Four Steps to Building a Strong Partnership Culture

By Jocelyne Daw


“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is management guru, Peter Drucker’s most famous quote.  Nowhere is this truer than in partnerships. Partners work across organizations and sectors and must adapt to diverse approaches and styles. More often than not, focus is put on building project strategies but not on HOW the project goals will be achieved  – through a culture and mindset of collaboration. The soft stuff is always the hard stuff.  So how do you create a partnership culture to drive success?

A Partnership Culture Exists

A partnership culture is defined by the perceptions of the partnership.  This is formed by its every communication, action and interaction. It’s what the veterans tell the new kids. It’s what the partners say about the partnership in private.  In short, it is the sum of the partnership’s values, behaviours, and attitudes.   And a culture exists in your partnership, whether it is defined or not!There are the LCD Partnership Cultures (Least Common Denominator) that are determined by what partners do, say and how they act. These cultures are accidental at best, and both fragile and fluid. They break easily.   They take shape based on individual partner’s interests and/or the dominant partner.And then there are Intentional Partnership Cultures. This happens when partners take the time to identify what the core values and principles of their partnership are.  Then they work every day to make sure every partner member personifies them. They also “check and adjust” by assuring that their culture is achieving the desired results.  This means   delivering project results AND building strong relationships between the partners and others that makes a difference.If a culture  is not built productivity and project results will suffer.  Even if project goals are aligned. A partnership culture is its DNA.   Creating one takes work and commitment.  The best partnerships build a culture with intentionality.  Then they inspire a culture and mindset of collaboration knowing it is as important as the project strategy.


Four Keys To Creating A Strong Culture Of Partnership

1.  Define:

Create the intentional culture you want by jointly defining the core principles, values and behaviours.  These will be at the heart of the desired culture. The best partnerships are co-created and co-managed.   They establish values and principles that matter to them and then live them every day. The Partnership Brokers Associations has defined five key principles that establish a culture of true partnership.

Value Diversity: A commitment to exploring each others motivation, values and underlying interests will build understanding and appreciation of the added value that comes from diversity.

Create Equity: A partnership in which some partners are, or feel, marginalized will have serious problems. Equity is built by truly respecting the views, attributes and contributions of all involved.Ensure Openness: Partnerships quickly get stuck where there are (or are perceived to be) hidden agendas or intentional secrecy.  Openness leads to trust.Build Mutual Benefit: Everyone needs togain from their engagement in the partnership.  This is an important starting point to build commitment to the shared goals.Be Courageous: Even a well planned and prepared partnership has many unknowns. Partnerships often address complex issues and requires partners to be bold rather than tentative.  Only then can breakthrough results be achieved.

2. Integrate:

Defining your culture is one thing.  But you have to make sure it sticks.  This requires integrating it into every aspect of your partnership work.  This includes from how the partnership is governed, to how it communicates, to how projects and activities are undertaken.  The culture must be lived by how each partner acts, talks and interacts.

3. Communicate:

Make sure this culture is carefully communicated to current and new partners as they join in. This may see obvious.  But you do have to tell and remind your partners what your culture is. New partners may think that the way they do things at their own organizations is best.  They need to be aligned around the partners’ approach. Communicate the what, the why, and how you intend to work together to achieve the partners’ common as well as individual goals.

4. Model and Motivate:

Everyone in the partnership, especially the leaders must model the expected culture and its associated behaviours.  If they don’t there is little chance partners will get the culture they want. Showing is so much better than telling.  And that means leaving the door open for partners who see contrary behaviour of partners to call it out when they see it. That alone is a significant cultural change for many partnerships.   Yet is critical to have if you really believe that culture is important. 

Four things. Easy, right?

Partnership brokers and leaders need to make sure partners understand how the culture is exemplified.   In behaviours, and reward and recognize when people are demonstrating those behaviours. And not just for the first three months. Forever. Build out performance objectives.   Make sure that the objectives contain a measure related to the desired behaviours.If your partnership does not have the culture you want, then you must create it.  The key to a culture and mindset of collaboration that wins praise from your partners will be the one that is intentionally created and sustained.