Partnership Profile: A Guide to Effective Collaboration and Partnering

Jonathan M. Wallace, RCE, CAE
Executive Vice President
Washington Association of REALTORSŪ

Take care of the means, and the end will take care of itself."--Mohandas K. Gandhi

Once, the means was easy--control your destiny by controlling every aspect of any business venture you were in. The end was then guaranteed: sustained growth of the bottom line.

However, as many businesses learned (and, for some, learned too late), keeping everything under one roof was impossible. The concept failed, partially because managerial and organizational synergy never emerged.

Now enter the present: United (which once attempted to control all aspects of business travel under its Allegis project) and Delta Airlines agree to form a strategic alliance to work together, though remaining competitors.
Why? The answer may come from Karl Albrecht in The Northbound Train: Finding the Purpose, Setting the Direction, Shaping the Destiny of Your Organizations:

One of the hallmarks of the next decade of business will surely be an increase in partnering among organizations. As the postcapitalist model of the value-creating enterprise becomes ever more prevalent . . . it makes more and more sense to leverage resources rather than try to own resources. . . . Partnering, if skillfully arranged, can offer a number of benefits to an enterprise, particularly a small- to medium-sized one that needs its competitive base. These advantages can include

--Increased customer access

--Enhanced market image and credibility, thanks to favorable associations with successful players

--Access to valuable new technology

--Access to needed capital

--Shared risk in research and development investments

--Access to the basic entrepreneurial know-how in a particular industry

--Shared use of common infrastructure

Collaboration--Cure for the Shrinking Association
As REALTORŪ association executives, we face a great paradox. Everything seems to be shrinking--membership revenues, staff size, and volunteer enthusiasm and time commitment. Simultaneously, we must learn, given the legal realities of board of choice, to be competitors, competing for the almighty (albeit dwindling) dues dollar.

However, there's a solution. Call it partnering, strategic alliance, “coopetition.” Call it what you will, but the common thread is collaboration. The solution to our newfound paradox, then, is adapting to the premise that we must leverage what we do best, finding others that also know--and focus on--what they do best, and collaborating to build value to all organizations involved.

According to the Collaboration Handbook: Creating, Sustaining, and Enjoying the Journey, by Michael Winer and Karen Ray, collaboration is “a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve results they are more likely to achieve together than alone.”

We've known for years the importance of teamwork within organizations. Call this teamwork between organizations. Want to know how several REALTORŪ associations have teamed up and realized mutual benefits? Read “Unleash the Power of Partnerships,” page 19.

A Word About Collaboration
Keep in mind that there can be disastrous results when care isn't taken to build a solid foundation for the collaboration to succeed and safely develop strength and stability. Going into the collaboration with an idea of what's expected--and more important, with the end in mind--can decrease the chance of negative results and increase the chances of establishing a successful partnership.

A collaboration occurs anytime people work together to achieve a goal. This, however, understates the intensity required by real collaboration. The intensity of working together goes from simple cooperation (short-term informal relationships, with no clearly defined mission) to coordination (more formal relationship, with focus and understanding of a central mission) to collaboration (separate organizations forming into a new structure, with full commitment to a common mission, and requiring comprehensive planning and well-defined communication channels operating on all levels).

The beauty of collaboration is the acknowledgment that each organization has a separate and special function, a power that it brings to the joint effort. At the same time, each separate organization provides valuable services or products often critical to the health and well-being of its industry and community.

Collaboration is a process that gets people to work together in new ways--bringing together diverse stakeholders, melding their resources, and stretching their minds to embrace new ideas. The process doesn't create an end as much as it spawns new efforts. Collaboration becomes a continuing phenomenon, with a wide range of results that empower people and systems to change.

And once you understand the collaborative process, you can use it to help start any kind of joint effort, improve an existing collaboration, or test the waters with a small project. (For the specifics about what's involved, read “Critical Checkpoints: 15 Steps to Collaboration,” at the end of this article.)
Whether by personal initiative, volunteer request, or legal mandate, collaboration begins with someone--anyone--willing to take a chance on doing things better, faster, cheaper. Once started, however, most collaborators never return to going it alone.

Jonathan Wallace, RCE, CAE, has been executive vice president of the Washington Association for more than a year. Before that, he spent 12 years with the Tacoma-Pierce County Association (WA). Currently, he's vice chair of the AEC Professional Development Subcommittee and a member of the AE Curriculum Coordinating Group.

Critical Checkpoints: 15 Steps to Collaboration
1. Identify emerging needs in the internal or external marketplace, then determine what potential exists for possible collaboration (and potential collaborators).

2. Create mutual goals. After choosing potential collaborators, establish mutual ideas, goals, and philosophies for the alliance. Look for enough compatibility to challenge and stimulate one another over time, as well as the presence of mutual trust. A level of tolerance must exist on behalf of the collaboration for cultural norms, idiosyncrasies, and time perspective.

