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9 Ways to Forge Better Partnerships

Business success depends on your ability to keep your partnerships healthy and happy.
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Business success usually demands partnering with other people and other firms to get big things done. Some partnerships are formal, like outsourced supply chains, while others are less formal, as when salespeople from different firms partner to win a complex opportunity.

It's thus in your interest to know exactly how to ensure that your partnerships, both formal and informal, remain healthy and happy, as well as highly likely to result in mutual success.

Here's a nine step process to achieve this, adapted from a conversation with Ed Rigsbee, author of The Art of Partnering:

1. Prepare to Relinquish Some Control

It's a natural tendency for entrepreneurs to seek to control of their destiny. However, partnering always involves leaving yourself vulnerable to the failing and failures of your partner.

At the very least, a partnership requires that you share knowledge--like your own limitation and the weaknesses of your firm--that you might not feel comfortable revealing to another person or another company.

2. Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Before you can considering a partnership, you must first understand what you and your firm bring to the table and, by extension, where you might need some outside help from a partner.

The easiest way to do this is to create a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) diagram. If you're truly honest, you'll be able to identify areas where you might be able to help a partner as well as areas where you could use some help yourself.

3. Select the Right Partner

Seek out individuals or firms that have strengths where you have weaknesses and vice versa. For example, if you have great products but little sales experience, you might look for a firm that has mediocre products but a history of sales success.

It's also important to assess the other party's willingness (and psychological readiness) to partner. Just because another firm has a capability you need, that's no guarantee that they're ready to share it.

4. Build a Partnership Consensus

Once you've broached the idea of a partnership with the other party, hash out a working agreement of who is going to do what and when. Build a plan of action to address whatever opportunity you're intending to pursue together.

If it's a formal partnership, you'll need a contract, of course. However, if the partnership is informal, you should still create a written outline describing detailed explanations of activities, expectations, and responsibilities of each partner.

5. Adopt a Strict Code of Ethics

Ethics between partners are what makes a partnership possible. The "golden rule" here is to "be the kind of partner with whom you'd like to partner." It's not enough to BE honest; you must also avoid the appearance of dishonesty as well.

By the way, ethics are even more important if the business you're conducting has a lot of risk involved. As Ben Franklin once said: "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

6. Go Beyond Your Commitments

Successful partnerships--especially those formalized by contracts--require trust between the partners. The best way to increase the level of trust in a partnership is to always deliver a bit more than you said you will deliver.

To use an analogy from outside of business, the best marriages are characterized not just by both parties meeting their minimum commitments (e.g. no adultery) but actively doing extra, on a daily basis, to try to make the other person happier.

7. Be Patient With the Partnership

If the partnership develops problems, don't give in to anger or frustration. Meet your partner more than halfway. If there's money on the table, dispose of it fairly or offer to buy your partner out.

Above all, avoid taking any disagreement with your partner to court. The end result of a court case will be pennies on the dollar for you, and even that is only if you're lucky.  Chance are the only "winners" will be the lawyers.

8. Monitor and Measure

Ineffective communication is the primary reason that partnerships fail. As with any other business situation, it is measurement that provides the basis for meaningful and effective communication.

Strive to have enough ongoing communication so that both parties can monitor the relationship both at the "macro" and "micro" level. Then when challenges pop up, you can both work together to quickly address them.

9. Celebrate Frequently

Getting a partnership from initial handshake to a long-term, mutually-profitable relationship requires plenty of "emotional fuel." As the partnership progresses, both parties will need to invest time and energy to maintain and strengthen the relationship.

The best and easiest way to do this is to celebrate--really celebrate--every time the partnership achieves something significant. If you really want the partnership to thrive, make that the celebration includes some extra compensation for everyone involved.

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Last updated: Feb 1, 2013

GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist

Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for Inc.com, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed over a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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