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Building Business Partnerships

SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS partnerships—whether between two different companies or among departments in the same organization—are built on credibility and trust. No single action will result in the loss of credibility and trust; however, a pattern of inappropriate action can decimate the relationship. And once one of the partners loses the credibility and trust of the other, it is almost impossible to rebuild the relationship.

Credibility is the confidence that others have in your ability to deliver results in support of the business. Trust is the confidence that others have in your integrity and reliability. Of these two, trust is the more personal and intangible quality.

Trust is linked to feelings of vulnerability, affirmation, and risk associated with sharing information and accountability with another individual. It is possible for people to earn credibility—to be viewed as capable—while not earning trust. It is difficult for the reverse to be true—people are not generally viewed as trustworthy without also being deemed capable. Generally, however, these two characteristics are developed in a related and integrated manner.


The ability to perform is integral to credibility. In a strategic business partnership, the participating companies require deep knowledge of the business and expertise in the related technologies, processes, and solutions.

Business knowledge is twofold. First, a manager must have knowledge of the specific organization he or she supports. Second, managers must have knowledge of the industry in which their particular organization operates.

As a business partner, a manager should understand the fundamental concepts that underlie the organization’s business model. They need to recognize external factors that can affect the business model positively or negatively. Managers should also be aware of how factors within the organization can affect business results.

How do managers go about learning the organization’s business model? There are certain issues that managers should explore. For example, critical factors include how revenue and profits are generated, how the organization provides value to its customers, and the operational metrics used to measure the health of the organization, including goals and actual results.

Some of the most commonly used metrics are revenue, return on assets, gross margin, market share, customer satisfaction, cost of sales, and cost of production. These issues are just the beginning but they are representative of the types of information that strategic partners must have about their partner’s business.

There are many ways for managers to develop knowledge of the business and industry in which they work. For example, managers can read industry journals and newsletters or research the business through Web sites that cover the organization or issues in the field. Managers should put these sites on their favorites list and visit them frequently.

Managers can also talk with people who work in the field and in positions relevant to the partnership that is sought. Managers will learn more than just the machinations of the job this way; they will also learn how the job connects to others.

Other sources of material include annual reports and other organizational documents that provide information about the vision, mission, and strategic goals as well as about business and financial performance. Managers should make reviewing these business plans, marketing plans, research-and-development white papers, customer service reports, and operating statements a routine practice.

Another valuable, but more time consuming, tactic is to volunteer to serve on task forces or committees that address a specific need or initiative in the field or within the company. This will put a manager in touch with line and staff leaders and will also provide information that will deepen the manager’s knowledge of the business. This information is generally shared both within the formal agenda of group meetings and during informal discussions that occur through the process of working together.

In some businesses, it is possible for managers to actually spend some time doing the job of the people they are supporting. Managers can learn a great deal in the process.

For example, on a few occasions each year, the chief training officer of a fast-food restaurant chain spends one day working the line—taking orders and serving customers. He finds this a helpful way to stay close to his organization’s customers as well as to more personally identify the evolving skill sets required of employees who work the job every day.

If an organization employs consulting firms, managers should seek out these consultants and probe what trends and issues they see occurring within the industry.

Through all of these efforts, managers can make sure that they have the knowledge they will need to establish credibility with internal and external business partners.


Managers should ask themselves two questions regarding trust: “Do I accept accountability for both good and poor results?” and “Do I operate in an ethical and authentic manner?” If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then the manager has taken significant steps toward establishing trust.

Let’s consider a common scenario. Have you ever interviewed a consultant who, in your opinion, seemed more intent on obtaining a contract than on doing what would be most helpful to you and your organization? Perhaps the consultant had a great track record that showed the firm would be quite capable of doing the job. But you suspected that the consultant was more intent on selling services and generating income than on providing the service that would best serve your organization’s security needs.

Your uncertainty about the consultant’s motivation most likely resulted in a lack of trust. If another consultant had similar capabilities and showed more concern for your needs, you probably gave your business to that firm.

Managers will know that they are trusted when clients seek out their advice. Other indicators of trust occur when clients share confidential information or ask you to be present at key meetings. When a client shares personal anxieties or concerns, you have earned trust at a high level.

One business partner told us of a client who was leading a major initiative within the organization. To those on the team, the client evidenced strong resolve and conviction that the project would be successful despite some significant challenges. But privately to the business partner, the client expressed deep concerns about the project’s success, confiding, “I’m scared to death that this will not be successful despite all of our efforts.” That strategic partner was a trusted confidant.

There are many ways to build trust with business partners. One of the most obvious is to maintain confidences when they are shared. Another is for managers to honor commitments they make to clients. Divulging confidential information or reneging on commitments are sure ways for managers to kill trust.

Managers can also build trust by ensuring that words and actions are congruent and that they don’t send mixed messages.

Managers should act in ways that support the values of the organization. For example, when having difficulty with a business partner, managers should go directly to that individual to discuss the situation. In essence, managers that want to be trusted should be straight shooters, discussing issues with the person they relate to rather than with others.

Another tactic is to demonstrate a strong listening capability. That will encourage others to use you as a sounding board on sensitive issues. Managers who want others to share views with them should share their own opinions and perspectives, even when they are different from the majority view.

Similarly, managers who want to be considered trustworthy should avoid being “yes men.” They should not be afraid to challenge authority if they have a logical basis for opposing the prevailing view. At the same time, they should keep their focus on the big picture and the shared goals, thus helping elevate discussions to this level.

Part of garnering trust is for managers to accept accountability for their own actions and the results of those actions. To this end, managers should avoid blaming others and should instead focus on what can be done to fix the situation.

Credibility is earned over time and leads to client confidence in your capability to deliver results in support of the business. Credibility requires that managers have strong knowledge of both their duties and the business.

Trust, which must also be earned, means that clients have confidence in your integrity and reliability to achieve results in support of the business. Each of these factors requires that managers focus on achieving results, not just on providing services.

It is also important to note that credibility and trust are developed with people, not with companies. When the person with whom you have a strong partnership leaves the position and someone new takes on that job, the work to build a partnership must begin anew.

Even when there are no personnel changes, relationships are dynamic, not static. Trust must constantly be reinforced. Credibility must be maintained.

Building and sustaining client relationships takes time, and the job is never really completed. But managers who make the effort will be well rewarded for it.

Dana Gaines Robinson is the founder and president of Partners in Change, Inc., in McMurray, Pennsylvania.

James C. Robinson is chairman of the company.

The article is excerpted from their book Strategic Business Partner: Aligning People Strategies with Business Goals published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers in San Francisco. To purchase the book, call Berrett-Koehler at 800/929-2929 or visit the Web site