How Do We Foster Team and Company Loyalty In Our Consultancy?
Much has been written about the demise of company loyalty, both from companies to employees and employees to companies. Not surprising as we’re walking into a form of capitalism which is too short-sighted to value relationships. The drive is increasingly towards the mercenary company staffed by a team of selfish employees.
The need for Loyalty 2.0 is strong – both from a human and a corporate perspective. This is especially true in consulting companies, where the benefits of cohesive teams are enormous, but harder to realise as teams group, disband and regroup across clients and projects.
In a previous role, I inherited a team with a voluntary churn rate of around 40% (meaning that every year 40% of our team was leaving because they didn’t want to hang around). In mathematical terms, this meant having to replace the entire team in 2.5 years just to stand still. But in reality, it meant a company that would rapidly go out of business. With my leadership team, we turned that round to an industry leading 6%, and achieved this during intensely competitive times.
We did that mainly by focussing on humanity, and demonstrating, then earning, loyalty. Here are some of the ways we did that, and lessons we learned.
Benefits of loyalty
Loyalty is quantifiable, financially impactful and spiritually rewarding. Here are some of the ways they impact especially in a consultancy. Note that this is not some idyllic utopia. We observed all of these and more in our own experience.
I focus on the financial impacts here, primarily because they are the ones you can measure. However, don’t underestimate the feeling of walking with a team where you feel some form of kinship – it is both infinitely satisfying, and underpins and expands the long-term financial impact.
- The direct cost of replacing staff is reduced. This is huge. Not only recruitment fees, but also on-boarding time; opportunity cost while you’re a team-member down; interview and selection time; time for new starters to get as effective as departing members; and so on. When we were at a 40% churn rate, costs simply to backfill leavers and stand still would likely have taken the company down.
- Your delivery quality improves as your longer-serving staff understand your methodologies enough not only to deploy them effectively, but are also comfortable enough with them to know when to apply them, when and how to amend them, and when to abandon them.
- Retention breeds retention. A team that has been with you longer is more cohesive and tends to breed similar behaviour with new members as they come on board. It also creates a body of people who can more quickly and effectively on-board new team members as you grow, making that process more effective.
Loyal consultants will naturally wax lyrical about their team and company. The emphasis is on ‘naturally’ – this is not an enforced elevator pitch that they are instructed to repeat verbatim, but conversations they have because they genuinely feel valued and empowered by their workplace.
This has a very strong impact in terms of attracting potential candidates who would be a good fit for your consultancy. People want to work with other people they respect and like.
In our case, this meant that we ended up not only attracting better fit consultants, but also not having to pay external recruitment fees to do so. Lower cost, higher quality and lower risk recruitment.
“Looking out” for the company
A wonderful symmetry happens when you look out for your team. They start to look out for you. This translates to a number of benefits, ranging from caring more about finding new business, to making sure they don’t let their team down in delivery and to improving quality as a result.
Creating company IP
Loyalty by definition is less selfish. Within a consulting environment, that means that you end up with a culture where your team of big brains creates for the common good, rather than for each for their own individual advancement.
IP gets created and shared. Knowledge is shared to provide a platform that others can build on. Methodologies are collaboratively developed.
Teamwork and delivery
A team that is loyal to each other delivers better quality projects. No one wants to let the rest of the team down. Team members are on the lookout for obstacles, and proactively warn the rest of the team about them so that they can collectively surmount them.
Not everyone is, or should be, a salesman. Often, consultants are excellent at delivery and suck at sales.
But business development is more than sales. Although they may not sell directly, every consultant is ideally placed to identify opportunities to add more value to his or her client, and should be able to escalate these opportunities through a sales channel. (We go into this more in our training for company owners / leaders, as well as our consulting skills course)
Finally, every consultant represents her or his consultancy, and as such is a model for the client of whether to engage more with that particular consultancy. An enthused consultant who clearly feels positive about his consultancy, provided this is not combined with arrogance, is a very strong attractor for additional business.
We’ve all been in workplaces where people are hanging around for the money, or because they can’t find work elsewhere. Where conversations revolve around employment woes. No one enjoys working there except whingers, who rarely make the best consultants.
An environment where most people feel some degree of loyalty to their work is usually a more positive one. And the positivity makes people not only enjoy work more, but encourages productivity and creativity.
Key factors that foster loyalty
So what are the key influencers of loyalty? Here are the key ones I experienced.
