Lasting Partnerships In GovCon: They Can (And Need To) Happen

In government contracting, partnering is essential for emerging and small businesses to build their past performance, win proposals and see their products and services make a difference across the government and their communities. However, all too often, these partnerships are not truly symbiotic relationships. They tend to be contract-specific and focused solely on leveraging the resources, opportunities and knowledge pools of each other. At the same time, each party enters with their guard up, knowing that they might be competing against each other next month, next week or tomorrow.

There isn’t anything innately wrong with this—the nature of the industry requires this type of collaboration. But over the course of my career, I’ve recognized that there is so much more impact, innovation and efficiency you can provide when the partnership is as important as acquiring the next opportunity. I’ve seen incredible things happen when both parties are fully invested in the success of the venture, not just the contract or program.

True partnerships (like any relationship) are dynamic, much more intimate and require a high degree of trust and constant maintenance. The value, when done right, runs deep for both organizations. And it’s more important than ever to get this right—federal programs to help small businesses get contract-ready and set aside contract goals are at an all-time high.

Yet, despite the increased focus on small-business acceleration and awards, the number receiving prime contracts continues to decrease. While there are programs designed to help small businesses compete, many large contractors have found loopholes that work the system to their advantage. This, added to a procurement process that we all know has room for improvement (recompetes, protests, transparency, etc.), can perpetuate a lack of diversity that causes the playing field to remain uneven—which defeats the intent—and creates a situation in which the government is not getting the best value.

It’s easy to feel helpless when talking about a very complex, highly regulated system, but I think a large part of the solution is rather simple—we need to start shifting the paradigm. As large contractors, you can be intentional about whom you partner with and make sure the value extends beyond revenue. Also, make sure that the value is honoring the intent of these programs and that your focus is on the people you’re doing business with and the long-term relationship, first and foremost.

Regardless of the teaming agreement (prime/sub, joint venture, etc.), everything always comes down to people and relationships. I understand the importance of the structural differences and the pros and cons of each, but people remember how they were treated. That’s what keeps employees returning, retention rates high on contracts, referrals and engagement soaring and customers coming back.

If you look at winning not just from the value of the structure of the relationship but the relationship itself, the perspective changes. Start asking yourself questions such as, “How can we, as a large business, honor the intent of these programs and still win? How can we ensure we’re doing our part to create more diversity? What would it look like to work with a true partner on these programs? How will this approach translate into long-term success for both parties?”

When our company partnered with a consulting firm to form a joint venture, we knew it wasn’t just a great teaming agreement; it was an opportunity to create a lasting partnership. We’re aligned in how we build and develop our company cultures, how passionate we are about creating a more level playing field for small businesses and recognizing the importance of strategic technology innovation across the government. This type of partnership sacrifices the one-off partnerships to achieve greater strategic value and authentic mentorship, which is impossible to achieve when partners become competitors on a day-to-day basis.

Most of us are moving so fast sometimes that I think it can feel inefficient to take time (and sometimes a lot of time) to initiate and have conversations that ensure your partnership is truly collaborative. But like our personal lives, good relationships take consistent care and feeding. People should be the heart of your business, and the teams supporting the work are worth the investment.

Here are only a few questions to consider when forming partnerships (there are many more), but trust me, having these conversations in advance can make a significant difference.

• What are our individual missions versus the mission of this venture?

• How are they similar or different? Where do we need to create alignment?

• What do each of our commitments to this venture look like?

• What needs to happen to make this venture a success?

• How will we gauge success? What are the metrics and reporting cadence?

• Where is trust high? Where is it low, and what are we doing to resolve that?

• Do we share the same vision and approach to corporate culture?

• How will the contract execution, tasks and teams be organized?

• How will we decide which opportunities to pursue?

• How will we ensure quality?

• How will we resolve disputes?

• Is there mutual respect at the leadership level?

These are just a few questions. In my experience, even though we were intentional and dedicated to the process, there were still questions that needed to be asked and addressed. But because of our shared values, trust and commitment to each other and the venture, we had a foundation to more easily address them, participate in an authentic discussion and create consensus.

Building strong relationships, especially partnerships, takes time and effort. But I believe it’s not just of value for the entities themselves; strong partnerships are what’s needed to create a more inclusive procurement process and strengthen the economy.

Previously published on Forbes.