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:
- Stories of unsuccessful partnerships abound.
- Doing it right requires a high level of transparency.
- 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.
The word “coopetition” has been around much longer than most people think. I first encountered it when my boss Ray Noorda, Novell CEO, brought it back into use in the early 1990s to describe his insight about the then-emerging market for local area networks (LANs).
Novell was one of a number of companies competing to become the LAN market leader. Ray decided to encourage his competitors to focus on “growing the pie”, i.e. the networking market, rather than continuing to fight for a bigger slice of a small market. We created the Networld trade show (later renamed Networld/Interop) and invited every company related to the networking industry to participate, including our closest competitors. The show rapidly grew to become the largest tech gathering of its time, engulfing Las Vegas for a week every year.
Working in and leading a group of a dozen highly talented people who built partnerships with the largest companies in the industry was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my career. During that time, Novell’s partnership efforts helped it hit a billion dollars in revenue faster than any company to that point. In addition to a network of over 20,000 resellers who depended upon us for a significant share of their revenue, we grew partnerships that aligned leading companies (e.g. CA, Compaq, HP, IBM, Lotus, Oracle) behind our network operating system and encouraged them to develop new solutions for our customers.
Observations made during that time led me a few years ago to coin the term “self-fueling” to describe partnerships carefully constructed to last. Like most useful concepts, the definition of a self-fueling partnership is simple:
“a relationship structured so that positive results for the first party drives it to act in ways that increase positive results for the second party, and vice versa.”
The partnership between ATT and Apple is an excellent example. It lasted several years enabled each to them to capture significant market share. We all owe a debt to the late, great Ray Noorda for pointing the way to self-fueling partnerships by selling the idea of coopetition to the industry.
Washington Post, July 2, 2012: “Outlook for U.S. economy dims as manufacturing shrinks for the first time in nearly 3 years… ‘Our forecast that the U.S. will grow by around 2 percent this year is now looking a bit optimistic,’ said Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics.”
Being the CEO requires committing to a “no excuses” life. Others may offer plausible reasons for non-performance, but if your company plateaus, CEO excuses aren’t an option – you must take action:
- Softening economy? Find a way to take advantage of a changing business landscape.
- Lengthening sales cycles? Determine how to identify highly motivated prospects.
- Shrinking margins? Examine whether your company is leveraging its strengths.
Changing your business to address these and similar challenges incurs risk, but the risk of doing nothing is greater. How can you adopt an effective breakout strategy that will recharge you and your executive team?
Here’s a rational, three-step process guaranteed to provide direction: (1) reexamine your company’s true value and what sets it apart; (2) in light of market conditions and competition, determine an altered direction that will maximize value; and (3) identify new business relationships that will open doors to new business. In other words, you need to clarify, comprehend, and connect:
Clarify – Who are you as a company and what sets you apart? What truly separates companies like Apple, Southwest, Berkshire Hathaway, and the NE Patriots from the rest, year after year, is a sense of purpose. Clarifying the organization’s purpose and unique assets beyond a simple mission statement actually increases efficiency. It’s imperative to get this right.
Highly successful companies perform at a high level because they focus on a clearly identifiable market with a differentiated solution. Even successful companies eventually let pressure to increase revenue force acceptance of business outside their primary focus. Since profitability grows by exploiting core competencies, losing focus erodes margins. Having a crystal-clear shared vision of who your company targets and what customer problems it uniquely addresses enables employees to make decisions more rapidly (fewer meetings and emails needed) so more gets accomplished faster and margins increase.
Comprehend – Once you understand your company better, update your understanding of your immediate market. What change in direction will maximize value? Finding the right direction in a complex and competitive market accelerates growth. How do you define who’s in it and who isn’t? What is your relationship to other companies in your space?
One proven method is to pretend you’re selling your company and identify a number of companies that could acquire you and another set that you might acquire or partner with. By comprehending the needs of potential acquirers, acquisition targets, and partners, you will develop a value framework that identifies high value opportunities.
Connect – Which relationships will increase business the most? Whether your company is B2B or B2C, strong relationships with other companies can help it grow faster. That said, many CEOs have been burned by partnerships that failed due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations, and unmonitored execution.
The solution? Design self-fueling partnerships that continually reinforce each partner’s objectives. Partnering with potential acquirers and industry leaders will drive new revenue by providing access to new markets, extended geographies, enhanced product and service offerings, better branding, and staff augmentation.
By following this three-step process, breaking out of flat growth may be easier than you think.