- Need to have a vision in place that means a damn;
- Need to be able to create belief that you can create it with your team;
- Need to lead in a way that demonstrates your commitment and takes your team towards it.
Here’s where we go politically incorrect. Diversity is great. But it should not be what defines your recruitment policy.
A huge part of company loyalty comes from working with a team you like to be with, and respect. That means that if all you’re looking for are the best people in your field, and not taking into account a cultural fit, then you’re not going to be helping create a bond.
Does that mean you should only employ consultants in your image (heaven forbid)? Should the consultancy be comprised entirely of 30-something white males? Not at all – that would be myopic disaster. The point is to balance diversity with fit. It’s not a binary choice: you want the best people and you want them to be able to bond without the need for singing kumbaya in a circle formation around you on guitar on a wooden raft drifting down some corporate-bonding event.
So make sure during your interview process you’re looking for cultural fit as well as excellence, aptitude, keenness and experience.
Cultural fit, I hasten to add, isn’t homogeneity. People with different backgrounds, genders, ethnicities and so on will bring strength and depth to your consultancy. But make sure they share the same values you are cultivating and leading with (you are leading with your values, right?), and that if they’re outside the pub down the road, they’re not likely to launch fists.
If you’re a sociopath, it’s unlikely you’ll build loyalty.
If you’re a micro-manager, you’re unlikely to build loyalty amongst autonomous self-starters (which is who you should be recruiting and growing).
If you’re just an unlikable jerk, and think respect or fear alone will build loyalty, you’ll only have it from those who can’t find somewhere else to go.
Which isn’t loyalty.
So pay attention to your leadership style. It doesn’t mean you need to go overboard on theatricals: in fact, in his excellent book “Good to Great“, Jim Collins identified the Level 5 leader as one who encompasses “personal humility and indomitable will”. Charisma? Nice, but not essential (and in his study, often counter-productive).
But sitting behind a desk in the corner looking morose won’t cut it either.
I’ll write more on leadership in another post, but what has always worked for me was based on a simple premise. Namely that leadership is simply a role, not a position of superiority or infallibility. We can very easily believe our own hype if we’re not careful. Fall into that trap, and not only will loyalty be compromised, but so will the future of your company as you close your blinkers to ways to move your business forward.
In my case, having inherited a team which felt very little or no loyalty to its leaders or employer, it meant demonstrating first my own loyalty to the team. One of their biggest gripes at the time was feeling that their management didn’t value them as individuals – typified by a career development process where nothing was documented or reviewed, where it wasn’t uncommon for the focus of career development meetings to be on the manager rather than the team member, and where nothing constructive to develop the consultant happened between one session and the next.
So my first action was to personally have full one-on-one career development sessions with the whole team (numbering around 60 at the time), leaving no topic off the table, personally documenting each session, and putting in place a structure to make career development integral to how we did business.
Was that hard? It was a hellish few weeks of very late nights, emotionally demanding and sapping. But if I was to expect any loyalty from my team, I needed to demonstrate that I would be loyal to them. Besides which, they were only on loan to me for this part of their overall career, and it would have been selfish in the extreme not to help them make the most productive advances in their careers during the time they were with me that we could muster.
So my question to you is whether your team feels and sees that you are in it as much for them as you expect them to be for you?
A genuine belief that your firm is contributing to something bigger than itself is becoming increasingly important in today’s workplace. I wrote about this in my article on how Maslow is affecting your workplace. But suffice to say that if your team feels like it is contributing to something more than your bottom line, they’re more likely to feel genuine reward and hang around.
And, ironically, in so doing, will contribute more to your bottom line.
Loyalty to your consultants
Branson famously puts his team ahead of his customers. In a consulting business, this is even more important.
Note that by no means is this saying that the customer is anything less than very important. It is simply that your consultants, especially those that get it and get you, are more important. And if you treat them that way, they will make sure that your clients don’t feel anything less than incredibly valuable.
What does this mean practically in our business? Here are a few examples:
- If you’re in a meeting where the client is going hell for leather at your consultants, don’t adopt a default stance of taking the client’s side. Obviously, try to reduce the confrontation, but defend your consultants (unless what they’ve done is indefensible). If the client has a point, and you need a stern conversation with your team, have that discussion afterwards alone with your team, but not in front of the client.
