Not a partners’ conversation

Donald Trump’s recent conversations with G7 and NATO partners prompts a few reminders about partnership basics.

It’s a given that organisations need to invest time, effort and money into onboarding new staff to set them up for success. Make them feel welcome, help them get to know the culture and align expectations. Partnerships also need such induction processes.

A new person can bring fresh insights. They can shake up complacency and a group’s accepted way of doing things. But they can also upset the apple cart. Induction helps them to understand the landscape before rushing in. It’s helpful to see a full city map, to get the lay of the land, before zooming in on a destination with Google maps.

Donald Trump certainly shook things up on his recent trip to Europe. He berated America’s partners in Brussels, in stark contrast to his demeanor in Helsinki with a traditional foe.

Trump’s former strategist, Steven Bannon told journalist, Peter Hartcher, that Trump “(was) trying to have a partners’ conversation (The Age, 14 July 2018).”

A partners’ conversation that involved abuse and insults, calling an agreement ‘obsolete’ and complaining about the finances. Commentary suggests that there’s a good reason for some of Trump’s complaints, particularly in regard to defence spending, but how he went about it highlighted a few basics for any collaboration or partnership.

Make the time to agree how to work together in any group, be it an owners’ corporation in suburban Australia or a long-standing, global partnership.

Talk about what each partner means by the word ‘partner’. NATO partners may have been clear on what ‘partner’ meant when it was established. How has that changed over the past 70 years? Check in regularly on what is understood by the term ‘partner’.

People change. Have a process for inducting new people into a collaboration or partnership, before they get their skates on. As Plato said, “the beginning is the most important part of the work.”

Money matters. Partnerships for social change are about ‘ideas changing minds’ rather than ‘money changing hands’, in the words of Jan Vandemoortele. However, money is often the oil that keeps the wheels of a partnership turning. Misunderstandings on who funds what, how and when has hampered many a partnership. Get it clear upfront and maintain this transparency.

Power imbalance can unbalance the most carefully considered agreement, culture and responsibilities. Name it and make sure that the equal rights of partners are spelt out in agreements and governance arrangements and call it when behaviour differs. If one partner has all the power the partnership won’t work.

About the only thing that can be predicted about Trump is his unpredictability. His behaviour in Europe was preceded by an equally extraordinary display in Canada with his G7 partners. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was called a ‘back stabber’ who’d have a ‘special place in hell’ by one of Trump’s advisers. If this is the way the USA treats its closest partners, then the scene could be set for ‘…for major reorientation of allies and partnerships worldwide’, warns CNN’s Chris Cillizza.

Not every partners’ conversation has the potential for such a global impact. And Raine Eisler’s domination-partnership continuum reminds us that Trump’s ‘partners’ conversation’ is by no means the standard for partnerships. In my experience with small and large partnerships, between two organisations or multi-sectoral, it is always possible to have a true partners’ conversation. A partnership practitioner can’t necessarily control who’s at the table, but they do have influence over creating a safe and compassionate space that allows partners to speak plainly, to say what they really think to each other in person, with sincerity, respect and consideration.



I design and facilitate gatherings that create gold.

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