When Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo had their first “friend date” set up by a mutual friend at the University of Chicago in 2002, they clicked immediately (the start of any great relationship). They remained friends post-college but took the partnership to the professional level in 2010 when they launched Of a Kind, a retailer that spotlights upcoming designers particularly in the apparel, accessories, and home spaces. After remaining strong partners for nearly a decade, Mazur and Cerulo are revealing the secrets to their success in their new book, Work Wife, and they spoke with us about how to stay connected to each other in your work partnership — on both the business and friendship sides, whether you’re tag-teaming on office tasks or starting your own company.

Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo

1. You don’t need to be BFFs, but it helps. Mazur and Cerulo had separate friend groups in college, so they were their own little duo when they spent time together, which made them even closer. “Being a twosome definitely contributed to our comfort level and willingness to partner with each other,” Mazur says. But many of the business owners they interviewed for the book did not start out as friends; instead, they met in a professional context and then grew their relationship from there. “Their willingness to open up, to be vulnerable and transparent with one another, led to a natural friendship that really complemented their professional partnerships,” she explains. Either way, adds Mazur, by partnering together on any project, no matter how small, you develop a close personal relationship, which can only benefit you both.

2. To figure out whether to partner up, dive into the deep end. The best way to test a partnership’s success is to find a “crisis” situation to overcome together. “A piece of advice in the book that we got from interviewing Hayley Barna, venture capitalist and co-founder of Birchbox, is that in case you haven’t worked with someone before and don’t know what they’re like in a work environment or how they deal with stress, go on some adventure trip together, like camping or somewhere where things could go horribly wrong,” Cerulo tells us. And we’re talking without WiFi. “Especially in starting a creative project or a company from the ground up,” Cerulo continues, “you will encounter those situations that are super high stress, and you want to know that you’re in it together.”

3. Be there to listen during tricky situations, whether you were in the room or not. Mazur and Cerulo agree that they’ve had to step in and support one another throughout numerous uncomfortable situations in their careers, whether it was a meeting that didn’t sit right with them or whatever other scenario. “One of the benefits of having a work wife, whether it’s a current or past work wife, is that this is a person who knows both who you are as a person and how you are in a professional environment, so you can better trust their read on something that went down,” Cerulo points out. It’s important to have each others’ backs by being ready to listen and offer your guidance on the situation based on your own experience working together.

4. You get to decide how much personal info you’ll share. Though Cerulo and Mazur were already close friends and have kept that level of personal closeness as work wives, they got to set the precedent for the rest of the relationships they would have with the employees they manage at Of a Kind. For example, Mazur explains, “If there are bigger picture things happening in our employees’ lives that are influencing their day-to-day work, like an ill family member, or good news like getting married, I want to know that, be able to talk to them about it, and understand how it’s playing into their professional lives.” Setting the tone with their team helped them draw the line between the personal and the professional — leaving your bad Tinder date last night out of office chatter is probably a good choice — and, they admit, ultimately made them better bosses. When important personal victories or struggles come up among team members, they place an emphasis on those situations, says Cerulo, and that becomes even more meaningful.

Of a Kind cashmere sweaters

5. Get comfortable with confrontation. Part of what makes Mazur and Cerulo’s partnership work now is their candor and ease with confronting each other during points of conflict like a disagreement on decisions. As Mazur and Cerulo point out in Work Wife, a lack of visible fighting doesn’t necessarily signify a healthy relationship: It’s healthier to have disagreement once in a while. That’s also something that’s helped them understand each other better. “We have a better sense now of the things that create ongoing tension for us — hiring new people who aren’t yet tuned in to our dynamic, taking on new projects that throw off our creativity-and-workload balance.” Sometimes expressing your feelings as soon as they come up is the only way you’ll be able to move past a difficult spot, they conclude.

6. It’s okay to hire a former work wife. If you no longer work together and have the opportunity to hire, promote, recommend, or advocate for a former work wife, absolutely take that chance, Cerulo and Mazur agree. “It’s okay to be biased,” encourages Mazur. “One of the things we’re putting forth in Work Wife is that it’s not just okay to be friends with your coworkers, but it’s important and valuable, and it’s something that your employer should value. I think hiring or promoting people that you know you have a strong working relationship with is to everyone’s benefit. That’s sort of the definition of a work wife.”

7. Finding your work partner is all about putting yourself out there. Just as in dating, work relationships can flourish when you lead with vulnerability to create a genuine personal connection. These professional partnerships can form from the very beginning of your career, as well. “As you’re developing work relationships in your first, second, and third jobs, it’s important to have conversations where you put yourself out there — maybe you’re a little more vulnerable with people than you might necessarily feel comfortable being, and I think that lets you test how you can expand these relationships or evolve them,” Cerulo says. And what to look for in a potential work wife? It’s simple, Mazur says, and very similar to how you would decide if a friendship is worth pursuing: “It’s important to keep an eye out for other people who share your high standards and to watch how they execute on those standards and how accountable they are to their coworkers.”

RELATED: 5 Ways Your Work Wife Makes You a Better Employee

(Photos via Of a Kind)

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