Despite investing resources and effort, severing a partnership with an outside vendor may be the right decision.
As director of talent development for Texas Instruments—a global semiconductor company that designs and manufactures processing chips—I oversee training and development for 30,000 employees around the world.
About four years ago, my team and I realized a need to focus on training for our midlevel leaders. Specifically, we wanted to help them through the challenging transition from frontline manager to becoming a manager of other managers. Our initial action was to hire an external partner to help develop the curriculum and launch the program.
However, after several missteps and miscommunications with the vendor, we parted ways. That was a tough experience, but I learned to trust my own expertise and instincts and know when it’s time to walk away from an external partnership that’s not working.
My team and I got too caught up in the day-to-day and lost sight of the big picture. That led to lost hours, weeks, and months trying to make an external partnership work that wasn’t right from the beginning.
How it all started
My talent development team and I had an established leadership training program for our frontline managers who transitioned from individual contributors to first-time people leaders. But we needed to differentiate our approach for managers of managers.
Our frontline leader program had to reach a large number of global participants, so our approach was one that could be repeatable and scalable while ensuring quality. However, for our midlevel leaders, we wanted to take a higher touch, more customized approach, because often they are in critical roles that drive business results.
My team began looking at external vendors and experts that were specifically focused on leadership development for midlevel leaders. Because our internal resources were limited, we needed a partner to not only create the program but also sustain it.
We released a request for proposals, evaluated vendors, talked with their previous clients, and reviewed their work. We selected one knowing we would spend daylong work sessions together, and my team and I looked forward to what we would learn from the experts.
Many hours were spent interviewing stakeholders and potential participants, brainstorming, and designing, but we were becoming increasingly frustrated with the external partner. The vendor didn’t appear to be truly listening to understand our unique context, the challenges our leaders encounter, or how our culture may play a role in this program.
I remember sitting in a pilot session with a group of potential participants and cringing when the external partner’s facilitator didn’t connect with the leaders and the content she offered fell flat. I also received a call from a team member after her long day of working with the vendor. “This isn’t going to work,” she said. “They don’t understand that this is a transition program, no matter how many times we talk about it.”
In the end, we realized we needed to cut our losses and end the partnership. I struggled with thinking that the vendor needed just a little more information or more exposure to our leaders or more detail about our culture. Whatever the “more” was, I thought the partner would eventually get it. It was hard to determine when to make the call—when “more” didn’t get us where we needed to be.
We worked with the vendor for several months before I decided to end the partnership. It was challenging because we had invested so many resources, plus time and money, and we had committed to deadlines internally. I had to remind myself that those were sunk costs and that I needed to focus on the next steps, rather than what we had already experienced.
As I reflected on the failed partnership, several lessons stood out.
Align on expectations early on to avoid crossed signals. Throughout the partnership, I had numerous conversations with the vendor to reset expectations, to talk through our frustrations, and to hear apologies of missed deadlines and approaches that missed the mark.
Yet, my team and I encountered the same behaviors repeatedly. We felt they were offering us off-the-shelf approaches when we were expecting a customized solution and that they were taking a one-size-fits-all approach when there were cultural nuances that required something different.
Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish. You can’t boil the ocean or do everything in one program. For us, focusing on the key transition challenges was crucial to our success.
That was the critical missing piece when working with our external partner. We were designing a program to support transitioning leaders, but the vendor tended to focus on leaders who were already in the supervisory role at that level.
That was a significant disconnect because our midlevel leaders are often making large leaps in terms of the size of their teams, transitioning from a local to a global role, moving from a functional to a multifunctional leadership role, and significantly increasing their responsibilities in terms of budgets or profit and losses.
Provide insight into company culture. The vendor needed to have a deeper understanding of our culture and leaders.
As a technology company comprised of engineers, our culture tends to be focused on logic and details. Our leaders expect practical, concrete solutions that they can immediately implement.
Yet, the vendor offered more theoretical and complex ideas and frameworks. When we piloted the content with a group of potential participants, it fell flat and did not resonate with our leaders.
Include stakeholders beyond interviews. When we shifted to developing the program in-house, we spoke with stakeholders and some new midlevel leaders. The more we did, the clearer we were about what we needed to accomplish and how we needed to do it. Including those leaders in the program’s design and delivery was critical and gave the program credibility from the start.
Be willing to walk away from a partnership that isn’t leading to results. It’s hard to sever a relationship, especially when you have devoted many resources. But doing so can be the best decision.
Ending our partnership enabled us to focus our resources internally, to create the right solution for our organization and leaders. Had we continued to stumble through that partnership, our resources would have been depleted as we continued to try to manage the relationship, and we would have missed our deadlines and produced a subpar program.
In the end, my team and I rallied and locked ourselves in a room to create the design on our own. We spent more time with midlevel leaders new to the role to truly understand their experiences and challenges. And we identified key challenges for those leaders.
Ultimately, we created an effective program that helped us achieve our training goals.
Remember that your organization and each learning program is unique. Although external partners can have an exemplary reputation, that doesn’t mean they are the right fit for what you are trying to accomplish.
It’s easy to think your vendor knows best and that it has more expertise. However, it is important to view the relationship as a partnership, to challenge one another, to question, and to push for the best solution.
Likewise, acknowledge that you have expertise internally. Sometimes the best solution may be creating the program in-house, relying on the internal experts who work with your leaders every day.
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