How to identify and work with L&D ‘super providers’
When it comes to learning and development, the best supplier relationships are with providers who treat it as a partnership, rather than a service. Here’s how to spot those ‘super providers’ and make the most of that relationship once you’ve found them.
It is quite a regular conversation within our industry. It tends to start something like, ‘does anyone know someone great who can…?’ As L&D practitioners, we are all on the constant lookout for referrals of providers – from executive coaches, to strategy and resilience masterclasses or project management. We all know that there are loads of mediocre learning and development providers out there, those that kind of deliver what you briefed at best. Then there are ‘super providers’ – those really special ones that help you deliver exponentially on your strategy. They intuitively unlock the potential of your people to deliver outstanding performance.
Super providers can be hard to find, but they are worth their weight in gold when you find them. They will bring new perspectives and fresh thinking, keeping you and your learning solutions current.
It starts with the type of conversations where anything is possible. A project scoping session with them turns into a melting pot of possibilities and energy, and you just know they are going to help you move the dial beyond your expectations through stretching your own thinking. These are the providers I mean when I talk about super providers.
In the past I have worked with a whole range of providers, some mediocre at best, whilst also being immensely lucky to work with some super providers, sometimes through luck, sometimes through recommendations. These are the relationships that led to the best work I did as a practitioner, winning awards that I am immensely proud of.
What makes a super provider so ‘super’?
My business partners and I found ourselves asking the same question, so we got our heads together and came up with five fundamental traits of super providers.
- They partner with you, promoting a genuine sense of being in it together, being a partnership, with no ego, no ‘them and us’, no problem.
- They are solution focused – they lighten the load and deliver what you need when you need it. They’re independent and progressive, and they just get it.
- They are smart – they know their stuff, bring the latest thinking and extend your own boundaries. You learn from them. They are pragmatic and sustainable, make great suggestions and challenge your thinking.
- They are flexible – they can ‘turn on a tuppence’ when you need them to change direction, accept that things can be last minute, and work at the pace you need.
- They are always honest about fees, timeframes, and administration – the whole thing.
We look for all of these traits when we meet providers and decide whom to work with. They are like our internal radar, which after years of successfully sourcing brilliant providers, have become second nature.
There are so many advantages of getting it right
Super providers can be hard to find, but they are worth their weight in gold when you find them. They will bring new perspectives and fresh thinking, keeping you and your learning solutions current. They can apply an external lens to your project and offer their experience of what works and doesn’t work in other businesses to identify what a ‘best in class’ solution looks like to your brief.
They are exempt from internal politics, and so they can push the boundaries, asking the questions that might not otherwise get asked. They are free to challenge the ingrained internal cultural norms and the traditional company ways (which, as an internal practitioner, you may be blind to). It’s this stretch in mindset that brings about real change.
Alongside this, they will provide a ‘no-distractions’ focus to the specific mission you give them, unlike your in-house teams who are probably juggling multiple projects and relationships. They will act as the project manager, keeping everything on track and moving forward. Those of us who have ever tried to juggle multiple learning projects all at the same time will know that doing it yourself means it is so much easier to get side-tracked and for timelines to slip.
The other benefit is that you know you’re using your development budget to create a sustainable behavioural change, the things in your strategy that it was created for in the first place. Too often L&D can focus on delivery of learning, rather than behavioural change or business results. Super providers do not let this happen.
Of course, they can be real specialists in your specific project area – anyone who works in L&D knows that they need to be a ‘jack of all trades’, so finding a master in a specific topic, who has researched it deeply for years is really helpful.
How do you optimise your super provider relationship?
Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers or a clear picture of what you want before you approach providers – let them do some thinking for you, inspire you, and take your thinking to new places. Also don’t be afraid to try new providers. If you always go with the same ones, you’ll get the same type of solutions, and if that’s the case you might as well do it internally.
Listen to previous feedback for the provider, but don’t be blinded by it. What works on one project and business might not apply to yours. Have a conversation, compare values and approaches, and be open to having your initial views challenged. Work together as the equals that you are, put the challenge out on the table and enjoy the process. Bring everyone in – the naive, the expert and the customer – adopt an ‘anything is possible’ mindset and let them blow your socks off!
Interested in this topic? Read Raising the vendor bar: how to select learning and development providers more effectively.