Successful partnership working

Partnership working has far-reaching benefits for children’s services, ensuring resources go further and best practice is shared. Knowing what makes a successful partnership is key to strong leadership.

Toby Lindsay is principal consultant for leadership, management and organisation development at Skills for Justice and Skills for Health
Toby Lindsay is principal consultant for leadership, management and organisation development at Skills for Justice and Skills for Health

Partnership working in children’s services is vital – particularly when all public services are expected to do “more with less”. The benefits include greater access to a range of resources and knowledge, sharing of workload and costs, and more flexible service provision. However, partnerships can fail, experience ups and downs, and require continual work to get the very best from them.

Work has been done to understand why partnerships are more likely to succeed or fail but this knowledge only makes a difference when it is incorporated into leadership practice.

1. Partnerships are a social process. Before partnerships can deliver their anticipated outcomes, connection needs to be built. Partners need to get to know each other and as they do, trust emerges. This process takes time and involves all sorts of emotions and, at times, stresses. Through connection learning begins with partners gaining access to the knowledge and experience of others. Action can then be taken, and the partnership can really start to achieve its goals and deliver the kinds of joined-up service provision that improves the lives of children, young people and families.

The importance of ongoing connection and learning cannot be underestimated especially when new partners come on board.

2. Partnerships are about power and identity. Government-commissioned research on collaboration between the emergency services published in 2015 found maintaining the distinct identities of partners was a key element of successful partnership work. Partnerships that have “extraordinary members” seem to work better than those that don’t, and this suggests partnerships function best when we attend to the difference and uniqueness in them. This requires leadership that understands and makes time for this, which can be difficult when there is pressure on the partnership to deliver and differing levels of motivation and engagement among partners.

Other research suggests power imbalances in partnerships are always present and need to be acknowledged for them to function well. It is the way power is used in a partnership that most impacts on its success and longevity. Coercive and manipulative uses of power lead to those with less power disengaging. A recent example I came across was a partnership where smaller organisations complained meetings always took place at a larger partner’s premises “when it suited them”. This led to the failure of that group.

When taking up leadership in partnership we should ask: Who has the power here and how is it being used? What am I doing to be open and collaborative in using my power to engage rather than alienate and dominate?

3. Set up is key. A good-quality set up is important in establishing a partnership. This can include sharing information about the different partners, exploring the partnership’s vision and criteria for success, discussing how you will work together and what different wants and needs are present. All of this creates a pattern where the “how” of working is explored and not assumed.

Beginnings also need to focus on endings. We know that partnerships where there is a clear process for exiting do better than where there is not. Partnerships that feel like endless obligation lead to people finding other ways to disengage.

4. Review and governance are vital. A partnership that agrees to a regular review of working practice is one that has a greater chance of success than one that doesn’t. However, this can be difficult for us to do on our own. It’s much easier to do with an external governing body or process. Where there is good governance for a partnership, it achieves more.

This is another area where power needs to be considered. A partner with significant resources may be in a position to host a partnership within those resources. However, this places governance in the hands of the most powerful partner. It is important to discuss upfront how best to review and govern the partnership rather than simply doing what seems easiest.

5. The need for collaborative leadership. Partnerships require robust leadership from the outset. This must recognise that partnership is a process, which needs regular reflection and development. This is not easy for leaders of individual organisations and in a partnership arrangement is even harder. Who is the leader? If we naturally allow this to be the most powerful then this can create resentment and disengagement even when working with the best of intentions.

Partnership leadership needs to be collaborative and distributed, where we all act to lead, rather than wait and do nothing. Inaction in a partnership will lead to the partnership failing. However, speaking up, acting, expressing views and inquiring into the dynamics of groups are all risky activities. This takes us back to the importance of connection and a willingness to learn together in partnership, understanding this will take time and effort to achieve. All partners must take responsibility for leadership knowing we will not get it right all of the time. This is what makes great partnerships great.

  • Toby Lindsay is principal consultant for leadership, management and organisation development at Skills for Justice and Skills for Health
  • Skills for Justice has recently launched a series of public sector leadership development programmes

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