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ATD Blog

Partnership: Great Goal, Insufficient Word

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

As we work and live with others, the word partnership seems to be a common goal. We want to partner better. We want to build business partnerships. We want others to partner with us. Partnership is a good word and a worthy goal. I often ask myself these questions when I think about partnerships:

  • What does partnership look like?
  • Who do I want to partner with?
  • How do I achieve partnership?
  • What can I specifically do to build partnerships?

These questions seem easy to answer on the surface, but I find that the goal of partnership eludes me more often than I want. I have conversations with others, and we seem to want a partnership together, but I often don’t invest the time to understand and act on what a partnership could look like.

For example, one of my former bosses asked me to help her organization build strategic business partnerships with their internal business partners. I loved the idea and started changing the way I interfaced with other leaders. I asked more questions. I delayed my recommendations until I knew more about the issue they were facing. I worked to cocreate possible solutions with them instead of quickly implementing their solutions or mine.

It didn’t take long for one of these leaders to call my boss to complain that I wasn’t being cooperative and that I was delaying decisions. My boss asked me what I was doing. When I told her I was trying to build strategic business partnerships, she said, “That is what we want, but don’t upset the clients. Just do what they ask you to do.” It’s clear my boss and I had different ideas on what these partnerships would look like.

Building partnerships is not complex. In fact, it can be simple to understand. We create a common understanding of what we are going to do together (short term or long term), and we share what we want from each other and negotiate an agreement.


The challenge in building partnerships comes when having the conversations. I may even avoid the conversation all together because I get in my own way. My desire to be right, to minimize my risk, to be safe, and to gain a predictable outcome get in the way. There is also a sense of urgency to get things done. Unfortunately, nothing about partnerships is predictable or risk free, and urgency is the enemy of quality—quality of the outcome and quality of the relationship.

So, what do we do?


There are many aspects to building partnerships. I have found the easiest and most beneficial is to minimize assumptions and vagueness in my language. When I ask for something I want, I need to be specific.

Years ago, I had a mentor who told me to avoid “goodness” words. That statement is vague, so I asked, “What’s a goodness word?” He said, “Goodness words describe things we want, and they are good (things like support, buy-in, partnership, and respect), but they are not sufficient for a meaningful agreement.”

The antidote for the goodness word is to ask myself, and share with you, “What does it look like?” If you are giving me support, this is what you would be doing. If we are going to have a partnership, this is how we will treat each other. This is what respect looks like to me.

Asking these next-level questions takes time. I need to pause and get specific with myself and others. Otherwise, I assume you know what I mean, and I think I know what you mean—these assumptions are recipes for poor agreements. I am learning to share with others the behaviors I am looking for and to ask them what behaviors they want from me. Having this deeper conversation takes a small investment in time that pays big dividends with agreements that last and partnerships that thrive.

About the Author

Jeff Evans is an experienced organizational development practitioner and coach. He is a managing partner with Designed Learning, a training company that creates workplaces and communities that work for the common good of all. He spent more than 25 years as an internal consultant for NASA, Chrysler, and the Cleveland Clinic. His passion is to bring humanity to organizations and communities around the world.

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