The 3 Key Things That Leaders of Successful Consultancies Focus On

Leaders Don't Add - They Multiply

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If you're a leader of a consultancy or agency, you need to let go of the activities that add to your business, and get onto the ones that multiply it. That means you're not spending significant (any?) time in consulting, or designing, or project managing. All of those are additive activities that should be done by your team.

Effective leaders grow their businesses by engaging in multiplying activities. What does that mean in a consultancy or an agency? There are essentially 3 key types of multiplier activities:

  • Making sales happen;
  • Creating a machine to deliver value and quality to clients;
  • Creating a place where the best want to do their best work.

All of these are a part of values-led leadership. And many buzzwords (including the key one of 'culture') are embroiled in there. But if you want to know how to grow your consulting business, those 3 activities are essentially the biggest parts of your job. That should at the very least be what your board is mostly engaged in.

Then as you grow, you should recruit other people to join you in those multiplier roles. You accelerate growth by swelling the ranks of people who are also creating work for your client-delivery team and making it easier for them to deliver it in a quality fashion.

What does that mean in practice? What would those multiplicative activities be? Here are a few.

Making Sales Happen

Leaders Make it Happen

No sales, no business.

It's as simple as that. It's the piece that many consultants-turned-consultancy-owners procrastinate over - selling is not usually in our blood. But it is the thing that will kill your dreams as soon as that first client project finishes - you know, the one that you started because of a relationship you already had.

The 3 things you need to focus on are:

  • directly selling - you need to be engaged directly in selling, even if you hire a salesman, at the very least to keep abreast of what your clients place value on in a proposition;
  • developing a sales capability so that everyone is selling (including possibly hiring someone to only do sales);
  • raising your profile so the right prospects find you.

You also need to own how your company will add real value to your clients and prospects, and create a way to articulate it so you or your team can sell (though I wouldn't overly dwell on creating a Unique Selling Proposition / USP).

A little more detail on those three...

Selling Directly

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Sales is most definitely a multiplicative activity. One sale means a whole team engaged.

Most consultants I know are most at ease when they are either delivering or having conversations that build credibility. Both are essential for a sustainable business. But without the ability to open a door in the first place, or get a purchase order at the end, not much happens. Some consultants are good at that - most aren't. It's a different mindset.

Consultants who can do all of this - open doors, prove credibility and build relationships, then close a sale - are gold-dust.

Whether or not you're that person, if you've started a consultancy, you will need to find a way to make consistent sales happen. That starts with doing some of the selling yourself.

If you're already a salesperson, then great - keep doing what you're doing (if you do it well). Importantly, also spend time figuring out how to get everyone else doing it at some level, either closing if that's their aptitude, or at least finding opportunities to add incremental client value.

But if you're not a salesperson, then get out of your comfort zone and start doing two things:

  1. Find ways to add more value to your existing clients, then explicitly talk to your clients about how you can help them realise that value;
  2. Approach prospects, ideally through contacts and recommendations, or failing that through inbound calls, conferences, partners, or whatever, and initiate conversations about what their key pain points or opportunities are.

You need to do this. Most obviously in order to grow your business. But also for so many reasons besides.

  • It will deepen your confidence in what you do.
  • It will keep you in touch with what your clients want, what they value, and what they're prepared to pay for.
  • It will forewarn you of challenges and opportunities coming in your industry, and will help you know what your competitors are doing.
  • It will help you grow as an individual.

Developing a Sales Capability

If you truly want to scale up and remove bottlenecks from your growth, you also need to develop your company's sales capability. That means both process and people. How you sell, and who sells.

This in itself is the topic of volumes and volumes of books. We also cover how to do it organically in one of the modules in our membership programme. Summarising in a single subsection here is impossible.

But, you have to at least do the following:

  • Define who you will sell to clearly, and who you will not sell to. Get really good at avoiding selling to people who can't hire you in companies that don't want you.
  • Find out how to add value to the customers you want to sell to. Articulate what your core capabilities and strengths are in a way that they give a damn (see "How do we articulate our consulting USP?").
  • Create a process to sell, nitty gritty style. How you'll qualify who to call. When. Schedule followups.
  • Create an environment where everyone is actively looking for opportunities to add value, and a clear process for who to talk to and what to do when they see one. Not every consultant can open a door or close a sale, but with the right training, they should all be able to uncover opportunities, build relationships, and get someone involved who can turn those into additional work. We go into a lot more detail on this within the consulting lifecycle module in our training.

Raising Your Company's Profile

Growing a consultancy is hard without being noticed

A visible, clear, authentic and appealing profile is your most effective platform for attracting clients and building a team.

At its most effective, it happens through word of mouth without you even being there. But you'll have had to do a lot to create the kind of visibility and profile that means those conversations happen. There's no such thing as an overnight success.

That means at its very core, raising your profile is a highly multiplicative activity.

Things you could do directly to trigger a talked-about profile would include for example:

  • speaking in conferences;
  • visibility on social media;
  • hosting events;
  • writing articles and blogs;
  • authoring books;
  • creating and distributing videos;
  • engaging in highly visible projects;
  • winning awards;
  • ranking highly in industry reports and analyses;
  • engaging in community and community-building activities;
  • getting press coverage.

