Forget the clichéd lemonade stand — my 8-year-old self wanted to stand out from the entrepreneurial crowd. For me and my good friend Julie, sandwiches were going to be the key to our fortune!

Clearly the future founder of Subway had no cause for concern, J&L Sandwiches never got past the recipe testing phase. But, despite our failure to launch, mini Lisa and Julie unknowingly hit upon one of the key points of business success: the power of partnership.

My very first partnership agreement.

Our business plan began to take shape in the backseat of my grandparents’ Thunderbird as we rode to Multnomah Falls. Clearly a pretty savvy pair of kids, we began to assess our costs before forecasting our revenue and potential profit. But here’s what we spent the bulk of our time discussing — who was going to do what in our business. How could we divide the labor and the responsibility in a way that would keep both of us happy? As young as we were, we instinctively knew that the key to our future success in business, not to mention the key to our ongoing friendship, was to define these finer points early on.

Our entrepreneurial drive was strong — our sandwich-making skills less so — but the lesson on the importance of defining roles and responsibilities early on is one I’ve carried with me throughout my career.

In fact, particularly in recent conversations, I’ve found that the subject of partnership is never far away whether it relates to partnering in construction projects, being a partner in an A/E/C firm, or partnering in community initiatives.

The concept of partnering is powerful. Done well, it can transform a project and a business. But, it just might be the most overlooked part of working together.

What does a positive partnership look like?

At its best, a partnership will be a thing far greater than the sum of its parts; it’s an excellent way to pool skills, resources, and finances, widen your sphere of contacts, and find support as you work towards a common goal. At its worst, it’s the equivalent of a bad marriage, characterized by fighting, resentment and, more often than not, the failure to achieve the goal you’ve spent so long working towards.

And even more difficult than forging a brand new partnership is the creation of new partnership boundaries when you’re joining an existing business, team, or project, particularly when your role is based in the A/E/C industry.

Twenty-two years on from my first business venture, the memory of that conversation in the backseat of the Thunderbird struck me once again. I found myself having a very similar conversation, only this time the stakes were much higher. I was trying to navigate a partnership in a business that was already well-established; it had close to 100 employees, the owners were already firmly in place and there was an existing partnership sub-culture that had been 30 years in the making.

How do you have an honest and fair conversation about roles and responsibilities when everyone is already pretty convinced of how things are going to run?

How do you ensure that, when it comes to forming a partnership, your relationship ends up closer to Disney than divorce, whether you’re fresh-faced entrepreneurs just starting out or whether you’re part of the A/E/C industry and launching a joint-venture project?

Whatever your position, it’s all about a pre-nup.

If there were serious assets at stake, you wouldn’t dream of saying “I do” without getting a few things down in writing first. And so it should be with a business partnership. A partnership agreement, in its simplest form, is an agreement that defines how you’ll work together, how you’ll make business decisions, how you’ll resolve any conflicts that arise, and how you’ll divide the various roles and responsibilities involved in running your business or project.  

Defining your partnership: the top 4 things to consider.

No two partnership agreements will be exactly alike, of course, but at the recent 10th Annual Partnering Conference held by the International Partnering Institute, there was a fascinating discussion on the key characteristics of a successful partnership agreement. Based on that, I’ve put together my shortlist of the top 4 things you need to consider if you’re currently thinking about joining a partnership or launching a partnership agreement…

  1. Declare your goals

I know this seems like a given but really, have you asked the question? What is your goal, both in the short-term and further down the track — and do all partners agree? You might be surprised to learn your goals aren’t as in tune as you had expected. Better to know now than to end up at a point where you’re working towards very different (maybe even conflicting) goals.

  1. Discuss communication channel preferences

We are inundated with more and more ways to talk to one another yet, I would argue we are listening less. Do you and your partner(s) prefer to communicate in person, over the phone, via email, or maybe even text? Talk about your preferences in order to minimize miscommunication. Don’t let the way in which you communicate be a barrier.

  1. Define the problem

This is a biggie. Have you ever been frustrated when the solution to a problem seems to be staring you in the face yet no one else can see it? Perhaps the issue is a misalignment with defining the problem. You cannot arrive at a solution if not everyone agrees on what the problem is — or even whether there’s a problem at all!

  1. Delve into areas of shared responsibilities

The grey area between each other’s roles is where we all tend to get stuck. Spend time understanding where your role ends and your partner’s role begins. Talk about what happens when you run into each other and how you will approach solving the conflict.

When you just don’t know where to start…

Sure, doing this work can take a little time, and it has the potential for identifying a few elephants in the room, but listen to your inner 8-year-old — she knows that having these conversations early on, and getting really clear on these points, can save a lot of time (and a boat load of tension headaches further down the line).

And, if the 4 key points have you stumped, I’m going to be ever-so-slightly self-serving for a second and add a 5th point: hire an external facilitator.

Sure, I would say that but hiring an unbiased professional to help you hash out the fundamentals of how your partnership will work can be a great starting point. Sometimes you’re just too close to the whole thing and setting up a partnering agreement when you are one of the partners is incredibly challenging, time-consuming, and stressful. So why not let us help!