Many communication professionals I know seem besotted with the concept of becoming a ‘business partner’. They say things like: If only my CEO would listen to me … I’ve got lots of great ideas but senior executives just treat me like a copy editor … I can never get time in their diaries … they only think of communication after the fact and don’t involve me in decision-making … they seem to think my job is to ‘make things pretty’.

An 1875 illustration from "Beauty and the Beast" by Eleanor Vere Boyle, where Beast is depicted as a saber-toothed panther. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Reusing_content_outside_Wikimedia
An 1875 illustration from “Beauty and the Beast” by Eleanor Vere Boyle, where Beast is depicted as a saber-toothed panther. 

This is reminiscent of my niece’s favourite Fairy Tale “Beauty and the Beast”; where a lack of mutual understanding and tolerance initially gets in the way of a fruitful and successful relationship. The power of partnership overcomes initial antipathy. If this sounds like some of your internal relationships – with senior executives or other functions in your organizations, then read on.

For many people in our profession, creating a successful partnership with senior colleagues is a vexing challenge. The dilemma is about how to balance your professional expertise with the other skills require to create a great partnership. The problem is made more difficult by the professional curriculum of the profession.

By this I contend that companies, individuals, and organizations invest a lot of time and energy on the technical skills side of training. There are many conferences on skills and tools to become an ‘expert’, or about the last ‘shiny tools’ and techniques. But becoming a business partner is about more than just becoming a great technician. Playing in the professional sandbox is great fun but doesn’t add much value.

To help understand this, I spoke to my other functional colleagues – Buck Greenback, Lloyd Barr and Hugh Mann to get a different perspective. It seems that other functions, have also started to recognise this, invest in training and new approaches, and are therefore seen as more of a partner, whether they have the job title of ‘business partner’ or not.

Developing great partnerships and being taken seriously is more than just being a beautifully crafted expert. In the fable, Belle succeeds because she relies on more than just her looks; just as the true professional has to rely on more than just technical expertise. In fact, it is rare that your internal customers will judge you on your skills, they’ll focus instead on impact. In business – whether you are in HR, Communications, or IT – becoming a true partner is demonstrating business know-how and having great advisory/consulting behaviours.

Developing these requires investment. And sometimes training. But when was the last time you attended a training course that was about business know-how, operating models, value creation, advisory skills, consulting behaviours, or coaching?

If you want a seat at the table, for the CEO (in my case Isobel Ching) or other leaders to invest time in you, then you need to invest in them. Reciprocity: senior business people will only partner with those who understand their business, know how value is created, and demonstrate that they have done their homework. But it is surprising how few functional professionals know who their organization’s biggest customers are; who are the most important shareholders; what competitors are up to; the regulatory environment. Focusing on technical skills or new technologies is the sign of the technician, not the business partner. It’s also the sign of the vacuous beauty of Belle’s friends — the Bimbettes — who don’t have her emotional intelligence and charm.

This applies whether you are working with the senior executives, or even other functional heads. How can you help them if you don’t make an attempt to understand their world, their challenges, and their operating environment? The Beast is more than just a repellent monster. To create a partnership Belle has to understand his back-story and what drives his behaviour. Then work with him. He, in turn, invests (and overcomes his antipathy) also to discover she is more than just ‘belle’.

Once you have business knowledge, then you need to marry your experience with your business know-how with the help of the priest of consulting and advisory skills. These act as the bridge to get senior leaders to listen to your advice and guidance. These skills are about relationship building, audience analysis, creating trust, influencing skills, and being clear about what you do and how you make a difference. How you give advice is just as important as what the advice is.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast has moments of tragedy and it is also tragic that many professionals punch below their weight despite the fact that business and advisory skills are relatively easy to learn.

Advancing the profession – and advancing your own career – might be easier by focusing less on knowing the latest digital communication tools and focusing more on developing consulting tools.

If you would like to learn more about how to be a business partner, and practice your skills in a safe environment, please get in touch and we can play Corporate Snakes and Career Ladders with your team.