As we work and live with others, the word partnership seems to be a common goal. We want to partner better. We want to build business partnerships. We want others to partner with us. Partnership is a good word, and a worthy goal. The questions I ask myself are:

  • What does partnership look like?
  • Who do I want to partner with?
  • How do I achieve partnership?
  • What can I specifically do to build partnerships?

These questions seem easy to answer on the surface, but I find that the goal of partnership eludes me more often than I want. I have conversations with others, and we seem to want a partnership together, but most often I don’t invest the time to understand and act on what partnership could look like.

For example, one of my former bosses asked me to help her organization build “strategic business partnerships” with their internal business partners. I loved the idea and started changing the way I interfaced with other leaders. I asked more questions. I delayed my recommendations until I knew more about the issue they were facing. I worked to co-create possible solutions with them instead of quickly implementing their solutions or mine. It didn’t take long for one of these leaders to call my boss to complain that I wasn’t being cooperative and that I was delaying decisions. My boss came to me and asked what I was doing. When I said I was trying to build “strategic business partnerships,” she said, “That is what we want, but don’t upset the clients. Just do what they ask you to do”. It’s clear my boss and I had different ideas on what these partnerships would look like.

Building partnerships is not complex. In fact, it can be simple to understand. We create a common understanding of what we are going to do together (short-term or long-term) and we share what we want from each other and negotiate an agreement.

The challenge in building partnerships comes when I actually have the conversation. I may even avoid the conversation all together. I get in my own way. My desire to be right, to minimize my risk, to be safe, and to gain a predictable outcome get in the way. There is also a sense of urgency to get things done and act. Unfortunately, nothing about partnerships is predictable or risk free, and urgency is the enemy of quality – quality of the outcome and quality of the relationship.

So, what do we do?

There are many aspects to building partnerships. I have found the easiest and most beneficial is to minimize assumptions and vagueness in our language. When we ask for something we want, we need to be specific. I had a mentor years ago who told me to avoid “goodness” words. That statement itself is vague, so I asked, “What’s a goodness word?”. He said, “Goodness words describe things we want, and they are good (things like support, buy-in, partnership, respect, etc.), but they are not sufficient for a meaningful agreement.” The antidote for the goodness word is to ask myself, and share with you, “What does it look like?”. If you are giving me support, this is what you would be doing. If we are going to have a partnership, this is how we will treat each other. This is what respect looks like to me.

Asking these next level questions takes time. I need to pause and get specific with myself and others. I assume you know what I mean, and I think I know what you mean. These assumptions are recipes for poor agreements. I am learning to share with others the behaviors I am looking for and to ask them what behaviors they want from me. Having this next level of conversation is a small investment in time, that pays big dividends with agreements that last and partnerships that thrive.