It’s not one of the most significant political speeches of the late 20th Century, but on 7 August 1991, at a dinner for William Whitelaw, her former deputy, Margaret Thatcher made an interesting comment. Every Prime Minister” she said  “needs a Willie”.

So what did she mean by this, and why do we think that it matters? We believe it’s significant because it’s an acknowledgement by a leader of the importance of  co-operative partnerships in delivering value. That the statement was made by someone who is renowned for an uncompromising and singular approach, makes it even more relevant.

Willie Whitelaw was integral to Margaret Thatcher’s success.

Together they built a co-operative partnership which lasted over 10 years. This is remarkable, not least because it was Willie Whitelaw who stood against her when she became leader of the Conservative Party.

He did three things that facilitated and enabled her to succeed. And these three things hold true in the most successful co-operative partnerships that we see today:

Commitment – he made a commitment to support and deliver the purpose of the Government. He delivered it’s agenda in various roles, including 9 years as Deputy Prime Minister.

As Margaret Thatcher said of him “He wanted the success of the Government which from the first he accepted would be guided by my general philosophy. Once he had pledged his loyalty, he never withdrew it”.

Trust – through his support and commitment to her and her vision he gained her trust, which enabled her to take his sensible advice and moderate her stance on a range of issues.

Getting People Working Together – she recognised his natural ability to get people talking, agreeing and working together. So she supported him to facilitate understanding between departments. For example, he chaired the “star chamber” committee that settled the annual disputes between the limited resources made available by the Treasury, and the spending demands of other government departments.

His facilitation enabled tough choices and decisions to be made, and ensured the government’s mission was achieved.

And we think that what was true for Margaret Thatcher all those years ago, remains a blueprint for leaders building co-operative partnerships today. The foundations of co-operative partnership are:

1. Making a commitment to each other through a shared purpose.

2. Developing trust through alignment to the mission and each other.

3. Getting people talking and working together across the whole organisation, and setting up feedback forums that ensure the top team has a deep understanding of everyone’s needs.

And it’s fascinating that within a short period of time after Willie Whitelaw moved on, so did Margaret Thatcher. Her inability to adequately replace him was a factor in her own demise, but her acknowledgement of his role in her success is testament to the deep power of co-operative partnerships at work.