8: Maintaining the Partnership

Why is Attention to Maintenance Important?

Setting and Managing On-Going Expectations of Partners

In Chapter 3: Convening and Planning we discuss the building blocks to creating and formalizing your sector partnership. In Chapter 4: Managing the Partnership we discuss coordinating logistics, decisions about staffing, initial funding strategies, organization of information, and the immediate task of maintaining momentum and energy after initial "kick-off." Each of these is important to establishing the expectations by employers and partners of the initiative’s goals and activities. Critical to on-going success is the ability by the intermediary to continue setting and managing expectations of partners while at the same time engaging them to take on specific responsibilities.

  • Maintaining Employer Involvement and Leadership. As the initiative evolves, employer engagement may shift. Some employers may become highly active around specific, targeted actions. Others may want to be involved at a higher, more strategic level. Recall the advantages of engaging CEOs in certain situations or human resource directors in others. Anticipate turnover in staff in member companies, and maintain key point people within each company for day-to-day project updates and management. Your initiative's “employer champions” should also begin to emerge clearly at this stage. Consider using them to market to other firms and lead specific activities. As discussed in further detail later in this module, always respect the time constraints of your employer members - they (particularly small-medium sized companies) have limited time to attend meetings, and generally have little patience for long "process" type meetings often typical of public partners.
  • Working with Education, Training and Economic Development. For all public partners, recognize any institutional constraints that might affect involvement with the initiative, and work around them. As with employer partners, make sure the initiative is represented by a key point person within each institution or organization. Where possible, and as the initiative evolves into clear activities, develop clear written agreements that outline roles, responsibilities, and outcomes that align with the initiative’s goals and their institutional mission statements.
  • Involving Unions and Labor Agencies. If the industry of focus is unionized, your initiative must maintain union or labor agency involvement. To get and keep unions at the table, work closely with union leadership to understand what they hope to gain by being involved and what the barriers to their involvement might be. Find ways to involve workers or garner employee input on certain issues. Agree that as the initiative evolves, certain issues are a good fit for the initiative, and others may be best reserved for the bargaining table.

Keeping Focused While Allowing for Change

Successful initiatives balance a focus on resolving one or two issues at a time with their bigger, longer-term vision of change. It is critical in the initiative’s early phases to scan, understand and discuss the many workforce related issues and needs that are facing the industry, but no initiative can take on every issue all at once. Your initiative should prioritize one or two issues to tackle in the short term.

"It has also been the SOURCE's experience that the partnership should only focus on resolving one issue or need when it first launches, rather than try to take on all issues and needs. As the partnership evolves it becomes more agile in being able to address two-three key issues, but even then they should be prioritized and focused otherwise it leads to chaos and inertia."

Every initiative evolves over time, and should be guided to do so. The evolution of your initiative should be guided by re-visiting goals, strategies and long term impacts regularly. This is where early attention to desired outcomes and impacts will pay off. If partners, especially employers, see that the initiative is integrating new information and appropriate changes in course, while sticking to established priorities, the initiative will be recognized for its responsiveness, flexibility, and focused approach. This means higher rates of employer engagement and partner commitments over time.

Use the "Pick and Stick" Approach

It is the intermediary’s responsibility to facilitate prioritization of key issues as well as remind partners of how those issues directly connect to the greater impact that the initiative wants to achieve. The “Pick and Stick” principle is one way to achieve these complementary goals, and is simply a reminder to “pick” one or two priority issues, and “stick” with them until some resolution is achieved.

Often, a “plan on a page” is a valuable tool to help partners focus on their priorities, the timelines they have set for themselves, and how actions within those priority areas connect to longer-term impacts or the partnership’s overall vision. A “roadmap” that shows what’s been done so far, what is next, and longer term impacts is another mechanism to present similar information. Alternatively, activity reports can describe accomplishments and makes next steps and desired achievements, especially when they include timelines or short-term scopes of work.

Pay Close Attention to Employer Members

It can be easy for an initiative to get lost in its own process. You will know this is happening when employers start dis-engaging. While turnover is natural in an initiative, if your partnership begins to see fall-off of more than a few employer members in a short period of time, consider this a red flag. Re-evaluate whether your activities are directly connected to the partnership’s mission and desired long term outcomes, and check to see that your mission, desired outcomes and actions all have clear and direct value to industry. Some inititiaves have used satisfaction surveys of their members to guide partnership priorities.

Top 3 Reasons for Lack of Industry Participation:

    * Activities or core mission has little Perceived VALUE;
    * Lack of appropriate engagement or use of members’ TIME;
    * The PROCESS or structure of the partnership is perceived as ineffective.

