The Power of Learning-Focused Leadership Title

Client organizations and suppliers must make a concerted effort that involves commitment, communication, credibility, clarity, cadence and collaboration.

By Stephen L. Cohen and Kevin D. Wilde

“How in the world did you pull that off?”

Peggy and Jim were used to this question as they would recount the successful partnership that produced a series of award-winning talent development programs. As head of talent management for her company, Peggy would often start by saying the bottom-line results speak for themselves but would add that forging a great external partnership mattered as well. And Jim — the external senior consultant assigned to Peggy’s company — would quickly add that he wished more client engagements looked like this. Both would agree the partnership had the kind of power lacking in most internal/external relationships in the talent development field today.

The Power of Learning-Focused Leadership Title

Client organizations and suppliers must make a concerted effort that involves commitment, communication, credibility, clarity, cadence and collaboration.

By Stephen L. Cohen and Kevin D. Wilde

“How in the world did you pull that off?”

Peggy and Jim were used to this question as they would recount the successful partnership that produced a series of award-winning talent development programs. As head of talent management for her company, Peggy would often start by saying the bottom-line results speak for themselves but would add that forging a great external partnership mattered as well. And Jim — the external senior consultant assigned to Peggy’s company — would quickly add that he wished more client engagements looked like this. Both would agree the partnership had the kind of power lacking in most internal/external relationships in the talent development field today.

Power Up Your L&D Partnerships

Powerful partnerships are becoming increasingly critical as client organizations face continual disruption in the marketplace and search for new solutions. Organizations are spending more than 25 percent of their L&D budgets on outside resources, to the tune of more than $7.5 billion each year, according to Training magazine’s “2017 Training Industry Report.” In fact, as of March 2016, more than 50 percent of enterprises outsource at least some of their learning and development needs according to the International Data Corporation. Whether to reduce fixed costs or tap into the growing external talent ecosystem, organizations are relying more than ever on capabilities outside the four walls of the company. As a result, suppliers are being constantly pushed to provide updated and innovative solutions that offer real business results.

With a strong, compatible relationship, an organization can enhance its learning function beyond its own in-house capabilities.

Win-win relationships between these two parties can be powered up to achieve mutual success. Here’s what such a relationship might look like, the partnership principles at work in the case, and specific prescriptive behaviors you can apply to power up your partnerships.

With a strong, compatible relationship, an organization can enhance its learning function beyond its own in-house capabilities.
The Client-Supplier Relationship

You may be thinking Peggy and Jim’s story is fictional. It isn’t. While the names have been changed, this powerful partnership example is based on our experiences. The better question is: How does this happen? What exactly does it take to create a powerful strategic partnership between an organization and its talent development suppliers?

Two relatively recent research studies may shed some light on the answer. The first is from a 2015 survey of 308 members of the Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board’s learning executives. When asked what characteristics are essential, or high priority, to make successful vendor partnerships more likely, the most mentioned were product quality (95 percent), easy to work with (93 percent), value provided (92 percent) and results obtained (90 percent) (see Figure 1).

Interestingly, a similar level of satisfaction with vendors and among their clients was provided in a survey conducted by ISA — The Association of Learning Providers. The results of this survey showed that clients rated their overall relationship with their suppliers at about 54 percent, while the supplier view of these relationships was 59 percent. Not only are these scores lower than the CLO BIB data, but suppliers view their relationships as somewhat better than their clients do. The areas achieving the greatest relationship strength and alignment between client and supplier organizations were those in which the supplier felt the client was willing to work through difficulties, serving as a reference, going to bat for them and following their recommendations on important issues with an average of about 70 percent frequency.

Figure 1: Top Characteristics of Successful Vendor Partner

The areas showing the least powerful relationships were in the personal areas of clients sharing the pressures they face and revealing their personal aspirations, or the strategic partner areas wherein clients encourage suppliers to challenge their thinking, asking for the input of suppliers on next year’s plans and involving the supplier directly in conducting a formal needs analysis or problem-solving process. And, for every one of these items, the suppliers viewed the relationship far better than the client did.

Figure 2: Associated Inside/Outside Behavior for a Powered-Up Vendor Partnership
The Principles of Powered-Up Partnerships

What can our case and this research reveal about how to create powered-up partnerships? In our more than 75 combined years as both suppliers and clients, we have identified six principles that can almost be guaranteed to power up your partnerships:

Commitment: ensuring equal treatment of all parties, resulting in mutual success.

