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CTDO Magazine

Recruit a Partner, Not a Vendor

Friday, July 15, 2022

Know the difference between transactional relationships and strategic partnerships.

As is the case for many talent development executives, I do not have a day where my voicemail and email inbox are not filled with training vendors' requests for 45 minutes to discuss my L&D needs.

Other calls start with vendors introducing themselves and saying, "Your CEO referred me to you and suggested we meet. Will you please share with me your strategic plan to roll out leadership development?" I find it impressive—if not curious—that my CEO is more easily accessible to a cold call from a training supplier than I am.

I hate to sound disrespectful, but I've almost given up entirely on answering my phone. I spend too much time digging through emails and voicemails to uncover those of importance.

As the lead L&D practitioner at Emerson Electric, a Fortune 175 company with 90,000 employees and locations in 140 countries, I am responsible for making important decisions about whether, when, and how we partner with an external resource to provide skills-based leadership development programs. Whether we decide to build or buy, the drivers are the same: All our programs must be instructionally and cost effective.

There is a time and a reason to build a program internally. After a thorough analysis, it may make better sense to deploy people, material, and financial resources into developing your own programs.

There is also a time and a reason to look beyond the company for solutions and expertise. Often, outsourcing will be the best decision you can make to meet a critical L&D need.

When you decide to find an external solution provider for your talent development needs, be mindful that there are two types of relationships that you can form with vendors: transactional relationships and strategic partnerships.

Transactional relationships

This type of relationship is primarily a fee-for-service arrangement with a training supplier. You may not have the human or material resources to build a program from scratch internally, or the need for learning is urgent, so you opt to go with an outside provider.

For example, transactional relationships work well for Emerson for technical and personal productivity skills. In the past, we have used vendors and consultants who offer stock programs on different software tools, project management capabilities, and negotiation skills, to name a few. We schedule the courses, and the vendor delivers them.

Sometimes we can even get the supplier to "Emersonize" some of its stock content to appeal to the nuances of our large global company. But overall, it is typically a pass-through arrangement. We set up the course in the learning management system, market it, and make it easy for the learners to access the program. I've heard colleagues on the vendor side refer to that as the "You call, I haul" arrangement for external training programs.

Simply, there is a need for delivering a specific program by a precise deadline. The vendor supplies it; the company pays for it. In the end, everyone is happy. And although the supplier has created value for us, we do not need to take our relationship to another level.

In a transactional relationship, I do not share with the supplier my company's or the talent development department's strategic business plan. It can get sticky, however, when the vendor starts showing signs that it wants more out of the relationship than we do.

That typically starts with the vendor trying to sell me additional programs in its portfolio. The adage that it's always easier to upsell to an existing account than to win a new account altogether rings true. We want solutions to problems. Some vendors only want to make the sale.

Strategic partners

This type of relationship is where both the L&D function and the outside supplier have something at stake. Both parties invest time, resources, and knowledge and take risks. They work together as a team with a single goal—improving learners' performance.

My role is to help this vendor-turned-strategic partner understand several connected elements:

  • What the specific performance or skill need is
  • How we determined that need
  • How we see the supplier's program or content helping us meet that need
  • How we'd like to use some or all of the supplier's product portfolio to meet that need

Armed with those answers, each party must adapt to maximize impact. As the L&D leader, I am trusting the supplier with a key element of my business. We share information and both get better. The partnership creates a mutual competitive advantage for both of us in our respective markets.

In fact, when you have a true strategic partnership, something called the "pain and gain principle" starts to surface. Essentially, we accomplish more together than we would have on our own. As long as the program hits the mark, we both win. But if it misses the mark, we both feel the pain.

Here's how I know a vendor will not make it to the level of strategic partner: when it fails to understand or communicate the difference between business outcomes and learning objectives.

Business outcomes are the end. Learning objectives are the means to the end. There is a huge difference between the two.

However, when I ask many vendors to pinpoint the business results my company should be able to achieve by consuming the vendors' training, I almost always receive a general list of what participants are going to learn. Often, I find myself having to educate training vendors on the difference between the business outcomes and the learning objectives.

To differentiate between those who understand the two, I conduct a simple exercise and ask vendors to complete this sentence: "This training will be a success when …"

Do they give me a list of meaningful business results or a list of learning objectives for the workshop? Based on their answers, I can quickly separate the vendors who know what they are doing and want to be partners and those that just want a sale.

Unfortunately, I had one vendor reply, "This workshop will be a success for you when we run it." That comment ended its chance of doing business with me ever again. Learning is not an end. It is a means to an end.

Caution: Don't disregard vendors' information about the learning objectives. When vetting suppliers, pay close attention to the action verbs they use.

Avoid vendors that use weak, nonperformance action verbs such as understand, list, appreciate, and learn. Look for learning objectives with meaningful action verbs such as apply, determine, and implement.

There may be times when you enter strategic partnerships and provide the vendor with your own success statement. When I share my "This L&D initiative will be a success when …" statement with vendors, I ask them to prepare a statement of work for what they would do to work with me to achieve that success factor. Their responses quickly reveal who will rise to the top of the vetting process.

While this may seem out of order, the best partnerships are formed even before the statement of work—when you and the supplier realize there are tremendous synergies by partnering. The statement of work formalizes that.

In their statement of work, the best suppliers will go beyond what needs to be in the training course and describe what needs to be in place organizationally for the training initiative to have its intended impact. For example, they may include a change plan. 

A training course by itself will almost never achieve business results. It is always training plus some type of change or implementation initiative. Strategic partners will look beyond the course to identify risks to learning transfer and offer solutions to mitigate learning scrap.

I've even had strategic partners advise me against using some of their products or services. They've turned down business because they had a valuable insight and perspective that brought me value and kept me from a mistake.

Bottom line: Strategic partners listen to each other, and they have both parties' interests in mind.

This or that

Determine right from the start what type of relationship you may need from a supplier. At times it will be a simple pass-through, fee-for-service transaction. The relationship meets a specific or immediate need and then concludes amicably.

But for high-stakes, high-cost, and high-reward programs, a strategic partnership is critical. And such relationships develop over time.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

In his role as corporate director of learning at Emerson Electric, Terrence shapes and supports the performance of current and emerging leaders across the world. He supports the leadership development of 67 business units under two main business segments with an employee base of 107,000. He leads a team of talented, passionate, and high-performing learning and development professionals focused on the instructional aspects of leadership development, while also supporting the broader talent management initiatives. Over the last 19 years, he has trained and equipped more than 32,000 people on five continents. His training and business skills help drive major corporate initiatives in areas such as outcomes-based training, succession planning, leadership development, and learning transfer.

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