Use Business Partners in Creative Ways

One of the traits that define a great leader is intellectual curiosity. Great leaders seek an edge; they’re constantly looking for ways to beat the competition or make the organization more efficient.  That’s why one of your challenges as a leader is to be constantly looking for new ideas.  It should be a near obsession – how can we do things cheaper, better, faster?  So how are you exercising this curiosity and thirst for new ideas?  Well, you could sit around and ask each other questions – but that’s no way to learn about what is happening outside the company.

You can read or research what other companies are doing, of course – there is a lot of information out there about best practices. But do you have the time?  And do you have a broad enough lens?  A lot of leaders get obsessed with what their direct competitors are doing, or other players in their broader industry.  That’s a good strategy, but the fact is, a lot of good ideas will come from looking at industries or markets that have nothing to do with yours.  You need to look high and low for best practices and new ideas – from a variety of organizations, and that requires focus and resources.  If only you had an easy way to see inside these companies…

In reality, you do. And the source is already knocking on your door – all you have to do is let them in and put them to work.  Most of you probably interact with vendors or business partners in one form or another.  Well guess what?  They work with a lot of other companies, too.  Ask them if they’d be willing to come in and talk with you and your team about the best practices they’re seeing in other companies.  Most vendors will jump at the chance to strengthen their relationship with you and will be open to spending some time answering your questions.  Obviously, there is some degree of confidentiality around sharing specific company information; you might get the best practices but not a good sense of where they are being applied.  That’s OK – you’re mostly interested in the ideas.  If it’s something specific that you want to explore, let them know in advance so they can tap into the right sources in their company.  All it takes is a phone call with the simple question: “could you put together a presentation of the best practices in _______?”  Buy the vendor lunch, and have them brief you and the team on what they’re seeing out there – that’s more than a fair trade for some cutting edge information.

To maximize the potential impact, set up a panel discussion on a variety of topics and invite your whole team (or a group of peers) to join you. Make it a department wide invitation, and you’ve got an employee development session (a seminar on best practices in the XYZ field).  For example, if you’re a leader in IT, there are probably dozens of vendors that can come in and talk to you and the team about new hardware and software, where the trends are in data storage or records management, what the major developers are working on, etc.  The point is – you have valued business partners that would be happy to sit down with you and brainstorm how to make your business better.  After all, they have a vested interest in seeing you innovate and evolve.  Don’t be shy about using this source to help you develop new ideas.