Mandela Story Offers Key Business Principle

In reading and listening to stories of Nelson Mandela’s life, one in particular jumped out at me. F. W. de Clerk told of Mandela’s focus on ensuring that Afrikaner desires were reflected in the agreement they negotiated to break up apartheid. Mandela apparently insisted that forming a successful partnership required adequately addressing the opposition’s needs, so he probed de Klerk to learn what they were.

Hearing this while driving away from consulting with a CEO and his leadership team about how to create partnerships, I found it fascinating that a political leader embraced a powerful principle that many business leaders miss. Strategic partnerships are often underutilized as a path to faster growth, and making them work requires the kind of transparency and active listening suggested by this story.

Leveraging another company’s resources (e.g., technology, branding, geographic presence) can accelerate growth (e.g., product development, market visibility, revenue), but three obstacles face any brave CEO who decides to drive a truly productive partnership:

  1. Stories of unsuccessful partnerships abound.
  2. Doing it right requires a high level of transparency.
  3. Deciding when to partner requires deliberate thought.

Stories of failed partnerships leads many CEOs to see diverting resources from organic growth to partnerships as overly risky. In fact, without adequate planning and process, they’re right. On the other hand, consider the huge payoff from a wisely crafted partnership like the one Apple consummated with AT&T to launch the iPhone. Apple got accelerated distribution into a large and growing customer base, while AT&T used the hottest product on the market to accelerate the growth of its base for several years before its competitors gained access to the iPhone. (By all accounts, Apple approached Verizon first but the two didn’t come to terms.)

The second issue of transparency is all-important in the partnership process. When do you play your cards? How many should you show? While controlling information is important in all negotiating, successfully initiating a partnership discussion requires a level of openness beyond the norm that doesn’t come naturally to many CEOs. Minimizing the risk requires investing the effort it takes to identify who best to partner with and how best to advance a compelling offer to them. That knowledge provides the confidence to move more openly toward a growth-enhancing relationship.

Timing a partnership can be tricky, but when two factors are simultaneously present, then it’s time to consider partnering: (1) a high-impact threat or opportunity has arisen, and (2) your company’s ability to respond is weak. In this dual circumstance, gaining access to the resources needed to respond faster becomes a matter of defining your organization’s needs very clearly, identifying and prioritizing a list of candidates with the right resources, and most importantly, being intentional about creating a highly compelling proposition before talking to anyone.

When you finally open the conversation, listen ala the Mandela story to confirm and refine your understanding of their needs in order to uncover where your resources can best help them in their areas of weakness.