When partnerships go bad

News that major global environment group Nature Conservancy has a long-standing partnership with BP has raised both some interesting questions and also the ire of many of its supporters.

It appears that along with a seat on the NC International Leadership Council, BP has donated somewhere in the vicinity of 10 million in cash and contributions over the years. Ouch.

There can be no worse nightmare for an environment group than to be closely affiliated with the corporation responsible for one of the worst eco-disasters in the history of the US.

But partnerships of all kinds are fraught with danger and seem to go off the rails at least (if not more) often than not. While it is often pragmatic concerns that bring partnerships together – new product development, service delivery and influence and change, just to name a few, in the case of Nature Conservancy it was the latter, as they saw the partnership as a way to influence and change the energy company from within.

However, the question for me is how successful can a partnership really be when the fundamental values and priorities of the organisations involved are so misaligned. Does that kind of misalignment doom it to failure even if everything starts out rosy?

In my experience the answer is a resounding YES. From the biggest organisations in the world, to the day-to-day relationships of entrepreneurs and SMEs, I have never seen a partnering agreement survive into the long-term without that alignment. It is also the thing that is often over-looked altogether or at best given a cursory glance when those same partnerships are being formed.

I doubt that Nature Conservancy thought in their wildest imaginings that BP would one day become not just an oil company (which they were clearly okay with) but an environmental villain (something that makes them now question how wise the partnership was). But in reality neither Nature Conservancy nor BP has had a radical shift in values or priorities in the years or months leading up to the disaster. What was a good idea then would still be a good idea now, if it weren’t for the not-so-small matter of a small country-sized oil slick lapping US shores.

The difference is that the partnership is now inconvenient in the extreme for Nature Conservancy and threatens their reputation, which you could argue, given the history of oil companies (even ones as successfully green-washed as BP), was pretty much a foregone outcome from day one.

How about at the other end of the scale? Personally over the past few months, I have been regaled with story upon story from colleagues about partnerships going bad. And in every case it has been a disagreement borne out of a fundamental misalignment of a key value – that is, what is most important to one person, was not to the other.

It is not critical that partners share all values, while that would be great, in a perfect world it is rarely possible. What is the maker or breaker of a partnership of any size is that groups or people share what is most important.

By way of example – if what is most important to you is making money and getting the idea out and helping make a difference will be a nice outcome, and for me those same things are the reverse, we will probably be okay for a time. But the first decision we run up against where those two things are pitted against each other, the wheels will start to fall off.

So what’s the lesson in all this? As tough as it can be, set aside all the potential positives of a juicy partnership and take a good hard look at whether you share your most important values and priorities.

It isn’t that hard to determine that one of you cares deeply about the future health of the environment, one of you is more interested in what money you can make from that same environment, and see that at some point down the road that might create an untenable conflict in the partnership.

See you next week.

Michel Hogan is a Brand Advocate. Through her work with Brandology here in Australia and in the United States, she helps organisations recognise who they are and align that with what they do and say, to build more authentic and sustainable brands. She also publishes the Brand thought leadership blog – Brand Alignment.


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