around emotional decision-making blocks many people from being able to tune into their own intuition about potential work soulmates in the way Ta was able to.
“So many people — particularly white men of a certain age — are afraid of their own intuition,” says Sansone. “They feel like they won’t be taken seriously if they admit that their choice of partner was due to intuition or a feeling. They’d rather come across as having made a reasonable and logical decision about who to work or collaborate with, but this keeps them from making more conscious, authentic choices about their partnerships.”
“By contrast,” he continues, “attending to what you’re feeling about a person in both your body and your mind gives you a much better chance of finding someone you really do have that sort of productive, mutually respectful spark with.”
That said, a spark alone isn’t enough to create productive chemistry or Lennon/McCartney-level ideas — you have to give that spark something to ignite. “Fate and feelings are huge parts of why some people work as creative or business partners and others fail, but there has to be a pragmatic part to that connection,” says Sansone. “In order to motivate and inspire each other, you have to demonstrate over and over that you think similarly and are willing to be conscious and intentional about your relationship and shared vision.”
In other words, the follow-up is what turns a spark into a soulmate. Ta knew Dhanuwardoyo was it because immediately after their meeting, they started sending each other texts, emails and little bits of fun communication in addition to plans about the business. “We were instantly invested in each other’s interests and opinions,” she says.
“When you enter into a ‘soulmate-like’ partnership, you feel like you’re inside each other’s brains,” say Carla Johnson, a CEO, entrepreneur and speaker who guest lectures about partnerships at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. “You stay emotionally current with each other and start to sync up, which is crucial for cultivating the core of all good partnerships — shared visions and goals.”
In any partnership, working toward the same things for the same reasons helps move things along. But in work soulmate situations, the depth and detail of these shared visions tends to be much greater and more intense. As Johnson explains, fantastic duos have similar ideas about what they’re working toward, what creative processes they’ll use to get there, how they’ll handle leadership, communication, making and spending money, giving and hearing criticism and how they want to be seen or consumed by the rest of the world. They even tend to have parallel morals and ethics, which makes it possible for them to stand each other for 40 to 60 hours a week. Obviously, says Johnson, the business, project or whatever you’re collaborating on should be the primary target of those shared visions, but work soulmates tend to take those shared visions a step (or ten) further by letting them bleed into both their friendship and the outside world.
Caitlyn Sullivan and her longtime friend and business partner Kacie Carter are the co-owners of Honey Hi, a popular L.A. restaurant that’s been featured everywhere from Bon Appétit to the New York Times. Sullivan tells me that while her and Carter have always shared a crystal-clear vision about what they want to accomplish with their business, they also align in several key ways that are relevant to, but also separate from, the restaurant. “We’re super different in many ways, but we’ve always shared a crystal-clear vision about what we want to accomplish with our business,” Sullivan tells me, explaining that, from day one, her and Carter’s mission has always been to change the way people view food. “However, we also have a shared language and perspective on aesthetics, politics, morality and humanity. We’re just on the same page and can move on to accomplishing the work rather than arguing about what ‘the right thing’ to do is, which feels really good. We’re like a well-aligned parental unit.”
And while having those things in common makes their working relationship more fun and productive than most, it also makes it easy for them to understand each other. That’s all-important when it comes to fostering effective communication, which Johnson, Ta and Sansone all cite as another major pillar of soulmate-like working relationships. “Good partnerships of any kind are characterized by open and respectful communication,” says Sansone. “It sounds easy, but it’s actually really challenging if you’re working with someone you don’t match with because good communication involves being able to really listen to your partner. You have to want to understand them, otherwise it’s hard to get on the same page.” If you neither want, nor care, to view your partner with such compassion, communication breaks down and little gets done.
For that reason, it really helps if you like your partner — you don’t have to be best friends, but ideally, you should care about them enough to want to talk to them and find out where they’re coming from. Camaraderie also helps bring each other’s walls down a little so you can be completely and utterly yourself around them. “You don’t necessarily need to have the same communication style or be as close as Shinta [Dhanuwardoyo] and I are, but you do have to feel comfortable not wearing a mask around each other,” says Ta. “It’s so important that you can tell each other the truth and be okay with each other’s honest moments.” That level of personal authenticity is important when there’s so much at stake; if you think your partner is one way but they reveal themselves to be someone else later on, it can damage your trust. Not good for mergers, acquisitions or sex-ed pop-up dinners alike.
One thing to look out for in a potential partner, then, is how comfortable you are around them, and vice versa. If you can accept each other, faults and all, and still want to talk to each other when you find out things you don’t like or relate to, you’ve probably got a good thing going on.
That said, while Ta and Dhanuwardoyo have become best friends and confidants throughout their partnership, Ta cautions against going into business or starting a project with a close friend you already have. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘It’s better to have built a friendship out of a business than business out a friendship,’” she says. “Friendships can really be ruined by the demands of running a company, and a company can suffer from the demands of a friendship.”
On the contrary, Sullivan and Carter started out as best friends and then became partners later on. They always knew they wanted to work together, but weren’t sure in what capacity until they both became passionate about nutrition and the ways it affects all aspects of life. Though they say it’s hardly essential to be friends with your work soulmate and they know plenty of successful partners who barely knew each other before they got into business, they both value the “trust, familiarity and love” you get to have when you work with someone who’s already close to you.
Neither situation means that a relationship with a work soulmate is always easy, though. But a successful partnership is defined by how you work together to resolve conflict. Dhanuwardoyo and Ta duke it out over the phone until they reach a compromise, while Sullivan and Carter go to therapy together. “Some parts of our relationship come naturally,” Sullivan says. “Others take effort. However, we aren’t stubborn people. We’re interested in working hard to improve our relationships and ourselves, which is essential.” It’s that mutual commitment to being each other’s people that makes them work soulmates.
Also, for the sake of conflict-resolution as well as productivity, it’s extremely important for work soulmates to possess the skills the other doesn’t necessarily have. For example, if you’re great with numbers and financial planning but not so hot at fundraising and networking, you’ll be most productive if your partner can pick the ball up where you drop it. “They don’t have to fill in all the blanks for the skills you don’t have — you can always find consultants when needed — but it’s best if you’re stronger with one another,” says Sullivan. “You need a ying to your yang.”
Or, as Brit is so fond of saying, a seat to your bum.