Communication: engaging in frequent open, honest and timely conversations that address any concerns.

Credibility: trusting and honoring the capabilities, expertise and experience of all parties.

Clarity: encouraging all personal, professional and organizational expectations to be surfaced, managed and addressed satisfactorily.

Cadence: supporting a meaningful project rhythm regarding schedules, timing, milestones, deliverables and interactions.

Collaboration: demonstrating consistent win-win behaviors that result in meeting and exceeding all project expectations.

Figure 2 (above) shows specific behaviors associated with each of these six principles.

The Powering-Up Partnership Process

For the internal client there are several logical steps that need to be taken to lay the necessary groundwork for establishing real supplier partnerships that mimic the principles and behaviors in Figure 2.

First, define your strategic needs over the next 12-36 months to achieve your own and your organization’s goals. These might include growth, innovation, product development and, of course, talent management.

Second, decide how learning and development will impact or be impacted by these goals. For example, global growth might require scaling training capabilities; innovation may involve education about industry disruption; product development may require learning about data analytics for insight, and so on.

Third, determine which capabilities require outside resources to meet these talent development needs. This will require an internal audit of your design, development and delivery experience and expertise. When expertise is lacking you should access outside supplier talent.

Fourth, assess the current state of your outside supplier relationships. This process will involve an assessment of the health of these current working relationships against the principles outlined in Figure 2. How do your current suppliers’ capabilities fit with your organization’s strategic needs? And what level of energy will you need to invest in building and maintaining powered-up relationships?

Figure 3: Achieving Optimal Scale
Figure 4: Creating Long-Term Value

Fifth, create criteria for future supplier selection. These criteria would include the normal requirements for content and delivery expertise and experience, plus other factors around potential for partnering. What is the breadth and depth of their capabilities? How aligned is the supplier with your organization’s values and styles? What experience does the supplier have both inside and outside your organization’s industry? How flexible are they in dealing with unexpected occurrences, whether scope, timing or personnel related?

Finally, identify starting points and stage the effort to learn and get to optimal scale. This can be accomplished by starting with one or two initial power-building efforts, either overall or by specific need category. Then take action, learn and build the relationships to scale. (See Figure 3.)

For the supplier, the foundational process for creating real partnerships involves the following steps.

Define your strategic growth plans for the next 12-36 months. This would include everything from revenue generation, expanding internationally, upgrading sales and marketing, and so on.

Refine your marketplace offer and points of differentiation. Ensure you can consistently provide a differentiated offer to the market either through content, delivery or instruction.

Determine your target audience. Identify which organizations will benefit most from your solutions. This could be determined by a focus on certain job roles (e.g., sales representatives, management); industries (e.g., health care, manufacturing); particular skill sets (e.g., decision-making, leadership); or those problem areas themselves (e.g., growth, innovation).

Establish your marketing and selling process. Develop a compelling value proposition and determine how to effectively communicate it to your target audience and generate leads and sales.

Finally, move from a commodity provider to a strategic partner. This takes time, energy and investment. It involves adopting the six principles in Figure 3 with both parties needing to first see the utility in such an arrangement, wanting to make it happen and trusting that it will benefit them. The process needed to make such a transition is accomplished by mutually accelerating each organization’s competitive advantage, building their capacity and creating long-term value. (See Figure 4.)

Having a portfolio of typical transactional client-vendor relationships simply won’t work.
It Starts With Intentional Effort

Through the creation of a powerful partnership, Peggy found herself sleeping better at night by delivering a well-received and high-impact development program for the sales team. In fact, as time went on, the upswing in a number of key revenue growth and sales performance measurements were linked to the program. She would often comment on the strength of communication and collaboration with the supplier. Over time, the supplier provided additional support for other critical business initiatives and leveraged the powerful partnership experiences with Peggy to improve the quality of work with existing and new clients.

As internal talent development leaders search for better solutions to challenges they face, and as external providers look to better serve the marketplace, we believe having a portfolio of typical transactional client-vendor relationships simply won’t work. What both sides need is an intentional effort to begin crafting exceptional partnerships with powerful commitment, communication, credibility, clarity, cadence and collaboration.

Stephen L. Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative. Kevin D. Wilde serves as an executive leadership fellow at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Business. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.