When you’re running your own business, typically you’re faced with high levels of complexity, a constantly changing marketplace, a deluge of ideas, and lack of community. Where do you look for trustworthy support? How do you sort out the conflicting messages you’re hearing daily? How do you get out of your own head and see things objectively?
I’ve always said I wanted to be a professional brainstormer. There’s nothing better than big reams of paper and coloured markers to let the creative juices flow! I’ve always been good at seeing the big picture, and all the little steps to get it done. I didn’t really think that job existed, though, so I became a coach, instead.
Then I discovered the concept of thought partnership. This goes even deeper than simply brainstorming. In a great thought partnership, the bulk of the ideas come from the client, and the thought partner helps to organize them, see gaps, probe deeper, and formulate them into something actionable and potentially successful. I don’t just leave after the brainstorming session — I stick around to help see it through. If brainstorming and coaching had a baby, it would be thought partnership. This is where I thrive.
The intention for this article today is to share my perspective on thought partnerships. These are the things I look for in a great thought partner, and what my clients have told me they find valuable.
So, what should a thought partner do for you?
1. Be a sounding board for ideas. If you’re a verbal-processor, this can be magic. A thought partner is someone to bounce ideas off. They give you space to talk things out in a non-judgmental, safe space. They should be excited about your idea, but not blinded by it. A client once told me they valued my “compassionate detachment”, which is a great way to describe it.
2. See the things you don’t see. They should be looking out for holes as well as opportunities. They will help you see multiple perspectives you might not have seen before. Your thought partner should respect you enough to not just tell you what you want to hear, but help you explore pitfalls and blind spots.
3. Watch for your patterns and make connections you don’t see. If you’re working together over a period of time, this just keeps getting better and better. Your thought partner will see the threads that run through your work over time and across projects. They’ll notice if you’re making the same mistakes repeatedly, or if you have certain tendencies. They can help you connect the dots from something you said previously and bring that learning into the present.
4. Hear when you’re running up against self-doubt as opposed to external obstacles. It’s very easy to get the two confused. Self-doubt almost always shows up as something pressing and real in the moment. Excuses seem totally legitimate, so you may just try to “solve” them as opposed to looking at the root cause of the resistance. As a Certified Self-Belief Coach, this is a unique element I bring to my thought partnerships and coaching. This is especially relevant when you’re trying to accomplish something and you know HOW to do it, but something is preventing you from actually doing it.
5. Organize your idea into steps. They will help you piece things together in a way that makes sense given your goals, resources, and abilities. My flavour of this is “order out of chaos” — I can hear your complex or disjointed thoughts and help you make sense of them. A thought partner can help you break things into steps that you can act on.
6. Help you see your idea through. Many people find value in digging deep with a thought partner for just a few hours, but there is also real benefit to working with a thought partner long-term to help see things through. It’s not just the initial idea that needs a thought partnership, it’s all the steps along the way. Any one piece could present a block that needs more in-depth work to get it done.
7. Hold you to your values and long-term goals. It’s one thing for someone to just blindly help you, but quite another for them to help filter your plans through the lens of your values and goals. Sometimes what seems best in the moment doesn’t track with what you want in the long run. And you certainly don’t want advice from someone who doesn’t know your hopes and dreams. A thought partner will keep sight of them, gently hold you to them, and remind you of them when you veer away.
8. Keep you working in your zone of genius. It’s incredibly frustrating to work hard and follow the plan only to find that you’ve built a business you hate. A great thought partner will get to know you and your working style so as you’re building your business you find yourself doing your best work, enjoying it, and spending time on the things that only you can do. They will help you find support for the other things that aren’t in your zone of genius.
9. Help you discover your own path. There is no one “right way” to build a business. But there are ways that will suit you best. Your thought partner will help you navigate what works for you, not just tell you their way and what they think. Great coaching skills are key here so they can masterfully ask the right questions to get you thinking about what will work best for you, regardless of what has worked for others.
10. Share relevant resources. Thought partners are often insatiable learners. They will have a resource (or twelve!) to share for most situations. Their job is to be discerning about what to share so you get what you need without overwhelming you. Great resource sharing helps to broaden your thinking and give you context so you can move forward and make decisions with confidence.
11. Connect you to others. When a great book or podcast won’t cut it, your thought partner will help you find someone to fill in the gaps with either expertise or execution. Their referral network is often vast, but if they don’t know someone, they will be able to help you find someone. They can help you talk out what you need, where to look, and how to engage.
12. Maintain confidentiality. Trust is essential in a thought partnership. You must work with someone you can trust, be honest and open with, without fear of judgement or breach of confidentiality. This is an expectation that is established in the beginning of your relationship.
13. Notice your biases. To operate in this world, it’s critical to have a lens for equity. Choosing a thought partner that is doing their own work of exploring their privilege and unconscious bias is no longer optional. Your thought partner needs to be skilled at having difficult or uncomfortable conversations, including in the arena of inclusivity and anti-racism. No one is doing this perfectly, but ignoring it completely is a mistake.
14. Celebrate with you. Business can be hard, and most entrepreneurs lack a community of people who truly understand what they’re going through. When you have a win, it feels amazing to celebrate with someone who knows what it took to get there. The win feels richer when you can share it meaningfully.
I know that was a very long list! It’s a reflection of how valuable a great thought partner can be.
Next, I would suggest you look through this list and see what you’re currently getting and what you’re missing. Look at your business and see if you’re thriving or stagnating. Are you reaching your potential? If not, what would it take to get there? I hope the list I shared helps you reflect meaningfully and gives you the confidence to seek out help that meets your needs.
Interested in exploring what a thought partnership could look like for you and your business? I’d be happy to talk to you. Still hanging out and enjoying my musings? Subscribe here to get weekly thoughts to your inbox.