When I was first asked to spearhead a new corporate relationship strategy for the business school where I was dean of graduate admissions, I felt a bit apprehensive.
From my work with prospective students, I saw firsthand how corporate tuition support had diminished. Many employers had become more reluctant to fund their employees’ continued education in graduate schools and they wouldn't be jumping to partner on just any program that I proposed.
I also knew setting up a new corporate outreach strategy was a major priority for my school to create a new revenue stream, help our instructors remain up-to-date on industry trends, and provide our current business students with access to career opportunities.
I'm happy to report that despite my initial trepidation, we ultimately launched a successful corporate partnership strategy consisting of certificate and training programs with a handful of locally based companies, such as a large bank, a national beverage maker, and an electrical component manufacturer.
But the process wasn’t always easy. And over the years, I’ve seen a variety of ways in which well-meaning plans for corporate collaborations can veer off-course, especially when it comes to initiating contact and managing ongoing communications. Whether you are creating your corporate relationship strategy for the first time or fine-tuning your existing one, here are four common outreach mistakes you’ll want to avoid.
1. Contacting only the biggest and most well-known companies
While it may be tempting to pursue only the larger and wealthier corporate players in town, don’t forget about other less obvious, high-potential opportunities. Think about how to leverage any unique positioning that your school has with respect to a specific industry and consider approaching smaller companies, where you may face less competition from other potential academic partners. Organizations that employ large numbers of your alumni and current students can also be promising candidates, since they’re already familiar with the value of the education you provide. In addition, be sure to familiarize yourself with existing corporate partnerships on campus and consider collaborating to build on those relationships.
2. Not tailoring your initial approach to corporate stakeholders’ interests
You may have a burning need to start up a partnership, but if you approach an organization with your own "asks" front and center, you risk facing reluctance. Corporations have many reasons to be hesitant to engage in partnerships, including concerns about being perceived as biased toward a specific school or being responsible for a certain number of enrollments.
Design programs that match corporations' needs
You’ll want to frame initial talks to appeal to the company. One way I've been successful is by positioning outreach as a dialogue to learn about the company’s most pressing challenges. In my work at the business school, we first reached out to the school’s employer advisory board. Our ask was simple: We had a new dean and he wanted to learn about the corporate landscape and entrepreneurial ecosystem. The companies were happy to meet to discuss that topic, and in the process, we started some very fruitful conversations that ultimately resulted in certificate program enrollments.
3. Not communicating a clear value proposition
Once you’ve started initial conversations with a corporation, you’ll need to begin developing the framework for a potential partnership. You’ll need to learn about the company and align your offerings to their high-priority concerns. I’ve had success by talking to frontline stakeholders early on, rather than trying to go through HR.
Turn one-off corporate trainings into long-term partnerships
For example, when we worked with the major beverage manufacturer, we got in touch with the CMO early in the process. He told me about a need to develop marketing analytics skills and that he already had funding to enroll his staff in a business analytics program. By speaking with him directly, I was able to pinpoint exactly what his team needed, and then clearly map out how our potential certificate offering could help fill in the gaps. As a bonus, not only was he acutely aware of the issue, he was also uniquely positioned to advocate for the solution, which allowed us to start the partnership out on strong footing.
4. Failing to coordinate external outreach
Between presidential agendas, department- or school-specific initiatives, career development programs, and more, it’s common for several different corporate relationship efforts to function simultaneously at a single college or university. While these initiatives don't need to be deeply integrated, it's critical that they're at least somewhat coordinated. A lack of internal communication can result in too many people reaching out to various contacts within the same external organization, which can easily jeopardize the health of the entire relationship. At a minimum, provide basic visibility into outreach and establish a single owner for each external contact. While a full-fledged CRM system is ideal, even shared spreadsheets are better than nothing.
As you start reaching out to prospective corporate partners, these considerations can help you put your best foot forward. In addition to avoiding these mistakes, you’ll also want to be sure that you’re effectively managing other important aspects of your strategy. EAB's COE forum recently published a study, Critical Disciplines to Grow Employer Partnerships, to provide guidance to identify prospective partners, assess employer needs, and position the unique value of higher education partners.
Whatever shape your corporate relationship strategy takes, be sure to emphasize mutual value creation. By launching a collaboration that serves both your school and corporate partners, you can lay the groundwork for a robust and long-lasting program—even if taking those initial steps may seem a little daunting at first.