The anatomy of a successful strategic partnership

The anatomy of a successful strategic partnership

Organisations must collaborate to tackle climate change – but partnerships must be values-based, long-term and agile to achieve success, says Nicoletta Piccolrovazzi

There’s a reason that the seventeenth and last of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals revolves around the importance of partnerships. It’s clear that when attempting to tackle complex global issues like climate change, equality, and food for a growing population that a coalition of actors with complementary skills and experiences are better equipped to take on the challenge than an organisation doing it alone.

However, according to MIT Sloan research exploring collaboration and leadership for sustainability, less than half of businesses (47%) are “engaging in sustainability-related partnerships”.

Some of the other numbers are a little more promising: 61% of those invested in sustainability-related partnerships rated the endeavor as “quite” or “very” successful. And three-quarters of those organisations described their sustainability partnerships primarily as “strategic” compared to the 37% who were initially motivated by ‘opportunistic’ or reactive reasons.

Addressing climate protection is one of three key strategic sustainability priorities for Dow, alongside accelerating the circular economy and developing safer materials.

And we work with so many organisations along the value chain that forging strategic partnerships is a company priority. Our philosophy is that a successful strategic partnership requires three key ingredients:

●  Strategic alignment of values

●  A long-term commitment; and

●  Continued evolution and agility

Strategic alignment of values

The first step to building successful and impactful strategic relationships is to identify the right partner or partners.

According to the book Winning sustainability strategies, written by Benoit Leleux and Jan van der Kaaij, profiling potential partners to find those that have similar objectives and values is an important starting point.

Leleux and van der Kaaij break it down into three sections – market fit, resource fit and organisational fit – and recommend that companies going through this process ask themselves the following questions:

–        “Does the potential partner possess the right experience to jointly develop more alternative sustainable solutions?”

–        “Does the potential partner share the same level of engagement for addressing the sustainability issue?”

Importantly, this must start with an assessment of your own objectives. At Dow, we have put concrete sustainability objectives at the heart of our organisation for several decades, upgrading our ambitions as time goes on. Currently, we are focused on our 2025 Sustainability Goals, which revolve around driving change through thought leadership and our actions.

When we identify partners, we expect the same level of commitment and ambition.

That’s why working with the International Olympic Committee to help offset its carbon footprint through material science and innovation was an easy decision for us to make. Our Carbon Partnership has accelerated sustainable innovation and low-carbon solutions across a number of industries, and moreover, we have cultivated a strong relationship with a partner that values the same things we do.

In 2017, the IOC unveiled a wide-ranging sustainability strategy that referenced climate action as one of its key priorities. Since then, the organisation has become climate neutral, thanks to its partnership with Dow, and is using its influence to drive more sustainable Olympic Games and support members of the Olympic Movement to decarbonise their operations.

When we ask ourselves the question, “does the partner share the same level of engagement for addressing the sustainability issues?”, as far as the IOC goes the answer is a resounding “yes”.

You can learn more about this partnership during our upcoming webinar, ‘Tackling climate change through strategic partnerships’, on 23 June.

A long-term commitment

A company mission should be very straightforward and uncomplicated but is usually challenging to achieve in practice.  For Dow, our ambition is to be the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive and sustainable materials science company in the world and we know this takes commitment, resolve and a long term view.

We’ve spent the best part of two decades optimising our own sustainability objectives. It started with our journey to achieve environment, health and safety (EH&S) excellence by 2005 (our footprint). Then, our 2015 goals evolved into developing product solutions that change the world (our handprint). Now, ahead of 2025, we aim to accelerate positive transformation through thought leadership and our actions (our blueprint), while continuing to drive progress on our footprint and handprint.

Our three-pronged approach, in many ways, is mirrored by the IOC’s three spheres of influence when it comes to sustainability: the IOC as an organisation, as owner of the Olympic Games, and as leader of the Olympic Movement.  Dow and the IOC are both committed to going beyond our own boundaries to amplify our positive impacts.

Our collaboration on climate protection with the IOC has been seven years in the making, since we identified an opportunity to contribute to a sustainable legacy of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Our current Carbon Partnership, in which we balance the entire carbon footprint of the IOC, has a lifespan of four years.

Because of this long-term commitment, we’re able to select the most impactful projects that will continue to have positive impacts for years to come. As a result, we’ve been able to mitigate more than five million tonnes of carbon emissions to date.

Continued evolution and agility

In their 2019 McKinsey essay titled Improving the management of complex business partnerships, Ruth De Backer and Eileen Kelly Rinaudo revealed a number of factors that led to the success and failure of partnerships.

Alignment on objectives and effective communication and trust were cited as the two most important components. But more than a quarter (27%) of managers suggested that partnerships were likely to fail if there was no plan for evolution.

Indeed, the authors assert that in order to build a dynamic relationship, partner organisations “must acknowledge that the scope of the relationship is likely to shift over time.”

The world we live in is very dynamic, with the landscape changing almost daily. This is an even more pertinent point when the partnership aspires to make progress on challenges like climate change – challenges requiring solutions that adapt to often-shifting circumstances, updated scientific research, as well as new technologies and thinking.

We must go into partnerships with the attitude that modesty, agility and flexibility will be among our most important attributes.

Dow has had a relationship with the IOC for 40 years, starting off as a supplier in 1980, before becoming a TOP (The Olympic Partner) Partner and, subsequently, the Official Carbon Partner in 2017. At each iteration, our partnership has become stronger and, in recent years, that bond has strengthened because of our respective sustainability objectives.

To create more impact, the partnership has had to evolve and has done so in a positive way, adapting to the dynamic environment of sustainability and climate action. Over time we have built resilience into the partnership by overcoming obstacles and tacking opportunities, staying true to our shared commitments and building on our learning experiences.

For example, supporting the IOC’s engagement with the wider Olympic Movement of international sports federations was not part of our initial Carbon Partnership agreement.  When we realised the impact we could make together by challenging the individual sports organisations to reduce and mitigate their own carbon emissions, we decided that it was an excellent opportunity to support the Olympic Movement.  It’s an initiative we’ll explore in more detail during the upcoming webinar.

Myself, Michelle Lemaitre, the IOC’s head of sustainability, and Braulio Pikman, an expert advisor for ERM, will discuss these three principles during the live event and look more broadly at:

●  Why strategic partnerships are crucial to addressing climate change

●  How to find and cultivate strong partnerships

●  What Dow and the IOC have achieved together through the Carbon Partnership

For us, this partnership has been the foundation for creating a legacy through sport. If you can get the foundations right, a strategic partnership will help you to go beyond your ambitions.

We look forward to sharing our experiences on 23 June. Register for the webinar here.

Nicoletta Piccolrovazzi is the global technology and sustainability director of Dow Olympic & Sports Solutions

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