3. Choose complementary partners. Select partners whose strengths complement the limits of the other partners. We tend to choose people we know, know about, or know to have access to resources. But there are many other helpful qualities. When choosing potential collaborators, consider these criteria:

--Familiarity (similarities in purpose, expertise, community, customers, or members will help the collaboration jell)

--Power (choose collaborators who have the power to achieve results)

--Stimulus (some collaborators are “queen bees” who attract others; queen bees may not remain with the collaboration long, but their presence will attract those who will)

--Variety (some people can conceptualize and have a high tolerance for process, whereas others prefer to implement specifics later on; successful collaborations need varied skills and abilities)

4. Establish a core focus and shared vision of the collaboration.

5. Serve each collaborator's interests in one fashion or another. Self-interests must remain in the forefront throughout the life of the collaboration.

6. Educate all parties about the knowledge, skills, and abilities each brings to the table.

7. Determine the type of partnership to create. Will it be equal, an associate relationship, or a combination in between? Key factors to consider include the level of financial risk, availability of time and energy for the project, and prior existence of any intellectual property tied to the project.

8. Determine roles. Figure out what roles (including financial) each party will play during the course of the project. Make sure those roles are defined and clearly documented for future reference. Be accountable for your role, until the parties change the structure of established roles.

9. Specify results. Desired results must be concrete, attainable, and measurable. The more specific the desired results, the better you'll know how the collaboration is progressing. Those results will remind you to stop, look around, determine whether you're succeeding, then decide whether you should continue on, correct your course, or terminate the project.

10. Establish communication links and communicate openly and frequently. To set up your communication process

--List the key people in each organization who are to receive communications or participate in decision making

--Outline who'll receive specific communications, when they'll receive them, who'll be asked for feedback, and how you'll obtain their feedback

--Decide who in the collaboration will be responsible for making sure that two-way communication happens with the key people in each organization and for setting up communications within the collaboration so that all members are informed.

11. Expect conflict. Conflict is inevitable and actually highly desirable. Lack of conflict often indicates that issues are buried. Collaborations must form a new culture distinct from that of each individual collaborating organization. Conflicts arise as you create the new culture. By not allowing conflict, you limit your ability to change. Ideally, you need to expect, promote, and manage conflict throughout the life of the collaboration. To manage conflict, you need to

--Clarify the issues (the root cause of the conflict, not just the surface symptoms)

--Create a conflict resolution process (revisit the vision, select a facilitator, separate the conflict from concepts of right and wrong, make sure everyone is heard, and don't burn bridges)

--Resolve the unresolvable (by exploring even the most difficult conflict situation)

12. Work the plan. Create a working plan and support the intent to continually have it in action. review the results of the action taken, and make expedient and necessary changes that will support the health of the collaboration over the life span of the alliance.

13. Get buy-in up front. Get the buy-in of your immediate support system (staff, board of directors, membership) before entering the collaboration. Educate them about expenditures of time, money, energy, and other resources that will be needed to successfully launch the project(s) your collaboration represents.

14. Set a minimum “no exit” time period that collaborators will agree to. New ventures take time to be planted, watered and nourished, weeded, and ultimately harvested.

15. Provide recognition and visibility. We all know the power of recognition--the same holds true within the framework of collaboration between organizations. Our members want to know we're doing all we can to stretch the dues dollars they invest in us. What better way to add value than by keeping them informed about our collaborative efforts.

Adapted from Collaboration Handbook: Creating, Sustaining, and Enjoying the Journey, by Michael Winer and Karen Ray.

The Advantages of Collaboration
As a state association executive, who was very recently a local association executive, I see the state and local relationship as a collaboration-rich environment. Almost everything we do (on all levels) begs to be done through a collaborative effort.

Benefits to State Associations
From my state perspective (and drawing heavily from The National-Chapter Partnership Guide from the American Society of Association Executives), a collaboration with the local associations has the following advantages for state associations:

--Effective means of getting grassroots input

--Benefits from local member recruitment and retention efforts

--State volunteer leaders come to office with local leadership experience

-- Better communications and networking among members

--State association perceived as being grassroots organization and therefore more politically potent

--More effective communications through the local association

--On-site experts (local association staff) when conducting programs at the local level

--Shared loyalty of the members

--Better understanding of value we bring to the mix

--Elimination of unnecessary duplications and unhealthy competition of service and activities

--Common vision of the REALTORŪ organization

Benefits to Local Associations
Concurrently, the advantages that accrue to local associations from collaboration with the state association are

--Opportunities to influence statewide REALTORŪ policy directly

--Ability to receive services that would otherwise be financially unfeasible for the local associations

--Networking opportunities with staff and volunteers of similar associations throughout the state

--Career ladder for members who want to stay active but have already served locally

--Immediate and reliable resource on state and national REALTORŪ issues

--Sounding board of experts who are aware of specific local association dynamics

--Easier dues collection when you're involved in allocating the money

--Common vision of the REALTORŪ organization

For More Information
Andreasen Alan R. Profits for nonprofits: find a corporate partner - it takes a strategist to survive a marketing alliance. Harvard Business Review. Nov./Dec. 96:47–50, 55+.

Keeny, Keith C. Stretching your association budget by partnering. Association Trends. Feb 9, 96:6.

Salman, Kathleen. Building partnerships: business trend of the ’90s. Today's Association Executive. Fall 96:20–22.

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