Eight Lessons Learned on Partnering

In analyzing dozens of partnerships, some successful — and some less so — we’ve identified the following series of fundamental lessons.

1. KNOW YOUR OWN SITUATION WELL BEFORE PICKING AN APPROPRIATE PARTNER
Be clear on your environmental issues when you sit down with others. AUDIO analysis is a good place to start. Then educate yourself on your business’s key problems, and learn which groups specialize in the issues you face.

2. KNOW WITH WHOM YOU’RE DEALING
All partners, especially NGOs, are not created equal. Sustainability expert John Elkington has developed a playful, but useful, typology of NGOs. He breaks them into sharks, orcas, sea lions, and dolphins. Sharks are always on the attack, smelling blood and weakness from miles away. Orcas use fear and bullying. Sea lions play it safe and stay close to issues they know well. Dolphins are intelligent, creative, and can help fend off sharks. The point is that some NGOs are easier to work with than others. Avoid the sharks.

3. BE PATIENT
If we could share only one lesson, this would be it. Trust builds over time. It can take years to make the case internally for reaching out. As Chiquita’s Dave McLaughlin says, “We aren’t making Tang here. It isn’t just ‘add water and stir.'” Nurture long-term relationships.

4. LEARN EACH OTHER’S CULTURE AND VALUES
IKEA spent six months with World Wildlife Fund just discussing values before launching a partnership. The differences between for-profit and not-for-profit organizations can be large, but different values and cultures are not insurmountable. Still, it takes effort to learn to talk the other guy’s language.

5. SET WORKABLE GOALS
Partnership goals need to be carefully developed and specified. They must achieve environmental progress that satisfies all the partners but also be relevant to and supportive of core business objectives. Set modest short-term goals and exceed them. And never overpromise publicly.

6. ESTABLISH CHAMPIONS
Each partner needs a clear operational leader for the project and relationship. Backing from the highest level is also vital. IKEA reports regularly to the CEO on its World Wildlife Fund partnership. You also need critical line managers to climb art board. McDonald’s work on its supply chain took off only when the supply chain managers, not just the corporate responsibility people, stepped into the process.

7. THINK BIG, BUT START SMALL
The commitment to green the supply chain is a worthy goal, but it can’t be done overnight. Pilot programs provide a way to test assumptions, establish trust, and build base for bigger and broader future partnership initiatives.

8. COORDINATE COMMUNICATIONS
Great partnerships can turn sour very quickly when one side prematurely declares victory. NGOs see greenwashing and companies hear gloating. You can’t assume that the way you would talk about an issue is how the other side would. In the same spirit, don’t announce environmental breakthroughs until you have credible evidence of progress.

Copyright © 2009 Daniel C. Esty and Andrew S. Winston

Author Bio
Daniel C. Esty, co-author of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage (Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 978-0-470-39374-1), is the Hillhouse Professor at Yale University and Director of the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (www.yale.edu/CBEY). Author and editor of nine books and dozens of articles, Dan is one of the world’s leading corporate environmental strategy experts with twenty years of experience working with companies of all sizes and across many industries worldwide. He served as senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1990s and is presently Chairman of Esty Environmental Partners (www.EstyEP.com).

Andrew S. Winston, co-author of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage (Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 978-0-470-39374-1), advises some of the world’s leading companies on how to profit from environmental thinking. He is also a highly respected and dynamic speaker, exploring the business benefits of going green with audiences around the world. Andrew’s earlier career included corporate strategy at Boston Consulting Group and management positions in marketing and business development at Time Warner and MTV. See www.andrewwinston.com for more information.