A trip in to the future

Having just signed off the largest single piece of corporate entertainment we have ever done for this year’s Olympic Games in London, it got me thinking about how fantastic life is at the moment…

 

We recently realised a dream of winning a client we’ve been targeting for some time.  Some of the best talent in the country wants to work for us, we opened a new office last year in one of the world’s strongest markets and to top everything – England won the 2011 rugby world cup in New Zealand!

It hasn’t always been so good

In fact when I look back, just a few years ago, life was very different – let me take you back to 2009.

It was all doom and gloom, if reality didn’t depress you, the media certainly did!  Everywhere you looked there were stories about rising unemployment, business failures and quantitative easing.  The only respite from economic meltdown came in the form of Swine Flu and MPs’ dodgy expense claims.

No, it wasn’t a lot of fun back then.  We suffered losing one of our best clients, had to make 10% of our staff redundant and shut down one of our offices.

I remember one very bad day in particular as it proved to be a turning point. It started with being told that I and several of those in my team, had been included on the dreaded ‘at risk’ list.  This was followed by a meeting with one of our key clients where I was told that due to the pressure they were under internally, we would have to cut fees or face losing them to some very aggressive competition.

It is said that the two biggest motivators in life are fear and greed; well I can tell you I was certainly fearful on that day. What surprised one or two people (and me, if I’m honest) was my reaction.  We could easily have been dragged down by the general pessimism that prevailed in our business as well as in the wider professional services community, but we chose not to.  Along with my team we set to work on a project that ultimately took us to the successful position we are enjoying today.

 

How we did it

The first thing we did was take a fairly cold-hearted look at ourselves and undertook a review of the business.  We involved staff, clients, friends and industry experts in this fairly short and sharp process.  The results were very interesting and provided some much needed clarity for us.  We decided that in order to survive and grow we needed to put our effort and energy into four areas of our business:

  • Developing a focus for where we wanted to be
  • Business development
  • Teamwork
  • Leadership

Focus

 

We had allowed ourselves to become too stretched.  Our research told us that our marketplace didn’t really understand what we stood for or why they should choose us over our competitors.

We decided where we wanted to be in three years time.  This was not in any way a wishy-washy mission statement; it was a well thought out vision of where we wanted to be in the future.  Here’s an example of some of the things we considered:

 

  • The type of work we wanted to be doing
  • The type of clients we wanted to attract
  • The kind of individuals we wanted working for us
  • The market’s perception of us
  • Which parts of the world we wanted to be operating in

 

It was only part of the issue to decide where we were going. We then had the much harder task of turning the vision into reality and to do that we knew we had to reinvigorate our business development efforts.


Business development

 

We had always known business development to be important but we hadn’t really thought before how few people actually carried out targeted, proactive and ultimately productive activity in this area.

We realised that in order to build a larger cohort of individuals to win business from both existing and new clients we first needed to agree what good selling looked like for us. Being a professional services firm we have a large number of people who would rather poke themselves in the eye than go out and ‘flog’ our services!  We set about changing the mindset when it came to selling – much more building the client’s motivation to buy from us than persuading them to accept our offering.

We branded our selling modus operandi in this way and put our fee-earners through a programme designed to increase their confidence through the development of a practical skill set.  We made some real progress.

At the same time we identified our twelve best clients – not only those who provided the best revenues but those who had the potential for growth.  In some cases it was the kudos factor that got them on to our list.

Again, we knew that unless we did an outstanding job we were in danger of losing clients.  We had a real wake up call when some of our best clients told us that the most important things to them (alongside quality) were about how we delivered the work, how we communicated with them during projects and (importantly) between projects.  This persuaded us to move to a team based approach to client management and business development.

 

Teamwork

The need to improve our teamwork was driven, in part, through client feedback.  We were told things like “we don’t know anyone except the client manager, it’s frustrating when she is unavailable”.  The need to get better was also driven by the nature of our work – it tends to be either feast or famine for many people making it very difficult to keep on top of client relationship management all the time.

We created two types of teams; the first aimed at developing business in our chosen markets.  Part of their remit was to become industry sector experts.  Again, our clients have told us that the only way we can differentiate ourselves from the competition is to live and breathe their world, to understand them well enough to be able to deliver our work for them in the context of their commercial ambitions.  These teams signed up to receive trade publications and allocated reading and communicating responsibilities.  They attended, and spoke at, industry conferences and hosted seminars on highly topical subjects.  In essence they became THE thought leaders in their chosen fields.

The second type of teams were key client teams.  We pulled together the most appropriate individuals from across the business to build teams for each of the twelve clients we had identified.  When we thought about what makes high performing teams work (interdependence, clear objectives, good listeners, enthusiasm etc) we chose people based on their contribution to the team – we did not let politics get in the way!  To be selected for a client team we looked for individuals with:

 

  • An interest in the client
  • Knowledge of the client’s industry
  • The ability to work as part of a team
  • Existing relationships within the client
  • The desire to be involved

 

The team sizes varied between four and eight.  Although there were often more people involved in delivering work to the client, it was this team that had absolute authority over how the work was planned and executed as well as how we as a firm communicated with the client.


Leadership

 

The fourth area was mostly driven by our own people.  As part of our cold, hard look at ourselves we asked our people a simple question:

“If you could go to the open market and tender for the leaders and managers of our business a) what would the criteria be for success? and b) would you stick with the incumbents?”

I can tell you the results of this were a huge wake up call.  It wasn’t all bad, we had plenty of respondents saying that yes, they would stick with their current manager but too many who, given the opportunity, would seek a change.

Getting this element right was vital. Without strong leadership throughout the organisation, it meant the three other areas we looked at would never work as we needed them to.

 

We followed a basic leadership principle that said we needed to invert our ‘management pyramid’.

 

From this:

 

To this:

pyramidb

 

The principle being that the entire organisation is set up in a supportive structure with clients at the top.

Having got this message through to the managers and leaders of our business we realised that more than half of them had never had any development in this area.  We set about helping them to become the best they could be through a number of different means including one-to-one coaching, leadership development centres and internal mentoring.

Getting the leadership of our business right meant that we were now in a much stronger position.  Not only were we all rowing in the same direction, the boat was steady and the team on board were clear about the strategy and what their role was in helping us to achieve our objectives.

If I were to put my finger on one thing that led us out of those very difficult times it would be communication.  As a firm we became entirely (internally) transparent and we involved all of our people in the process.  Good, consistent communication tied the four pillars of our strategy together.

Back to the future

So here we are, looking forward to the London Olympics – with my current ‘feel good’ factor I think we’re going to do even better than we did in Beijing.

It has not been easy to get to where we are today but I put it down to having a real belief in this business, a clarity of vision about where we wanted to be and a positive mindset.  All of which drove us very hard.  We stuck to what we absolutely believed to be right and we made decisions – not all of them right – but we made them and we made them quickly.

In fact, I’ve just made another one – glass of champagne anyone?

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