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Field Notes

"Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast"

The DNA of the Partnering Culture

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is attributed to Peter Drucker, sometimes referred to as “the father of modern management.” Here’s a true story about the culture of partnering that bears out Drucker’s caution.


Company A, a technology and services firm, had three independent relationships with Company B, a software vendor. When combined on paper the revenue generated by the three business models put the overall relationships in the “Top Tier” category for both firms.


A senior executive from Company A asked me to look into what it would take to consolidate those three relationships under a single umbrella. On face value this was a seemingly straightforward exercise.


A few weeks later I presented my findings in a good-sized report documented in a three ring binder. The Company A executive opened it up, glanced at the table of contents, shut it and tossed it on his desk. “I’m not going to read this thing. Net it out for me.”


“Building collaborative relationships is not in their DNA,” I said. The Company A executive retorted “It’s not in their DNA? What are you talking about? Two sizeable and successful companies like ours can’t find a way to work more closely together?” I replied flatly: “That is correct.”


My recommendation was to “let sleeping dogs lie” and be grateful for the amount of business that each company was generating with and through each other, in spite of conditions that could negatively influence the revenue dial for both companies.


Why? Because I found little evidence that Company B practiced collaborative relationships, either within the company or outwardly with partners. Through colleagues working across the three engagement models – go-to-market, sell-through and sell-to – I could see that the tension created by having multiple products in a given market space was intentional. And the most compelling evidence for Company A to NOT pursue a more involved partnership with Company B was the absence of any meaningful partnering programs on Company B’s part.


For me the partnering culture spectrum falls into four models:

  • Collaborative: Collective, shared,synergistic

  • Co-operative: Coordinated, reciprocal, symbiotic

  • Accommodating: helpful, polite

  • Contentious: Antagonistic, combative,testy


I wish to be clear about the virtue of one model over the other. No two alliances are alike! What works for one alliance partnership may not work for another. My partnering example bears that out. Just as one collaborative partnership may not yield needed outcomes, a contentious partnership can produce meaningful results. It all depends on what the optimal partnering model is for a given alliance. The important take-away is that from the beginning both partners are clear-eyed about which model best serves each other and the alliance.


A jointly developed Plan of Record asks the right questions to flesh out prevailing partnership behaviors. Furthermore, it creates the space to address early on which model is best suited to meet the objectives and goals of the alliance.

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