Over the years, I’ve seen many promising partnerships collapse because of internal conflicts at one or more of the partners. In fact, I would argue that lack of internal alignment is the number one reason partnerships fail, either while they are being built or, even worse, during implementation. In a sense, it’s understandable that cross-sector partnerships often fail to win universal buy-in among the team members of partner organizations.
For most organizations, such partnerships are new and unfamiliar, and new approaches of any kind are often met with concern, skepticism, and sometimes outright hostility. Furthermore, cross-sector partnerships usually involve organizations with very different goals, hierarchies, and cultures, so there are any number of reasons why particular stakeholders within a company might oppose a partnership—financial, procedural, even ideological. But internal alignment is the crucial bedrock upon which all successful partnerships are built.
If one partner has an internal alignment problem, the whole partnership can easily collapse. There is no single formula to forging internal alignment, since every company and organization is different. However, there are some general principles that you can apply to foster buy-in and alignment.
Here are seven key steps in building and maintaining internal buy-in when forging and managing a partnership:
Step 1: Stakeholder Mapping— Getting the Lay of the Land.
When you are leading an organization through the initial stages of building a cross-sector partnership, devote some time to exploring the internal landscape. Start by figuring out which people, groups, or business units within your company will play a role in deciding whether the partnership moves forward. Who could be potential champions? Who is likely to have concerns, doubts, or fears about the partnership? Who could throw up roadblocks in the way of a partnership agreement or its implementation?
If you are part of a large multinational company, you may discover that a wide range of departments is likely to be involved in planning—or preventing—a partnership. Take time to list the individuals or business units in your company that may have a stake in a potential partnership. Brainstorm with a couple of colleagues if necessary. Once you have the internal stakeholders identified, try to prioritize those who are most important. You can use a simple influence/interest matrix to map the various stakeholders
Step 2: Making Allies and Educating Skeptics
Now it’s time to engage your internal stakeholders. Talk with them about their major concerns or interests regarding the potential partnership. In some cases, you may be able to assure your stakeholders that the partnership will not generate any new or insoluble problems for them. In other cases, you may realize that your stakeholders have valid concerns that need to be addressed by carefully designing aspects of the partnership to avoid needless risks or complications.
As you spend time with internal stakeholders, you may discover some who can serve as champions of the partnership—internal allies who see the value of cross-sector collaboration and are willing to help you explain the advantages to others. Keep these people fully informed, and consider calling on them to help you win over skeptics.
Step 3: Framing the Business Case
In some companies, the thought of partnering with an NGO or a government agency may seem very unorthodox. After all, most successful companies are successful because they maintain a tight focus on their customers and the products and services they provide to them. Partnering with an NGO or a government agency may seem like a waste of time to some. Others, who are used to thinking of NGOs and government agencies as adversaries rather than partners, may worry that the NGO will attack their reputation if the NGO learns that the company is doing anything wrong. Furthermore, a partnership is a time-intensive undertaking; every moment spent on a partnership is a moment that cannot be devoted to some other task.
It’s important to get clear, very early in the process, about the business case for the partnership. You’ll need to list and justify the business benefits the company can expect from a successful partnership. The goal is to show your Internal Alignment and Buy-In profit-oriented colleagues that a cross-sector partnership is not just a matter of altruism; it is also a powerful tool for improving the long-term health and success of your company.
Step 4: Aligning with Company Purpose
Today, companies large and small increasingly find that having a purpose beyond mere profits is essential both for attracting and retaining the best talent and for engaging with customers. A growing body of research shows that companies that have a well-defined sense of purpose perform significantly better than their peers. Because cross-sector partnerships create both business and social value, they are a powerful opportunity for a company to demonstrate its purpose to customers and employees alike.This creates an emotional element that helps bring employees and managers on board.
If your company has done a good job of defining and articulating its purpose, it will facilitate the task of aligning your partnership with that purpose. You may also want to brainstorm with fellow employees about how their work ignites their passions.Try to identify the values that give larger meaning to the operations of your company; then seek ways to align the partnership with those values. Look for opportunities to highlight that alignment as you prepare internal materials about the partnership: presentations, reports, concept notes, business plans, and so on. Doing so will make it easier for your fellow employees and managers to see how the partnership adds value to the company, not only in financial terms but also in terms of the larger organizational purpose.
Step 5: Aligning Headquarters Imperatives with On-the-Ground Realities
Many cross-sector partnerships are forged and negotiated between partners at the headquarters level, then must be operationalized in frontier markets in Africa, Asia, or Latin America.This top-down approach to partnerships often leads to tensions within companies between the HQ team and the in-country business unit. In some cases, the HQ staff understanding of the in-country operating context is limited. As a result, the partnership gets designed in a way that does not fully solve the problem it aims to address.
If you are in HQ and negotiating a partnership, make sure you identify your in-country business unit as a key stakeholder and engage with them early and often. Make sure they understand the goals of the partnership and its importance to overall corporate objectives. Even more important, seek their advice regarding how the partnership should be developed and operationalized. This not only increases buy-in, but ensures that your partnership is designed with the local context and realities built in. This approach can greatly increase the partnership’s chances for success.
Step 6: Coordinating Internal Communications
No one within a company likes to be surprised or caught off guard about a potentially high-profile initiative such as a cross-sector partnership. Therefore, frequent and clear communication with your internal stakeholders is essential. Here are some methods you can use to enhance your internal communications about the partnership.
- Distribute weekly or monthly email updates on partnership building progress. These can be simple bullet-point updates that let your stakeholders know about how you are achieving key milestones.
- Hold regular stage-gate meetings. Stage-gating is the process by which a project is allowed to advance to its next stage of development after a gated review that ensures that everything is on track and aligned within the company. When negotiating partnerships for which there is significant internal skepticism or resistance, holding stage-gating meetings attended by all the key players can be helpful to ensure that you do not get too far out in front of your most important stakeholders. Stage-gating meetings also demonstrate forward progress and momentum, which can help to build enthusiasm and maintain internal buy-in.
- Convene a partnership team or cross-business-unit working group. A growing number of companies, including PepsiCo, Microsoft, and Unilever, have established teams focused on building and managing cross-sector partnerships. To be effective, these teams require the ability to work across business units in order to engage and leverage the capabilities of those units. The teams also help to ensure that people and groups throughout the company are kept informed about partnership developments.
Step 7: Obtaining Executive Sponsorship
In many companies, having high-level and even C-suite support proves to be a critical factor in driving internal alignment around a partnership. When the CEO is a committed supporter of cross-sector partnerships, others throughout the company are likely to fall in line as well. Because every company has its own unique culture, value system, and processes, there is no one path to obtaining executive sponsorship. However, there are a few things you can do to better position the partnership to obtain such high-level support.
These include looking for ways to get the partnership on the radar screen of senior executives; clearly and explicitly aligning the partnership’s goals with high-priority C-suite initiatives; and creating opportunities for senior executives to participate in key partnership events—the ceremonial signing of a memo of understanding, press conferences, speaking engagements, ribbon-cuttings, VIP site visits, and so on.
In many companies, it is not possible to complete all seven steps in the alignment process. That’s all right; not all seven steps may be necessary. It’s up to you to determine which elements are the most critical for your organization and its culture. By being proactive about cultivating and maintaining buy-in and internal alignment, you can greatly reduce the headaches and roadblocks you’ll encounter as you move forward with building a partnership.
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