Lesson: If you use the word ‘but,’ you are focused on the negative.

Last week I got a call from a friend and digital industry veteran with a question. “Steve, what makes for a partnership?”

The voice of Samuel L. Jackson a la Pulp Fiction reverberated in my brain.

“Check out the big brains on Brad – good solid question.”

Not one I get asked often, or ever as far as I can recall hence the Samuel L. Jackson moment. So I proceeded to explain what I thought created a true partnership.

To put this in better context, my friend – Josh Dreller of Fuor Digital – asked said question and wanted to know what makes for a partnership in business, specifically between an agency and a client or an agency and a publisher, where you feel like “partners” and not just another “vendor.”

For the record.

Let me begin by stating that partnerships are not, and should not, be measured by who spends the most money, who is the nicest to you or who sends you the best swag. This creates a relationship based on performance. The “extras” are purely perks of the partnership, just as sex is a benefit of having a great personal partnership. Yeah, I said it—sex is a benefit. Who disagrees? Ok, let’s move on.

Next, if asked if XYZ company is a good partner and you say, “Yes, but…” you are focused on the negative. The reality is, everyone has a “but” so it shouldn’t be a surprise that you – yes YOU – have one, too. And frankly, yours may be the biggest in the room. So let’s focus on the positive and build on the relationship.

What does make for a partnership?

Well, first I personally believe the word “partnership” is a highly overrated and overused term in the digital industry, in all industries in fact. A partnership is really just a relationship at its core.

We have relationships with family and friends, our wives and husbands, our children, and so on. Same goes for business. We have relationships with clients, partners, peers, bosses, even with enemies. Yes, enemies too. They don’t really have to be “enemies,” but sometimes to develop a relationship, difficult people are put in our path. It happens to me every day, I’m certain to you as well. In fact, I may be that person for you right now, or you for me.

True Story: My two best clients (I won’t name them), the ones that give me the most grief, the two that are without a doubt the most difficult to please and are the absolute hardest on me and our company are also my two favorite. They challenge me and our business in every way – they have screeched us to a halt, they have busted us at the seams and they have twisted and turned us every way possible. The result? We have a great relationship (read: partnership) and because of it they have grown, as have we, and in fact we are a better company for it, and I know they feel the same.

But a relationship goes both ways–we’ve been hard on them, too. In fact, last year I was so hard on one of them that I had to send flowers to make up for it. No lie, I sent flowers… to a man. But hey, that’s what a partnership is all about. No matter the challenge you must keep respect and commitment.

Have you ever worked really well and accomplished truly great things with a difficult person? Sure you have, and you probably enjoyed the fruit of that labor. They have been on your sports teams, in your class at college or in your group at work. I don’t know Steve Jobs of Apple personally, but I hear he is very difficult, same for Larry Page at Google and Larry Ellison of Oracle. Ok, you want Midwest and East Coast representation? How about Mark Cuban – entrepreneur/billionaire and most fined owner in the NBA, or Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani of political fame and fortune.

Difficult people are everywhere. I’ll admit, I’m not the easiest to satisfy either, but I am fair and I always drive performance, and have been very successful thus far being a hard-to-satisfy individual. I truly strive to communicate well and I always have good intentions. Ask my business partner, Jeff Adelson-Yan, who co-founded Levelwing with me. He’ll attest to this. We always challenge one another, and I have bought him flowers, too.

That said, relationships are about communication. The core of a good relationship (or said partnership) requires communication. Just as a marriage requires communication. To experience a good one you have to focus on the positive.

Rules for building good partnerships:

1. Building a good partnership requires appreciation of what the other party brings to the table. After all you were interested in them for a reason so focus on that value. You must find appreciation in it, not a focus on the “but” or what you would change, rather focus on what you value.

2. Practicing positive growth. All partnerships must grow and challenge you continually, or they fail. Growth comes in many forms and may change over time. It is important to find the golden rule if you want to keep that partnership, meaning you see the value in the person or company. Practicing positive growth means:

a. Communicating clearly

b. Communicating frequently

c. Being honest with needs and capabilities

d. Doing the right thing at all times

e. Showing respect

f. Making wise choices together (understanding what matters)

3. Being patient. This is the hardest one. We all want our partnerships to hit the ground running and bust open the doors of opportunity into a field of daisies and sunshine. The reality is that patience is required to have a good partnership. With the agency / client relationship that means sometimes the agency has to be patient with the timing of client decisions, and by the same token clients have to be patient with an agency’s needs for delivering results. You are looking for positive trends here, not to win the gold medal at the Olympics day one.

Let me give you an example closer to home. Say you have a small child, 10 months old, learning to walk. Every time they fall you don’t yell at them and say, “Loser!” No, you encourage them to get up and try again and cheer them on by clapping. Not all partnerships move along as fast as we would like, but they can be meaningful and drive value.

4. It has a great benefits package. As I said before a relationship should have benefits, but they can’t be the only focus. It should be one of those values that are created during and throughout the relationship.

5. It requires commitment. Most people and businesses make excuses for commitment. Working together on a trial basis creates a relationship based on performance – quid pro quo. That doesn’t build anything. That creates a very fragile relationship that can crumble at any moment. Not having commitment is like going into a rainstorm without an umbrella – you can, but it’s not advisable.

6. There are some goals you’ll never achieve without a great partnership. That’s right, you can’t do everything yourself. The problems and challenges you face daily need a partner who can see them with fresh eyes. True, relationships are a risk, however you are there to figure out things together.

Most good partnerships are positive and fruitful and show immediate progress toward a common goal, but every so often you do find one that goes against the grain. A few weeks ago I read a blog by Ben Horowitz and in it he gave an analogy entitled, “When do you hold the bus?”

The great football coach, John Madden, was once asked whether or not he would tolerate a player like Terrell Owens on his team. Owens was both one of the most talented players in the game and one of the biggest jerks. Madden answered:

“If you hold the bus for everyone on the team, then you’ll be so late that you’ll miss the game, so you can’t do that. The bus must leave on time. However, sometimes you’ll have a player that’s so good that you hold the bus for him, but only him.”

I’m not telling you to hold a bad partnership by any means, but spend time to know where to leverage them, value them and by all means…

Remember to enjoy the process or you will always be miserable and unsatisfied. Many of you need more, ummm, benefits.