Internal Partnerships Create Value


Power usually moves down organizational hierarchy and through customers to client-facing teams to support functions.  With each pass through level or functional silo, people get further away from the epicenter of strategy and market demand.  This distancing pushes people away from the planning process and into need fulfillment.  The result is organizations filled with functional experts protecting territory rather than trusted partners creating value.

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My client Stephanie told the story of John, an experienced Plant Manager, who knew everything there was to know about the finances of manufacturing and who wanted Stephanie to produce a budget for the plant that reflected his assumptions.  As the plant finance lead, Stephanie knew that the plant needed to reduce its cost per unit but John believed that reducing cost per unit was like squeezing water from a stone.  Despite his experience and resistance, Stephanie took a stand.  She appropriately challenged John’s assumptions by asking thought provoking questions and providing disruptive insights about his cost structure.  She advocated for her points of view in a way that honored John’s experience and self-image.  All the while, she listened to understand John’s point of view and showed empathy.  Finally, John moved beyond his original assumptions and agreed to collaborate to find an innovative way to reduce cost per unit by replacing some of the plant’s more expensive machines.

Like Stephanie, we can position ourselves as a partner rather than an order taker.  We need to:

1. Move beyond subject matter expertise.  Trust moves from initial impressions and interactions to credibility as a source for answers.  Achieving expert status boosts the ego, though, which makes it difficult to risk the vulnerability of engaging in challenging dialogue with other leaders.  Patrick Lencioni in Getting Naked suggests the key to true consulting is vulnerability and appropriate challenge.

2. Prioritize relationships over productivity and technical ability.  Responding to requests develops a reactive mindset.  Fulfilling needs feels productive and helpful though, especially as workload increases, it can be difficult to invest the necessary time to build trust as a partner.  Charles Hummel reminds us that, to do what matters most, we have to free ourselves from the Tyranny of the Urgent and invest in those areas that are important but not urgent – like relationships.

3. Elevate the dialogue.  David Maister says in The Trusted Advisor that, when we focus on solving problems and fulfilling needs and wants, we are a tactical advisor.  When we can broaden our communication and understanding to include strategy and organizational context, we become a trusted partner.

4. Celebrate stories of collaboration and organizational impact.  Our stories define us and create a picture of who we are.  We can talk about our work in the context of problems we’ve solved and projects we’ve executed.  Or, we can highlight stories of collaboration across typical boundaries leading to organizational value. What are your stories?

Cultural, political, structural and psychological barriers make it difficult to realize true internal partnerships.  How have you experienced this dynamic?

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