-Partnership Development

How to Build a Culture of Partnership

Article - May 19, 2021

Worldwide, companies face complex business and corporate sustainability challenges they can’t solve alone. Fortunately, governments and NGOs are also addressing many of the same challenges—from creating diversified, resilient supply chains; to advancing healthcare access; to taking on climate change—but from different angles. Both the public and private sector can gain traction by joining forces to create more effective, scalable solutions to shared challenges.

But cross-sector collaboration is only as effective as the people who put it into practice—and partnering is not a skill that comes naturally to all. You can handpick rock stars to represent your organization externally for a while, but how do you transition to an organizational culture that truly promotes and embraces effective collaboration?

One of the best ways to ensure success is for organizational leaders to build an internal culture of partnership. This undertaking minimizes the time spent by internal champions in gaining buy-in from their colleagues and maximizes results across teams and organization-wide. 

Tips on how to build a partnership-ready organization

Developing a Culture of Collaboration

As organizations grow and build capacity, they tend to look inward for answers. Big tech companies adopt a “not invented here” attitude toward external innovation, while big donors stop consulting the communities they aim to serve. There are ways, however, that organizational leaders and changemakers can shift this mindset: 

  • Articulate the value of partnership. If they want their employees on board with collaboration, leaders must be able to clearly communicate what partnerships are and why they matter. This means articulating (1) what we mean by collaboration, (2) the challenges partnerships can solve, and (3) how collaboration can advance key business or purpose-related objectives. 
  • Align incentive structures. Assess which employees and departments are set up to be rewarded when their collaborative efforts yield positive results—and those that may be working at cross-purposes. Work with teams to find common ground and identify areas where incentives could align.
  • Model the behavior you want to see. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola may be rivals, but their CEOs get onstage together to discuss how they can collaborate to meet circularity targets. By sharing visible examples of your engagement with external partners—and even competitors!—your employees are more likely to do the same.

Supportive Systems and Processes

While leadership endorsement of cross-sector collaboration encourages uptake, staff won’t be able to achieve results without supportive systems and guidelines. Below are a few general pointers, but look for opportunities to embed iteration and adaptation into how your organization collaborates. Partnerships can and will evolve over time.

  • Cut the red tape. Work with key teams—legal, sourcing, policy, and so on—to understand where partnership initiatives get mired in bureaucracy or red tape. Then update processes accordingly. 
  • Take a systematic approach and be strategic. Develop or modify systems to help staff identify and select potential partners based on evidence and analysis rather than subjective factors. And as partnerships take significant time and effort, ensure they’re worth it: Partnership initiatives should be aligned with key organizational objectives and priorities.
  • Dedicate resources and ensure accountability. Understand that partnerships take time, effort, and dedication. Partnerships that don’t have an accountable internal point person—who can act as the coordinator, project manager, communicator, and champion—often fall short. Make sure you have staff with the time and headspace to elevate your partnership initiatives. Where strategic, you may even create a dedicated team to manage cross-sector partnerships or embed partnership staff in key units across the organization. 
  • To the extent possible, be flexible. Partners working across sectors are often confronted with jarringly different systems, timelines, and ways of working. Companies, for example, tend to move fast and face pressure to achieve (relatively) quick results. Development agencies, meanwhile, can be highly bureaucratic and slow to make partnership decisions; they also tend to measure results in years rather than months. To work well together, cross-sector partners need to come in with their eyes open, aware of each other’s different systems, constraints, and priorities. Where possible, flexibility can help partners meet in the middle and get things done.

Avoid These Common Pitfalls

Sometimes, building an effective collaboration culture is not just about what you do, but about what you don’t do. To excel at collaboration, avoid these common collaboration pitfalls:

  • Don’t treat partnership as a sideshow. Cross-sector collaboration isn’t as simple as coordinating a few meetings or putting up funds. It requires trust, patience, and diligence—and rewards organizations who are in it for the long haul.
  • Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. It’s easy to get excited about a partnership launch or early pilot results, but seasoned teams prepare for setbacks and settle in for the long haul.
  • Don’t treat partners like you’re doing them a favor. An insular or hierarchical mindset will swiftly undermine the success of any cross-sector partnership. Collaboration, by its very nature, demands humility, curiosity, and a win-win mentality.

Cross-sector partnership helps leading organizations build relationships and achieve deeper results. But it involves extensive time and effort on the part of individual staff. Building a culture of partnership removes roadblocks, uncovers opportunity, and sets your team up success—allowing your organization to get the most out of strategic collaboration.

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