All of these have a role to play at different stages in your sales funnel.

You can apply significant leverage by enabling and empowering your team to engage in these activities. Effectively, you'll be creating a number of multipliers for the business. Get them blogging, on stage, hosting events, writing articles, running communities. This helps you get customers, as it establishes credibility as well as raising your profile. At the same time, it will showcase the calibre of people who work with you, and that you're the kind of company that loves to give your people a profile, which will increase your appeal as a home for quality consultants. You'll be multiplying demand and supply in one fell swoop.

A word of caution before moving on here - do evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts, as it is very easy to do a lot and create little. Especially with social media, which can be very effective, but can also be a deathly time-sink with no return.

Creating a Quality Value-Delivery Machine

Flawless Project Delivery

The heart of your business is to create value for your clients by delivering great projects. Doing that delivery yourself constrains you to one client at a time. However, enabling your team to do it well, repeatedly and predictably is a critical multiplier for you to engage in.

That means creating a quality value-delivery machine.

In no way should this "machine" be interpreted as removing the scope for individual genius - you should be recruiting the kind of consultant who will always be looking for opportunities to create more value than you or your client expected. But an effective quality-delivery machine should enable you to do at least these three things well:

  • Identify the real value that your client is looking for;
  • Deliver quality work that enables them to realise that value;
  • Take the lessons you've learned from each delivery to improve how you do all future deliveries.

Our membership programme offers owners and leaders of consultancies and agencies detailed training, templates and coaching on how to grow a Value/s Led Consultancy. Designed for companies with at least 5 billable employees and/or a turnover of £500,000, we cover strategies and practical implementation details for

  • how to grow your company,
  • how to create a platform for it to scale without imploding, 
  • how to create a positive culture even as you grow.

It is delivered by our founder, Iyas, based on his experience while growing a consultancy and Full Services Agency which was sold for £42m.

You can find more details here.

Identifying the real value

You need a process to identify the real value that your client needs and will get from the work you do for them. This isn't always what they've asked you for. Unless you can get to the heart of this, you'll risk disappointment at the end of the project. You'll have delivered a project to a client who hasn't got that actual value s/he was looking for. You'll also get no follow-on work to add more value.

Part of this happens during the sales process. A deeper analysis and identification usually comes in an initial phase - discovery / definition / or whatever you wish to call it.

This phase should not only identify where the value is, but also place a number on it. This ensures that both you and the client are focussed on the same opportunity, and aware of its magnitude. It builds the business case for them, and demonstrates the ROI of getting you engaged.

The importance of this can't be overstated - more projects fail in the clients' eyes because this work wasn't done up front than for any other reason.

So your key multiplication activity here is to ensure that you have this process defined and in place for all the work you do.

Delivering it

Quality Delivery Process

One of the greatest values engaging a consultancy brings over and above hiring contractors is a defined and consistent approach. We've had teams of 6 or 7 people go in and replace 40 contractors on a client site, and drive faster, higher quality delivery. Not because the contractors weren't skilled - but simply because we had a defined approach, known and followed by everyone on our team.

I'm not going to write a delivery book here - there are many methodologies, and many more skilled teachers of these out there. But for what it's worth, I'm a huge fan of iterative Agile approaches, simply because they allow you to constantly refine to the highest value based on continual feedback from the client. I'm somewhat biased, as in my former role we became the key proponents and practitioners of Scrum in the UK. But that was precisely because we could see how effectively it unleashed value.

If you want to get some of the best training on this in the UK, you won't do better than to look at Learning Connexions. Their trainers are elite  Scrum practitioners, including the founders of Scrum and the brains behind some of the most successful implementations. This is not a commission-based recommendation - we simply make it as we know the quality of service there.

I won't engage in a methodology debate. But whatever it is you choose, you do need to choose. So take that experience of delivery that you have, and rather than applying it incrementally one project at a time, use it to define an approach that is effective at delivering value in a quality way, that is well understood by all your team, and which demonstrates clearly to your prospects and clients the additional value of engaging you over anyone else (including their own staff or a team of independent contractors).

Improving how you do it

You will always be competing for projects with the client doing it themselves, or using contractors to do the job. Your key differentiators should include:

  • unlike internal teams, you've repeatedly done your kind of project in a variety of different clients and environments.
  • unlike independent contractors, you have the experiences of a full team and a methodology to draw on for any engagement.

To make those differentiators real, you not only need a defined approach, but a system to ensure that you are taking the key lessons from each implementation and improving your delivery by using these.

You need your methodologies as well as your consultants to be continually learning and continually evolving.

We propose a detailed approach for taking those lessons across your organisation in a very practical and implementation-focused way in the delivery module in our training, but whether you use that or not, you need to find and implement a way (and a culture) of continual improvement.

Creating a place where the best want to do their best work

A Fun Working Environment

As I alluded to earlier, you need mini-yous in the business. In reality, you need mini-better-than-yous in the business. You need to set a high bar in terms of your consultants' abilities to add value to your clients, find consultants who will continually raise that bar, and give them an environment and culture to enable them to do that.

