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No Partnership Equals No Performance Improvement

Partnering subsumes contracting or project alignment phases of work because it involves setting client expectations and defining the scope of work. Partnering also includes other elements of the consulting process that involve building relationships. The reality of much consulting work is that what is originally defined to be the problem will change as the consultant and client dig deeper and discover that the root cause (or ultimate solution) may reside outside the client's department or require the cooperation of others beyond the original scope of work.

Additionally, many consultants (and all performance consultants) are likely to find themselves playing on ground that isn't their own, even if they're internal to the client organization. It used to be that clients contacted a trainer or some type of consultant to request a specialized training solution like team building through white water rafting. The consultant in that case generally owned the solution and was considered the expert at designing and delivering that solution. In those cases, the consultant generally owned the resources necessary to provide the solution. Thus, there was little need to partner in order to get results.

However, increasingly consultants are finding themselves in situations where they require extensive cooperation from resources they don't own, such as subject matter experts or IT staff. The performance consultant might discover the right answer requires a space planner, new software, or a change in hiring practices. In those cases, the only way the consultant is going to generate results is by partnering with the other key players on this problem.


Partnering has sometimes been compared to a successful marriage because it involves a relationship that continually evolves, requires constant attention and work and demands the commitment of the involved parties to be successful. In fact, marriage is a useful analogy. Think of the marriages you've seen that have worked, and identify many of the traits those marriages had that you can bring to your partnering arrangements as a consultant. Also keep in mind the teachings of Geoff Bellman, Peter Block, Paul Elliott, Joe Harless, Mary Broad, and Dana and Jim Robinson about the initial client contact stages still apply.

Here are some additional tips for successful partnering beyond the initial client contact.

  1. Act like you're an external consultant. Too many internal practitioners behave as if they need permission for everything and let lines of authority dictate whether action happens or not. External consultants recognize they never have any formal authority, and successful externals use influence and credibility to gain cooperation. Be proactive by initiating contact when choosing partners. Once you choose a partner, work at building the relationship. Assume that anything is possible and you don't need a line on the organizational chart for communication to take place.
  2. Build trust and credibility. As a consultant, the single most important means you need to establish credibility and earn the trust of the client (or potential partner) is data. You can track records on similar projects to develop data. Also, hard or soft data from the initial stages of the project are especially effective.
  3. Test the partner's commitment. Remember, trust and credibility are a two-way street. Early in the process, it's very easy for a client to sound serious and engaged about a problem. Unfortunately, talk isn't the same as action. Furthermore, experienced consultants know this and as a result are not likely to completely trust a new client early in the process. But our trust is critical for a strong partnership just as it's critical for clients to trust us. If we don't trust them strongly, clients will be able to detect this. How do you reach the point of trusting your client? You can do this in a variety of ways by testing their commitment early in the process. Determine if the work has been budgeted and to what extent. Ask yourself: How much are they willing to spend? Are they willing to make public declarations about the consulting work and their involvement in it? What resources, especially in terms of staff, will clients commit early in the process?
  4. Clarify expectations continuously. As Block and many others point out, it's not enough just to set expectations at the beginning. You need to manage them throughout the process. You may discover that it might make sense to mitigate a problem but there is a negative return on investment (ROI) to actually eliminate the problem. Managing the partnership is never finished until the project has been completed and there is no follow-up or evaluation left undone.
  5. Recognize that each situation/client will demand different partnering arrangements and dynamics. Because the nature of the problem will vary and the potential solutions and solution providers will be different, it's critical to recognize that partnering challenges and issues will vary with each situation. For instance, one assignment might lead to the discovery that the solution to the client's problem resides entirely within another department. Another assignment might require the resources of an office outside the client's domain. A third assignment might lead to a complete redefinition of the problem. The solution that the client thought they would get might instead be something completely different.
  6. Go as high as you can when partnering. Many consultants tend to view the person who contacts us as the person who owns the problem. But the person who's wrestling with the problem, or holding the resources we need to solve the problem, may not have the long-term, organizational "big picture" view that you need in order to get cooperation. Successful consultants go as high as they can in the organization to partner. This helps solve many political challenges but also tends to produce a more strategic focus.
  7. Don't be sequential, partnering is not a logical, linear process. Partnering may happen at the beginning of the process. But because the roles and relationships will evolve throughout the work and new players will emerge while other disappear, partnering is not something that has a definable phase where you as consultants can say "we're past the partnering phase" or "we've completed partnering."
  8. Focus on the business priorities and goals. Clients are used to approaching HRD professionals from a transactional model: They make requests and our job is to fulfill them. This subverts a true partnership where both parties own the problem to some degree. The more the consultant focuses on business goals and organizational imperatives, the less likely the approach will end up being transactional.
  9. Don't debate, instead ask questions. Dana Robinson likes to say that "you don't tell a client to perform, you ask them." Her point is that arguing with clients rarely produces results. Besides being an effective consulting tool, it's a critical skill for successful partnering. Asking questions is more likely to transform a relationship that is transactional or based on perceived areas of expertise to one of information exchange and collaboration. Effective consultants typically pose questions to clients: What would success look like? or Have they ever been able to do this correctly? or What do your people need to do if you're going to hit those numbers? This will get your client thinking about what it is they don't know rather than arguing with them that they are wrong.

Keep these tips in mind and you'll improve your partnering ability when you consult with clients.

About the Author
Joe Willmore is president of the Willmore Consulting Group, a performance consulting firm located near Washington, D.C. He has more than 35 years’ consulting experience with a wide range of clients, including the World Bank, Intelsat, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Navy, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the Smithsonian Institution. He has served on ATD’s board of directors and held other leadership positions within ATD and other professional societies.
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