The Value/s Led Consulting Framework for Profitable Growth Leading with your Values
Growing a digital or technology consultancy isn’t easy. But it’s easier than scaling. Most often, the inhibitor to growth, or the reason a company hits a growth plateau, is because it is not designed in a way that scales. That design needs to take in aspects ranging from operations to values, from business development to creating challenging careers, from project delivery to company leadership.
The Value/s Led Consulting framework described here brings these all together in a coherent and consistent way to build a platform for digital and tech consultancies to grow profitably and in a values-led way. It is based on real world experience of leading, growing and advising tech consultancies and digital agencies from a relatively small base of ten or a dozen people through to 500 people and turnover in excess of £50 million.
Profitable growth, interesting work, enjoyable work and contribution. Is it too much to ask for in building our own consulting businesses?
I’ve worked with consultancies that within 12 months have doubled their revenue (which was already 7 figures) while deepening their values across the organisation. In my own experience, I led the turnaround of a team that, with a churn rate of 40%, was threatening to take our consultancy under. Using a set of principles and values, we reduced churn to 6%, grew from 50 to over 200 consultants, became a destination employer, and sold the company for over £40m. And enjoyed the ride along the way.
Principles and values, intangible as they are, were critical to that success. Because especially in very people-centric companies like consultancies, values, culture and humanity make the difference. Indeed more broadly, we strongly believe that all commerce should be in the service of humans. That means in our books that it should:
- Make a profit – without this, nothing sustainable happens;
- Enrich the lives of its owners, its employees, its customers, and the community it operates in;
- Be enjoyable. We’re not here for long, and we spend a disproportionate amount of our waking hours at work. So whether we’re the owners taking the risk, or the employees who alongside the owners are putting in the time and effort, it needs to do all the above, and still be enjoyable. Mostly.
Consultancies uniquely sit at a leverage point. We work with multiple clients to improve their ability to service their clients. So our ability to influence beyond our own direct ecosystem is enormous. That is a responsibility and an opportunity. The aim of the Value/s Led Consulting framework is to provide a practical, action-based way to scale and to realise that opportunity.
The Value/s Led Consulting Framework
- Continual learning and adapting. At all levels of implementation, especially in these times of exponential change that we live in, the organisation needs to be inspecting outcomes, learning from them, and adapting or reinventing to improve. This module looks at how that is practically applied at all levels within the organisation.
- Numbers and acting on the basis of fact. I don’t discount intuition or genius. Both have played a significant role in the success of humanity. But depending on these is leaving much to chance. Closely related to Continual Learning and Adapting, this core module is about getting a grip on which are the KPIs that matter, and which are the vanity metrics. And then treating each type in the manner it deserves.
The Value/s Led Consulting framework builds out in 3 layers.
- Foundation – the founders, and their vision and values;
- Processes – which translate the foundation to the company’s key operations and actions;
- Outcomes – which describes how this all translates to employees and client-facing activities.
These are not discrete areas by any stretch of the imagination – they are completely interdependent, need to be as perfectly aligned as possible, and should feed and mutually reinforce each other. But for the purpose of representation and implementation, it is more effective to go with a model that allows us to start somewhere rather than trying to start everywhere and getting nowhere!
If your plan is to move the ship in a certain direction, it has to start with the board. But just having a board, or having one that is purely operationally focussed (maximising utilisation, managing costs, looking at the next big deal, and so on) leaves the strategic direction of your organisation to chance.
So this module is about getting your leadership ship-shape. Yes, that’s partly about role definitions (CEO, CTO, Creative Director, CFO, etc.). But the bigger work is in understanding that the primary role of the board is to lead, with all the messiness that this involves. And that leadership starts with your vision and your values.
Why should the best consultants in your space join you? Why should clients come to you rather than anyone else? Where are you planning to take them? The fundamental part of how you answer that question should lead directly back to your vision.
More than just a statement for your website, a good vision acts as a rallying cry for your team when things get tough, and an alignment of direction to make the most of opportunities when things are good.
Alongside your values, your vision should also form the basis for how you make decisions. A clear vision, well articulated and adhered to should at the very least remove much ambiguity around decision-making. But at best, it will allow you to make decisions at a higher, more impactful level.
