Most sustainability leaders recognize that one company cannot reach its goals alone. Synergetic partnerships are crucial to success. Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent calls it the Golden Triangle. Nike calls on the organization to “actively collaborate with others, including governments, NGOs, activists and…long-time competitors.” Unilever CEO Paul Polman states that change must happen at a systemic level, which will happen only if all major players in society commit to change and collaborate.

Collaborations are happening in all kinds of industries. Coca-Cola partnered with the World Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy to address climate change. At the same time, they collaborated with Pepsi Cola in BONSUCRO to address sustainable agriculture for organic sweeteners. Boeing and BMW are teaming up to address recycling of carbon fiber. SABMiller has partnered with the World Wildlife Federation. Greenpeace finds itself in more corporate boardrooms than it ever would have been able to imagine in its wildest dreams (or nightmares). Honest! No kidding! Really, all of these are facts.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when some of these collaborations were first discussed, especially those that involved competitors. No doubt in my mind that collaboration is not easy. It takes work. Cultures at partnering organizations can be wildly different, creating potential conflicts that can undermine any and all efforts. However, after careful study, it appears that most successful relationships follow these guidelines to build successful, valuable partnerships:

1. Set clear goals for the partnership.

Always begin with the end in mind. Set clear goals for the partnership, which can be tracked and measured. Full agreement is crucial

2. Identify clear roles and responsibilities.

This is especially important when competitors are involved. Trust comes from knowing intention and having clear expectations.

3. Prioritize the areas you want to partner on.

It is not surprising that collaborations often lead to a list of expected outcomes, many of which may not be unanimously accepted. Unanimous (or near unanimous) agreement on the top 2 or 3 expected outcomes would go a long way in eliminating problems later on.

4. Involve the right partners with the right expertise and core competencies.

Often times, an NGO or not-for-profit can be identified with the expertise to help accomplish the tasks at hand. In other cases, it may require the creation of a new NGO to help you accomplish the task. Though NGOs are the best independent partners, they work within their missions, and understanding the relationship of your task with their mission is critical for a long-term synergetic relationship.

5. Invest time, money, or real value to show dedication.

You could call this “sweat equity”. Unless everyone is providing real value to the coalition, there is the risk that the non-investing partner will soon be gaining at everyone else’s loss. However, it doesn’t mean that money or extensive staff support is necessary. Sometimes lending one’s “image or brand” is enough to bring other critical partners and resources to the table.

6. Be willing to change your organization based on the outcomes of the partnership.

It is important to be realistic about your involvement. There must be a real willingness to act on the results of the partnership to be sure that time, money and value has not been wasted. Two negative outcomes would be to walk away from a partnership feeling like it was a waste of time, or being perceived as refusing to accept the outcomes

7. Be transparent.

Be transparent in your motives and actions. Remember, coalitions are based on trust first, and with competitors, it is even more critical. Be trustworthy and trusting of others. Hidden agendas or latent mistrust have no place in a successful partnership.

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