Coach's corner: Dealing with a difficult business partner

  • Article by: LIZ REYER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Q: I have been repeatedly asked to collaborate with a partner company that is hard to work with. They don’t keep to the plan and don’t always come through with the quality we need. What can I do?

A: Understand why you’re being asked to work with the company; if you can’t influence that decision, find ways to keep your partner on track.

The inner game

First, prepare yourself to manage this situation with equanimity. Annoyance or frustration may be understandable, but won’t help you move forward. Examine your emotions, considering whether they’ll serve you well, acknowledge them, and let go of those that’ll lead to unhelpful actions. Use your breath to help get grounded.

Consider the nature of the collaboration so far. Has it been a collaboration of equals, or is one side dominant? If you’re dominating, your partner company may not be sharing reservations about the plan or may not clearly understand expectations. If it’s in the lead, are you speaking up to share concerns and help keep things moving?

Now, think about the reasons this company is sought out. Setting aside your challenges, how would you describe the unique value it brings? Perhaps it’s good at describing a vision — articulating the “what.” Push yourself to understand this so that you can design the collaboration to play to its strengths. Note that there may be other reasons as well, such as access to a certain customer base; it’s important to recognize business realities.

The outer game

It’ll be helpful to have a sounding board to work through the details of resolving this issue. Ask for support from your boss or other decisionmaker, using a constructive tone focused on successful collaboration. If this is the first you’ve brought up your concerns, make sure you’re not whining; that won’t help you get a successful outcome, which could include action from your higher-ups.

More specifically, consider the following:

• What do you want your partner company to do differently?

• What steps can you take to make it happen?

• Do you need to make changes in how you communicate with the company?

Once you have a clear plan, get in touch with your partner, and set up a meeting. If possible, getting together informally for lunch or coffee would set a positive tone. Also, the context of your meeting will depend on whether you have an active project, or if you’re just doing some “team building.”

At the meeting, state a clear purpose — continued successful projects — and ask questions about how past projects have gone from the partner’s perspective. You likely will learn a lot about the partner’s preferred style; if you hear anything challenging, be sure not to get defensive. Then share your observations, keeping a positive tone. For example, instead of “you don’t meet timelines,” try, “it’s important to us that we agree on timelines that we can both meet.”

Also have a plan for staying closely connected during a project, even if it’s not the way you’d typically work, at least until you’re on a good track.

The last word

Base your approach on open communication. This will help you get your concerns addressed.

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