The Power of Partnerships: Lessons Learned from Best-Selling Author James Patterson

By Britten Follett – Executive Vice President, Follett School Solutions

Last month, I had the opportunity to host an evening with James Patterson. Yes, THE James Patterson,  the world’s bestselling author, most trusted storyteller, and generous philanthropist.

There we were, Mr. Patterson and me, up on a stage in front of 200 Follett customers. During my 10 years in television news, I interviewed celebrities . . .  but Patterson for an hour is kind of a big deal!

The evening was fascinating and inspiring, and taught me and my team so much about our company mission, why reading might be the most important learned skill, and the many ways professional partnerships can be beneficial to a company like ours.

I’m lucky enough to work for an organization that believes in the wide-reaching benefits of partnerships like the one Follett enjoys with Mr. Patterson; the benefits go far beyond the obvious name recognition that comes with aligning your company with a celebrity. The lessons are varied and can be applied to your own business.

These are a few of the things I learned from my time with the author:

  1. The power of our purpose. When I introduced myself to James Patterson a few minutes before showtime, he pulled me aside to ensure I understood why he agreed to the event. He shared that he was not there to sell books. His mission is about getting books that kids are excited to read into their hands. This declaration hit home, as I reiterated that Follett’s mission is the same. An education company should not want to sell just to sell; more, more, more is not our motto. Simply getting “any” book into a child’s hands has never been our goal. We believe in the power of books when they excite, delight, and make kids eager to reach for the next. Knowing our mission is directly aligned with Patterson’s ensures that our company entered into a partnership with a kindred spirit, a person who we’re aligned with because we have the same mission, not because of his notoriety. Any company considering a professional partnership should start here: Does this person or company believe and stand behind what we believe?
  2. Ensuring everyone we serve is served equally. Diversity is a hot topic in the publishing world and educators are seeking books that qualify as “diverse.” Yet, that definition varies. I asked Patterson how he defined diversity, and really, what it means to him. I shared the goals and mission surrounding Follett’s #allbooksforallkids campaign, designed with the mission of ensuring that children have access to a wide range of books from a broad spectrum of voices. Patterson agreed that any book could be seen as diverse as long as it introduces the reader to a world different than their own. That’s important to us, as a company, but should also be important to any education company. Whether you’re building diversity into your online homework software or designing your website to include photos that show people of all races, it’s vitally important to give customers products that align with who they are and that help them see others—other cultures, other experiences, other viewpoints. Broadly speaking, Patterson said that understanding diversity is not about religion or politics, it’s just that sometimes people are unkind to one another—regardless of race or religion, and as a company or an author, how can we enlighten our audiences to gain a compassionate understanding of others? For any business, it should be a goal to not only serve varied audiences fairly by understanding their unique needs, and that those needs may be very different from others’, but also to introduce content that shows the beauty in every culture, religion, and life experience. For our #allbooksforallkids campaign, I always refer to author Kwame Alexander’s quote: “I’m a big believer that children need to be able to see themselves in their books and they need to be able to see their friends in their books,” Alexander said. “It’s one thing for us to wonder how adults become who they are when sometimes they are not as empathetic or connected as they need to be. It’s another thing for us to realize that perhaps we can impact children in a way that they become kind, caring, compassionate, empathetic, connected people, and that starts with books. But kids need to have access to all kinds of books, that don’t just reflect who they are, but reflect who we are.” In any partnership an education company enters into, it’s key to be in alignment on a subject as important as diversity.
  3. Erase and start over. At any given time, Mr. Patterson has 30 or so books in the works. It’s hard to believe he hand writes the first draft of every one of his novels! Why? Because he knows he may come up with a better word, character or storyline with every stroke of his… pencil. Experience has taught him that he must be willing to fail and start again, to reconsider his angle, to take something as far as it will go and ditch it if it doesn’t go far enough. When partnering with someone, it’s critical that your company shares the same philosophy: Do you fail fast, learn from the experience, and start over? Or does your team keep pushing on an idea that just doesn’t have longevity? Patterson shared his pencil-and-paper approach with me that night, and it surprised me. But then I realized that is exactly what a good partnership looks like. We partner and aim together for the best we can be, and when we’ve accomplished all we can together, let’s happily move on. Our partnership with Patterson is in its infancy and we’re excited about the future.   
  4. When considering a partnership, align yourself with innovative, but also down to earth, people. The most successful partnerships are those that promote exciting ideas and dynamic growth, but also keep you grounded in the basics of what really matters. As Patterson pointed out, ideas are born through conversation. During the interview, I asked Patterson how he comes up with new ideas, especially considering the number of books he’s published in his career. “I write the way we tell stories,” he shared. Every one of us has a story. While most stories will never turn into 400 pages, the best ideas and inspiration can be sparked through interactions with each other. This is a lesson every company should take to heart: the basics of what make us all human, like sharing ideas, storytelling, and daily conversations are a gold mine. Amidst the ‘head down, let’s get this done” daily routine, take the time to listen to each other. Take a moment to have a conversation with those with whom you’re partnering. Learn from each other’s experiences. It makes for a richer relationship and we all benefit from each other’s perspective.
  5. Partnerships go both ways. As you grow, and partnerships are designed to help you do just that, always remember there is room to grow even more. Even a prolific author like James Patterson finds value in doing business with Follett. He shared with me that he believes too many people still don’t know he is the author of children’s and middle grade titles. His ‘Jimmy Patterson Presents’ titles are both funny and insightful, and through Follett Book Fairs, we are helping to raise the awareness of these titles of which Patterson is most proud.
  6. Be better together. Mr. Patterson shared details on one of his upcoming author collaborations with a Follett favorite, Kwame Alexander. Together, Patterson and Alexander are working on a book about Muhammad Ali before he was Muhammad Ali. This partnership, like Follett’s with Patterson and Alexander, helps us all grow in new ways, introduces us all to new audiences, and promises to bring a new meaning to #allbooksforallkids.
  7. Admit your flaws. Share where your weaknesses are with the folks in your partnership and know that they’ll pick up the slack when you can’t. The night before the event, I woke up with a vicious cough. At 2am I told my husband I didn’t think there was any chance I would be able to get through the program. Cold medicine, Advil, and a pile of cough drops later, I started the evening by telling our customers that I had a really bad cough and if at any point, I started having a coughing fit, Mr. Patterson would take over and run the show because after all, that’s who they came to see! Luckily, I made it through. However, there was comfort in knowing that we had partnered with someone who would cover for me if need be. When considering a partnership, make sure you’ve found that symbiotic relationship that will sustain you, your company, and your mission.
Britten Follett

Britten is a journalist. A marketer. A storyteller. A board member. A philanthropist. An advocate for libraries and education. Britten spent 10 years as an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning television journalist. In 2010, she made a tough decision to give up a career she loved and embark on a new career as a 5th generation family member working for Follett Corporation. At Follett, she started as the marketing manager for the International team and has held various roles in marketing and communications throughout the organization. Today she is the senior vice president of marketing and classroom initiatives for Follett’s K12 education business.