Strategic Relationships

These quick tips are provided to help state leaders approach strategic relationships.

Invest Time

For those who focus their efforts on technical or measurable tasks or find themselves constantly responding to crises, investing time in strategic relationship building may seem challenging. Balancing both urgent (clock based) and important (goal or compass based) tasks best supports the achievement of long-term results.[1] Redefining relationship building as an essential task that supports the content of the work may help make it a higher priority.

Know the Work and Deepen Understanding of the Early Childhood Landscape

Understanding more about others and their perspectives and issues is a key concept in successful strategic relationships. Developing a deeper knowledge of current state-level early childhood education (ECE) services and staff will help you identify who might be interested in forming partnerships and furthering systems building goals. Learning more about the constellation of ECE services offered, including the administrative details of key programs and the lead staff and stakeholder interests, facilitates strategic relationship building.

Assess and Develop Personal and Professional Skills to Maximize Success

Becoming more self-aware and identifying personal strengths, challenges, biases, and triggers may help develop and hone the interpersonal and intrapersonal skills[2] and emotional intelligence[3] needed to support strategic relationships. Interpersonal skills include one’s sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments, and motivations as well as one’s ability to cooperate to work as part of a group. Emotional intelligence refers to understanding characteristics of oneself and others (for example, emotions, motivations, goals, intentions, responses, and behaviors) as well as the capacity to manage relationships effectively. As roles and expectations change, so must our understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, how we approach our work, and how we relate to others.

Build and Sustain Trust

Most people can appreciate the importance trust plays in any relationship because they have experienced some level of betrayal in their professional life.

Cultivating trust deserves attention because trust impacts every relationship, communication, transaction, project, or joint venture.[4] Ideally, trust is built through attention to credibility (integrity), consistent behavior, alignment, reputation, and contribution. Respect, shared experiences, trust, reciprocity, and mutual enjoyment are important factors to building strong relationships while fear, self-centeredness, and failure to acknowledge similarities can be detrimental.[5]

Support a Culture of Cooperation and Collaboration

Does the environment support creativity, innovation, and exploring new territories, or is it tightly managed with many levels of control? Creating a successful incubation environment in which strategic relationships and work can flourish is based on mixing and matching people with diverse skills, talents, and ideas, as well as providing the necessary resources to support and sustain collaborative work and planning.[6] Even if the external environment is not conducive to building relationships, search for internal opportunities to build more inclusive teams and model systems building relationships. It is important to improve communication and collaboration internally, so that organizations are prepared to “walk the walk” when external relationship opportunities arise.

Study and Apply What Contributes to a Successful Collaboration

There is a great deal to understand about what makes for successful collaboration in early childhood. In 2013, the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation released Conceptualizing and Measuring Collaboration in the Context of Early Childhood Care and Education. This resource introduces a framework for exploring collaboration in the early childhood field. This framework, or logic model, introduces the possible parts of a successful collaboration and provides a roadmap for how key inputs and processes build on one another to result in better outcomes for early childhood systems, programs, and the people they serve. The brief also provides a review of tools that have been used to measure process components of collaboration in health care, public administration or public policy, psychology, and early care and education.[7]

Build and Sustain Commitment

Building and sustaining commitment grows within people over time. People commit to a group or organization because they gain something meaningful from their involvement, such as camaraderie, professional development, or a sense of accomplishment. Commitment is supported by practicing and encouraging leadership, sharing successes, having fun together, respecting and appreciating one another, challenging one another, and working through conflicts, as well as learning from mistakes and weathering setbacks together.

Facilitate a Level of Understanding about Change Management

When we embark on a new venture that does not have a clear path, we may become paralyzed, unsure, stuck, or tempted to micromanage in attempts to maintain control. When forging a new path, it may be difficult to see the big picture; break it down into smaller, more manageable segments; or maintain focus on the conceptual or creative process needed to meet the objective. Fear of losing control of the process may make others wary of including too many people and may lead to ineffective micromanaging. Understanding key concepts of change management may help build trust and make the transition process smoother. See "Leadership" chapter 1 of Systems Building Resource Guide, which addresses the topic of change management.

Use Strategic Relationships to Overcome Barriers

Action items may be blocked by barriers in administrative structures or rules. Building strategic relationships helps shed light on whether these barriers are real or perceived, and these relationships themselves can help you overcome barriers. For example, a CCDF Administrator who has carefully built a relationship with legal counsel, helping them learn the overall early childhood policy approach and outcomes, may find that this aids joint interpretation and understanding of these rules. For states in which it helps to showcase federal support for strategic relationships and partnerships, the Office of Child Care has used program instructions, information memoranda, and letters to show its support for strategic partnerships and relationships. While each state has its own barriers to navigate, strategic relationships can provide a valuable opportunity to explore whether these are real barriers or if further conversation and cooperation could help overcome them.


[1] Bergquist, W., Betwee, J., & Meuel, D. (1995). Building strategic relationships: How to extend your organization’s reach through partnerships, alliances, and joint ventures. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Gardner, H. (2000). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York, NY: Basic Books.

[3] Goleman, D. (2011). Leadership: The power of emotional intelligence. Florence, MA: More Than Sound.

[4] Covey, S. M. R. & Merrill, R. (2008). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. New York, NY: Free Press.

[5] Maxwell, J. (2004) Relationships 101: What every leader needs to know. New York, NY/Nashville, TN: Harper Collins/Thomas Nelson.

[6] Hwang, V. (2012). To replicate Silicon Valley’s success, focus on culture. The Washington Post, April 25, 2012.

[7] Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Human Services. (2013). Conceptualizing and measuring collaboration in the context of early childhood care and education. Retrieved from