Collaboration with the right partner can be the key to unlocking results that neither of you could attain on your own. But it can be challenging to convince someone to collaborate with you, especially if you don’t know them well, if there’s a (real or perceived) power differential in your relationship, or if you’re nervous about asking for help. So what does it take to convince a reluctant potential partner?
If they’re a friend or someone who owes you a favor, you might be able to leverage your existing relationship to cajole them into helping you out. Of course, that doesn’t mean pressuring them with a mafia-style “offer they can’t refuse” — but the personal connection and social norms around reciprocity mean that as long as you ask for their help clearly and directly, they are likely to be fairly open to working with you.
But if you don’t already have a strong, pre-existing relationship, you’ll have to rely on a rational demonstration that a partnership would be mutually beneficial. That means carefully considering their perspective and highlighting exactly what you have to offer them. For instance, if you’re looking to convince a celebrity to speak to an academic class you teach, you might not have the budget for a speaking fee — but the engagement could be presented to them as a chance to be viewed more seriously, which they might also find valuable.
Through my experience advising clients and collaborating on various consulting engagements, articles, and even Broadway investments, I’ve found that there are six types of “collaboration capital” that can help you convince someone to collaborate with you. If you can offer one (or ideally several) of the following forms of capital — and clearly articulate how it will help you and your colleague reach your shared goal — you’ll be far more likely to get them on board.
1. Sweat Equity
Here’s an almost universal law: if you’re the one suggesting the partnership, you’ll likely need to do most of the work. Especially if your prospective partner has more power or status than you, the extra work is likely a fair trade — after all, the collaboration will likely afford you opportunities that you never would have had access to on your own, no matter how hard you might have been willing to work. Plus, since you’re the one who initiated the project, you’re probably more motivated about making it happen. Be prepared to write the entire book (and have them weigh in with edits), set up all the meetings and logistics (and have them parachute in at the end to seal the deal), and the like.
2. Subject-Matter Knowledge
If you’ve done in-depth research or have deep subject-matter expertise, that can make your proposed collaboration particularly enticing. For example, I’m often approached about collaborating on articles — but I took note when my now-frequent collaborator, David Lancefield, reached out to me last year. He explained that he had conducted a unique and exhaustive survey of how startups are bringing AI to the field of executive coaching, and that he was interested in working together on turning that research into an article. Given my strong interest in the topic, the offer was appealing — I could bring my expertise around synthesizing and presenting data effectively for a business audience, while David’s research provided valuable insight that I wouldn’t have had access to on my own.
3. Process Knowledge
You can often make yourself invaluable if you understand a process that someone else — even someone very accomplished — has no idea how to do. A classic example might be a junior executive showing his boss how to post on Instagram, TikTok, or other social channels. Earlier this year, my colleague Alisa Cohn shared a great idea with me: She wanted to start an online membership community for executive coaches and consultants, focused on the business of coaching and how to drive revenue. She had the subject matter knowledge to launch the project solo — but she didn’t have experience with building online communities, and so she felt unsure about setting up the backend (website, sales mechanisms, etc.). Since I’ve spent years focused on creating online courses, I suggested a partnership, to which she readily agreed — and we’ll be launching next year.
If you’re a CEO or a bestselling author, you’re likely to have a robust network at your disposal, but there are plenty of occasions where anyone’s network can become uniquely valuable. For example, if you’re a millennial and your company becomes interested in marketing to the “millennial moms” demographic, your connections could become critical to filling their focus groups and testing new messaging, giving you a potential opportunity to collaborate with senior executives who might otherwise be out of reach. Similarly, if you used to work at a company that your new firm wants to pitch to, your knowledge of their culture and politics could make you a highly valued internal collaborator.
5. Access to Funding
Financing can take many forms. Producers often land the opportunity to work with prominent playwrights or directors because they agree to put up the money for their next show. Similarly, angel investors or VCs often get to collaborate with successful startup founders when they fund their companies. But direct access to cash isn’t the only way you can leverage funding to convince a potential partner to work with you. A variation that’s more accessible for many professionals is simply to have a deal “in the bag” before approaching a potential collaborator. For many projects, the hard part is landing the business — so if you already have a deal arranged with clear terms (i.e., “IBM will pay us X amount per workshop, and you’ll get Y percent of that”), it’s surprisingly easy to get a yes.
To give you a sense for what not to do, I once had a colleague propose that I fly to her state to conduct an open enrollment workshop with her, without any discernable business pipeline or marketing plan to fill the seats. The event itself may have been interesting, but it seemed more like wishful thinking than an actual proposal, and so I declined — whereas if she’d had a corporate client already on board, I likely would have agreed.
How a person is perceived is often the very reason you’re approaching them for a collaboration: If they’re well known and respected, you might try to collaborate with them in the hopes that their stature will help your project succeed. But this can actually go both ways. Even if you’re the junior partner in the equation, you might have more to offer than you might realize when it comes to burnishing a potential collaborator’s image.
When done right, collaboration is a powerful tool — a merging of your unique talents and those of your partner to achieve valuable results. But too often, even smart professionals fail to grasp their own value, and thus don’t articulate a sufficiently compelling proposition to their would-be partners. By understanding the “collaboration capital” you bring — and communicating it with confidence, without veering into arrogance — you’re far more likely to win over your colleague, and be on your way to accomplishing great things together.