Sure-Fire Ways to Lose Industry Interest

    * Work without a clear strategic plan or set of deliverables/outcomes;
    * Resolve someone else’s problems;
    * Focus on process not outcomes;
    * Focus on what we can learn not what we can solve;
    * Pretend issues and activities are “one size fits all.”

Source: Washington State Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, Anatomy of a Skill Panel Powerpoint presentation


Time Management and Group Dynamics

Respect Everyone's Time

How time is used in your initiative can make or break its overall success. Consider that the more responsible the intermediary is with everyone’s time, not just that of employers, the greater the chance of focused discussions and value-add. Here are some tips to stay on track: 

  • Continue to meet regularly, but always have a clear objective for each meeting (never meet for the sake of meeting). Be cautious with the time offered by all members, but particularly by employers. As the initiative evolves, the partnership may meet in-person less often. This may be in part due to uptake of alternative communication mechanisms, such as blogs, webinars, conference calls, etc.
  • Build a focused agenda so that all participants know what to expect and where they might add input.
  • Always offer the results of the immediate next steps undertaken since the last meeting, as a way to show progress and as a mechanism for making next decisions.
  • Re-visit budgets, timeframes and goals regularly so that partners are on the same page, have aligned expectations, and are grounded in both achievements and any possible missed opportunities.
  • Highlight wins and successes along the way, regardless of the partnership’s maturity. Connect wins and successes to the vision and goals of the partnership.
  • Ensure that everyone leaves meetings with clarity on next steps, including their responsibilities, and a clear idea of how next steps and responsibilities are important to reaching end goals.

Understand Group Dynamics

Helpful to any entity responsible for coordinating and facilitating a diverse group of individuals and interests may be a reminder of the necessary and inevitable stages of group development. These stages have been named and described in many different ways. 

  • Perhaps the best know is Bruce Tuckman's Framework: Forming – Norming – Storming – Performing – Transforming;
  • Another framework that we can all likely relate to is: First date – honeymoon – reality hits – settling in – growing wise together;
  • And another version: Groping – Griping – Grasping – Grouping

While the order of these phases generally portrays the phases or cycle of group development, even high-performing groups may revert back to an earlier stage. This may be in reaction to changing circumstance, such as changes in leadership or membership. 

Respect and Manage Different Styles of Participation

Closely related to an understanding of group dynamics, your initiative may also benefit from the following considerations:

Understanding personalities, communication styles, and problem solving approaches are a skill set that a good intermediary staff person should hone. These skills will help the partnership to avoid making inaccurate assumptions or mis-guided conclusions; as well as help them develop focused problem solving approaches to identifying and meeting their challenges.

Decision making by a group can be hard, but it can be done. Intermediaries are responsible for facilitating decision making by the partners in order to keep the initiative moving forward. The process should start with a challenge or issue, move to divergent ideas about possible solutions, be sifted through a set of assumptions and doubts, and then converge into a group-wide decision. Want to see that in a graphic? Unanimous decisions will not always be possible, but the group should reach consensus whenever possible (consensus = the solution may not be everyone's first choice, but everyone can "buy-in" to the decision). And don't forget that the partnership should be lead and driven by the industry members, so their thoughts in the decision making process need to be weighed very heavily.

Managing Conflict requires some acceptance of conflict as a natural occurrence, understanding why conflict occurs, and offering viable alternatives to overcome diverse beliefs.

Building Staff Capacity

As the initiative develops, skills gaps and staff capacity building needs may emerge more clearly. Consider that in addition to a project manager or coordinator, the staff will need to ensure that knowledge and experience with the focus industry is a priority. To supplement their own industry knowledge, some sector intermediaries hire or contract with an industry expert.

Staffing does not always depend completely on the intermediary. As the partnership evolves, opportunities for joint-staffing should be considered. Cross-partner staffing considerations are a chance to deepen the level of involvement by partner systems or organizations, and may include:

  • A management team that includes lead staff from each partner. These individuals should be people that can pay attention to the day-to-day activities and management of their organization or firm’s involvement in the partnership;
  • A mechanism that allows transparency of roles and responsibilities of lead staff and their performance; and
  • Joint funding across partners for a primary staff coordinator, and for additional staff or contractors as needed.

Chapter 8 Review Questions

  1. Have expectations by partners changed or evolved? How so? Has management of the initiative had to change as a result? How so?
  2. As the initiative evolves or grows, how has staffing changed? How should it change?
  3. Are employers still involved? How?
  4. What indication do you have that the core mission and activities of the effort are of high value to employers? What indication do you have that the processes undertaken to implement the initiative are effective for employers?
  5. Is there a need to change the process by which you implement the effort?
  6. Has the partnership experienced any “storming?” Are there unresolved issues? What are they, and how will you resolve them?