Forget your inhibitions and get in bed with a competitor

20th November 2015 at 00:00
Institutions are instinctively wary of their rivals but building partnerships can be beneficial for everyone

As leaders we are expected to champion the interests of our own institutions. It’s part of our core purpose; it helps to hold our “gang” together. In a market context, our default mode is competitive: if we’re Montagues, the people down the road must be Capulets.

So if anyone suggests a collaboration with another provider or school, the response is often: “Why should we help them?” The assumption is: “They’re out for themselves, they don’t have our interests at heart.” Why would the Jets want to come to the aid of the Sharks?

But no institution is an island and we know that students and staff can benefit in many ways from partnership with others. Surely mature, self-confident organisations can form productive relationships with a competitor?

They can and many do, but it’s not easy. So what do we need if we are to start thinking as system leaders?


Partnership can’t be rushed. It requires an investment of time to understand how others see the world, and you have to help them understand your perspective and the things that matter to you. The assumptions you uncover may surprise everyone.


A good relationship is based on trust and this needs to be built incrementally at the personal level, particularly between leaders. The foundations of mutual trust are laid as each partner learns, bit by bit, that the other can be relied upon to deliver on commitments. Depending on someone else becomes less risky if you know they will be there for you. Asking for help should be seen as a measure of self-awareness, not a sign of weakness. Giving help should be a pleasure, not an opportunity to assume dominance.


It’s important to be open about differences, strengths and weaknesses. Each institution has its distinctive mission and there’s no point pretending we’re all in the same position. The honesty has to start at the top, where reservations and aspirations can be shared safely.


This starts with how we talk to each other and about each other. If you are seeking to build a partnership, you cannot publicly criticise others or share assumptions about their motives or actions. Your role is to help your colleagues understand the perspectives of others and the rationale of any partnership, as well as to hear their concerns and aspirations.


Listen carefully to what potential partners are saying and remain open to new ideas. Partnership can take different forms and the best project may not be the one that was initially at the top of your list. Start where there is the most consensus, agree shared goals, be open to give and take, and try to establish a “win-win” culture where mutual benefit is achieved and celebrated.


Be very clear about the direction, purpose and benefits of any collaboration and, once agreed, communicate this widely. Partnership is not about being nice or selfless, although these are great virtues; it needs to be grounded in pragmatic, mutual self-interest.

No one expects you to rush into a passionate embrace with a competitor. The process is more like getting to know a new work colleague than the blind infatuation of falling in love.

There may be some awkward conversations and preconceptions to overcome before the relationship works well, but it’s best to avoid wildly ambitious expectations. By all means aim high, but be delighted with small steps. Keep up the momentum and encourage colleagues to take ownership.

You’ll know things are really working when others start to share pride in the success of partnership work. Ultimately, the real test is whether you can demonstrate that students are benefiting.

Eddie Playfair is principal of Newham Sixth Form College in East London

8 ways to work with a rival

Joint purchasing and shared services.

Joint staff development, sharing ideas and research.

Joint quality assurance, validating self-assessment or external quality review.

Establish a marketing non-aggression pact and common promotional materials.

Share student enrichment activities and university or employer partnerships.

Have a common application process, and joint advice and guidance for applicants.

Share specialist staff, and set up joint course planning or delivery.

Agree on curriculum development and course rationalisation (for example, you might have a conversation along the lines of, “If you offer A, we’ll offer B”).

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