We’ve all heard the career advice, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” Let us offer a contemporary view in today’s talent development (TD) marketplace: “It’s not who you partner with; it’s who you emulate.”

Partnership is today’s desired operating model when suppliers connect with practitioners: They aim for delivering high-quality solutions, together, with an ethic of mutual respect, common goals and agile collaboration. It’s a lot better than old-school adversarial transactions, but let’s consider something even better: What can we learn from each other that would boost our performance and more effectively meet the needs of our respective customers, whether internal or external?

For example, while the authors have a collective 75+ years of professional life in the TD industry, each has spent it in only one relatively myopic context — as an internal practitioner or an external coensultant. We realized early that we had a lot to share about each other’s business context for us to understand how we both operated. In reality, we are both suppliers — just to a different set of customers (although at the end of the day, the users are the same).

The practices demonstrated and lessons learned from suppliers can readily apply to effectively establishing an internal corporate talent development department, whether it’s a cost or profit center. Here are 10 such readily transferable best practices and formulas that internal learning and development (L&D) departments can emulate in orchestrating their “business”:

1. Understand Industry Dynamics

The most successful suppliers understand how the industry goes to market, its drivers, the competitive landscape, and past and recent trends impacting the growth of their business. They are always a little ahead of the game, embracing the changes taking place as the talent development industry evolves. Understanding the relevant talent dynamics in the external environment helps internal TD professionals serve their customers.

What is your department doing to stay current about not only your business’ industry but about the talent development industry as well?

2. Define Your Purpose

The leading TD suppliers have a clear sense of who they are and can readily articulate their mission (why they exist), vision (where they want to be) and values (what they stand for) — in other words, what they want and need to be successful. They adhere to these practices and principles, yet they remain flexible enough to adjust to changing market conditions without wavering from the underlying reasons for their existence.

How clear are you on the role of your department within your company, why it is there, what it believes in and how it is aligned with your company’s growth path?

3. Create a Business Plan and Structure

The best suppliers have created a blueprint for their success that clearly articulates the business they are in, the products and services they offer, how they go to market, with whom they compete, what goals they want to achieve, the structure needed to support those goals, and their financial management parameters. In other words, they are clear on their business model and how to effectively implement it within their organization’s structure.

What have you done to articulate the “business” you are in and how you can organize it to best serve your company and its employees?

4. Create a Strategic Plan

Top TD suppliers realize that simply having a business plan describing their overall function is not enough. They articulate a several-year strategy enabling their sustainable growth on both top and bottom lines, outlining:

    • The metrics for evaluating their progress and success.
    • The critical few strategic imperatives required to achieve those metrics.
    • Key initiatives for each imperative.
    • The critical actions necessary for accomplishing the initiatives.
    • Which activities they must end, because they are stealing valuable time and resources.

What does your strategic future look like, how does it support your company’s future plans and how have you defined how you will measure your department’s success?

5. Develop Your Offer

The most successful suppliers develop an offer that specifically meets the needs of their clientele while leveraging their own knowledge, expertise and experience. They understand the balance and different business models between consulting services and products or programs that they deliver to meet their customers’ demands.

What are the products, programs and services your department is actually providing your company? Does it fully understand what it brings to the table in terms of its own experience and expertise and when and how it needs to access outside help?

6. Establish Your Operating Plan

The leading TD providers create back office systems that facilitate flawless execution, including:

    • Effective financial systems.
    • Risk management strategies.
    • Scaling opportunities that result in an efficient organization and effectively serve the interests and needs of customers.

How have you integrated your company’s operating systems and processes into how you run your department and incorporated other specific systems that cater to L&D? What is still missing that could enable its future success?

7. Market and Sell Your Offer

Top suppliers have created a smoothly running business development engine and know how to bring their offer to the right market at the right time, forecast accurately and price competitively. Most importantly, they understand their promise to their customers and how to make good on it.

How are you continually reaching out to your internal customers to understand their needs, communicate how you can address them and deliver solutions that meet them?

8. Serve Your Customers

The best suppliers know how to embrace and exceed customer expectations by improving the processes that deliver their services and products. They are strict advocates and executors of second-to-none customer service. They also realize that not all customers are created equal and, thus, are able to meet them where they need to be met to ensure their satisfaction.

How clear are you on whom you are serving inside your company and what they need to be more effective? How you stay in touch with their evolving knowledge and skill requirements?

9. Recognize Future Trends

The top TD firms are always looking ahead to assess potential trends and the impact they might have on how they deliver to their clients, whether they are demographic, workplace, technological or market trends. They embrace likely, and even difficult-to-anticipate, changes rather than steadfastly resisting what they expect will interfere with the way they are currently operating.

What are you doing to stay in touch with the ever-evolving changes taking place in the TD industry that could impact how you serve your company?

10. Establish Your Growth Plan

Finally, the most successful talent development providers are always thinking about how to:

    • Improve and grow.
    • Create better solutions.
    • Reach more customers.
    • Create more services and/or programs.
    • Be more financially sustainable over the long haul.

They recognize the many constraints to growth, such as inadequate leadership and governance, ineffective systems, and toxic cultures, and do what they can to minimize and eliminate them.

How are you preparing your department for the future in a way that will continually support your company’s growth?

To be sure, there are many contextual differences between an external supplier and an internal talent development team. For starters, suppliers are typically independently run, relatively small and privately held entrepreneurial businesses. True, venture capital or private equity firms own many of these companies, but they still tend to be relatively small and run entrepreneurially.

Secondly, almost all suppliers are for-profit firms that are dependent on both their top- and bottom-line results to sustain their business. However, even those internal L&D departments that are profit centers are typically not faced with “do or die” financial situations.

Finally, most of these suppliers are looking for an exit at some point despite their interest in also leaving a legacy when they are gone. As a result, they plan many of their growth pathways to achieve enough financial success to be attractive to a buyer.

While there are indeed many lessons and best practices that L&D departments can borrow from successful industry suppliers, they are not identical business models. Thus, the critical success factors delineated here should be taken with an appropriate grain of salt. As you reflect on these critical success factors, which of them can you apply to your internal learning and development operations? What changes would you make, based on these best practices, that could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of what you offer your internal customers?

Finally, how can your L&D department become the best supplier of its services for your organization? Following these 10 steps in a way that makes sense for your department and company can help you achieve this goal.