What makes a great partnership? You could hope that it just happens spontaneously, but the truth is it takes dedication and care to nurture a business relationship into something that adds real value.
The basic goal for any partnership is to gain something that wouldn’t have been possible if you were acting alone. Beyond that, the ideal result is a collaboration that’s more than the sum of the parts – an ongoing relationship that keeps on providing real advantages for everyone involved.
Here are some vital ingredients for your partnership-building recipe:
- A shared vision – you need to both understand where you’re going with this. It’s surprising how many times partners realise half-way down the line that actually they each had different views on this.
- Shared understanding of objectives and inputs. What is each partner putting into this, and what do they expect to get out of it? These are the risks and rewards. They’re often not shared 50:50, but so long as each partner’s status is understood, that’s OK.
- Good communications at the start. All that shared understanding means talking. Should each party have a single point of contact to help achieve this? It’s also useful for all parties to sit down at the start and talk through some ‘What if?’ scenarios. What happens if a key person falls ill? What happens to assets if the partnership dissolves? This helps to identify and address any assumptions that need correcting.
- Good communications throughout. Keep talking – to share knowledge, manage effectively, and sort out potential issues before they turn into real problems. The best way to deal with a problem is to stop it developing in the first place.
- Planning and project management will help to drive and monitor progress towards the goals.
- Flexibility on both sides will help to accommodate any differences in organisational culture and working practices, and help to deal with any surprises that the world throws at your partnership.
- Trust and respect will develop if each partner can see the other’s honest efforts to nurture all these characteristics of the partnership – and that makes any relationship easier.
- Teamwork. By taking care of all the partnership ingredients discussed here, you’ll become easy and dependable to work with. It’s like being a team player in any other context – you should acknowledge the contributions of others, and reliably deliver your own contribution. This gives you a reputation as a ‘partner of choice’ – the one that people call first when they’re looking for a business partner.
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As part of my job I see a lot of presentations from highly successful entrepreneurs – but one of the most inspiring ever has to be the one I saw today, hosted by NatWest Bank in Manchester.
John Roberts, CEO of ao.com, has an interesting story to tell. The business started because a friend bet him £1 that he couldn’t sell kitchen appliances online – and 14 years later, it floated for £1.6Billion.
However, John’s presentation today wasn’t the usual ‘list of events as a corporate story’. Instead, he talked about corporate mindsets and how he wants the organisation think and act – and his courage and original thinking on this are what really make him stand out as a business leader. Here’s my summary of what he calls the Ten Principles of Success.
- Play devil’s advocate – he loves to debate, and with friends and colleagues he often argues in favour of something he actually disagrees with, just to see where that takes the conversation. His philosophy is simple – challenge everything and you’ll reach a step-change in thinking about the business. I’ve put this one first because it explains some of what follows!
- Build a great team. From the beginning he has paid a lot of attention to getting good people on board and seeing how they behave together – are they all rowing in the same direction? Every single new employee is met by either John or the CFO, despite the massive expansion the company has undergone. And anyone who is not rowing with the team is ‘ruthlessly’ weeded out.
- Explain why. Too much management is purely instructional, but this is a short term tactic. Explaining ‘why’ is better. If an employee not only knows how to carry out a task, but why it’s important, then they’ll do it better and take more pride in getting the right result.
- Principles not prescriptions. Empower staff with the responsibility to make things easier for the customer. Amazingly, staff in the AO call centre dealing with complaints have no financial restrictions – if they decide the best thing to do is to give the customer their appliance for free, they can do that without seeking permission. Ultimately, the gain in reputation is worth more than the cash loss in correcting a mistake with generosity. The guiding rule for all staff is: treat every customer like they’re your gran.
- The customer pays the bills. They vote with their credit card, and with their voice when reviewing the service. And recommendations are the best form of advertising.
- Outstandingly good service is more profitable than poor service. Rather than cutting corners on service, invest in getting a great result. Although this may seem counter-intuitive in terms of costs, getting the service right in the first place will reap rewards in terms of customer numbers and loyalty, and therefore profits. Unlike similar national retailers who aim to get 85% of their deliveries completed first time, AO has a success rate of 99.7%, and the extra flexibility and convenience of their delivery service is the reason many customers chose AO. And his best quote here: “Shit is an expensive commodity to shovel.”