I've seen many leaders set their hiring bar low because they think they can't find or retain people who are better than them. There's often a concern that if they were that good, they'd be starting their own consultancy or agency.

That may indeed be true of some. But excellence in a profession, and the desire and ability to take on the risk of starting and running a business are two very different things.

You'll know some people who have no experience and mediocre skills, but are looking to set up businesses. Just check out 90% of the practitioners in the self-help or internet marketing industries. High desire to run a business, low quality. And the reverse holds equally true. But you'll find superbly capable, creative and delivery-focused people who prefer or need the stability of a steady income.

So, back to the plot, a key multiplicative activity you and all your board should be engaged in is figuring out how to entice and grow the best candidates in your area of practice.

Recruitment (and supporting work)

Recruitment usually starts before you're involved. A big part of your success will depend on how effectively you manage the message when you're not even aware that the discussion is happening.

A prospective consultant will become aware of you either because they've heard your name in the industry, they've met someone who works / worked with you, or they've seen your ad or been approached by an agent. You are master of your fate whichever way it happens.

Your quality, reputation, and the calibre and attitude of your consultants will to a large extent dictate what prospective consultants hear about you, either in the industry, or through a current or ex team member. And as far as agencies go, you need to spend the time telling them not only your spec, but also your stories, your values, what makes you great to work for. They need to be armed to effectively and honestly sell on your behalf.

Then your recruitment process needs to reflect your values, as well as being fair, open and professional. By professional, I don't mean suits and ties, unless that's your culture. I mean:

  • there should be structure. It shouldn't be a mess, with an applicant not knowing what to expect, having to repeat themselves over and over, not knowing where they are in the process, and so on.
  • it should be transparent and communicative. Don't leave an applicant for weeks without notification, or reject them without explaining (honestly) why. I've had people reapply to join my team because they got solid career advice in a previous interview which they went and followed.
  • it should be human and respectful. Don't leave a candidate waiting for you for half an hour in reception. Don't be on your mobile during interview. Don't even bring it in to the interview. Do offer a drink. Don't be inappropriately personal in interview.

We cover the recruitment process in more detail within our training, but there is a lot of material out there you can use to make this slick and effective.

Creating Growth Plans for Your Consultants

Consultant Career Development

Now that you've made the effort to find and recruit the best, you need to find and systematise a way to retain and grow them. The best, as you know from your own personal experience, are always looking for growth. If you can't provide that, then you'll not hold on to them for very long.

In reality, to maximise your chances of retaining a happy, productive and high calibre team, you'll need to cater for as many of their professional needs as you can - see our article on the Consulting Maslow Hierarchy of Needs for a quick rundown of some of the most important ones.

We've developed a consulting lifecycle model, which we go in to in a lot of detail in our training, predicated on becoming a star-generating-engine. Your clients want stars. The best consultants want to work with stars. I liked little more in interviews than when a candidate told me he wanted to join to work with Jamie or Howard. It showed that we'd done a good job of allowing our internal stars to shine, and that the candidate had real aspirations for growth.

In my books, creating and implementing a way to effectively allow stars to grow and shine is without doubt one of the top priorities, and key multiplicative activities for a consulting leader.

Leading

This goes without saying. Leadership is the highest multiplier. Motivating your team (and often your clients) to be more than they though they could be, giving them confidence on the occasions where a catalyst is needed, demonstrating a life of continual improvement.

I'm not writing an article on leadership here. Sure, I have my views and experiences - good and bad - and will probably write on them. A search on Amazon (better bookshops are available!) returns 132,000 results. An off-the-hip list of things I'd look at would include:

  • Creating and constantly pushing a compelling vision;
  • Being clear about your values and principles, leading with them, and ensuring that the key processes in your organisation reflect them;
  • Handing out the plaudits, shouldering blame (especially from clients), but ensuring the team knows (in private) when it needs to do something different;
  • Fostering and rewarding a culture where people own and are responsible for their work with support that doesn't stray into micro-management;
  • Supporting your team's growth in more than just words;
  • Making decisions, and ensuring that others are able to do so for those decisions you don't need to make;
  • Being at least as dedicated to your work as you expect your team to be to theirs;
  • Being human;
  • Recognising that leadership makes you neither superior nor infallible, but is simply a role you play.

These are just some points that come to mind that helped me. They're not for everyone, and aren't the full list. The key thing is to find your own way to lead successfully, if you haven't already.

But make sure you do. It's the ultimate growth enabler.

Our membership programme offers owners and leaders of consultancies and agencies detailed training, templates and coaching on how to grow a Value/s Led Consultancy. Designed for companies with at least 5 billable employees and/or a turnover of £500,000, we cover strategies and practical implementation details for

  • how to grow your company,
  • how to create a platform for it to scale without imploding, 
  • how to create a positive culture even as you grow.

It is delivered by our founder, Iyas, based on his experience while growing a consultancy and Full Services Agency which was sold for £42m.

You can find more details here.

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