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Growing Talent Development Firms: Strategy for Survival

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Unless you are living in a cave in the most remote place in America, or for that matter, the world, you know something unprecedented is going on with the COVID-19 pandemic. I watch NBC Nightly News, and although I haven’t literally counted, I am pretty sure that every show for the last two months has opened with “Breaking News,”not to mention the frequent, “Interrupting your regularly scheduled program” announcements that appear 24/7. The news, of course, is all about the virus and its incredibly horrendous effect on people and businesses all across the world.

This month’s post should have completed the three-part series on the sales engine. But I would be remiss and insensitive if I didn’t address the impact the pandemic is having on the talent management industry. So, I will defer that prescribed sequence to write a little about this impact and what you might do to minimize its potential deleterious effects on your business.

As a typically glass half-full type of person, I always look for the silver linings in these rare and unpredictable black swan events (although the definition of a black swan event is that, in retrospect, it was predictable, and in this case, it refers to Bill Gates’s TED Talk about five years ago for his accurate prediction of a pandemic). Nonetheless we must address it in the most productive personal and professional manner possible. There are a few silver linings, or at least lessons, we can take from this event. Make no mistake—this pandemic can’t be taken lightly regardless of the industry one finds oneself, although there is no doubt several are thriving, and interestingly enough, offer some useful lessons for our industry, such as the video conferencing business.

Bottom line: Many companies in our industry are struggling to just keep their heads above water. And while the Paycheck Protection Plan is helping to navigate some of the financial burden, it isn’t likely to be enough for long enough for many to hold on. A huge number of businesses in the talent development arena, especially the smaller firms, will have to close shop sooner rather than later. This is an unfortunate harsh reality. But is there anything you can do to navigate this situation, and in some way stave it off until you can return to “normal,” whatever and whenever that is?

Perhaps most of the following listed items go without saying and are obvious approaches to combat the negative impact, but you are unlikely to be able to do, and afford, them all. One silver lining is the unexpected “free” time that can be put to good use for reflection outside of the daily grind many of you are used to. Perhaps this is a time to think about your business and its future like you never have before. Take yourself off autopilot and question everything—even the most sacred cows around your business model. Decide which are the most significant to your business scenario and act accordingly. Remember, the goal is to come out at the other end stronger and better than you have gone in.


Your Operations

  • Communicate more with your customers. Show them your support and how you may be able help them through these tough times.
  • Reach out to prospects and customers with free offers and info to stay in touch.
  • Stay relevant, reliable, realistic, and reasonable. Don’t forget that your customers are feeling the same, or perhaps even greater, pinches than you are.
  • Be visible, valuable, and veritable. Stay true to who you are, add value, and always be open and honest with all with whom you do business, including employees, contractors, vendors, and clients.
  • Restructure compensation plans fairly with across-the-board reductions. Be transparent and be sure your most senior people are taking their cuts as well.
  • Prevent laying off people for as long as possible since training new ones after this is over will likely be as expensive as keeping those on, especially when considering necessary ramp-up time.
  • Apply for the Paycheck Protection Plan. Although reports on the process are difficult to say the least, it is probably worth it to try to get some relief. However, be careful about the demands and requirements of these “loans.” Many are not as forgiving as they appear to be with several unreported strings attached.

Your Offer

  • Review and reflect on your product development plans. Do they make sense given the current situation? Should you change and revise them in any way? To the extent any of us can accurately predict the new normal, how can your offer be optimized to meet current and future client needs?
  • Convert face-to-face, in-person programs to online solutions. If there is any certainly at all, it is that organizations are becoming more comfortable with remote distance learning. There is a high likelihood that the future of learning and development will change forever and more significantly embrace this delivery approach. What can you do not only to prepare for the current demands but position your business for this almost certain future? Assuming it won’t be an either/or but rather a both/and scenario, how ready are you to take it on?
  • Prepare facilitators for online delivery. As part of the online solutions transfer, it will be critical to train your staff to facilitate in a new way. Reports already suggest that the skills and traits of excellent classroom instructors may not be the same as those required for effective remote facilitation.
  • How does your content match the needs of this environment? Does it require updating given the current context? Have you checked in with your customers and prospects for what they most need? Topics such as virtual selling, online coaching, remote team collaboration, telecommuting, distance leadership, high performance culture, change management, tough conversations, and so forth are clearly today’s, and probably tomorrow’s, relevant topics. How well are you prepared to address these?

These are just a few of the considerations to address your business model during these difficult times. Ask yourself how are you not only going to survive but come out the other end thriving. It won’t happen in a vacuum or by chance. And while the best-laid plans often go awry, a plan without a strategy is pointless and a strategy without a plan is dead on arrival.

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His first book, The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm, was published by ATD in 2017. His recent follow-up, 12 Winning Strategies for Building a Talent Development Firm is now available on Amazon.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected]

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