Lighting the fire: leadership for corporate partnership success

Proportion
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“Managers light a fire under people. Leaders light a fire in people” Kathy Austin

Anthropologists talk about the importance of the chief in primitive times. The chief would be the one to light the fire for the tribe. The fire provided warmth, a gathering place for the tribe and a light to lift the darkness. When I was a little girl, I stayed at my gran’s old house that had an open coal fire. If you didn’t light the fire, there was no heating or hot water. Gran was a tough character who’d lived through the London blitz, so it was nothing for her to haul coal from the bunker at 5am and get the fire going. The day didn’t start properly without lighting the fire.

Good leadership is critically important to light the fire for successful corporate partnerships. It’s not the same as lighting a fire under people. This typically happens with unrealistic KPIs, pressure for sales over relationships and a focus on short term wins. It’s a guaranteed way to squash the talent and enthusiasm of your best people.

If you’re an NFP leader, how can you light the fire for your team to be successful in partnerships?

Set a clear and ambitious vision

If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you ask a corporate partner to come on the journey with you? Too many times we encounter charities that tell a great story about what they do, but don’t have a clear understanding of what the future looks like. Your vision could be as bold as “Kiss Goodbye to MS” or “Eliminate cervical cancer by 2030”. It needs to inspire your potential partners and describe the clear end point for success. The gap between your current state and the future ambition is where you invite the corporate partner to collaborate on the journey.

Build a system to sustain a partnership

You’ve hired some great partnership managers and they are bringing in new opportunities. But if you want to sustain a partnership, you need to ensure that you have the right system in place. That includes a process for relationship management that is commonly understood, the right KPIs to ensure a whole of organisation support for partnerships and a culture that embraces the full range of value that a corporate partnership brings. It’s not enough to rely on the talent of a few partnerships people. Leaders need to build the scaffolding that enables partnerships to be sustained and grow for years to come.

The long-term cost of short-term thinking

You need money, you have a funding gap, and you need action urgently. Your response is to put pressure on the partnerships team to bring in cash, fast. We understand that times can be tough but putting a fire under your partnership people is not the answer. The pressure for quick cash usually results in lots of low value, high resource, transactional partnerships. It gives a quick sugar hit, but those relationships are energy suckers, taking away time from developing more strategic and valuable partnerships. It’s also demoralising for your hard-working partnerships team. It’s interesting that NFPs taking this approach claim they need the money and don’t have time to wait. But they can find the time and money to do it over again when partnerships fall over or the team turnover increases.

Avoiding partnership envy

You’re in a restaurant and you’ve just placed your order. But then you see the waiter placing a delicious looking meal at the next table- and wish you had what they’re having. We see well- meaning partnership suggestions from leadership all the time. The sticky note on a partnership manager’s desk, accompanied by a press release from another charity. Can’t we have one of these too? The better question to ask is “do we know which partners are the best fit for us?”. It’s one thing to be inspired by others’ success- and quite another to think you can just replicate it. Supporting your partnership managers to identify the right strategic corporate partners for your organisation is the most effective way to win a significant partnership.

You need to light the fire for corporate partnerships, not light the fire under the feet of your partnership managers. Then you’ll feel the warmth of growing relationships, not the stampede of good people hot footing out of your organisation.

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