By MJ Petroni

What is a Thought Partner?

Thought partnership is the practice of sharing ideas and experience with others to help them navigate complex challenges. This sounds a lot like advice or mentorship, but the key difference is that thought partnership is always mutually beneficial. When you pair with people who think like you do, you resonate—becoming a ‘sounding board’ for each others’ best ideas. When you pair with people who think differently than you do, you complement—stretching each others’ view of a situation to find and sort useful new approaches to a problem.

Thought partnership can take many different forms and be a part of various partnership models. People often pay for thought partnership directly (as in coaching and consulting relationships), but thought partnership can also show up in less-formal relationships, such as a research buddy, good colleague or mentor.

Thought leadership vs thought partnership

Real world problems, real time conversations

When first introduced to the idea of thought partnership, many people find it sounds a lot like thought leadership without a stage or channel. But thought partnership provides incredible value in collaboratively addressing real world problems, often in real time, often using principles and ideas from great thought leadership.

Reciprocity is key

Thought partnership is powerful in that it puts both thinkers on the same level, even if they have different kinds of expertise or focus. Because thought partnership is almost always about problem solving or exploring something of mutual interest, it has less of a power dynamic than conversations strictly focused on an ‘expert’ advising someone who is less knowledgeable in a particular area.

Recognizing thought partnership

You can tell you’re engaged in thought partnership when it feels more like a conversation between peers than a presentation or critique (where one party has an implied or explicit power over another). Another sign of thought partnership is that both parties understand each others’ environments and have empathy for each other’s problems.

What kind of thought partner are you?

Bonchek and Steele identify two dimensions for thinking styles: orientation (big picture vs. details) and focus (ideas, process, action, or relationships) in their Harvard Business Review article, "What Kind of Thinker are You?"

To understand what you could offer—or may want to look for—as a thought partner, you have to first understand your own thinking and areas of expertise. Our colleague Mark Bonchek recently wrote a great article, “What kind of thinker are you?” in conjunction with Elisa Steele, CEO of Jive. Take a moment to read their article, and see which of the eight styles of thinking in their model most inspire you. When you’ve found one or two styles that best describe you, imagine how your unique perspective effects the value you naturally bring to thought partnership conversations with your clients and colleagues.



Explorer thinking is about generating creative ideas.

Planner thinking is about designing effective systems.


Energizer thinking is about mobilizing people into action.

Connector thinking is about building and strengthening relationships.


Expert thinking is about achieving objectivity and insight.

Optimizer thinking is about improving productivity and efficiency.


Producer thinking is about achieving completion and momentum.

Coach thinking is about cultivating people and potential.

An organization needs to integrate all of these different styles of thinking in order to innovate. Of course, the proportions will vary: most organizations naturally bias towards certain types of thinking. For example, a company who has iterated on the same style of coffeemaker for thirty years probably has many producers, optimizers and experts in its leadership. But now that they are designing a connected coffeemaker, they will need to have strategic input from Explorers of digital products, Connectors to strategic partners to build the companion app, Energizers who catalyze new marketing efforts and Planners to ramp up the IT department’s capabilities and security. If the company or colleague you’re talking to doesn’t have all the perspectives required to tackle their next challenge or opportunity, they will need thought partners to help them expand their current thinking and plan for the future.

The Thinking Style concept, names and style explanations are © 2015 Mark Bonchek and Elisa Steele; used with permission.  

Signaling your potential thought partners

1.  Choose the thinking styles that best describe you in the HBR article “What Kind of Thinker Are You?”

2.  Take a look at your information diet (what you tend to want to read, watch and listen to) and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you tend to focus on specific pieces of information (i.e. the specs for new devices), or broad trends (i.e. home automation)?

  • What types of topics do you pay the most attention to? For example, are you more into TED Talks about new ways of thinking, or articles about innovative business models and strategies for monetization?

3. Consider how your thinking style may show up in the way you engage with your information diet. When you choose what to read, watch, and talk about, are you making the most of the way you think? Are there topics or types of content which you would like to add to your information diet?

4. Be open with people about what type of thinker you are. As you talk with colleagues and clients, notice if you’re letting people know what perspective you’re speaking from—and that you have a solid understanding of the importance of other perspectives as well. For example, “I spend a lot of time looking at trends and implications—exploring big picture stuff—and from that perspective I want to make sure we include the Internet of Things and social marketing in our discussion about the new product. But I know we need to look at the details, too—Jane, you’re tracking how we’re going to coach the sales team on the new technologies, right? Can you tell us a bit more about that?”

5. Share what you find. In addition to normal conversations, make sure you are consistently sharing what you find in your information diet. This practice is called a sharing habit. It sends signals to others about the kinds of things that you can help them think through—and lets them know what kinds of things to forward on to you, too.

What thought partners offer: Social Currency

There are several types of ‘social currency’ that can be used to help thought partners provide value to each other.

  • Found Content: Illustrative or inspiring content related to the partner’s needs and environment (see our articles on creating an information diet, creating a sharing habit and tool for sharing inspiring, informative content)

  • ‘Aha’ moments: strokes of insight on something of value to the partner

  • Problem solving: focused time and input on a specific problem

  • Thinking out loud: a thought partner can help someone take time for figuring out what their own needs and wants are; this is especially important for verbal processors (people who get new ideas and insights primarily in conversation)

  • Context: through discussion, helping a partner place their own ideas, problems or challenges in the larger context of a business environment, such as helping someone see the entire business model of connected devices rather than just their key features

Asking for thought partnership

Being a thought partner is about reciprocity. This peer-to-peer relationship between thought partners is distinct from teaching, advising or other similar behaviors. A thought partner can be a peer in your business who helps you think through strategy or a professional who is paid for the service. Potential thought partners probably already exist around you. Think about people who are in orbit around your work and vice versa—strategically important vendors, partner businesses, past clients or colleagues—as the first place to look when you need someone to add a different thinking style to your strategy or problem solving process.

In addition to conversations that evolve naturally, it’s okay to ask for a specific kind of thought partnership from someone you know. For example:

“I’m trying to solve [[a problem around a specific topic]]. I can’t figure out how to do it and I think I could use a new viewpoint on it. I have the [[thinking style]] for parts of it, but I need someone who is [[a different thinking style]] in order to help me [[outcome of missing thinking style]]. Can you help, or do you know someone who could?”

You can also suggest potential thought partners to colleagues and clients based on your knowledge of their thinking styles.

What now?

  • Have fun finding content that excites you—and then share it to show your unique perspective.

  • Reach out to a few people in your orbit and ask them if they’d like to be your thought partner on a specific topic or opportunity.

  • Stay in Causeit’s orbit by sending us an email or get to know our thinking styles and information diets by following our web magazines on Flipboard.

Further Reading