5 Essential Partnership Soft Skills

August 29, 2023 5 minute read

Staff holding signs displaying partnership soft skills

Organizations that see the value in cross-sector collaboration tend to focus their energy on selecting the right partner. And we have discussed in additional published Insights the import role of a partnership specialist --  either in-house on staff, or in consultation -- who bring an array of technical skills and experience in cross-sector partnerships. 

But there is another important aspect of strong partnerships that is often overlooked: the strength of partnership soft skills.

Partnership soft skills are a critical ingredient to the success of any partnership.

The partnership builders on your team need more than technical expertise. They could be rockstars in their respective fields; however, if they’re not savvy about working well with others, they probably aren’t the best choice to represent your organization.

Instead, identify and nurture staff who keep an open mind, roll with the punches, and genuinely enjoy interacting with others.

Five Partnership Soft Skills Every Cross-Sector Partner Should Master

Below, we describe five essential partnership soft skills for any member of your team.

1. Empathy

This first partnership soft skill doesn't come easily to all. In fact, some people by nature have a challenging time understanding how others feel.

If this is the case, working on developing skills in Emotional Intelligence (EI) may prove beneficial, as it fosters the ability to recognize and manage one’s own and others’ emotions, even when it’s a challenge to feel what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

A lot has been written about EI and ways to improve capabilities in four domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

In writing for Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis identify 12 competencies across these domains that people can improve with intentionality (and even training!).

Emotional self-awareness inherently part of self-awareness. Adaptability, achievement orientation, emotional self-control, and a positive outlook fall under self-management. Organizational awareness and empathy make up social awareness. Relationship management includes teamwork, influence, conflict management, and coaching and mentoring.

What is interesting about deliberative cultivation of EI competencies is that it can lead to greater development of empathy and increased recognition empathetically of the competencies (and deficiencies) of other team members.

This allows for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the goals, ambitions, worries, interests, fears, and dreams of your partners, not just your own. 

Adopt an empathetic mindset as well as a mindful empathy practice as core partnership soft skills.

Be curious about other sectors and parts of the world. Listen more than you talk, and respect social and cultural differences. Welcome the chance to be challenged by a range of approaches and values, and your partnership will be stronger for it.

2. Authenticity

Practicing empathy allows you to better understand your partners. Authenticity allows them to better understand you.

People describe authenticity differently. Characteristics like genuineness, transparency, gratitude, and reciprocation are often mentioned.

At their core, authentic partnerships are built on trust, and trust is built on honesty. And at the heart of fostering both is a commitment to open dialogue, active listening, and engagement that exhibits mutual respect. And these are partnership soft skills that can be honed and improved.

Partnerships involve time and effort. When authenticity is valued and prioritized, collaborations are said to be even more energizing and meaningful, even if the goals of partners differ at the onset.

It’s only natural that driving motivations might differ among partners. That's fine. What's not fine is when partners attempt to hide or obfuscate their organization’s true reasons for partnering. This is especially critical when an imbalance in power, real or perceived, is present.

That is why authenticity also includes adopting an ethos of empowerment and a dedication to effective communication. This includes being real, genuine, and sharing challenges and limitations your organization is up against.

Be forthcoming, too, about the results you need to achieve for your organization to deem the partnership a success. And then, actively encourage other partners to do the same.

In managing cross-sector partnerships, the ability to create an environment in which trust is built and sustained through authentic exchange, is a partnership soft skill paramount to outcome success.

Learn The Guide to Cross-Sector Collaboration

3. Open-mindedness

Effective collaboration through partnerships is about creating something new—and that involves a lot of wading through unfamiliar territory. No one wants to spin their wheels on a project that’s going nowhere, but partners need to be able to embrace some level of uncertainty.

From assessment of creativity, design, and innovation to an understanding of entrepreneurial success, the trait or characteristic of “openness” (to some degree of risk, uncertainty, novel ideas, new opportunities) is often cited as a necessary driver. And that is true of successful partnerships as well.

