Have your skills gone rusty since you started your consultancy?
If you lead a technical consultancy or a web agency, and come from a place where you did much of that technical consulting or design yourself, I’ll wager that you’ve grappled with a gnawing feeling that you’re rapidly deskilling. Oftentimes, it was the very depth of skill and expertise you had that enabled you to start your business – but as accounting, tax, recruitment and god-forbid, sales became bigger parts of your role, you’ve felt the double whammy of not being entirely comfortable with this new world, and increasingly out of touch with the one that formed the backbone to your leaping out on your own.
And if you haven’t, and are still doing your technical or design consulting for much of your time, then unless you’re one of the very rare few founders who have recruited their own bosses, I’ll bet that your consultancy or agency hasn’t grown anywhere near as much as you’d hoped.
If I’m wrong on both counts, then read no further – this article’s not for you! But if you’re concerned that your skills are getting out of date, then read on!
What do you want your consultancy to be?
The first thing you need to ask before deciding how big an issue this is, is “What do you want to do with the consultancy you, and your cofounders if you have any, started?”
This is not a question of your vision – what world-shaping problem or opportunity you’re addressing – but far more simply, what shape and size you want your company to be, and what, if anything, do you want to do with it?
If you want your company simply to be a vehicle for you to contract, and if there’s no team that you’re responsible for, and finally, if you also harbour no desire to grow the business, then you do need to do what it takes to get back in touch with your skills. In fact, it worries me that you’re spending your reading time on this article rather than the latest from Stack Overflow or Usability Geek!
However, if you want to build a business or get bigger, or if you already employ a team and want to keep them employed, then you need to recognise that most likely you’re going to need to learn new skills, and that you are going to have to learn to love them.
Key among those will be doing what it takes to recruit and grow people who need to be getting as honed as they can with in the skills your client is paying you for!
What do YOU want to be?
In a similar vein, you do need to decide what you want to be. Because if your answer is “a UX consultant” or “a technical consultant” or “a creative director” or a “data architect”, or fundamentally anything that is a full-time role within a project team, then either you shouldn’t be growing a consultancy, or you need to get comfortable that you’ll need to recruit a boss.
You’ll have likely heard the adage that you should “work on your business, not in your business”. It’s a wonderfully pithy, memorable and quotable line (from a pretty good book, the E-Myth). But I do find it a little trite and twee. It suggests an artificial line in activities that isn’t always helpful.
I prefer to think that you need to multiply your business, not add to it. Not as catchy, but I think much more practical.
That doesn’t mean stop being client-facing
I’ve worked with many senior consulting leaders or consultancy owners who went client-dark once they had their own consultants on the ground. Indeed for a while, especially in my previous consultancy after we were acquired, I went there myself.
Removing yourself from delivery doesn’t mean removing yourself from clients. Whether that’s relationship-building, being executive sponsor for a project, or selling, consultancy leaders and owners should in my books always remain client facing. This is essential if you’re to keep abreast of what your clients are looking for, as well as for feedback on your teams, and outright business development.
Example activities you should still do with clients:
- Being executive sponsor for key projects, and sitting on project boards;
- Engaging in higher level strategy sessions with your clients;
- Providing cover for your teams when the shit hits the fan (and keeping your team honest at the same time as you’re covering for them with your client);
- Meeting new stakeholders within the client;
- Presenting projects to your clients’ boards.
This is where I have some of my issues with working “on” your business. I’ve seen more than one leader interpreting that as doing ops and finance, and therefore extracting themselves from being with clients. Day-to-day ops and finance are about making your business run as friction-free and financially responsibly as possible. Sure, setting them up to work that way, and some key decisions may well be about scaling the business, but most day-to-day activity is not.
Multiply, don’t add.
Multiplying numbers, as we all learned when we were younger, is much more powerful than adding. The analogy is direct – if you are looking to grow a business, you will be most successful if you find ways to make adding happen rather than doing the adding yourself. That way you become a multiplier.
(Not to crawl too far up my own mathematical analogy backside, but in reality, the very best growth is when you can multiply the multipliers – by definition exponential growth.)
What are adding activities? The most obvious one in our trade is engaging in billable work. Work that you can only once at a time, and bill for it that once. For example, “a UX consultant” or “a technical consultant” or “a creative director” or a “data architect”. Although the best consultants fulfilling those roles should be simultaneously growing the business by demonstrating skills and building relationships that your clients want to continue and deepen, essentially, those are still additive roles.
If your entry point to this consultancy that you’ve started was as that superb technical architect or experience director – then one of the most fundamental skills you need to hone and learn to love is to grow “mini-yous”. Because attracting, recruiting, retaining and growing excellent consultants is definitely a multiplier for your business. Instead of you finding ways to add value to your clients one at a time, and then being paid to provide it, you have a team of people doing it.
Equally, if you’re over doing delivery work and have moved into the office to spend time on accounts or resourcing the team, then realise that those are also additive activities. They aren’t growing the business – they are keeping it functioning smoothly. Critical, but neither growth-focussed, nor likely to keep your business ticking over and paying its consultants. As soon as you’re in a position to do it, you should get someone else making sure those things run smoothly while you get out and grow the business.
If you’re looking to truly grow your business, you need to engage in multiplier activities. There are essentially 3 key types of these:
- Making sales happen;
- Creating a machine to deliver value with quality to clients;
- Creating a place where the best want to do their best work.
I dive into these more fully in our blog post, The 3 Activities That Leaders of Successful Consultancies Focus On. Sorry for the click-baitey title, but it’s actually what the blog post is about!