Tips for Growing a Professional Firm
by Kevin D. Crone
Do you have a seller/doer model at your firm? There are about 50,000 small firms in Canada that do. After investing five to seven years educating to become an engineer, CA, or lawyer and depending on math, the numbers and equations, the majority of new hires go through many transitions before they are responsible for growing their business.
From designing or doing technical work, client manager, project manager, business development, manager/department head, executive, or accomplished strategic business person, the common denominator in all of these transitions is having to communicate and work effectively with customers, team members, employees and executive teams.
Recently, I heard the CEO of a client of ours, Dr. Reese, say how important dealing with people, communications skills and attitude control was to doubling his business since 2010. “The same skills are necessary for support staff as well.” He said he is convinced that most professionals don’t realize they have such a need and it takes a special kind of leadership at the top to drag everyone into developing those areas.
The Andrew Carnegie institute of technology told us about this many years ago. In fact, they said only:
15% of a person’s success was due to technical knowledge and up to 85% was due to skills and attitudes that include such traits as enthusiasm, drive and vision.
You might say that human engineering skills are the building blocks for everyone’s success. Unfortunately, most professionals think they have those skills or are not sure they matter.
For example, professionals have to sell their work and they just hate it. They see it as demeaning and demoralizing. With the advent of the Internet everyone’s marketing/sales has become commoditized. Firms have to be better at face-to-face or group business development and communications, and most groups aren’t used to it. If they want to grow their business, they need help – whether they like it or not. They depend too much on requests for proposals and are always trying to build account relationships but that seems to interrupt the technical work which they constantly retreat to. We have discovered that it is better to expand comfort zones by adding behaviours they can do, with practice and application, rather than try to convert someone into what they aren’t hard-wired to do.
So business development has to be added to the doer rather than making salespeople out of technical professionals.
We just completed two years of research to discover the main trends and contexts for talent management in Canada. We have learned (among other things):
- The professional can use their technical insights for getting the attention of a client, to get them aware of their problems and issues before they realize it on their own. As a professional advisor who is paid for what they know, it would be an easier way to approach old or new prospects than try to get them to like them. You might call it being a combination of technical/marketing/sales advisor and coach.
- The professional, as well as everyone in sales, is going through a transition from product/service pedlar who responds to requests for proposals, or commercial visitor who buys old clients dinner, or even the higher skilled solution seller who does a great deal of analysis before they propose anything, to becoming an interruptive seller where they introduce attention-getting insights, take control of the conversation through examining how the insights and their subsequent offering impact a client’s business. This is a different way to build and book business with old or new clients.
- This interruptive business developer coaches a client upfront around what they don’t know and drags the customer into doing what is right for the business.
Within every project and in every back office or boardroom, there are challenges and problems that take strong people skills from everyone who touches the work or has to administer or manage in order to ultimately please customers while achieving maximum margins at the same time. “These challenges can’t be solved with math and equations that left brain engineers are more comfortable with,” Dr Reiss says.
Over the years, we have worked with many transition leaders from great Canadian firms like Hatch, Stantec, Bantrel, Deloitte Touche, Price Waterhouse, Jacques Whitford, and many others who make it a priority to build the emotional skills and right brain competencies and stretch their associates’ comfort zones. Seeing things from a client’s view point, listening from an emotional level, building genuine interest in others, giving praise and appreciation, speaking with enthusiasm, being effective at speaking to other’s needs, communicating with high impact in groups, seeking alignment in teams, managing from a team perspective, building and coaching others, are all examples of new-age skills for professionals.
Ron Nolan, the former CEO of Hatch, used to say, “Engineers are not hard-wired with the people skills so they need to continually develop them.”
It is no surprise that these kinds of firms have had exceptional growth. With the trend to using buying groups, professional buyers, consensus buying, it is tougher on the relationship builder, the RFP responder and even the solution analyzer – the market wants advice but don’t necessarily want to pay for it. Deals are too complex and since the great recession has caused the death of deal sales methods, you need to examine yours to see how you adapting.
- What are your non-technical skill needs or people-engineering needs?
- What are you doing to book more business through a business development transformation?
- Have you given up on building the human engineering performance of your teams?
- What is an insight for you today?