Building Strong Relationships Between Organizations and Independent Contractors

In the AEP blog series, Ask an Expert, experts offer their advice on the most pressing issues facing the educational resource industry. During the 2009 AEP Summit session, “Publishers, Developers, and School Districts: Change Agents in Transformation,” Randi Brill of Quarasan! and Keith Garton of Garton Media Strategy discussed the key role independent contractors play in educational publishing. Here, Kevin Dwyer of Strategic Learning Designs presents his 12 keys to maintaining a strong relationship between publishers and contractors.

Solving business problems that lie outside an organization’s core competencies with outside help is more common than ever before. The trend towards smaller organizations complemented by temporary, outsourced talent has generated a pool of highly skilled professionals available and ready to work. In fact, many AEP members are independent contractors, some newly so. I thought it might be helpful to tease out some of the elements of a strong business relationship.

Like many members of AEP, I’ve worked on both sides of this relationship. I’ve hired contractors, and I’ve been hired as a contractor. I’ve had mostly great experiences as an independent, working with terrific leaders at all levels of organizations. Based on my experiences, the decision to hire an independent contractor / vendor for a short project or for a long-term assignment is as important as hiring any other key employee. Let me suggest some things to consider in building an effective and healthy relationship between contractors and employers.

1. Start with the end in mind. That is, identify success as tangibly as possible. It’s often helpful to ask, “What does success look like?” It’s interesting how often projects are described in process terms as well as by a set of goals, but not as often in concrete, understandable language.

2. Use scaffolding.

  • Develop and review together a clear project action plan that includes realistic timelines and milestones with mid-course sign-offs. Build in regular communications. This avoids having either party say, “I thought you meant …”.
  • Meet deadlines and make decisions in a timely fashion. It can be frustrating for a vendor to wait for long periods of time for critical go-forward decisions. And for a busy employer, getting work product past a deadline can be costly. Missed deadlines stall the process, cause higher costs, and create lost opportunities.
  • Identify responsibilities, in particular shared responsibilities, which is often where projects get bogged down.
  • Set clear project parameters, including how the project will end (written report? presentation? run for the exit?).
  • Stay focused on the project’s goals – especially in fixed fee contracts – that might result in false expectations or cost overruns. Projects that grow in scope or start to take on a new shape need a new plan.

3. Don’t spare the details. On one project, I had the chance to tour a nuclear submarine while it was being built. On another, I worked on the layout, printing, and delivery of a metropolitan newspaper. These experiences created incredible clarity about the fundamental operations of the organization.

4. Clarify the contractor’s role. Often when I take on a contract that requires me to spend significant time at a client’s site, they will ask me to ‘sit in on’ meetings. I always ask whether they want me to listen (to get oriented to the organization) or actively participate. It matters.

5. Get the contractor situated. Depending on the arrangement, this might mean anything from having temporary access to the organization’s network, entry into the office, a workspace, or special equipment.

6. Identify the contractor’s main contact. While contractors are often brought on board by C-level executives, it’s often a person on staff who supervises the contractor’s project. The sooner this person is identified, the more efficiently the project will run.

7. Open the door to resources. Identify who can help clear the way to schedule meetings, book conference rooms, provide technical support, and so forth.

8. Explain the purpose and presence of the contractor to the organization. There are always questions when a new person is brought into an organization. Let employees know what the contractor is there to do, how to interact with him / her, and when they’ll be available. This is particularly important when a contractor works primarily off-site.

9. Communicate progress and share work outcomes with the organization.

10. Make sure the contractor gets paid. Many organizations do not have systems in place to accommodate paying a contractor. And if there are unique invoicing requirements, help the vendor get through the system, especially the first time. Like many contractors, I often have to wait an extra cycle or two before getting paid the first time.

11. Avoid undermining the contractor, even if it’s done unintentionally. And, of course, the reverse is also true.

12. After appropriate due diligence, let the contractor do what they do best. If you’ve hired someone to solve a problem for you, it’s important to let them do their work.

I am interested in hearing the experiences of other contractors and employers. Do these guidelines work for you? What else would you recommend?


Kevin Dwyer is the President of Strategic Learning Designs, a firm that develops integrated sales, marketing, market research and training solutions. Kevin is a lifelong educator whose background includes classroom experience as a K-12 and university educator. He is a hands-on expert in using technology and instructional design principles to solve business problems for school, publishing, finance, manufacturing, defense and technology clients. Kevin has served as Vice President at Connecticut National Bank, Fleet Bank, and Pearson’s Family Education Network and as a Senior Consultant at MarketingWorks.

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