How to Form Strategic Partnerships That Work

Regan Robertson


Strategic business alliances have long been a standard practice. We see them all the time in dentistry, from dentists partnering with local businesses to drive new patient traffic to the biggest corporations leveraging each others’ customer base.

At the Productive Dentist Academy, we too believe in the power of partnerships. But we also believe in the power of systems. Without systems, we’re inefficient and outcomes are unpredictable.

Many small businesses don’t have a system for vetting potential partnerships. How do you systematically determine a mutually beneficial fit? I’m going to let you in on the secret and describe how one story upended the way I put alliance building into practice. 

The $99 Billion-Dollar Blind Spot 

In 2000, AOL acquired Time Warner. CNN called the merger “a digital media powerhouse with the potential to reach every American in one form or another.” The plan was to use AOL’s internet dominance and Time Warner’s position in music, publishing, entertainment, and news to create AOL Time Warner. The financial and market potential for the merger would make them unstoppable. But months after they signed the deal, the dotcom bubble burst and AOL lost its footing, leading to a $99 billion-dollar goodwill write off.   

The recession was partly to blame for the failure. But according to insiders, the deal was doomed from the start because of major disconnects between the company cultures. AOL was known for its aggressive style, which clashed with Time Warner’s more reserved corporate character. The deal looked good on paper, but it went down in history as one of the greatest failures of all time because of the stark difference in values. Company values were a blind spot to everyone involved.

We may not be throwing billions of dollars at our strategic alliances, but the fallout of any bad partnership can damage your productivity, trust, and reputation, to name a few. So, how do you go about vetting a potential partner? You might have just thought, “Duh—values need to align.” That is true. If you dig deep and press someone on their practices, you’ll often find that the values and practices don’t line up.

Core Values Are More than a Cat Poster

The research confirms my experience. According to Dare to Lead by author and researcher Brene Brown of the University of Houston, “only about 10% of organizations have operationalized their values into teachable and observable behaviors used to train their employees and hold people accountable. Ten percent.” 

She goes on:

“If you’re not going to take the time to translate values from ideals to behaviors—if you’re not going to teach people the skills they need to show up in a way that’s aligned with those values and then create a culture in which you hold one another accountable for staying aligned with the values—it’s better not to profess any values at all. They become a joke. A cat poster. Total BS.”    

We need to assess if we are cat poster people or if we want to be a business that acts on our core values. To operationalize those values, we need to define the behaviors that prove our beliefs. If we can’t do that, we can’t expect it from our partners.

Operationalize Your Company Values

Look at your core values. Brainstorm a list of actions and behaviors that are visible to others that demonstrate what you believe. Here is a sample based on two of our core values, trust and relationships.

When it comes to trust:

  • When we don’t know the answer to something, we ask someone or go to an expert.
  • When we know there’s a problem, we take action to right the situation without pointing blame.
  • We practice transparency, as no one enjoys hoarding information or keeping secrets.
  • We welcome honest vulnerability when a mistake is made and stand together in supporting each other to find resolution.

When it comes to relationships:

  • We practice active listening.
  • We’re always available to help one another.
  • We collaborate to serve the needs of our clients.
  • We always speak and act respectfully with the team and our clients.
  • We prioritize fun by celebrating with each other.

If 90% of businesses are only paying lip service to their values, chances are good you will need to say no to most potential partners. Trust me. It’s a whole lot easier to say no when you have a list of non-negotiables. If the business coming to you for a partnership aligns on paper, you can ask key questions to see if they are “cat poster” values or true actionable values. 

Questions to Ask

Can you tell me how your team demonstrates trust with one another?  

Look for specific examples. If they are vague, like “We trust each other a lot!” then push them for a specific scenario where they observed trust happening. 

On a scale of one to 10, how much trust does the team have in management?  

Whatever number they give you, ask them what the next highest number would look like. If they say seven, ask them what they would have to see people do to make an eight. Remember that their perception is likely inflated. Ideally, you could ask permission to interview a team member. 

On a scale of one to 10, how much trust does management have in the team?  

Again, whatever number they give you, ask them what the next highest number would look like. Also again, ask what they would have to see people do to make an eight, if they respond with a seven.

By this point, you should have a good idea if their values have been operationalized or not. If answers are vague or general, of if they don’t have any, it’s not a good fit. If you’re unsure, keep the interview going.

If a customer complains about our products or services, how will we train our team members to respond?

Here, you want to look for a collaborative approach. If they say something like, “Well, it depends on whose fault it is, yours or ours,” then it’s obvious that they say they value trust but their actions say they point fingers.

Can you share with me agreed upon courses of action within your company?  

This should provide some tangible examples of the depth of trust the team has in each other. Listen deeply into the answer. Is it broad and vague? Is it acute and micro-specific? Both can give you insight into how well they are living the core value of trust. 

What agreed upon courses of action would be necessary for you to trust myself (and vice versa) in making a large-scale decision with you not present?

The interview should go on until you can say yes or no. Don’t cut yourself short and be left with a maybe. 

You may also choose to lay out your shared values and operationalize them together, forming standards and observable behaviors your partnership will expect from everyone involved.

Alliances can be powerful, but you must move beyond the temptation of market potential and look at the heart of the businesses. Your systematic operationalization of values will provide all the guidance you need to predict good partnerships. AOL and Time Warner looked like a match made in heaven until they started to work with each other. By then, it was too late.

Ms. Robertson is president and CMO of the Productive Dentist Academy.

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