Partnership best practice has evolved exponentially as businesses, charities and multilaterals across sectors attempt to address our biggest global challenges. How has leadership best practice evolved alongside it, and what does that mean for the future? Exceptional leadership underpins the progress of the multistakeholder partnerships that have become instrumental in addressing environmental and social challenges, fostering innovation, and unlocking new growth opportunities globally. It communicates a clear vision, generates trust, and positions partnerships as being strategically attractive and desirable to engage multiple stakeholder groups.
As part of Boster Group’s seventh annual collaboration with The Female Quotient at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Sara Grote Cerrell (Founder and Managing Director, Global Change Network), and Josie Naughton (Co-Founder and CEO, Choose Love) shared their thoughts on the critical role of leadership in fostering successful partnerships in a conversation moderated by Boster Group Founder and CEO, Susan Boster.
Set a clear vision for partnership to demonstrate values and build trust
Partnerships are a fundamental aspect of resolving complex social and ecological challenges, something Sara has been advising her clients on for over 25 years. Sara emphasises that organisations with successful transformational partnerships have leadership engaged at the highest level. Those leaders who set the overall strategic vision for an organisation should also set a clear vision for partnership. Josie credits clarity of vision as part of her success at Choose Love, which successfully delivers partnerships with Meta, AirBnb and Goldman Sachs among others.
“I want people to go into these partnerships and ask for what is really going to help you.” – Josie Naughton
Sara shared that clarity of vision demonstrates your organisation’s values – and shared values are the basis of a successful partnership. They are also a key aspect of building trust, the theme of this year’s WEF. Effective leaders ensure their vision is shared across their organisation and by their collaborators, so that project stakeholders are united by both a shared approach and a common language. That requires investment into staff training and expertise, to ensure partnerships are supported by a backbone of infrastructure which is fit for purpose.
Invest in your vision – and in your partners
A recent UN Global Compact Accenture report indicated that 98% of chief executives see sustainability as key to their roles; despite this acknowledgement, progress towards the UN SDGs lags. Leaders who collaborate around shared values and a clear vision know that they can achieve great things by going beyond monetary contributions. Josie, for example, cites a partnership with Tishman Speyer, owner of Rockefeller Center, wherein Choose Love was given free access to retail space for its fundraising store, integrating the impact-driven experience into the property’s iconic cultural offering.
Effective collaboration, however, requires a host of enabling factors that business leaders must invest in to see returns – starting with their own staff. While leaders may set a clear vision and agenda, every partnership stakeholder needs to be aligned. That requires specific skillsets and the ability to work with organisations that may not have access to the same language or infrastructure as your own. In other words, as Sara puts it, it requires empathy. Investing in the time and resources to properly equip your own team is as key in partnerships as it is in every other aspect of business.
It is also important for business leaders to recognise that their cross-sector partners do not only need financial support to supply and deliver their services. They need to invest in the same infrastructure, expertise, and back-office functions as any other organisation so that the leaders involved in the partnership can focus on its substance and impact. In some cases, that may require investing in third-party expertise to bring best practices to bear. The willingness and ability to invest in those services can be a major determinant of whether a partnership succeeds or not.
Embrace the desirability and results of meaningful partnerships
One of the major barriers to systemic change is the perception of corporate partnerships as being inconsequential to a business – or worse, negative. While the wider positive benefits to society may be well understood, leaders can do more to position their partnerships as actively desirable. Climate change experts, for example, often struggle with framing the urgency of the challenge in ways that encourage positive action across stakeholder groups. Choose Love has been exceptionally successful in this regard. While the realities of the global refugee crisis are devastating, Choose Love’s identity – from the experience of its retail stores to its name – evokes positive emotions of support and community. That positive social perception makes Choose Love a desirable partner for corporations, encouraging employees and other stakeholders to actively participate in the partnership and its outcomes.
“We want charity to be part of people’s everyday lives, not an afterthought. That’s why companies want to partner with us – because we’re adding to their ‘cool factor’.” – Josie Naughton
Leaders aspiring to create catalytic change through partnerships need to invest in trust, empathy, and connection to create success at the scale necessary to achieve the UN SDGs. Sara suggests seeking role models who embody these qualities and encourage emerging leaders to be fearless in their pursuit of impactful partnerships. Visionary leadership is pivotal in addressing global challenges and fostering sustainable change, driving active and meaningful engagement in multistakeholder partnerships. Outstanding examples like Josie and Sara demonstrate how partnership best practice is evolving and how leadership best practice must evolve along with it.