- If deadlines have become unreasonable, don’t expect that your consultants should work 24/7 to deliver. And don’t apply emotional blackmail on them to do so. Almost inevitably, that day may come, but don’t give it up easily. Manage your client’s expectations rather than horse-whipping your team. Have the difficult conversation with your client rather than the short-term one of just getting your team to put in more hours.
- A natural extension, don’t sell the impossible project. Challenging? Sure. But earn your stripes by renegotiating a project that’s on a hiding to nothing, or only deliverable through 60 hour weeks (which comes to the same thing).
- Treat your team as well or better than your client.
Loyalty is a two-way thing. If you don’t go the extra mile for your team, don’t expect them to do it for you.
Demonstrate trust in your team. It’s hard to be loyal to someone who doesn’t trust you.
Make sure not only that you personally demonstrate trust in your team, but also that your processes do the same. I often find that the more laborious and long a company’s policy documents are, the less trust is fostered. For instance, a travel expenses policy that goes into enormous detail on every variant of what is acceptable and what isn’t tells your consultants that you don’t trust their judgement.
The best way to allow genuine trust? It’s a fairly straightforward process:
- Recruit people who demonstrate trustworthiness;
- Be clear about your expectations of them;
- Give them support to make acceptable decisions;
- Then let them make them.
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 growth, scaling the company, and ensuring you create a positive culture 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.
So how do you turn this into action? Essentially it comes down again to that wonderful word, Leadership. And here are some tangibles.
Find your compelling vision. What is your consultancy about? Don’t confuse this with a marketing USP (which in my view wastes a lot of time and budget for consulting organisations). It is essentially what you want to do and stand for.
And once you’ve articulated your vision, clearly commit to it. Demonstrate how everything links back to it.
(We cover the route from vision and values to goals and operations in our Value/s Led Consulting online course, which you can read about here.)
Spend time with your team
I’ve mentioned this before, but schedule time to visit your team on client site.
If you’ve scheduled a client visit, make sure you see your team when you’re there. Don’t come onto client site, walk past or avoid your team, and straight into that client meeting. See your team first. Take them for a coffee or lunch. Or have a beer afterwards. But you don’t let them find out you that you came simply because the client told them after you left.
If you’ve not seen one of your project teams in a while, schedule a visit explicitly to see them, and find a way to add value to the client in your visit while you’re there.
Work as hard as you expect them to
Don’t be that boss who always has an offsite “meeting” at 2pm on Fridays. And if you’ve been unable to ward off working late for a project team, then don’t let them feel alone – rock up on occasion. After all, unless they’ve screwed up, it’s partially your responsibility that the client’s expectations haven’t been managed to avoid the scenario.
Create community-building opportunities during work hours
Find ways for your team to get together. Physically. I know that it’s terribly untrendy now to expect people to actually meet, rather than Skype or IM or Slack.
All of those have their place. But so does getting your team together for work, knowledge sharing or letting off steam.
In Conchango, as our team got into the hundreds, and it became a real challenge for us to foster a culture where we were all a part of the same team rather than on disparate client teams, I instituted Community Days, where we would all come off client site one day every 4 to 6 weeks, share project learning, develop intellectual capital, drive forward our own initiatives, and just as importantly, have a drink or twenty at a nearby venue afterwards. It made an enormous difference to our culture and organisation, and became an attractor for many applicants as word spread in our industry.
Recruit good and good-fit people
It all starts here. And by ‘good’ I mean both good at what they do, and a good fit.
Hiring people who are good at what they do has an impact not only on quality of delivery, but also on loyalty. If your team feels like you’re letting standards drop in your recruitment, it will reduce cohesion and belief in your conviction to your vision. Consultants like to work with people who they feel they can learn something from, or who they can teach something to. Someone who shows no predeliction for either is unlikely to bolster a growth culture.
But that’s not enough. You do need your team to like and respect each other. Recruit jerks and you’ll soon see loyalty from team members to each other dissipate.
Implement a deep induction process
By “deep induction process”, I mean one where new starters not only learn how to do things, but also the story of your consultancy, the story of the founders, what’s important to you, what your values are, how they translate into real day-to-day work, get to meet other team members and so on. The softer elements that start them on a journey of being a part of your team rather than an simply someone on payroll.
We cover and provide templates for successful induction processes in the Consultancy Lifecycle module within our training.
