22 November 2021

AUTHOR: ROSANNA GALVIN

> BREAKOUT STORY: Who do you want on your team?

Open communication. Honesty. Shared values and beliefs. A desire for the same goal or purpose. This list reads like advice from a dating column. When you’re looking for love, you seek out certain traits and characteristics in a future partner and as you move through the early stages of a relationship, making sure you’re on the same page as your new spark is important. If you imagine a quiet life on a farm while they want to live in a city apartment or if you’re after a tribe of children and they’re happy with a dog – problems can arise, especially when you’re not transparent about it at the start.

Jasmine Vreugdenburg

What’s dating advice got to do with business partnerships? Quite a bit, according to the director of UniSA’s Innovation and Collaboration Centre Jasmine Vreugdenburg. Much of the advice offered to those looking for a happily ever after romance is applicable to how you enter a new business relationship. Through her role, Vreugdenburg, has helped dozens successful startups find their feet in business through the award-winning Venture Catalyst program.

Watching new enterprises flourish – and fail – has put her in a good position to provide insights into what makes a business partnership succeed.  

“Communication needs to be there from the start,” Vreugdenburg says. “Being open with a potential partner, being honest about your motivation for partnering and understanding what your new partner wants out of the relationship – this sets the whole tone of the partnership.

“Being clear on what you want, the benefits, the timeframes you’re working with, and who else might potentially be involved is also important. Personality is also a big piece of the puzzle – there’s got to be alignment there.

“One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make is having assumptions about the motivations behind wanting to form a partnership – and those assumptions can be completely different to the reality.

“You might assume a potential partner is looking to advance their own technology, but they may in fact be looking to expand their reach into a new market.

“Breaking down those assumptions at the start can prevent a lot of problems arising in the future."

Dr Chia-Yen (Chad) Chiu

Expert in organisational psychology Dr Chia-Yen (Chad) Chiu, who’s an associate director at the Centre for Workplace Excellence (CWeX) at UniSA says defining the purpose of the partnership is important – and doing so helps paint a clear picture for everyone involved of what benefits the collaboration will provide.  

“Partnerships can be better for business, but each partner needs to be absolutely certain about why they want to work together,” he says.

“If you ask each partner separately what the purpose of the partnership is, you want them to give the same answer.

“The benefits of a new partnership also need to be crystal clear. Even the best partnerships take a lot of work. Just like a marriage, it takes time and energy to maintain a healthy relationship – and that’s a business cost.

“If there are strong benefits, and you can easily communicate that value to everyone in the business – it can offset that cost and make the partnership worthwhile.”

Dr Travis Kemp

The advice seems simple enough – be honest, communicate clearly, define purposes and goals – yet according to Dr Travis Kemp, organisational psychologist and adjunct professor in business at UniSA, it’s not always easy to follow. Just like in romantic relationships, emotions can get in the way.  

“Humans like to think they're rational decision-makers but there's very little evidence that this is the case and a very strong body of knowledge in cognitive psychology that highlights that this assumption is far from the truth.

“We need to continually challenge our subjective beliefs about what makes a successful partnership – and a successful business in general.

“What people often perceive is important in a partnership or business is not necessarily the whole story. Take the tech startup scene as an example. Most people hold a belief that success is solely reliant on the idea or the innovation – the product or the service the business will offer – is the critical factor for success.”

“In reality, both from practice-based experience and the emerging research, it is clear that success requires much more than that. In many situations for example, it’s the skills and the dynamic makeup of the founding team that is vital to a startup’s initial success.

“I would argue that this is equally if not more important than the innovation itself – it takes a lot more than a great idea.

“When it comes to business decisions – like who to partner with and why – we need to keep going back to the data – what we actually know about what makes good partnerships, versus what we think we know or feel.”

Just like dating, entering new business partnerships can bring wonderful opportunities and tales of peril. So why do we do it? From a psychological perspective, Dr Kemp says it boils down to our innate desire for growth.

“Businesses can grow through a number of ways and one of those is to join together with other organisations,” he says.

“Broadly speaking, most people in the business environment are drawn to partner where it supports their success – people look for opportunities to collaborate. In business terms, partnerships often offer beneficial opportunities and that’s what business growth is all about.”

At the University’s ICC, Vreugdenburg oversees a collaborative space and program of activities designed to stimulate opportunities and harness our natural instinct for growth. This front-row seat means she’s reluctant to present a fairytale image of business partnerships, but she does believe that in a place like Adelaide, collaboration is key.

“We're operating from a small state in a small country, compared to a large global market,” she says.

“It makes a lot of sense in Australia for startups to collaborate on the international stage, and to secure a bigger slice of that market.

“There are so many reasons to partner and while collaboration may take a lot of work behind the scenes, there’s so much to gain when partnerships are successful.”

While the adage love is blind might ring true in our romantic relationships, we don’t have to go into new business partnerships with our eyes closed. If we’re open and honest with ourselves and any prospective partner, we’re much more likely to get a busines partnership right from the start – and that’s a good news story for everyone.

Who do you want on your team?

Dr Chiu is part of the leadership team at CWeX, a research centre working to identify the organisational cultures, systems and practices that drive organisational effectiveness and employee wellbeing. He shares his insights into what to look for when you’re considering a potential partner or new team member.

Pick the best player for your goals

“If you’re looking for some short-term success, talent should be the first priority. Even if someone has a terrible personality, if they have the skills you need for a quick win – they’re the person you should bring on board.

“However, if your focus is on long-term growth and the sustainability of your team, I’d place a higher importance on personality. You want to work with good people for the long haul. While it might take longer to make progress, at least you like working together.” 

Be humble

One of Dr Chiu’s areas of research is the power of humility in business, through self-awareness, an ability to praise others’ strengths and contributions, and being open to feedback.

“Our research found that being humble is not only beneficial for business leaders but also beneficial for team building. We call this function the social oil of humility – the idea is that having humble people in your team helps prevent the machine from overheating. Find a partner capable of demonstrating humility and the partnership process is likely to run more smoothly.”

Borrow from the concept of shared leadership

Dr Chiu’s research also explores the idea of shared leadership, a management model that doesn’t rely on one person to undertake all leadership functions and instead brings together the skills and experience of two or more people to lead an organisation. 

“There are two major benefits of a shared leadership model. The first is the resource utilisation – ‘Each of us have our strengths and skillset and we therefore compensate each other.’ The other is about psychological ownership – we are more likely to want to stay in an organisation and contribute if we feel a sense of responsibility or duty.

“Crucial to the shared leadership model’s success is establishing boundaries – defining each person’s roles and responsibilities and making sure these don’t overlap.  I think this translates to partnerships – you have to make sure each party has something to offer. Otherwise, it just doesn't work.”