Strategic Relationships

State early childhood leaders and other participants in systems building efforts at the state level should initiate and develop various relationships with stakeholders as potential partners, sustain these relationships, and periodically assess the need to initiate new strategic relationships. This process creates strategic relationships by fostering engagement and partnership to ensure collaboration.

The State Capacity Building Center’s Capacity Building Self-Assessment Tool shares indicators in Dimension 2 to help assess engagement within states and territories.

As people move into new positions, state leaders should consciously and intentionally try to build new relationships to move forward with organizational, programmatic, and societal goals. Making time and space for relationship building in the workplace and across organizations is critical to forming collaborative relationships that build trust. A narrow focus on conducting business or accomplishing tasks may leave a leader with very little support for carrying out initiatives. Cultivating relationships is an important aspect of achieving early childhood system priorities, including sound programs and their implementation. While the product of strategic relationships is change, the process is conversation.

Strategic relationships require a willingness to connect and converse. Conversation may begin with a casual interoffice encounter, a small meeting, a social gathering, or a larger public forum. It might start with an invitation through a phone call or an email. The point is to start, host, and sustain a conversation. Conversation is the way humans create new possibilities and form knowledge and solutions in response to new challenges and dilemmas. Conversation helps people discover what they care about and helps cultivate the conditions for change. Strategic relationships form through conversations and actions that build trust andunderstanding.[1]

Understanding what motivates people to form strategic relationships informs state leaders about how to nourish and sustain relationships. Underlying all successful strategic relationships is the critical element of trust. Covey and Merrill explain:

Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust, distrust, is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them, in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them, of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record.[2]

Building or rebuilding trust is challenging, but possible, and essential to forming truly meaningful and sustainable strategic relationships. Without trust, the relationship is fleeting, maybe lasting only as long as a required partnership and perhaps not yielding the long-term benefits necessary for systems building.

Research has demonstrated that there is a strong correlation between the perceived fairness of a collaborative relationship and the effects of the program implementation, even many years later. If, at the beginning of the relationship, stakeholders trust that their partners will value their input and treat them fairly, they will continue in the relationship even if they receive less than what they hope for. They will be willing to stay committed to the process and dedicate themselves and resources to joint initiatives.[3]

Three Tips to Building and Sustaining Strategic “Muscle” in Relationships

  1. Listen. Be available to listen, and really listen. Sometimes we make the mistake of actively listening to solve a problem, as opposed to actively listening to show that we understand. It’s the listening itself that’s important. Before rushing to solve a problem, stop to listen—both to get information and so that the person you’re working with knows that they are being heard and understood.
  2. Stay top-of-mind. There’s so much activity competing for our attention—work with voicemail, e-mail, and now social media; family and friends—all of which can make us feel overextended and out of time. Staying top-of-mind means communicating in a way in which the connection is the focus and so that it helps you find out about opportunities. Sometimes it works well just to pick up the phone and call—it’s more personal.
  3. Don’t assume. We assume people know our specific discipline, understand exactly what we do, or that we know what each other does. Those assumptions are probably wrong. Even in organizations or partnerships in which good relationship protocols exist and cross-pollinating is a priority, we don’t know enough about what colleagues do or share enough about ourselves to fully understand the culture or details of the work we all are doing on behalf of children and families.

Creating, cultivating, nourishing, and sustaining strategic relationships is important for the success of any systems building effort. For state CCDF Administrators, productive relationships with key stakeholders across the early learning field are the cornerstone of systems building work.


[1] Wheatley, M.J. (2002. Turning to one another: Simple conversations to restore hope to the future. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler; Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers (2004). Presence: Exploring profound change in people, organizations and society. New York: Currency, Doubleday; Brown, J., & Isaacs, D. (2005). The world café: Shaping our futures through conversations that matter. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

[3] Hicks, D., Nelson, C., Olds, D., Johnston, E., & Larson, C.E. (2008). The influence of collaboration on program outcomes in the Colorado Nurse-Family Partnership. Evaluation Review, 32(5), 453-477.