Many moons ago during a safari in Africa, my wife and I were watching hippos wallow in the muddy water of a river. In this serene setting, one peculiarity stood out: a bird peacefully perched on a hippo’s back, occasionally bending over to nibble. When we asked our guide Simon what the bird was doing, he said, “They have a symbiotic relationship. The bird eats bugs off the hippo’s back relieving it of this annoyance and the hippo provides the bird with a safe and plentiful supply of food.” They both gained benefits by sticking together, another way to describe a strategic partnership.

We hear the goal of being a “strategic partner” cited by individuals and teams within organizations quite often. But how many people you work with both internally and externally do you consider true strategic partners in your business? The answer: not enough. A strategic partner is someone who offers insight and support that benefits another person or team. A true strategic partner does three things that demonstrate their ability to provide value at the highest level.

1. They seek to understand the other’s priorities. Each of us has a to-do list for the day, guiding our activities to get our things done that will help us achieve our goals. And that’s precisely the hurdle we need to overcome in being a strategic partner: the focus on “our” stuff. Think about the concentration it takes in a meeting to really listen to a colleague, understand what they’re saying at a deep level, and then formulate an insightful question that builds on their idea. Watch someone who lacks that discipline in a meeting, and you can see them readying their monologue response like a horse at the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby.

Understanding the other person’s priorities involves identifying their goals and strategies. Their goals are what generally they are trying to achieve, and their strategies are how generally they are going to achieve their goals. Beginning the conversation asking someone to share their top goals and strategies is an effective way to begin to understand their priorities, or what’s important to them. It’s also the key to finding common ground on which you can build the support structures necessary to elevate each other’s activities and accomplishments. Using a tool such as the GOST Framework provides a common language for talking about goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics so both parties are communicating in the most efficient manner.

2. They utilize the “Yes, and…” technique. Here’s a basic human truth: people don’t like to be told “no.” Go ahead and try it out: ask for something you want, maybe that delicious slice of pepperoni pizza or a second glass of Sauvignon Blanc at the bistro, and if the reply is “no,” how does it make you feel? Bad, mad, or sad. The dirty secret about being “strategic” is that we have to intentionally choose to not do or delay some tasks and projects in order to stay focused on our goals. We can’t be all things to all people all of the time. We need to deprioritize some things to focus on others. How then do we reconcile the need to say no with the fact that our strategic partners don’t want to hear the word no?

Simple. We say “yes.” Great! Everybody loves to hear the word “yes” to their requests. More specifically, we use the phrase, “Yes, and…”. For those who have dabbled in the theatrical art of improvisation, the technique of “Yes, and…” is familiar. In improvisational sketch comedy, a principal tenet is that you never tell your partner “no” during a scene. Why? Because it slows down the action and prevents progress. In a business setting, instead of saying no—which we understand people don’t want to hear anyway—we say “Yes, and…” by sharing with them exactly what it will take to fulfill their request. Here is an example of using no or “Yes, and…”:

“The boss said she needs your report by tomorrow morning instead of next Monday. Can you get it to her then?”

“No.” Potential repercussions: anger, resentment, not a team player, retribution down the road, career limiting.

“Yes, and I’ll need someone from your team to work on the presentation for our client meeting which is tomorrow afternoon. Who would you suggest I take from your team off of their current work to spend time on that?”

This response leaves a positive impression, makes the partner realize there is a trade-off involved on both sides, causes them to think if they want to trade a person on their team for another task, and will make them think twice about asking for a fire drill request in the future.

3. They generate insights. When seeking out others to support your efforts and initiatives, it’s important to determine if they will bring insights to the table. An insight is a learning that leads to new value. Does the person or group you’re considering partnering with offer a different lens and perspectives in which to view the situation? Do they have a track record of bringing new ideas, approaches, and options to solve challenges? Are they willing to shatter the status quo and modulate between evolutionary and revolutionary in progressing toward goals?

A powerful yet often overlooked source of insights are questions. The questions a person asks reflects their depth and breadth of thinking. Consider the most engaging conversations you’ve had in the past few weeks. How many were sparked by an interesting, open-ended question? In my facilitation of strategic thinking and innovation workshops, I’ve found three questions when used in combination can burst a dam of insights that flow into new solutions. The questions are 1) Why?  2) What if?  3) How?

Here is an example that led to the formation of one of the most successful companies during the past 20 years: 1) Why are we only renting the films and TV shows? 2) What if a video-rental business was run like a health club and movie studio? 3) How could we reduce the cost and increase the amount of content people can watch in one sitting? How many questions did it take you to guess Netflix?

While it’s easier to focus on what we want, cavalierly say no, and ride the status quo, we greatly diminish our value to others and the organization. Being a true strategic partner requires leaders to take the more disciplined path by understanding other’s priorities, utilizing “Yes, and…”, and generating insights. Saying you’re a strategic partner means nothing without the mindset and behaviors to live it.

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