Ideas for Leaders #075

‘Partners of Choice’ for an Agile Workforce

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Key Concept

An alternative to traditional full-time employment relationships, ‘Partners of Choice’ are starting to form the basis of new, supremely agile organizations. This is a longer form of contracting relationships, based on trust and cherry-picking expertise - whilst still ensuring commitment and competence. Choosing, attracting, and managing the right partners then, is key to their success. 

Idea Summary

Following an economic crisis, organizations often find themselves needing to do more with less employees. Is this possible? How can organizations construct a flexible workforce of highly-skilled workers that supplement existing full-time staff with the same level of commitment?

There is a spectrum of different types of employment relationships that exist, from traditional full-time jobs to engaging people for one-off projects on a contract basis. Then there are repeat-working relationships with certain people that continue over time, based on our trust in them; for example, mechanics, doctors, and accountants. Beyond trade services and traditional professions, these are becoming more popular in knowledge-intensive fields as well. This longer-term repeat contracting relationship can be described as a ‘partner of choice’— and they are the best suited to meet basic needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness.

Sociologists advocate that traditional relationships can be grouped into four broad categories: market-pricing, equality-matching, authority-ranking and communal sharing relationships. A partner of choice relationship does not fall under any one of these. Instead it’s a hybrid of all four.

An example of this type of relationship in action can be seen at Duke CE – the source of the White Paper cited here. When it was launched, it became clear that Duke faculty alone couldn't be relied upon to meet every clients' custom education needs. More educators across more topic areas and geographies than Duke could offer were needed. As such, a large network of educators (or "partners of choice") was built, which now includes university professors, personal coaches, industry specialists, retired executives, and many more.

Business Application

The real key to success in developing and managing a flexible workforce lies not in the legal contract, but rather in building trust through providing an experience of competence, autonomy and connectedness. In order to do that we can propose the following recommendations for leaders:

  • Determine what is unique about your organization that could attract the kind of partners of choice you'd want in your network.
  • Don't fall into the trap of interacting with your partners of choice in ways consistent with employment relationships you're most familiar with, like spot contractors or full-time employees.
  • Engage your partners of choice in work that allows them to show their expertise.
  • Allow your partners to control the ways in which they work. Solicit input from your partners to clearly define the outcomes you're both trying to achieve, and don't micromanage the ways those outcomes are achieved.
  • Give your partners opportunities to connect with a network of people they find interesting that they wouldn't be able to get on their own.

However, it's also important to note that each organization will bring its own unique assets to a mutual relationship; for example, in the case of Duke CE, many of the educators they formed partner of choice relationships with choose to connect with them because they want to be associated with a top ranked corporate education provider. They warn that while such reasons may bring people in the door, ultimately it will be the approach to managing the relationship that will keep the parties connected and performing at their best.

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Idea conceived

  • 2010

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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