Unraveling the Puzzle of Partnership

Partnering (or collaborating or teaming up – whichever phrase you use) is increasingly common and potentially beneficial for all involved. I get notices for co-led workshops, alliances of business coaches, cross-referrals, joint ventures, subcontract situations and other types of partnering arrangements. As coaches, one of our foundational skills is to collaborate with our clients to help them achieve their goals. So it seems natural that we would desire collaboration in other aspects of our work as well.

What makes these types of arrangements so beneficial?
And what are the “secrets” to a successful partner arrangement?

In recent years I’ve been involved in two substantial collaborations – one that continues to be fun, productive and supportive, and another that ended in a painful mess. So this topic has been of special interest to me and I hope to share some of my learning and observations with you.

Many of the benefits of partnering are self-evident, but I want to quickly review some of them here. Working with others allows you to potentially provide more services to more people in a more effective fashion. In other words – broaden and deepen your impact on the world (and, in theory, also bring you more revenue). In addition, collaboration often results in a superior product or service than either of you could have created on your own, a case where the sum is greater than the parts. Partnering can also help balance the workload across complementary skills (and schedules), while also expanding your reach into new markets or new geographies. Lastly, collaborating with others can be more fun, interesting, creative and rewarding than working on our own. We are social animals and working in isolation can quickly lead to burnout, loss of motivation, and depression.

So what’s not to like about partnering – it’s clearly a great thing! But, if it’s so wonderful, why doesn’t everyone collaborate all the time? I believe that there are three answers to this simple question:
1. Partnering is not the best choice for all situations. Some jobs are best suited to one person (like individual coaching).
2. Many folks are not built to be good partners
3. Finding a good business partner can be as hard (or harder) than finding a good life mate!

The rate of partnership failure is very high, between 70-90% (depending on what statistics you read), and this is looking just at formal, legal partnerships and not the informal partnerships and collaborations that are so common in our changing economy.

Why do some collaborations work smoothly and others fall apart?

I got curious and started to examine my own experiences and also ask others who have been in collaborations and partnerships (successful or not). My investigation provided me with:

12 Tips for Building Successful Collaborations

1. First, and perhaps most important, be clear about why you want to collaborate. What do you hope that the collaboration will bring to you? Understand if your motivation is to work with complementary skills, or access to a new market, or assistance with the details, or support and companionship, or some other benefit. Without this clarity, your collaboration will be confusing from the start.

2. Be willing to take your time, go slow, and let the partnership evolve. Just like with dating, it’s never wise to jump in without checking each other out first. Work on small, low risk projects together first to see if you are compatible. During this time, take time to really connect with each other.

3. Explicitly look at how your work styles and personalities are different. Neither is good nor bad, just different. Know how you are different and how you are similar. Can you tolerate the differences? Or, perhaps you are so similar that you will end up reinforcing each others’ areas of weakness.

4. Look especially at your values and expectations around work. Do you have similar concepts of what is an acceptable quality of work? Explore your expectations regarding acceptable level of customer service, ethics and professionalism in communication, dress, interactions, and behavior.

5. Talk about priorities in your life. How many hours a week do you want to work together on this project? Be honest and realistic about what else is going on in your life and how much time and energy you have to devote to this collaboration.

6. Look at where your skills and interests are different. Is one of you more detail oriented? Does one of you enjoy strategy? Do your skills complement or overlap each other? You need to assemble a “team” that will handle both the strategy and the details, the fun and the mundane, the sales / marketing and the administration. Where do your natural inclinations lie? If you both dislike handling “the details,” then know up front that you will need to hire someone who can handle them for you. If you both resist enrollment and marketing then you’ll need to figure out how to handle this critical area.

7. Talk about what works and doesn’t work for you – jointly design your alliance of how you want to work together and how you want to be treated by your partner. Where are your boundaries – are you more of an arms-length, private person or someone who dives in fast and deep?

8. Is your partner willing and able to talk about his/her feelings and ideas easily? If not, how will you handle the situation where your partner is upset or angry but unable to discuss what’s happening. (BTW, relationship coaching can be of great benefit in this situation.)

9. Talk about the marketing of your product and service. Will each of you receive equal visibility, or will one of you take the “lead” role? How will you jointly handle the tasks of marketing and enrollment?

10. Talk about ownership of the final product you are producing – whether it’s a workshop or a retreat or other product or service. What will each of you be able to do with the product on your own, after the work is complete? Make sure to document this agreement.

11. How will you share expenses and revenue? Again, make sure to document this agreement.

12. Underlying all of these items is the need to communicate – communicate – communicate! For your partnership to work well, you each need to be able to talk about what’s going on in an open and respectful fashion, and to be heard by your partner. I’m not suggesting that you need to be perfect (none of us are) but it is vital that you are each able to hear each other objectively and talk it through respectfully when you tweak each other (guaranteed that will happen at some point)

I want to add in two other guidelines:

  • Being good friends (or romantic partners) doesn’t mean that you will be good business partners. What brings you together as friends or lovers may not lay a solid foundation for working together. You may be very compatible with someone in a social or romantic relationship and totally incompatible in your work styles. I recommend that you become even more careful, and slow-paced, in pursuing a partnership with a friend or lover.
  • It’s important to acknowledge that some people are not good partner material. This is not meant as a judgement but rather an observation. Just as everyone is not cut out to be coaches or firemen or teachers, not everyone is built to be good collaborators and business partners. You may know some folks like this already – someone who has tried to partner several times without success, who has difficulty creating successful collaborative relationships, perhaps someone who has the same difficulty in their personal/romantic life. I suggest that you look honestly at yourself, and your potential partner, to see if there has been a pattern that might suggest that collaboration is not a realistic option.

I wish you many fulfilling and joy-filled collaborations in your life and work. I’d love to hear you own collaboration stories – whether happy or sad.

Dorcas Kelley CPCC CMC PCC
Helping you make the leap from ‘coaching skills’ to ‘coaching profession’

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