It’s important to note that openness is not dichotomous in that you either have it or don’t. Instead, openness includes a sliding scale based on degree, and is mostly situational. 

In other words, some people might be more open to novelty in certain situations or project approaches as opposed to others. Often openness in these cases is linked to degrees or levels of comfort/discomfort.

That means people can work on becoming more accepting of the discomfort they feel working in ambiguity, which may have stopped them before. This is a partnership soft skill that can be developed over time, especially in supportive environments.

Good partners are dedicated to rethinking or retooling a faulty solution until the team gets it right. Iteration is a core activity for any cross-sector partnership. As you begin to see results (or not), the scope and focus of your engagement will almost always change.

Be aware that rigid thinkers who may struggle to remain open-minded in the face of ambiguity might resist the natural evolution of the partnership.

4. Flexibility and Adaptiveness

Resonance Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) Steve Schmida wrote the book on partnerships, drawing on his extensive career creating them, implementing them, and managing them for success and meaningful sustainable impact. 

In Partner with Purpose, he describes the extent to which productive partnerships rely on flexibility and adaptiveness, in leadership, and in technical and managing partners. Ensuring your partnership team exhibits flexibility and adaptiveness before forging ahead with a formal partnership or initiative is critical to success, because most initiatives incur unanticipated pivots and even breakpoint change.

According Schmida, in addition to the ability to be flexible in response to changing circumstances, top performing partnership experts demonstrate an ability to link partnership goals to core values, abilities and dreams of key stakeholders, and these can often change or morph over time. This means creating an environment conducive to sharing internally, while simultaneously being attentive to new opportunities and resources external to the partnership. 

Those who can easily adapt and evolve possess important partnership soft skills that can help achieve success, even when plans go awry. 

5. Contextual Intelligence

There are several important roles on any partnership team, but all team members should be able to sift through assumptions, values, and vernacular to understand what’s at stake and articulate why it matters.

Here, you need people who can see the big picture—its scope, its nuances, and what it means for the key players involved. This partnership soft skill is a combination of situational awareness and the capacity to describe what's going on in a way that resonates with others.

Contextual intelligence is even more critical in cross-sector partnerships that span different regions. Although we are globally connected, conditions differ enormously from place to place, in ways that aren’t predictable or easy to codify.

This includes not only differences in physical geography, but also of institutional character. The ability to recognize the ways in which different economic development conditions, cultural norms, language, education, religious practices, and governance both diverge and converge is a partnership soft skill that can be developed often over time. This is often cumulative through field experience and cross-disciplinary work.

Author Tarun Khanna describes contextual intelligence as “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed.”

This is a challenge, he notes, and often includes what he calls the “soft” work of “adjusting models, learning to differentiate between universal principles and their specific embodiments, and being open to new ideas.” There’s that connection to “openness” again.

Applying and internalizing contextual intelligence as part of partnerships will allow you to successfully translate across diverse partners, find common ground, and work together for greater impact

Honing Your Team's Partnership Soft Skills

When people reflect on successful partnerships, they rarely acknowledge the role of individuals. Yet, the individual members of your team can—and will—make all the difference. Think carefully about who you assign to your partnership team. In addition to what they bring to a project or initiative in the way of technical skills, cultivated and demonstrated empathy, authenticity, openness, flexibility and adaptability, as wellas contextual intelligence are partnership soft skills that matter as well.

Take time to assess (including self-assessment) skill baselines individually and in terms of team capacity. And if you are hiring a new partnership specialist for your staff or for a specific initiative, there are important questions to ask that will help identify ideal candidates to fill these important roles.

Regardless of whether you are bringing someone new on board, or working with existing staff who demonstrate great potential in your partnership work, take the time to further develop and hone these skills now. The fate of your future partnerships might depend on it.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated for accuracy and current best practices.

Don’t Miss out

Subscribe to our latest insights

New call-to-action

Join the discussion

If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.