Tango Lessons – Art and Science of Corporate Partnerships

I am a corporate partnerships professional and an avid dancer. I enjoy both immensely – building successful corporate partnerships enables different stakeholders – NGO / corporate / university / government to solve problems collectively in very effective ways. I get great joy when joint collaborations make a real societal impact. Similarly, when I dance tango, I feel a sense of freedom, expression and connection. Just like partnership development, I love exploring how I can stretch and positively challenge the status quo.

What I love about corporate partnership development and tango is both carry the balance between the art and the science.

For me, being able to enjoy tango require good foundations – posture, technique and understanding my body mechanics. These are the building blocks which allow many other beautiful things to form. It is a framework that I rely on when I am tired, nervous or simply having a crappy day.

I call this the science of tango.

While watching a technically excellent dancer is initially awe-inspiring, after a while, it gets a little, well, technical. A little lacking in colour and flavour.

To complement the framework, there is expression, connection, musicality and style. These delightful descriptions are the connective tissues and flavour. These are what makes the dance unique to connect with, to feel and to watch. It’s what make each dance special.

I call this the art of tango.

Putting the two together, the science of tango gives the dance structure – the basic rules for play. And the art of tango gives the flavour.

How does this work in corporate partnerships?

I have been developing partnerships across the corporate, NFP and universities sectors for 17 years. What I have found most effective and enjoyable are when partnerships have a beautiful balance between the art and the science of partnership development.

The science of partnership development includes knowledge, analysis, thinking, precise communications, planning and research. This gives the structure for developing a partnership – to set the goals of the relationship and projects – the what. Analysing and researching potential partners is important to ensure values alignment. Nothing can be more nightmarish than nine months down the track and the board questions why your NGO focused on children’s safety is partnering with an armament company.

Planning and prioritising – the how. By setting smaller goals and framework of developing the partnership, a process can be developed to reach the bigger goal. What activities are important? More urgent? What are the low-hanging fruits and what are the bigger goals?

But solely focussing on the science of partnership development can become quite transactional. While it may get the job done, eg a corporate pays the NGO for its services, the money helps to address the NGO’s cause and the corporate have gained additional knowledge and skills from the NGO, much of the nuances in partnership development can be missed. For example, understanding the reasons a corporate engages with the NGO could be because the CEO had been personally affected by the problem the NGO sets out to address. However, this may only be picked up if the NGO partnerships manager has the appropriate people skills and engages in active listening to artfully ask the right questions and pick up the cues from conversations.

In comes the art of corporate partnerships brokering.

The art of partnerships brokering includes insight, imagination, visioning, intuition, active listening and people skills. Gaining insight into the background of the relationship helps each stakeholder understand the drivers behind activities and projects. Imagination is important to find creative and innovative solutions to solve wicked problems. Visioning helps to move the partnership forward and to create a possibility that may not have been available. Intuition is often a sense or gut-feel of a situation.

When I work with corporates, I find myself picking up on cues that the partner is not explicitly saying through the tone of their voice over the phone. While I address what is explicitly expressed, I also enquire into the unsaid, which supports in developing a relationship with far greater depth and meaning. I engage my intuition skills where I get a gut-feel of where the relationship or project is heading towards, which is helpful when waiting for the answer of an important decision and threads of plan B/C/D start to formulate in my mind in preparation for the answer.

Some partnership brokers may be stronger in one area than the other. Partnership brokers often come from a range of backgrounds – from project management, communications, marketing, fundraising, policy to facilitation. I have found that a lot of my science skills have come from my universities training in actuarial studies and commerce, while I’m more naturally inclined in the arts – intuition, people skills, communication and creativity.

This is why I love both tango and partnership brokering – it activates both the arts and science parts of me in fun, creative, expressive and effective ways.

Image: Hilary Wardhaugh Photography, 2015

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