In my last post I suggested that one way to let new ideas in was to partner with those who have capabilities you admire. Partner to learn, I said. But there’s a precursor that I should have mentioned. Before you can partner to learn, you must learn to partner.
I used to think that partnership equaled risk. Partners meant more conflict and less accountability. My rule of thumb was to limit partnerships and, when I did partner, to limit the number of players–and then to manage them to within an inch of all of our lives.
And, as a result, I got exactly what I feared most: partners who did not act as a team and who often left their best ideas for somebody who would appreciate them more.
I had to learn how to partner, but before that I had to understand why I was partnering in the first place. Let’s start there. Why partner? Because you have no choice. There is just too much specialized expertise needed to stay current. Because opportunity and expectations are changing too fast to develop all the skills needed in-house. Because the demands of anticipating and managing transformation are immediate. Because there is no single solution to the problem at hand. Because understanding an array of technologies opens new options. And, because if you go in with the right attitude, you’ll learn something significant, get a much better outcome, extend you network, and maybe even have some fun.
Candace Matthews, CMO at Amway, said in a recent conversation we had that partnerships are one of the keys to her company moving faster. “One of the things is teaching the company that partnerships are important,” she said. “You cannot keep up with the change in the digital space by yourself. We’ll be partnering, particularly in the digital space, much more in the future.” (You can read my full interview with Matthews here.)
But first you have to rethink your view of partnership. You can only do new things with new people if you genuinely want to think in new ways, not simply repackage the old thinking. We all pay lip service to the value of partnership, but often that’s more about putting the language of collaboration in services of a client-vendor relationship. Thinking like collaborators will certainly help your engagements with vendors, consultants and agencies–particularly as you need multiple specialized vendors to collaborate with you and with one another–but there’s a difference between partnering and hiring.
Here are a few things to think about as you seek and manage partnerships:
- Start with the brands. Understand what the promise of your combined brands means to the marketplace. It will help you define the project and what each party brings to it. For instance, we stand for data and you stand for analysis. (One good exercise is to imagine the press release you’d write together.)
- Partner with companies that share your core values. There are lots of companies out there doing interesting things, but if they aren’t a good cultural fit, there will be issues executing together.
- Partner with companies who don’t look just like you. Yes, you want companies you can work with, but you want complementary cultures, not identical ones. Part of the value of partnerships is to get a window into alternative ways of working.
- Partner with companies for whom the partnership is meaningful. Everybody needs to share a stake in a successful outcome. If the project isn’t meaningful enough, then it won’t be a priority. That goes for you too.
- Treat the partnership like you would a client. That means making a real investment in time, resources, and thoughtfulness. The partnership needs to be served like any other client. It must be important enough to matter. (Note: You can still start small, but “small” doesn’t mean “unimportant.”)
- Bring your A game. This is an important signal to your partners and colleagues that the project matters.
- Understand what your value is to the partnership. I’m sure you fully understand what you want out of your partner, but do you really understand what they want out of you? And is that the thing that you actually can provide? Make sure it is.
- Let your partners do the things they do best. You’re partnering because they have a complementary skill set. They know something you don’t know. So listen to them. Leverage their strengths and experience.
- Be an integrator. Be clear about roles and responsibilities, project planning, and deliverables. Work together to meet your obligations.
- It’s the people. Don’t partner with jerks, and don’t be a jerk to partner with. Leave your ego–and your company’s ego–at the door. You know what I’m talking about.
- Co-brand and co-market. This is a test. If you cannot co-brand and co-market, then you probably have the wrong partner or the wrong project. The very fact of the partnership should be distinctive and marketable.
As the pace of change overtakes our ability to keep up, learning to partner is essential. Get out there and play nice.