Collaboration is the cornerstone of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy; for the Academy to achieve its mission and mandate it has to work in partnership with many different shapes and sizes of organisations, and it is the Partnership Team’s responsibility to ensure the integrity and consistency of these collaborative relationships.
This series of stories explores the Partnership Team’s learning from collaboration and takes the team’s ‘learning log’ as its starting point. Each story identifies a particular aspect of collaboration and highlights experiences and insights that can inform and guide future approaches; it is not intended to be a case study on a specific partnership or staff member’s experiences. Below is an extract of our first story: “Learning from collaboration” – Relationships and expectations.
Managing partnerships– a multi-disciplinary skillset
In the early stages of a collaborative relationship, partnership leads have to be on high alert and especially sensitive to the spoken and unspoken / written and unwritten communications and to the behaviours of all those involved in the partnership. Arguably they need to continue in this state of alertness, but the point here is that in the initial phase of the relationship there are a number of challenges that could derail, damage or even destroy the partnership and its collaborative potential.
We know that issues that are ignored in a collaboration, (and these could be different expectations, emails or messages left unanswered, decisions delayed, high volumes of paperwork, impenetrable legal documents) tend to result in a deterioration in the main relationships. There is a common theme in the examples of partnerships that had developed successfully: in effect, success directly related to individuals having chosen to confront the issues that needed to be addressed – in this case mis-matched expectations – and in so doing demonstrating a unique blend of humility and courage. Humility in the sense that where expectations were mis-matched (whether raised inadvertently or through ignorance) then our staff have apologised, and courage in the sense that despite misunderstandings, (or even frustration and animosity), our staff have restated the vision for the partnership and clearly and confidently articulated the necessary next steps.
The other notable aspect underpinning success is the way in which key partnerships have been consciously ‘nurtured’ by individual staff members: Our staff have been able to draw on their past technical and professional experience, (often accumulated over many years and through their work experience to date), and use collaboration success stories and descriptions of how similar challenges have been overcome in the past, to negotiate a common understanding and shared expectations. Our staff have also chosen to pro-actively leverage their social capital, i.e. they have proactively made reference to the different contacts and networks they have within the partner or the sector, to demonstrate credibility or to persuade these contacts to influence counterparts within the collaboration. And finally, this conscious nurturing has included the kind of ‘shuttle diplomacy’ often associated with high level government representatives as our staff ‘just got out there’ and invested considerable time in face to face meetings with partner representatives in order to accelerate the trust-building process, and ‘thrash out’ different expectations in order to arrive at a common and shared understanding.
Effectively managing a partnership also involves being a visionary and metaphorically ‘painting a picture of successful collaboration’ so that the individuals look forward to that and thus beyond their momentary frustration or current obstacles and frustrations. In real terms it is about being an excellent (and patient) communicator: able to articulate the benefits of collaboration in a clear and compelling manner and frame these as incentives on both an individual, corporate and sectoral level. And then patiently continuing to encourage and facilitate the partnership towards achieving the shared vision.