3 Core Attributes of a Great Partnership Leader

Strategic partnerships are a unique animal, and they must be treated accordingly. They must be managed by seasoned professionals who understand all of the complicated dynamics that are frequently present within strategic opportunities. These people not only have to be a visionary to see needs long before they exist, but they must be able to inspire and align resources, both internally and externally, to accomplish intended outcomes. 

As I speak with business leaders across the globe, I am frequently asked, “What are the key personality traits of a great PDL?” I used to answer by saying, “There are a bunch of very important characteristics these people must possess.” Then I would start to list 10-15 descriptors. Although the list of adjectives were the absolute truth, they didn’t offer the short answer that people wanted. 

Then it hit me! I found the three words that best captured the essential traits of a great PDL, entrepreneurial, influential, and high EQ. That’s it! The fastest way to describe the dozens of required traits is to say the person must (1) think and act like an entrepreneur, (2) be able to influence action, and (3) have interpersonal communication superpowers. 

As with any important job function or team, having the right people on your ship will literally mean the difference between success and failure. If your PDLs are salespeople, procurement gurus, or supply chain managers, your strategic partnership efforts will undoubtedly suffer. Those highly transactional mindsets lack the long-term, highly collaborative, highly innovative mindset that strategic partnering requires.  


I love working with seasoned startup entrepreneurs, as they are absolute masters at forging high-value partnerships. Why? Because their company’s survival depends on it. For most startups, funding is very limited while their company is in its infancy. Entrepreneurs must find ways to create mutually beneficial relationships with companies that will not only help generate revenue but also give their product or service advantage in the market.  

As leaders seek to grow profits, being resourceful is key. Entrepreneurs are constantly on the prowl to market, sell, enhance, and deliver their solutions by leveraging the knowledge, capabilities, and resources of others. Entrepreneurs see possibilities where the average eye only sees desolation. 

When your leaders say, “We need to be more entrepreneurial,” this is, in part, the message they are conveying. Rather than solely relying on your company’s resources, the entrepreneurial mindset looks for ways to leverage the expertise and capabilities of others. When successful, your collaboration will unlock new capabilities, resulting in your customers receiving greater levels of value.  

Strategic partnerships can open exciting value propositions for your organization. Successful PDLs are always “selling,” but they are not selling products. Instead, they are selling their vision for a valuable solution – a bigger “easy button” for customers. PDLs sell this vision to leaders within their company and to potential partners who can contribute a missing piece of the puzzle.

The entrepreneurial mindset is not interested in playing in the commodity game, but rather thriving in the vast ocean of possibilities. In heavily commoditized segments, prices are at rock bottom levels and players try to scrape a positive margin for their organization. In contrast, entrepreneurial PDLs seek opportunities to change the game and create a new value equation that rewards innovation – making a bigger easy button.  

When successful, organizations achieve higher levels of pricing power, resulting in attractive margins. Why does Apple release a new version of its iPhone each year? So it can release new innovations and maintain its pricing power as it continues to compete with other smartphone manufacturers. Entrepreneurs are obsessed with innovation because it offers value-creation opportunities. 

PDLs know their market solutions must be constantly reinvented. Every organization must continue to innovate to stay relevant. Unfortunately, most organizational executives think of innovation solely through the organic lens. That is, they don’t immediately see opportunities to join forces with multiple providers to create a comprehensive solution. Entrepreneurial PDLs do not have this problem. They know innovation is the only path to achieve exponential growth. 


PDLs not only have to be visionary to see a need long before it exists, but they must be able to inspire and align resources, both internally and externally with partners. The success or failure of your partnerships will depend on the actions or inactions of the people who manage and lead your initiatives. Success in any venture starts with a vision and it ends with execution – getting things done!  

The ability to influence action is arguably the most overlooked trait required by a PDL. In most organizations, PDLs orchestrate resources across the entire organization so partnering initiatives can be accomplished. For example, partnering initiatives usually require collaboration from marketing, sales, product development, pricing, finance, legal, and customer success, just to name a few. In most cases, these cross-functional resources do not report to the PDL, and furthermore, they are not part of the partnerships team. 

This situation poses a major problem. These high valued line-of-business resources are imperative for each partnering initiatives’ success, but these professionals are focused on their “day job,” which does not traditionally include the PDL’s priorities. In fact, in most organizations, the assistance provided to the partnership team is seen as secondary work for which employees are not compensated or even evaluated.  

When high-valued resources such as marketing are not explicitly mandated to support the partnering team, results suffer. To solve this common problem two things must happen. First, senior executives need to allocate the appropriate resources and communicate their expectations of support so these functional areas create tailwinds for partnering initiatives. Secondly, PDLs must have great influencing skills to garner unity and motivate action.   

PDLs must be able to paint a mental image that resonates with key resources, both internally and externally. This inspiring vision must articulate a better way to solve your customer’s problem. Great PDLs are able to motivate others to join a meaningful cause and their influence is able to maintain commitment until the mission is accomplished.  

When your organization forms strategic partnerships, it becomes highly dependent upon other companys’ ability to deliver results. Your PDLs must be able to influence action from your partners. Unlike supporting departments or individual employees within your company, your partners work for a different company, they have different goals and strategies, they have a different culture and you do not write their annual review or decide what their merit increase is going to be.   

High Emotional Intelligence (EQ) 

Emotional Intelligence is a term that was first created by researchers Peter Salavoy and John Mayer. The concept of emotional intelligence, or having a high emotional quotient (EQ), was popularized by Dan Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence. Until the early 1990s, it was commonly accepted that IQ was the best, and possibly the only useful method of gauging intelligence. That was until these three authors gave life to the concept of EQ. 

In practical terms, emotional intelligence is the active awareness that emotions can drive behavior and behavior can impact emotions within ourselves and others. The study of EQ focuses on the identification and management of emotions. People with high EQ are aware of other’s emotional state and they can “sense” when people are changing their emotions before others recognize it. In other words, they can detect that “something is wrong” because they sense incongruence in someone’s displayed versus expected behavior. 

In his book, The Sumo Advantage, Bernie Brenner calls this the “Spidey sense” as it is a superpower that is displayed by Spiderman. Brenner describes the superpower as the ability to draw on a sixth sense that tells you “something is up.” Spidey sense is a combination of intuition and an intimate familiarity with your partner that allows you to detect when the “train is starting to come off the tracks.”  

PDLs need to have this sixth sense to “sniff out” any indications that signal a shift in direction or potential reduction in commitment. A problem or potential problem can only be fixed if it is known. PDLs that have a high EQ can identify and defuse issues before they hit a point of no return. 

To learn more about these attributes, check out our PARTNERNOMICS Strategic Partner Leadership Model course!

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