Building Consensus in Professional Services

by | Culture, Growth Strategy

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 other way.

Here’s why.


While channel surfing last night, I caught the middle of one of my favorite movies: The Karate Kid. Outside of the movie’s happy ending, my favorite scene is Mr. Miyagi teaching Daniel-san that his hard work has not simply been servile labor. Instead, through the deliberate, if mundane, movements of “wax on, wax off” while polishing cars, “side, side” while painting the house, and “up, down” while painting the fence, Daniel began learning the requisites of Karate. He began building the mind-muscle connections necessary to become a black belt and, ultimately, to defeat the bullies of Cobra Kai. Together, Daniel and the viewer learned that things aren’t always as they appear.


I often refer to my time at Andersen as my own Karate Kid experience—servile labor that was preparing me for a business black belt. One such wax on, wax off moment occurred when presenting to a partner group a strategic plan that the middle-market team had been working on for months. The practice leader and I had spearheaded the strategy initiative. It involved a strategic pivot and significant reallocation of resources across the firm. The presentation went very well and the practice leader was very happy.


I remember the feeling of accomplishment when I got the partners to agree to the strategy. I patted my team members on their backs for a job well done and myself for my persuasive dexterity. Little did I know that my desired result was far from achieved.  When the initiative unfolded with limited success, I realized that the partners had not really agreed to anything. The polite agreement I misconstrued as consensus was nothing more than the partners simply wanting to complete the obligatory meeting, get back to their offices, and continue approaching their businesses in the way they had always done. Their goal was to keep pursuing any opportunity that came in over the transept and NOT make any choices or “pivots” that they felt would limit their “strategic flexibility.”


I have seen that scenario play out time and time again in every firm I have worked in. As a result, I’m leery of easy consensus with my clients and challenge it whenever I see it.


Recently, in a strategy meeting summarizing the prior day’s working session with firm leadership, I asked if everyone still agreed on the ideal client and market segments that we had agreed to attack. All eight participants nodded in agreement. I turned to the whiteboard to start working on the next action step. I suddenly stopped writing and turned around.


I said,  “So, you’re telling me that everyone in this room feels like we nailed this ideal client profile, and every one is 100% supportive of executing against it?”


I stood quietly. They sat quietly. The tension built…then, the dam broke.

“Well, what about the “A” attribute. Can we really speak to that buyer?”

“I don’t think the “B” attribute works because it is too limiting.”

“AND, what about attribute C? Do we even have people who can deliver on that?”

“Now that is more like it.” I said.


They, too, did not want to make hard choices or limit “strategic flexibility.” Their collective response was NOT the strategic approach to growth that the CEO wanted or the choice that was going to lead to accelerated growth and a differentiated brand.


So, we took a step back. What followed was a robust and meaningful strategic discussion that resulted in a strategic choice to focus on growth opportunities that the firm could clearly win.



I’ve worked in partnerships for decades and partners NEVER reach agreement easily on anything meaningful.


If you find yourself easily building consensus on a strategic choice, your Spidey senses should be buzzing. Perhaps your partners don’t care, you’re not really making a strategic decision, or you’re getting a pocket veto. It’s much better and more effective to stir the pot now than to move forward thinking that you have buy-in that does not exist. Getting stuff done in a BS of PS culture requires that you know the difference.


If you don’t, then you’ll continue getting beaten up by the Cobra Kai bullies.


Be prudent.



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.

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