A common misconception of many suppliers is that partnership means meeting for coffee every month or maybe weekly calls. Or maybe it’s a travel mug and a pen. Maybe we even become friends! Here is the reality: Travel mugs are great, but as a contingent workforce professional, I can’t give my hiring managers travel mugs at the end of the year instead of quality hires. Nor can I tell an auditor that I didn’t care about compliance because I was busy having coffee.

Why is this important?

In 2015, we at Northwestern Mutual started to transform our CW program from decentralized to centralized. Since then, we have “piloted” a few new partners to support us in our transformation. With each new relationship, there are promises of delivery and a commitment to partnership. Many failed but a few have succeeded. What set them apart? It’s certainly in the way they deliver, but it’s not the candidates they submitted or placed. The answer is partnership. The way they delivered on their promise to act like a partner.

Dictionary.com defines partnership as “the state or condition of being a partner; participation; association; joint interest.” I would add “the ability to weather change together.”

Northwestern Mutual has a culture of long-standing relationships — not only with our policyholders, but with our staffing suppliers as well. I need my suppliers to participate, work hard to understand and deliver on what we need, and work within the guidelines that we have set. I need them to show their side of joint interest by listening to what we need, which gives way to us listening to them in return. Be a partner; I would even add, be a trusted partner.

We need to forget how things used to be. “This is the way we have always done it.” It’s the one phrase that makes us cringe in today’s ever-changing world. Still, change is not comfortable. During my career, we have changed from paper résumés and fax machines (yikes!) to online platforms and AI. What has not changed? The value of partnerships.

Cautionary tale. One provider was piloted with us based on a prior relationship with a new NM leader. While the NM leader had a great experience with the supplier team at a former employer, the supplier struggled to be successful within our program. When we met with them to talk through the issues, it became clear they were acting on their own behalf versus partnering with us. “That’s not really how we prefer to do business,” and, “We don’t like to work that way,” were said many times.

Much like a marriage, if one side can’t compromise, the relationship won’t work. And here is the truth that may hurt for some suppliers: It’s OK to not do business with every company. Maybe you are more successful with clients where you have direct-hiring manager contact versus a vendor-neutral MSP, or better with MSPs in large programs than you are with small niche companies. We all learned as children that you can’t fit the square peg in a round hole.

Working together. On the flip side, we engaged with a new supplier that I would call a true partner. While we have certainly had some bumps along the way, each challenge was met with, “Let me see what I can do,” followed by either a change or recommendation. The responses came quickly and honestly. They truly participated in our program and followed our guidelines. They asked questions, kept on track, communicated improvements to us and delivered on those improvements. Seeing that they were leaning into our partnership led us to see and treat them as a valued partner. Our partnership will play a key role in the success of our program’s 2021 initiatives.

In a world where change seems to be happening daily, the value of a partnership has never been as important. When Covid-19 hit, we relied on our partners to help us navigate the necessary changes and they, in turn, relied on us to ensure their workers were as safe and as productive as possible. The fax machine is long gone, but partnerships remain.