“Can I spend my life alone and still be happy?” That’s the provocative question Kate Bolick asks in her new book, Spinster, an ode to being single. She sees marriage as a deterrent rather than the key to personal happiness. That may be true for some, but I’ve found that marriage works, and not only in the personal sphere. For me, the key to happiness at work is having an “office spouse.”
Here is how my office marriage happened. Jeff Liebster and I were already partners at a legal recruiting firm, where our practice focused on advising and placing high-level partners and practice groups and merging firms. It is a personal-production-driven business based wholly on commission, which meant that we were competing against each other and the rest of the firm.
Jeff and I work in one of the nation’s most competitive markets. The stakes are high. Globally, estimated annual net revenues for the executive search industry were more than $11.7 billion in 2014, according to a statement by the Association of Executive Search Consultants. (This was a record-breaking year, up 10.7% from 2013.) The decision to entrust our financial destiny to a combined, exclusive relationship was not taken lightly. After months of discussion, conversations with our actual spouses and much reflection, we formalized our professional “marriage.” We pledged to share our expertise and split our combined revenues, a rarity in our business. But we felt our strong friendship would lead to a successful working relationship.
Like any married couple, we complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Jeff is more vocal in meetings; I have a talent for remembering details. Jeff’s many years of practicing law enables him to dig deeply into various legal practice areas; my decades in the New York market allow me to envision partners and firms in the right cultural fit. We can divide up responsibilities with clients, understanding – without resentment – that some might relate better to one or the other of us. All of this has increased our productivity.
There are emotional benefits of being on a team with the right partner. After we combined forces, Jeff and I were able to leave the office, take vacation time and focus on our outside commitments, knowing that there was someone with whom our interests were aligned “watching our back” at the office.
Having an office spouse has made going to work feel much more like coming home to a supportive family. We often discuss and offer advice to each other about family, health and social matters. We have built more fun and positive human interaction into our daily work lives – a welcome respite, especially on those days when the stresses of our business can be overwhelming.
As with any marriage, Jeff and I have had our ups and downs. At times we bicker about petty things and often find ourselves giving in on the best way to address an issue, just as in a real marriage. In the past year, we have had significant differences of opinion about how best to serve individual candidates. We have argued about whether a particular engagement or strategy would yield a worthwhile return on investment, and neither of us has wanted to capitulate. There were tense conversations, but we ultimately resolved the issues and had great success due to our willingness to bend. In many situations in our office marriage we have applied the life lessons learned over decades in our actual marriages, such as patience and commitment. The things we have in common – similar values, the joy we take in engaging with clients and developing relationships, and our devotion to community – have helped see us through.
Though we’ve learned a lot, each day still presents new challenges and the opportunity for friction. The disagreements have not disappeared, but the level of trust continues to increase. We have learned to allow each other to play to our strengths and understand that it is not necessary to work in lock-step on every project. In fact, we have been able to better leverage our time and productivity as a result of our ability to let go and allow our partner to handle a matter on his or her own.
Three anniversaries later, our union is going strong. Jeff and I are consistently among the firm’s top fee earners, a place we maintain without sacrificing our commitment to a caring culture in a highly competitive industry. If Jeff and I can manage this arrangement, this model could hold workplace potential for many other people who seek support in their careers. It is a leap of faith worth taking. According to the Institute of American Values’ seminal study, Why Marriage Matters, married couples “seem to build more wealth on average than singles,” and men and women “have higher life expectancies when married.”
Jeff and I believe that we are emotionally and financially wealthier due to the unwavering support of an office spouse. And we hope to live longer, too.
Janet Markoff is a partner in the New York office of Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal search consulting firm. Markoff is also East co-vice chair of the Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF).