Partnership Working – What Habits Really Work?

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It really does take two to tango!

Strawberries and Cream, Lennon and McCartney, Laurel and Hardy, Batman and Robin, Gin and Tonic, Bonnie and Clyde (okay, that one didn’t end so well!) are cited as great partnerships that complement each other and illustrate that you can be better together than on your own.

In business today you hear a lot about the word ‘partnership’ and it has perhaps been so overused that it has damaged its image and pushed it into cliché status. This is partly because partnership arrangements inevitably end up in a ‘win-lose’ scenario rather than the coveted ‘win-win’. Human nature is such that we want to work with people that we know and who know us. This builds a certain degree of familiarity, trust and understanding about what each brings to a business relationship.

The irony is that organisations are looking more and more towards establishing partnerships and subsequently need to be more cautious about seeking and announcing partnerships. Business activities like; outsourcing, co-development, supplier integration shared-services and even gaining the much coveted but seldom realized ‘trusted advisor’ status all require a thorough understanding of what attributes make for a successful partnership. Defined this means that it is meaningful for both parties this approach also applies equally within the sphere of learning and development.


Recent research (based on interviews with senior management involved with partnership working in the public and private sector and conducted by the global resourcing firm Hay Group) shows that there are 6 partnership habits which provide for a better ‘win’ for both sides and significantly improves the probability of the partnership lasting and thriving.

The research highlighted that a ‘win-win’ partnership is both an Attitude and a Process. The attitude translates into caring about what is important to the partner in terms of benefits, shared risks, reward sharing mechanism and creating and aligning incentives. The process defines the contributions each side needs to make along with developing partner insights, making commitments to the right people and securing those commitments.
The 6 partnership habits are;

• Transparent – Find out what the partner really wants, not what you might think they want. This may take a number of conversations to tease out the ‘root cause’ of their business issue. Partners also don’t like surprises so keeping them close with ongoing communications allows them to anticipate what is going to change. For instance, at TomorrowToday the approach has been to work with clients with a view of what are the client’s issues and then consider the content that TomorrowToday brings – not the other way around! This ensures transparency about what potential solutions can be applied to address the client’s needs rather than presume to know in advance. Transparency comes from listening to what your potential partner wants and then being able to deliver more than was expected

• Insightful – Partner understanding is gained by ‘walking in their shoes’ and fully understanding their business. Rather than going straight to the solution be sure you understand the full context of the problem. Everyone also has an ego and a self-image so hard messages should be given without a ‘sugar coating’ but in a tone that helps the partner save face, especially in front of their team. This is especially important in some cultures where the issues, solutions and people involved need to be treated independent of each other

• Determined – If you use the word ‘trust’ be aware that it raises expectations to deliver. Trust is normally not given easily but has to be earned. In some cases trust is built up over time and from working together and delivering mutually beneficial outcomes. Trust can also be earned by admitting that you don’t have all the answers but will ensure that the right potential resources and knowledge are applied to the problems. Breaking trust is deemed to be more emotionally sensitive than breaking a delivery promise. Find the people, in both organisations, who can help assure delivery deadlines and expectations are made

• Passionate – Being an advocate for your partner’s needs within your own organisation is vital to ensure your joint rewards are going to be achieved. Internal visibility of the partner’s needs also ensures it stays on the agenda and others can learn from your success. This does not mean that you take on the role of being a virtual employee of your partner organisation but it does mean that you become a voice for your partner’s issues and perspective to ensure their needs are successfully managed

• Inclusive – Sit with your partner’s team, not facing them off across a table. Include your partner’s people in activities within your own organisation that will help them understand your processes and approach to business. Always respond to their initiatives taking the time to work through the ‘pros’, ‘cons’ and asking lots of questions. For instance, when running a senior executive leadership programme for a global airline we suggested inviting partner organisations also (air traffic control services, airport management, key clients and suppliers) which made the overall outcomes more powerful and solutions designed with all stakeholders in the same room – learning and sharing together

• Generous – Be as enthusiastic about your partner when you start working with them as you were during the initial relationship development or proposal process. Show your partner you are excited by working with them and business relationship even after you have won the deal. You don’t save money with overly binding contracts, you save it by sharing insights and expertise and finding new ways of doing things – a great way to be invited to do more business together!.

Global businesses and 3rd sector organisations often work in partnership with others and the expectation is that providers of services, inclusive of learning and development, do the same to create the best available talent across a wide area of topic areas. Being aware of research, which illustrates the things that are really important in establishing a partnership, can only be beneficial to ensuring business development and client account management activities are mutually value-adding. So the question to consider is, “Does your provider of learning and development expertise work in partnership with you or does it feel transactional?”

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