- The tyranny of awe. The things that difficult for everyone get left alone – they’re not addressed by most companies. This of course is a market opportunity for the organisation willing to tackle it. Many retailers charge a premium for Sunday deliveries – despite the fact there are many advantages in Sunday deliveries for both the customer and the retailer. The roads are quieter for the delivery trucks, the customer is more likely to be at home. AO has built its brand on delivering ‘when you’re in’.
- Always do the right thing. All staff are asked: would your Mum be proud of the decisions you made today? An example he gave was the follow-up to a tragic industrial accident. All the legal advice said they shouldn’t prejudice any possible legal proceedings by talking to the family – but they did anyway, to give their condolences, because ‘it’s the right thing to do’.
- The value of praise and recognition. It’s not about pay; you can’t pay someone to care. Staff feel valued when they’re recognised. Every week, John sends a hand-written thank you to the top ten examples of those involved in getting complements from customers for the service.
- Simplicity. The message must be simple – think of all the words you can delete. Simplicity “is a sharp knife that cuts through things”.
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What if you train them, and they leave?
Well – what if you don’t train them, and they stay? Then you’ll have deliberately set up your organisation to have a workforce that’s not operating at its full potential – and that’s the way to mediocrity.
Employers have perfectly legitimate concerns when it comes to training. They worry that if they pay for an employee to get further training, they might then leave the company soon afterwards, effectively taking that investment with them.
But the trick to all this is not to look at training as something in isolation – it should be part of a much wider strategy to make your organisation a great place for great people to work. That means sometimes paying for their training, but it also means a diverse mix of other things, such as:
- Finding out what they think stops them from doing their job well (Ineffective links with another department? Slow bureaucracy? The wrong marketing message? Not enough autonomy to make a customer-supporting decision and just do it?). And then you need to fix all that, so they can do a good job and be proud of it.
- Personal development plans that make sure employees can see they’ve got somewhere to go in your company.
- Praise where it’s due, and plenty of it. If you want a great team, you need to be a good team player yourself – and that means acknowledging the contribution of others, as well as showing them you can always be relied on to deliver your own contribution.
Carve out some time to really work at making your organisation a great place to be – you’ll retain staff and attract other stars more easily. You might lose someone now and again, but the net result will be positive. And that means any investment in an individual’s training is also an investment in your company.
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Like many others, I like the thinking time that walking gives me. If I have meetings in different locations in town I always try to schedule things so I can walk from one meeting to the next – it gives me a chance to mull things over from the previous meeting, or marshal my thoughts for the next one, or just let my mind wander. All of these are useful in my work.
Recent research at Stanford has shown that walking improves creative thinking, during and for a while after the walk. And what’s really interesting is that doesn’t make a difference whether you’re walking in lovely countryside, or on a treadmill staring at a blank wall – it seems to be the physical action itself, rather than the environment.
The Latin saying solvitur ambulando literally means ‘it is solved by walking’ – or more figuratively, solved by doing a practical experiment. It refers to the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who listened to another philosopher trying to argue that motion is unreal; Diogenes expertly summed up his argument against this by walking away!
While the phrase is now used figuratively to say that some sort of practical action will lead to the answer, I’ve lost count of the number of times that solvitur ambulando has literally been the answer for me. So I’m going to continue my habit of walking around city centres between meetings, and spending weekends hiking up hills and mountains. See you there?
Management styles in a nutshell
If you want to see entrepreneurial behaviour summed up in a sentence, check this out. It popped up on LinkedIn (thanks to Grace Perry):
This says so much about personality traits and how we do business. How reflective or analytical you are, versus how active or results-oriented. (Or perhaps how mischievous.) Whether you have the gift of transforming a whole scenario by re-defining it – it’s not a discussion about assets used or available, it’s a nice drink.
Innovation and enterprise rely on all these traits, at different stages of the game – imaginative opportunities and steady-minded business process need each other to succeed. And of course the key question is – do you recognise yourself in this picture?
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