School is back in session, which has me thinking about the importance of lifelong learning, and the wisdom I've picked up over the years from unlikely sources; lessons you may not find in a classroom, but that entrepreneurs should know to survive and thrive.

In some ways, the best lessons I ever learned came out of the partnerships I've developed over the decades with people who don't wear suits and ties, but whose business smarts couldn't be sharper. They are the close to 100 different traditional and indigenous communities around the world with whom my company interacts in order to give customers a memorable travel experience. What those leaders have taught me about building and bending a business to adapt for success is worth a share.

1) Focus on the relationship, not the contract

If you've heard me speak or read my book, you'll know that one of my favorite people is a Quichua man named Delfin who lives in the Amazon with his family, and who hosts our travelers on a seven-day homestay in Ecuador. Our agreement was initially negotiated on a handshake, when he became one of my company's very first partners. Today, he hosts more than a thousand of our customers each year. In the 25 years since, not only has our relationship remained strong in that time, it's never had a single hiccup.

While handshake deals don't work in every situation, it says something about the strength of our partnership that we've never had a problem. As I often say, when you have a partnership like that, if you need to refer to a contract or continually go back to the language of the agreement to regulate the relationship, it's probably not a very good partnership. Focus on the person before the papers.

2) Make it your business to understand your partner's culture and motivations

Earlier this year, I spent some time in Africa where I came in contact with the Maasai, a nomadic and traditional people who live in parts of Kenya and Tanzania where some of our tours travel. To an outsider, Maasai tribes can seem primitive. They do a lot of exchange through bartering and their wealth is counted by the number of cows they have. Over time, I've come to see that the Maasai's relationship with the outside world is more sophisticated than it appears.

Given how unique my company's culture is, emphasizing freedom, happiness, and leading with service, I thought it would be helpful to educate the Maasai about who we are and how we do business. But what I learned is that, not only will it be difficult or even impossible for some partners to 'get' you, they don't really need to. You only have to sell them on what your purpose is, and what it is you're there to achieve. The rest is up to them.

In another country where we do business, we put a lot of effort into explaining to the government how our social enterprise model makes us different. The local officials were intrigued and said they understood us. But I realized over time that what easily sets us apart in some markets, makes less sense in a distinctly different culture. The lesson? It's not my job to educate prospective partners about my story or my business. It is my responsibility to research and understand what their cultural traditions and motivations are so I can adjust my approach.

3) Appreciate the difference between a good deal and a great one

Yet another thing I've learned from collaborating with indigenous people is this: do a great deal if you never want to work with that person again. Do a good deal if you want to have a long-term partnership.

That may seem counterintuitive and you might ask: shouldn't you always go hard into negotiations, since the other side will, too? Yes, sometimes you should. For example, if it's a one-off deal, like acquiring a piece of equipment or property from someone you're pretty sure you won't negotiate with in the future, go in tough and get a great deal done. I've scored some excellent acquisitions through hard line negotiations. But those weren't sellers with whom I saw long-term potential.

For the partners you want to build or extend a long-term business with, get a good deal, one that really works for both sides. If neither one of you ends up happy when the papers are signed, you'll be back arguing over it in short order and possibly even looking for ways out.

Again, it's about the relationship and the importance of being open to learning from all of your prospective partners. If you're as lucky as Delfin and I have been, you might just form a friendship that transcends your business -- and everyone can prosper.