Study after study, such as this one from MIT, shows that culture and values have a direct correlation on your financial performance. Companies with positive values made real outperform the norm. Companies with those same values, if they are articulated but ignored, underperform.
Meaning that you’re better off not articulating any values if you don’t have a will and a way to follow up on them.
Unlike your vision, which declares a direction of travel, your values articulate what’s important to you in terms of how you do things. These may range from the product-focussed (“to deliver projects at a higher quality than our customers hope for”), to the human (“to respect and support the broader lives of our team”), to the procedural (“to make our work as enjoyable as we can without compromising delivery”), to the altruistic (“to find ways to always add to society with our unique combination of skills”).
I’ll accept that my examples likely suck for most of you. And that’s good. What you articulate should reflect your own priorities.
Values that you actually lead with, and which you reflect in your processes, will end up defining your culture. So if you don’t articulate and lead with them, then if you’re lucky, a culture will form depending on the strongest characteristics that you unconsciously exhibit. Or it will be left to chance and the strength of personality, for better or worse, of influential members in your team.
So in this part of building your foundation, you need to articulate your values, and just as importantly, have a process to turn those values explicitly into reality. It can be done in a relatively straightforward way, but it needs structure and discipline.
From Vision to Goals
Just as your values should permeate your processes, your vision needs to be translated from website fodder to action that takes you there.
This is where what you do as a board comes in. If your board meetings are glorified ops meetings, then you’re missing out on the most systematic way available to you to make your vision something that your team believes in and works towards.
A part of your company’s plan needs to be how you take you vision and turn it into reality on the ground. We’ve seen this work best when it is chunked down and an iterative process put in place, which is punctuated with board meetings which review progress and fine-tune or completely redefine projects and actions. The board meeting is turned from wondering why Liz’s utilisation is still below 20%, into one that defines how the company is going to serve its clients, its employees, its owners and society more effectively.
It always astounds me how often consultancies treat operations as a low value admin function whose role is simply to move people around. If those organisations realised that their values and culture live or die by how their ops teams work, then they’d give the role the respect that it deserves.
Ops is your central nervous system. It is the most important part of how your vision and values turn into culture and currency. Make no bones about it – the decisions this function makes in terms of the impossible balance between project work, pre-sales work, professional development and IP development, essentially with a layer of humanity applied over the top, will define how your consultants feel about working with you.
For this reason, you need complete alignment from whomever holds this role, and complete clarity about your priorities, including the commercial and the value-based. Our framework also heavily recommends that proactive HR, such as career development and recruitment, sits in here, as it needs to be intimately a part of consulting operational decisions.
More often than not, our types of organisations start with a couple of consultants who either believe they could go it alone and do a better job, or see an opportunity. And the basis of the pipeline is usually existing clients.
There’s good reason for this. If you’re continually providing more value as you go along (we like to call it the creed of disproportionate value), then your clients will want to do more with you.
For your existing clients to continue to do more with you as you grow larger, which you will need to master as a foundation for your growth, you will need to explicitly work on your 3 key levers for maintaining and growing your existing client business.
- Understanding the value of relationships. You’re a people business, and people may like, hate, or be apathetic towards other people. Get this wrong, by which I mean not understanding who to build relationships with, and how to make those relationships positive, and you’ve opened the door for someone else to do the next project. That doesn’t mean sleaze – in fact, that’s a near guaranteed way out of the door. But it does mean genuinely looking out for your key relationships, and developing a basis for positive and enjoyable work together.
- Understanding the true objectives of your work. Your team needs to know when the requirements are not the requirements, and in that case, what the client really wants. Where’s the real value of what you’re doing, how do you maximise that, what are you able to trade-off in order to achieve it, and what are you not to touch?
- Delivering quality. No delivery quality, no repeat business. But just delivering expected quality isn’t enough – you need to be finding ways to continually surprise your clients with the quality of your delivery.
All of these need to be done not just by you, but by your consulting team at all levels. The mantra we often use with technologists, for example, is that they are not developers, but consultants who develop. So your plan needs to include a way for you to support your team’s ability to find ways to always add incremental value to your clients, and do so in a quality and enjoyable way.
