We grow through partnerships of mutuality and integrity
We grow through partnerships of mutuality and integrity, avoiding a zero-sum view that only considers our own organizational priorities. We treat our investors, suppliers, distributors, and all partners as we would like to be treated, considering the needs, pressures, and health of their businesses and communities.
No business is an island. Modern economies are so highly interdependent that building a business is less about marshaling our “own” resources and more about entering into partnerships of many kinds—for capital, for channel and brand extension, across the supply chain, as well as for talent and other services.
Yet we must acknowledge the shadow side of this evolution. Just as financially maximized business models often reduce our people to abstract units of production, expertly arranged and cost-minimized to deliver on performance targets, we often treat external partners even more transactionally—as inputs to our success rather than value creators and potentially redemptive actors in their own right.
When we view service providers as interchangeable and disposable, we miss opportunities to strengthen each other’s business. It is common to use requests for proposals (RFPs) and other bidding techniques to exert maximal pressure on vendors’ prices and terms, turning a blind eye to the exploitation we may be driving them to adopt in order to win our business. With brand, channel, and supply chain partners, we may be more conscious of the opportunity for mutual benefit; nevertheless, we are taught to fight to get the better end of every deal and leave a disproportionate share of risk with our “partner.”
If we desire outside capital and are able to source it, our partnerships with investors can be the most fraught of all. A generation ago, the main source of working capital for many enterprises was community banks. These investments were built on mutual, often lifelong, relationships anchored in ties to particular places. While this system was not perfect and often perpetuated patterns of exclusion, the decline of community banking has allowed an even more transactional system to arise, modeled on the venture capital funding model that has reshaped the tech world. Entrepreneurs in sectors far from tech’s unique scaling economics have learned to sell an oversized story to attract investor attention, and investors expect to be oversold. As a result, too many investor/CEO relationships that begin with exaggeration (if not deception) never evolve beyond asymmetry and alienation. CEOs can treat potential investors as checkbooks instead of whole persons, either granting them false and unhealthy influence over our vision, priorities, and plans—or keeping them at a distance that limits relationship and accountability.
So we end up not as real partners with our vendors, collaborators, and investors, but as wary practitioners of “coopetition,” constantly circling for advantage. We make unreasonable demands, pit potential partners against one another, and issue threats in order to “win” all negotiations; game the timing of payments as arbitrage; and when things go wrong, activate the most punitive terms possible.
Instead, we long to model and experience true partnership in every dimension of our business: high levels of trust and mutuality that lead to extraordinary performance in the good times and lifesaving resilience for each party in times of scarcity.
1. With a bias toward abundance and trust, we negotiate in good faith consideration of our partners’ goals, constraints, and expectations—and are transparent about our own. We address misunderstandings and conflicts early, with clarity and forbearance. We help our partners become stronger companies, including by recommending them to other potential partners.
2. We avoid contracts or relationships that are based purely on transactional value to our firm, instead looking for vendors, partners, and investors whose practices we can reasonably assess for ethical intent. We sometimes forego the best available price in the short term in favor of a more redemptive venture’s sustainability and mutual growth in the long term.
3. We are inclusive in our due diligence processes for partnerships (including investment), seeing these as crucial avenues of equity for under-represented groups. We push past the tendency to seek partnerships among those in our natural circles, instead taking initiative to solicit who should have access to partnership but normally wouldn’t.
4. We work diligently to be funded as much as possible by investors aligned on all three dimensions of our business: Strategy (desired impact through our venture, product, and mission); Operations (our intentions for team culture, partnerships, growth plans, and use of capital); and Leadership (personal goals, practices, and where appropriate, spiritual formation).
5. We take the risk of uncommon transparency and honesty with investors and other partners. We don’t only provide investors with the good news; instead, in bold good faith, we appropriately share our successes, challenges, shifts in direction, and questions.
6. We build unusually generous equity structures. We see ownership as the highest level of partnership, and we look for creative and unexpected ways to involve more people in it, aiming to share in wealth creation with team members, key partners, those who generously helped us, and others who might not normally be on the cap table.
THE GOOD NEWS
Like great companies, great partnerships are fueled by an abundance mindset. The opportunities to create an ecosystem of abundance are in some ways even greater with our partners than with our team. Many are squeezed every day by owners, competitors, and customers who operate only from a mindset of scarcity and extraction. In our dealings with them we can be agents of hope, renewal, and sustainable energy for their own work and calling.
As we collaborate, we can be set free from the temptation and burden of territorialism—the need to count indicators of success in our field as belonging to us rather than to our mission. Indeed, we are set free from the tyranny of the word our, as if either the problem or the solution belonged to us. We will learn to prefer the wins we can share over the ones we can engineer alone.
This mindset, and the practices that flow from it, can lead to dramatic renewal in the sectors where we operate. A generous, patient, and trusting ecosystem of value creators will gradually grow, shifting the incentives for others in our economic “neighborhood.” In the long run, we may not even get the credit for pioneering a new mutuality in our business sector—in fact, many of its benefits will come in the unseen form of exploitation, stress, and personal and business failures that simply never happened. But we will have been present at the beginning of a new way of stewarding value in our field.
We can also reasonably hope for investor relationships marked by trust and even friendship that is independent of the outcome of their investment. Because our journey of leadership is about who we are becoming as much as about what we are building—and because the same is true of their journey as investors—we can serve and relate to them on the basis of their unconditional worth, rather than on the terms of their financial worth.