This week two disparate events converged in my mind to provide some useful advice to professional services firms wanting to grow.

The first event was the release of a professional services “high growth” benchmarking study.

I’m not a fan of this report because I think it reflects sample bias and often confuses correlation and causation. However, a chart in the study caught my eye. Respondents were asked to “rate the perceived level of effort invested on a scale from 0-10.” The chart (below) shows the proportion of “High-” and “No-Growth” firms indicating high levels of effort invested. The conclusion, I assume, is that firms that put more effort into actions like video blogging can expect to be “high growth” firms.

 

The second event was a solo, 35-mile, Sunday bike ride through the rolling hills of Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

After a long winter, cycling season has begun in earnest. I came across several fellow cyclists building base miles, doing hill repeats or just mashing away. Seeing the other cyclists made me recall the evolution of my cycling knowledge, beginning with my first embarrassing group ride to my mastering bike maintenance, dressing for all riding conditions, and training to compete.

As I passed another cyclist going up a hill, the report’s graph and my training regiment converged in my mind around the concept of “effort.” Hang with me here.

One of the ironclad training precepts that separate serious cyclists from weekend warriors and winners from losers on the racing circuit is the concept of “effort.” Cycling training, like most training I suspect, is constructed to stress the body beyond its current physiological (and mental) limits and then give it time to recover. Cyclists ride at their absolute maximum doing intervals, sprints, and hill repeats. These are make-you-puke efforts. Then they take recovery days, spinning on the bike at speeds that would drop them from the local grade school kid peloton.

Undisciplined or casual riders, on the other hand, normally ride at one speed. It’s a speed that is neither fast enough to stress the body to a higher level of performance nor allow it to recover adequately when needed. As a result, the rider’s fitness either plateaus quickly or fatigues. A cyclist who is hoping to realize performance gains wastes his effort by taking leisurely bike rides; undisciplined riders misplace effort by not training hard enough on the “hard” training days and not riding “easy” enough on recovery days.

The high-growth study made me think that most professional services firms “train” like these undisciplined athletes because they put too much effort into the things they shouldn’t, like video blogging and other fads, rather than on performance-enhancing actions. In short, they never achieve a performance level that allows them to break from the peloton or dictate the race.

To help firms get fit, I’m suggesting some areas where I think professional services firms need to stress themselves and their firms more and some areas where they would benefit from rest.

 

Exert more effort and stress by:

Clarifying and Executing Strategy – Most firms have some annual planning process or periodic firm strategic leadership retreat. Firms do a lot of talking, use some vogue strategy consultant methodology, air some dirty laundry, and produce some beautiful PowerPoints. In the end, it is low-stress stuff and the result is a return to the status quo. This is often done to avoid confrontation, to avoid losing face and to be “fair.” Firms should be making the hard strategic choices of killing practices, adding new ones, abandoning markets and adding new markets, and investing resources accordingly.

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Strengthening Culture – I write often about the “BS of PS,” the inherent dysfunction baked into professional services firm org. structures, rewards systems, and REAL value systems. Cultures that fail to push through to the next level of performance are marked by “live-and-let-live” ethos, passive-aggressive behaviors or “hit-your-number-and-anything-goes” performances. The result is cultural fatigue that creates firm-wide underperformance. Instead, firms need to do what Ted Harro, a healthy leadership team virtuoso, calls picking a good fight. His model is simple – we’re trying to manage two variables when picking fights: what we fight about and how we conduct ourselves before, during, and after the fight. He says if we can fight constructively about substantive things more often than not, we won’t do the negative things that leadership teams typically do. You’ll waste less time, focus more energy on important things, and maybe even enjoy work more.

RELATED: Are your firm’s values any different than the local dry cleaner’s?

Selecting Clients – When I ask most practice leaders and teams whom their ideal client is, I am often given the prevailing B-A-N-T answer. That is anyone who has budget, authority, need, and timeframe for making a buying decision. While the answer is much better than “I don’t know,” it still is still sorely incomplete. It misses the mark because it neither recognizes the unique value that the firm offers nor the differentiated value that particular buyers desire. As a result, firms end up chasing opportunities that are less profitable long-term, erode the firm’s reputation, and have huge opportunity costs. Firms need to exert the effort of identifying THEIR ideal client. More ideal clients produce stronger brand, more engaged employees, and healthier growth.

RELATED: Swagger Wagon and the Art of Market Segmentation

Developing Intellectual Capital-There is a storm brewing and intellectual capital is the shelter, if not the meteorological plan flying into the storm’s eye. Expertise is one of the three drivers of brand preference. Unless you want to be out of business or just an order taker, your firm has to make the Herculean effort in time, money, resources, and risk to carve out a distinct, substantiated, and relevant point of view on your ideal client’s issues. The way forward is simple but the effort intense. Decide what expertise you want to own and don’t stop until you own it.

RELATED: How to Prepare Your Firm for a Digitized World

Carving Out More Time to Think – Professional services firms live and die by the billable hour. Living by a utilization number is exhausting and debilitating long term. Take the time to recuperate on a vacation. More importantly, take time to just sit and think. Don’t think about work or a client or a specific pressing problem. Just think big wonderful thoughts about life, the world, relationships or anything else. Get to the forest, the ocean, the mountains or a place that’s out of your comfort zone. Expand your mind.

RELATED: Time to Think

A few other areas to think about:

 

Go easy on:

Keeping up with the flavor of the day – No SOMETHING ever changes EVERYTHING. Firms waste so much energy chasing the latest sales, marketing, or leadership fad! Just chill. Blocking, tackling, playing your position, and avoiding penalties and turnovers win more Super Bowls than anything else. Just do your job well.

Policing your brand – Please stop wasting energy managing your “brand.” It really is just a logo, colors, and imagery. Life will go on even if the wrong font, Pantone color, template or verbiage is used. Culture and reputation are what matter.

Thinking the worst of others– Give others the benefit of the doubt. Instead of wasting energy deciphering another’s ulterior motives, assume that nothing nefarious is going on. Perhaps someone is having a bad day. Maybe you are a little sensitive. Perhaps someone may even be giving you a gift requiring self-reflection. Save your energy.

Having to be right – Instead of avoiding the embarrassment of being wrong or making a mistake, save the psychic energy by owning the mistake, learning from it, and moving on.

Seeking credit – Instead of fighting for credit, try giving it away to another person. It is amazing what sharing credit does to improve interpersonal and team dynamics. It takes very little energy to publically recognize another for a contribution—big or small.

Holding grudges – Human beings love to hold grudges, seek revenge or delight in schadenfreude. In addition to consuming energy, holding onto past transgressions robs us of the joy of the current moment and the openness to future possibility. Forgiving someone does not mean that you approve of their behavior. It simply means that you choose to move beyond it.

Where is your “effort” out of balance?

 

Be prudent.

Brand mistakes professional services firms

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