Winning New Clients
There will also come the point where existing clients are not enough to either grow or maintain the business. This is typically where many technology consultancies and digital agencies falter, or downgrade the work that they do in order to win new clients. “Bodyshop” a lot of one or two person projects. Take on smaller and smaller projects just to keep cash-flow going.
A good framework needs to include how you will win new clients at the right level. If there isn’t natural sales ability in the team, this may include the often hard step of recruiting a salesperson. If you on the board are naturally good at this, or have developed it as an ability, then that is often the best answer. Management consultancies and digital agencies usually understand this in a way that technical consultancies don’t.
It also takes an understanding of what a sales and marketing funnel looks like, and how it works in the context of a technical or digital consultancy. Breaking it down from your overall target into conversations and leads, and then putting in place a system to make that happen.
Scrum. Prince 2. RUP. Extreme programming. Design thinking. Behaviour-Driven-Development.
The jargon is rich. I can’t tell you which is for you, though we clearly have our preferences.
What you do need to plan for, however, is a structured way to learn from your projects, and apply that learning organisation-wide to continually improve or (and I hate how this word has become so overused) disrupt how you deliver value to your clients most effectively. This is our creed of continual development.
Too often explicit learning either doesn’t happen at all, or is restricted to the team involved. There are ways to take this learning and apply it across the organisation. The key is to either embed it in your own methodologies, or make the learnings bubble up just at the time when the next project needs to use them.
Similarly, your team needs to understand the financial value of quality – the immediate ROI in terms of less rework at your own cost, and the longer-term ROI in terms of delighting your customers and increasing the probability of repeat business. But more than that, I would only hire them in the first place if they intimately take pride in their work. If they don’t, then I would say you have the wrong hires.
Although this sits at the end of our list here, in many ways it is the most important area to get right. The Value/s Led Consulting representation can make things seem discrete which really aren’t. Nowhere is that more obvious than in how every part of the framework interacts with your client-facing team.
We call this module the “Star Generation Engine” because at its heart, your consultant strategy needs to embody the following lifecycle for creating consulting stars:
- Attraction. A way for the best people in your domain to find you, so that you are not dependent on recruitment agencies or having to constantly seeking them out yourself. When this works well, not only do they find you, but because you’re a known entity, they become somewhat self-selecting.
- Recruitment. How to start their lifecycle with you at the point of recruitment. How to have a process that finds best match for you and them, and selects or eliminates accordingly.
- Onboarding. Once they’ve accepted your offer, you have a once-only opportunity to create a very deep relationship from the outset, and engage them in your team so that they are bought in and effective right from the start.
- Retention. The base level requirement for the consultants who fit best. You need a strategy that isn’t about pay or perks. Or at least, that isn’t dependent on those to keep the best with you.
- Growth. A big part of your retention strategy should be how you provide an environment for the best to thrive. We emphasise providing an environment, rather than force-feeding growth, as that should be a part of the process by which those with potential rise to the top of their capabilities with you. A systematic process to allow them to do this is key.
- Departure. The day will come. Sometimes of the consultant’s accord, sometimes of yours. Regardless of what it is, you should have a process in place that makes this as positive an event as it can be. They will talk about you to potential clients or recruits, and you won’t know about it. Opportunities may be created or cut short depending on what terms you ended on. But more important than that, their humanity doesn’t end when they’re no longer a part of your team, and you need to ensure your process keeps that in mind.
We split this across 2 modules in our programme simply because it is so large, and so critical. Get this right, and most other aspects fall into place.
So there it is – the framework at a high level. Note that although that is the most structured way to explain it, this doesn’t mean that it is the most logical prioritisation for your consultancy.
If you have no pipeline, then you need to focus on sales. No sales, no business. If you have a pipeline, but lose money hand over fist with too many deliveries, then you may need to focus either on your delivery, or on what expectations you’re setting at sales.
That said, for successful value/s led growth, you will need to work on all aspects of this framework, wherever you dive in.
We’d love to see you on the program. We start next on 14th June 2017. Find out more here.