Proof the most unusual partnerships can have the best results

September 13, 2015, 6:00 PM UTC
Businessmen shaking hands outdoors
Photograph by Getty Images

Fortune 500 Insider is our newest online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines, has answered the question: How do you build meaningful business relationships?

You can’t have a successful business without relationships. At its core, any company is a partnership between the business and its customer. And without employees and financial backers, a business can’t grow beyond the size of a roadside lemonade stand.

That’s why those business relationships are fundamental to what we do as business leaders. They can be challenging to navigate, but the consequences for neglecting or undermining an important relationship can be significant.

Relationships have been a big part of Delta’s success in recent years. Here are a few things we always try to consider when building and expanding our partnerships:

Seek out like-minded partners
We think of our international airline partners as cousins — not exactly part of the Delta (DAL) family, but closely related enough that we can count on them to share our values. A good example is Virgin Atlantic, which we partner with on a trans-Atlantic joint venture between the U.S. and London. It’s an iconic brand that is renowned for great customer service, which makes it a natural fit for Delta.

Look beyond this year’s bottom line
While a successful partnership will benefit your company’s P&L, it helps to look at the relationship over the long term. It may be worthwhile to invest time and resources to make your partner stronger, and ultimately make the relationship even more profitable for both sides. For example, we recently announced a significant investment in China Eastern, one of the largest airlines in China. Not only does it allow us to transport Delta customers to points throughout the mainland, but it gives China Eastern the ability to run a better, more successful airline.

See also: Why the CEO of Coca-Cola never dines alone

Ensure you have transparent, shared goals
A partnership won’t work if both sides aren’t crystal clear on their shared goals. Be sure that those frank discussions come early in the process. It can be disastrous to discover you’re at odds on an important business strategy or outcome. And if you’re in a contractual relationship, it can be painful and expensive to unwind, and that can quickly take the wind out of your sails.

Think past the obvious choices
When looking for a new partner, the first idea is usually an obvious one. It may also be the least risky. But make sure you take the time to go down the list and think about partnerships that might be unusual or unexpected, even if they do involve some innovative strategizing.

For example, Delta turned some heads in recent years with a Porsche partnership — which provides cars that whisk some of our best customers between connecting flights on the tarmac — but it has become an extremely popular way to surprise our highest-value travelers while raising the profile of Porsche among a key demographic.

Partnerships lead to clear wins for both sides, and it’s hard to imagine a better result.


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