Are You Building the Reputation You Really Want?

by | Brand Strategy, Culture

I advise my coaching clients to ask others a peculiar and uncomfortable question for feedback:


“How do I occur to you?”

It is a weird question, but one that offers incredible insights into one’s public persona. Asking the question requires a sizeable amount of courage, humility, and the desire for self-learning. It can be met with confusion, distrust, and a requisite need for explanation. If asked sincerely of an authentic colleague, friend, spouse, or other people who have a vested and sincere interest in helping you grow, it will produce incredible, new and actionable feedback.

When I started asking the question years ago, I heard things like “extroverted” (Really? I am a serious introvert most of the time), “intelligent” (I’ve always felt insecure about that one), “ambitious” (Whoa! I thought I was hiding that one), “moody” (Ouch! but true), “serious” (And, I thought girls liked me for my sense of humor, egad!), “distracted” (I believed that was my great mind at work!), “competitive” (I always saw myself as a laid-back, Type-B), and “pretentious”—well, you get the picture.

We are all hesitant to reveal the insecurities that we know we have and to be introduced to new ones. Overcoming my fear and asking the question gave me sorely needed, real-time feedback so I could trim my sails and change course over my career. I asked bosses, peers, and subordinates the question. I even got comfortable asking complete strangers “How do I occur to you?” Most of us are our own worst enemies because we have blind spots that we choose neither to see nor to deal with.

Our firms are just like us.

I was meeting with a savvy managing partner recently to put his firm’s new growth strategy through a crucible.

The firm had been incredibly successful for decades and its client list was an A-list of companies. Unfortunately, its traditional service revenue was declining and its future services were unclear. Its traditional buyer was evolving quickly and its workforce’s skills had atrophied. Lower cost competitors, driven by technology, were not just nipping at its heels; they were tearing chunks of flesh from them. The firm’s market had shifted.

When It's Time to Reinvent the FirmAs the CEO and I worked on the ideal client segmentation, it became evident that the firm was quite clear on the demographics of its target market (revenues, industry, geography, function, etc.), but the firm had not documented, and therefore not aligned, the firm’s focus on the more important psychographic dimension of its ideal client base. As a result, it was pursuing, selling to, and trying to serve prospects and clients that didn’t appreciate the firm’s POV or value.

The firm prided itself on its client collaboration, creativity, and ease of doing business. But, companies were hiring the firm just to get one-off projects done. As the market shifted, many clients demanded greater speed and lower costs, and quality mattered less. My client’s customers neither wanted the firm to provide “big picture” context nor hear its strategic thinking to improve the work. The customers just wanted their shit done. Clearly, from the managing partner’s moving description, this was not the legacy he wanted to leave for his firm. At that point, my conversation with the managing partner turned.

I told him,

“In our firm relationships, like in our personal relationships, we teach others how to treat us. There are three roles a professional services firm can play in the market. You can be an Order Taker, an Order Maker, or a Dinner Party Host. You are playing one of them now. Which one you choose to play in the future is up to you.”

Here’s how each role attacks the market and builds its reputation:

1. Order Takers focus on low cost, speed, and commodity projects.

These are the “get shit done” executioners. Hand them the answer, the due date, and the budget, and they’ll deliver it, as requested—no questions, no value-added thinking, no fuss. The client mindset is “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” Order Takers provide “food as fuel”; it’s consistent, filling, and fast.


2. Order Makers think big thoughts, make bold proclamations, and set the tone for the market.

Clients do not ask them for project deliverables. They go to them with BIG problems to be solved. These big thinkers pride themselves on being able to solve unsolvable problems. They appreciate that clients come to them with their problems, but they pity them for their ignorance in making such obvious misdiagnoses. Order Makers have gravitas. They are trendsetters, gurus, innovators, global experts, NY Times™ “best-selling authors,” and Davos keynote speakers. I heard one say recently that ‘artificial intelligence’ is so last year!” Order Makers are the great chefs of the world. One does not eat their “food;” one is inspired by their “art.”


3. Dinner Party Hosts co-create.

Very few people have dinner parties anymore, so there are few Dinner Party Hosts. If colleagues or friends dine together, it is, more often than not, at crowded, dimly lit, chatter-filled restaurants that serve over-priced wine and pretentious dishes. Who wants to go to the trouble of planning a menu, shopping for food and flowers, cleaning the house, slaving for hours in the kitchen, and having their homes judged by others? People who understand relationships and want to give a part of themselves to others. That’s who.

According to Rust Hills, author of How To Do Things Right: The Revelations of a Fussy Man, the dinner party is an ensemble, not a venue for “stars.” A dinner party takes work, but the best hosts make it charming, interesting, and memorable. Dinner parties are somewhat formal, but not pretentious. Successful Dinner Party Hosts, choose wisely whom to invite into their homes. The goal is to “break bread,” share stories, and build relationships on a personal level.

Successful business leaders at all levels similarly understand the importance of hosting—of indicating to colleagues that they are important enough to invest their personal energy, time, and money into. Their associates are so important to them that they’re willing to share their private space with them.

Dinner Party Host firms value long-term relationships. Openness, collaboration, and “third-way” thinking are at the heart of their culture. These firms bring deep competence, a strong point of view, humility, and open minds. Like Order Makers, Dinner Party Hosts live to solve big problems. They simply choose a different approach to solving them and they put client success ahead of their own reputations.



Which one of the three is your firm: the Order Taker, the Order Maker, or the Dinner Party Host?

Instead of answering the question yourself, ask some clients, prospects, and employees, “How does our firm occur to you?” You might be surprised by the answers.

I know I was.

Be prudent.


Brand mistakes professional services firms

About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

Is your firm achieving its full growth potential?

Growing professional services firm


Related posts

3 Steps to Align Sales and Marketing in Professional Services

3 Steps to Align Sales and Marketing in Professional Services

Aligning Sales and Marketing in professional services–in any industry for that matter–is a perpetual challenge.  If you spend time in either function, you know what I’m talking about.  Marketing blames Sales for not following up on the leads they share. Sales says the...

Building Consensus in Professional Services

Building Consensus in Professional Services

If you find yourself in a partner meeting having achieved consensus on a strategic choice without blood and guts having been spilled on the conference table, then you have probably not made a strategic choice. Professional services firms don't build consensus any...