We’re all familiar with the value of training, mentors, and coaches for professional development, but have you ever considered that a work spouse may be even more important? Just what is a work spouse, you ask? Work spouses are a mutually beneficial relationship based on sharing stories, honest feedback, and some common ground.
But why would a work spouse be better than a sage mentor? First, the formality found in coaching/mentoring relationships creates a student/teacher relationship rather than an equal foundation. The most important aspect of the work spouse relationship is to provide mutual empathetic sounding boards for the current successes and challenges in your lives. This is your partner to commiserate and celebrate with while you take turns swapping stories.
Shouldn’t my real spouse be my work spouse too? To a small extent, your real spouse should share in your professional life, but they are far from objective when you need a little kick in the head. Our spouses also have a limited tolerance for complaining or self-indulgent stories, so you may want to save that for the bigger events in your life. Your spouse has a conflicting goal to support you, which greatly restricts objectivity and honesty.
Without realizing what they were at the time, I’ve been fortunate to have many great work spouses. Most came from within the same company that I worked, with a few being friends who later became work spouses. Although a work spouse could be a coworker on the same team, the best spouses are removed enough from your daily routine to be able to offer a fresh perspective.
This article came about when I reflected on the value I had gained from my work husband, John Whitman. John was one of the best operating managers I’ve known, and we couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. John cut most of his teeth in the restaurant industry as a successful regional manager. After running his own craftsman deck business for a while, John helped turn around several departments for a wholesale produce company. There are three stories from John that I want to share with you to illustrate the gems that come unexpectedly for a work spouse.
Our exchanges followed a predictable and comfortable pattern that can be adopted into your routines.
- Situation – Listen to their story
- The Challenge – Listen to the steps or challenges causing conflict
- Resolution – There are two paths to conclude a story:
- Identify the tribal knowledge or lesson, ways to apply it, or how it could be applied to other situations.
- Use feedback loops to test scenarios to understand the options and risks.
Lesson 1: Everything is a team sport
While managing restaurants, John had a policy for anyone who wasn’t carrying their weight on the team: Walk a day in their shoes. When a waiter wasn’t following the busing procedures for the dish washers, he would make them do their next shift washing dishes. It didn’t matter that the waiter was trying to spend more time with customers; he had to understand the impact that his shortcuts had on the next team. Although they hated the shift, John rarely had anyone repeat the mistake. Even more, John was teaching them how the entire operation moved as one smooth team.
Lesson 2: Know who your real customers are
One location John managed was a frequent spot for sports teams and large groups. One night he noticed a particularly vocal and difficult woman with one group who was giving his waiter a lot of trouble. The waiter made multiple attempts to try to accommodate her requests and complaints, but she became more hostile and vocal as the dinner progressed. Even her party had become embarrassed by her behavior. John wasn’t going to let a customer abuse his staff, so his first step was to take over the table for his waiter. At the end of the meal, the woman demanded that the entire team’s check be compt. John came back with one check and a message. He told everyone at the table that they were welcome back any time, and to show his appreciation for their business, their meals and drinks were on him. He then gave a bill to the woman for her full meal and drinks, and invited her to never return again.
Lesson 3: Sometimes you need to dig in your heels and let broke stay broke
For anyone familiar with logistics and warehouse management, it will be no surprise that problems in one department can undermine the entire operation. Many businesses have silos, but in a warehouse, those silos function like stations in an assembly line. Without much effort, John quickly saw many of the problems in his warehouse, many of which could be easily fixed. After streamlining his department and then taking over two more, John was left with the problem that the full cycle was still broken. Without the authority to fix all the departments from the top down, John decided that a strong defense for his teams was the only way to draw attention to the larger issues that needed to be fixed. While other managers tried to push their failures on John’s teams, he calmly demonstrated time and time again where the true issues were, without having to call out individual failures. In the end, the leadership team was forced to acknowledge that deeper changes in the management team were needed to address the remaining gaps.
John has had a profound influence on my personal and professional life in the short time since he became my work husband. I’ve worked many of his lessons into my routine and mentoring. He taught me how to clear the path for your team and insulate them from crazy people. We swapped many leadership tricks, and used each other as sounding boards for changes we wanted to try on our teams. John started every group by focusing them on a common goal and helping each person understand how their role contributed to that goal.
Gaining understanding through loss
Not so long ago, I had a bit of a breakdown one night while watching TV. I hadn’t realized how much stress I’d been holding in, and how many challenges I was trying to solve alone. Nine months before then, my best friend John died of cancer. We had just four short months with him between diagnosis and his celebration of life ceremony. Another work husband had left our company six months earlier, and our paths drifted apart. Like a water balloon on a garden hose, I had been holding everything in my professional and personal life inside until it burst.
This isn’t a story about failing to appreciate what you’ve got until it’s gone. I understood and cherished time with my work husbands. John’s loss taught me that a work spouse isn’t just nice to have; it is a critical part of your development and survival. These relationships must be consciously cultured and developed.
You probably have more than one work spouse now. Take steps to formalize your relationship by leveraging the story/resolution pattern, and find a comfortable pattern that works for both of you. If you notice most of your stories are about one person, you are on a date and haven’t found a good work spouse yet. Learn the role each spouse plays so that you both gain full value in the relationship.
#JohnMarkWhitman you are greatly missed, my friend. I’m almost ready to start work dating again.