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Creating and sustaining value-adding partnerships can mean serious business

July 2014

Manny Amadi explains the secrets to successful, sustainable collaborations


We all collaborate and partner in different ways, whether with colleagues or informally within our sectors. However, the role of formal partnerships in driving forward the sustainable business and sustainable development agendas is becoming both more essential, and more prominent, as the realisation dawns that it is sometimes more effective to collaborate with others in order to achieve our own goals.

Examples of partnerships increasingly abound, and they come in different forms. They include intra-sector partnerships (for instance, Boots sharing lorry space with other companies to drive down cost and carbon foot-print) and cross-sector partnerships (even unusual ones, such as Greenpeace and McDonalds collaborating formally to tackle de-forestation in the Amazon rainforest).

In particular, the cross-sector partnering agenda between companies and NGO is becoming increasingly important – presenting advantages to practitioners on either side who are ready to harness the opportunities whilst overcoming the inherent challenges.
The C&E Corporate-NGO Partnerships Barometer 2013 report revealed that 93% of corporate and 79% of NGO respondents held the view that partnerships have helped to enhance business understanding of social and environment issues; whilst significant numbers (46% of corporate and 40% of NGO respondents) agreed that cross-sector collaborations have helped to improve business practices for the better. Confirmation, indeed, that collaboration between the sectors is really adding value.

However, the benefits of cross-sector partnering are not realised by magic. Whether they are bi-lateral or multi-lateral, enduring partnership success can only be achieved when partnering organisations are well matched, their joint proposition well conceived and executed, and the partnership itself well nurtured and steered towards achieving the joint partnership ambitions, as well as the individual goals of each partner.

Here, for those interested in securing enduring, value-adding partnerships are some points to note across each of the stages of the partnering life-cycle. These features are demonstrated by the most admired, and most effective partnerships in all sectors.

1) The ‘fit’ is all important: Effective planning and alignment around commonly agreed goals that galvanise commitment and action:

  • At their core, partnerships are about self interest which matures into enlightened self interest or mutual benefit. The more material a partnership is to each of the actors involved, the more likely it is to succeed. But success is dependent on the identification of mutual benefits and commonly agreed goals between partners
  • Like all relationships, human and institutional, partnerships are built on a foundation of trust. Planning should therefore include an overt articulation of ‘partnership principles’ and values, as well as clarity of where the ‘red lines’ lie for each of the parties. Each party needs to have secured clear mandate from within their own constituencies before commencing the partnership journey – including from the extremists in their organisation, who may otherwise deliberately or inadvertently sabotage the relationship at a later stage.
  • The role of leadership is often key at this stage – particularly if the nature of the partnership is unusual. Leaders can ensure proper mandate and also provide ‘air cover’ as the partnership unfolds.

2) Governance is a big deal: Effective relationship management and governance are key to successful execution of agreed actions

  • The most effective and most enduring partnerships are those where the partners can challenge each other, and act as critical friends. Cross-organisational learning often lies at this point of intersection between trusted, but challenging partners.
  • Beyond the formation stages, it remains critical to have a strong governance structure in place to lead and guide the partnership development, with continued CEO or senior level leadership and championship.
  • Stakeholder ownership and engagement are central to the execution of agreed actions. As such, relationship management must extend to internal and external stakeholders. It is often said that the ‘point people’ for each of the organisations in partnership act as change agents within their organisation. Much depends on their ability to make things happen and the goodwill they establish for each organisation. But even the very best relationship managers cannot succeed as lone rangers.

3) Be proud: Communicate and celebrate success

  • In C&E’s annual Barometer report, reputation enhancement is cited as an important reason for engaging in cross-sector partnerships. As such it is important for partners to leverage the value of their investments through regular and smart communications.
  • Internal marketing is important for building the employee brand and for galvanising active supporters. For instance, the best partnerships would typically undertake soft or internal launches initially, as a way of building advocates / champions for the partnership at a later stage.
  • Additionally, the most resonant and admired partnerships are those that communicate on substantive issues that appear to be clearly material to the parties involved - for example, Samaritan and Network Rail collaborating to drive down rail line accidents, or Boots and Macmillan working together to reach everyone affected by cancer

4) Lifelong learning: Learning from success and failure - helps partnerships to evolve more strongly

  • Regular reviews – including mid-term reviews for strategic collaborations – are vital in enabling partners to learn from success and failure, to re-set within the partnership term, and elevate success to a higher level.
  • It can sometimes be value adding to have a trusted third-party involved in the review process. Some great partnerships do this as a matter of course, for instance IKEA and WWF, The HSBC Climate Partnership, and the P&G (Pampers) - UNICEF partnership.
  • The concept of partnering and the value it brings is becoming increasingly prominent on the agenda of companies and brands.
  • Partnerships can be hard and are certainly not a panacea. But done well (both well conceived and effectively executed), they can be excellent in speeding the pathway towards achievement of major strategic goals. Materiality, trust, communication, and a relentless focus on ongoing learning are key factors for success.

Manny Amadi, MVO is CEO of C&E Advisory, a ‘business & society’ consultancy , Twitter handle: @mannyamadi 

Europe | Collaboration


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