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Building an effective thinking partnership: supporting leadership to take on tough problems

What is a thinking partnership?

Two people scratching their heads in a thinking partnership
Two people thinking

Over the last six months, I keep returning to the phrase "thinking partnership" every time I try to capture what I do. When I first thought about the phrase, it felt woolly, but the more I've reflected on it, the more I've realized that it's a great description of a powerful way of working.

So, what is a thinking partnership, and why is it useful for working with organizations? At its most basic, a thinking partnership is a conversation between two people, an external partner and an individual with leadership responsibility in an organization. This might be the CEO of an organization, a team leader, or someone working on an important project for the organization. It provides a space for ideas and challenges to be shared confidentially and solutions co-created. It is about helping an individual manage or create change – which, for me, is the main objective of leadership. You demonstrate leadership when you are trying to change something.

Too often, and I've been in this position, you are asked to lead change in an organization, to take on leadership, but there is no one with whom you can have a conversation about how you are managing the process, the struggles you are facing and what concerns you. We know that leadership in this way – what is often called adaptive leadership – is hard and requires an effective support network to be in place around the person. Often this support network isn't there; this is where a thinking partnership comes in.


A thinking partnership provides space to work through, discuss, and share the load with someone invested in creating an environment where change can succeed. It can take on different forms and should, in the spirit of being a partnership, be co-created and adapted to the individual and the organization's challenges. On one end of the spectrum, a thinking partnership might look and feel like coaching; on the other, it might have more of a hands-on consulting feel.

For example, I currently work with the CEO of a charity. We speak weekly to reflect on their strategic challenges and co-create potential solutions and ways forward. This partnership has more of a coaching feel, with the CEO bringing issues and challenges to reflect on to our calls. However, a thinking partnership doesn't just have to be this conversation, and that, to me, is what makes it powerful. It's a partnership, which means it involves two parties. Therefore, It is also possible for a thinking partnership to emphasize consulting and practical outputs more. This is what happens in my work with an SME, where I work more in a consultant model to help them think about their strategy for a new market, but also as a team coach working with the owners to think about how they build their company and team dynamics.


How do you decide what form of thinking partnership is right for you and your current situation?

It's a good question, and generally, I think you need to start with three questions:


What is the nature of the leadership challenge you are facing? The nature of the leadership challenge is about understanding the organization's problem and how it shows up. Is it a strategy development challenge, a challenge of culture change, or changing the scope of the business? Different challenges will require different people to be involved. For example, a strategy challenge might require a thinking partnership which has a mix of consulting skills (helping assess the market and facilitate team discussions) as well as some coaching to help the individual charged with the leadership responsibility for the strategy to think through and problem solve some of the people challenges that come up.

What skills do you need to address this challenge? This question is about what capabilities you have and what skills you need to address the challenge. Sometimes all of these skills are in-house, and sometimes you need to bring them in. I've found that this question often gets people to think about who else in their teams and organizations they can use, and it also identifies some very specific gaps that would be helpful to get external advice and support. Getting these skills in doesn't always form part of the thinking partnership, but it helps define the partnership's parameters.


What support do you need to put in place so you can make progress on this challenge? Finally, the question of support is a very important one. Change is a challenge for all of us, and ensuring a support framework is in place to manage change is important. In answering this question, a thinking partnership can play a role but cannot meet the entire need. Asking this question gets people thinking about who else they need around them and the time they need to create for themselves to ensure that they can manage the change process effectively. Often, the question of support and checking back in on the support in place is a key role of the thinking partnership. Helping an individual ensure they have the resilience to lead the change process.

By asking these three questions, it is possible to effectively shape a thinking partnership that acts in service of the change the individual or organization is trying to make while also expanding the space for leadership in the organization. It's why, after months of reflection, I'm increasingly confident that I create thinking partnerships with individuals and organizations.

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