Mistakes Made When Creating a Successful Talent Development Firm

Excerpt from “The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm” by Stephen L. Cohen (ATD Press, 2017).

What are some of the mistakes typically made in creating a successful talent development firm? Perhaps too many to list here, but here’s a start, sorted by category:


  • Hiring successful product salespeople to sell pure consulting services and vice-versa.
  • Not hiring, or hiring the wrong sales leader(s).
  • Selecting an unqualified or inexperienced business partner.
  • Relying too much on others to make the business work for you.
  • Not doing solid background checks regardless of who recommended the potential hire.
  • Not clearly communicating to your staff what’s in it for them.
  • Not terminating poor performers early enough.
  • Hiring the wrong finance director.


  • Not having a clear vision of where you want to go and when you want to get there.
  • Branding unclearly and ambiguously.
  • Not being able to live up to your value proposition.
  • Not using a well-thought-out project management system to deliver your offer.
  • Trying to become all things to all clients and not focusing on your strengths.
  • Not understanding that successful product development is best attained through the collaboration of a variety of people, knowledge, and experience.
  • Making claims of effectiveness of your offer you can’t support.
  • Failing to develop a marketing plan that incorporates updated online tools.


  • Failing to create a strategic plan or not adhering to one you have created.
  • Not turning over your finances to a qualified person or firm.
  • Merging your business or selling it for the wrong reason (e.g., to pay off your debt; to get out of dealing with administrative demands; or to free you up to write a book).
  • Being too inflexible to adapt to market changes.
  • Handing off responsibility for overall operations to someone without staying closely in touch with the business.
  • Merging pure consulting services with a pure product offer.
  • Not employing appropriate legal counsel.
  • Not protecting your intellectual property.
  • Failing to understand the intricacies of expanding internationally before doing so.
  • Assuming that because you have copyrighted all your materials, you can’t be ripped off.
  • Not understanding the legal parameters of different sales channels such as licensees, distributors, and partners.


  • Applying other industry principles of success to how you run your business (e.g., assuming the publishing business is the same as the talent development business because both produce books and manuals).
  • On the other hand, not applying those universal principles that work from other industries.
  • Failing to understand the competitive landscape of the industry.
  • Not understanding the most likely industry trends and altering your offer to take them into account.


  • Not listening to your employees about other problem staff members.
  • Checking out of the business before it is operating smoothly and profitably.
  • Taking excessive time off.
  • Showing off your financial success in the face of others’ struggles, especially if the business is teetering.
  • Taking most of the credit for your success without giving proper recognition and credit to others.
  • Turning the business over to your yet-to-be qualified family members or putting them in positions that readily expose their inadequacies.

As you review this list, some items may appear obvious, others not so. The only caveat offered is that not all mistakes happen all the time. There are plenty of exceptions to every rule.

Here is the good news. We all can learn from our mistakes as long as we know when we made them, why we did so, and how we can avoid them in the future. Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas call it “return on failure,” suggesting you can increase your acceptance of failure by simply recognizing the benefits of failed projects, the customer insights gained, and the people involved.

Excerpt from “The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm” by Stephen L. Cohen (ATD Press, 2017), which can be ordered at www.td.org/BuildandGrow

Dr. Stephen L. Cohen is a 40-plus-year veteran of the talent management industry, having founded and/or led eight different business entities in the field. He currently is in private practice focused on strategic and business planning, including senior leadership development. He has served on 15 advisory boards for firms in the training and education sector, helping them effectively navigate their growth strategies. He is the author of “The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm” (ATD Press, 2017). For more information, visit www.strategicleadershipcollaborative.com or e-mail Dr. Cohen at: steve@strategicleadershipcollaborative.


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