Create social opportunities
I’m not personally a fan of “team bonding” events. Done well (and that’s not always the case) they can be fun, for sure. But I remain to be convinced that they make a long-lasting impact.
However, regular opportunities for social interaction – lunch, drinks, coffees, events – build momentum. And that’s even more essential in a consultancy where your teams may be on client sites and not see each other for weeks or months without something being formally put in place.
Look out for your consultants
Check up on your team. Both in person, and through your eyes and ears on the ground. I found that my ops and scheduling team were by definition very close to the action daily, and were able to give me very timely tips of when I needed to have a reassuring word with someone.
If a consultant is in difficulty professionally or personally, be supportive. Remember your team comes first. Find a way to meet client needs if a consultant genuinely needs to come off client site for a personal reason. Your clients are (mostly) human, and you might even find it easier than expected when the need comes.
Practice Level 5 Leadership
I alluded to this before. But be humble. Many of your team can do what they do better than you can or ever will. Hopefully! Accept that leading is your role and responsibility, and treat it with respect.
Let your team make real decisions
Empowerment. A big word. An overused word. An essential concept. If you don’t let your team make real decisions, and I mean decisions that can genuinely impact your top and bottom lines, then you’re showing you don’t trust them.
Obviously, you apply your own common sense on this – the strings that exist will become looser as people become more senior or demonstrate their responsibility with the authority that you give them.
Don’t insist on reviewing every blog post before it’s published
This is a somewhat low-level strategy. But I raise it because of the amount of times I still see a gatekeeper on blogs. There’s a real message about lack of trust in that. Let alone the fact that backlogs of blogs build up until they can be checked and amended, slowing down momentum and will.
Publish a set of guidelines (we give you a sample set in our course), then trust your consultants to work within them, and deal with it if they don’t.
Aside from enabling them to make decisions, allow the team to get on with its work without having to get your approval / interference at every step.
AND, ensure that your management teams, including project managers, also don’t micro-manage. And if you’re using Scrum or some other form of agile, anyone micromanaging needs severe realignment as to what those methodologies mean and why they work.
Hire and train your team into doing the right thing, accept that not every right thing may be your right thing, and only pull things back when there’s a genuine need to.
Help your team raise its profile
Don’t be shy of getting them on stage, and supporting them in raising their profile. It shows confidence and enthusiasm for your team’s abilities.
Will the successful ones become the target of headhunters? Sure they will. Will you lose some of the best ones? Quite possibly. But that’s where loyalty comes in – the more effective you’ve been at fostering it, the less likely it is that you’ll lose them. And, paradoxically, putting your best consultants in public view is one of the most effective ways to build loyalty as it demonstrates that you value them.
Quite aside from which, it’s a great client-winning and employee-attraction tool.
It’s not just about retention
Usual retention factors about which much has been written
Loyalty is of many overlapping factors that foster retention. Other positive factors are written about and regurgitated in a variety of sites, journals and books. Factors such as non-financial rewards, training, comfortable working conditions, regular reviews and feedback and so on. Essential. These are things you must do.
However, don’t confuse them with loyalty. They are simply things that if you are to be a fair and good employer, you should be constantly looking at. They earn you a right to the game, but on their own won’t win it.
By the way, if you’ve not seen it, a great video on the topic of motivating your team (which is a big part of retention) is captured in the wonderful video based on Dan Pink’s presentation at the RSA.
Negative or neutral retention factors
There are multiple reasons people hang around. Many of them aren’t about loyalty. For example:
- If they can’t find work elsewhere;
- If they can’t afford to move to another job or company;
- inertia, convenience or fear;
- they only value the benefits or perks.
Usually, if these are the key reasons people stay, while not feeling any loyalty to your organisation, their staying with you will contribute to a negative culture. It will have an insidious impact on your culture as people show no enthusiasm for the company or what it does, but rather show that they’re there because of one of these factors.
Does that mean you shouldn’t pay well, or have good benefits or perks? Absolutely not – paying well and having a decent package are important. But don’t confuse them for loyalty, or you will be paying a heavy and destructive price for retention.
It’s about creating a company that feels good
While Loyalty is only one strategy for retention, it is the most effective, and the one that brings the greatest set of benefits. But the effects reach far beyond that. It makes for a more stable workplace. A more positive environment. A greater attractor for good consultants. A stronger message to potential clients. A deeper rooted Intellectual Capital base.
And just a plain good feeling! Which matters a lot.