Marketers and practice leaders need to learn to get along. In this episode, Jason and Jeff discuss how to make that happen.
Jason Mlicki: This is Jason. You want to be on Rattle and Pedal? We have a great audience and we think you should know one another, so come on Rattle and Pedal and share a success or a mistake. Visit Rattleandpedal.com/peerstories to learn more. Now on with today’s show.
Speaker 1: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal, diversion thoughts on marketing and growing professional services firms. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki and Jeff McKay.
Jason Mlicki: So Jeff, we’re coming up on the end of the year here, the end of 2019, and we’re about to go into a new decade. One of the things I have noticed is, it feels like everybody’s in introspection, reinvention mode right now. I’ve seen more marketing movement, more people moving from one job to another, advancing, migrating to a new position, more people thinking about where their career is, where they want it to be and my hypothesis is that, is we’re entering a new decade and everybody’s waking up and looking around and saying, “Am I doing what I should be doing? Am I doing what I want to be doing?” and it’s at a firm level and at a practice level all over society, is my belief system.
That said, you proposed a topic and I feel like it’s a great one and we should dive into it. What it was, was you said what to teach a new practice leader. The reason I think it’s a great topic is I think there’s going to be a lot of new practice leaders next year. People that are nextperts moving into new positions, firms start launching new practices, destroying practices. It just seems like it’s a pivotal moment where firms are reinventing so I can’t think of a better topic. I’m glad you suggested it and I’m glad I had the guts to say, “Yes.”
Jeff McKay: Wisely, once again, you made a good choice.
Jason Mlicki: Are you seeing the same thing? Are you seeing everyone kind of introspection running high this year?
Jeff McKay: I do. I think that business is so dynamic and so much so right now. If you’re not being introspective, you probably should start. You should start. You should start. Then again, I think high performers tend to be introspective all the time in a very disciplined way, not haphazard. I guess, market dynamics could drive the volume of it perhaps, but I think it’s going on most of the time.
Jason Mlicki: All the time? Most of the time?
Jeff McKay: Yeah. Yeah, definitely, in the top firms and with with high performers.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, that’s a valid point. My theory is basically that it’s heightened in these pivotal moments because you think about going into a new decade and you think about 2020. I remember so many clients we had years ago. We had vision 2020, and 2020 was this pivotal moment when tons of things were supposed to happen. Now my sense is that people are going, well wait a minute, it’s going to be 2020, and those things we thought were going to happen five years ago haven’t happened. Now we need to reinvent here, so there’s a lot of that going around I think.
You want to give us some perspective on this, meaning that is this what to teach a new practice leader, what’s the frame of reference? Who’s teaching who? Who’s teaching the practice leader?
Jeff McKay: It’s a great question. The inspiration for this comes from David Maister.
Jason Mlicki: Who’s that?
Jeff McKay: He-
Jason Mlicki: I’m messing with you.
Jeff McKay: For people who don’t know, he is one of my heroes and kind of the grandfather of understanding professional services, and how to grow and manage them, and wrote a seminal book called How to Manage the Professional Services Firm. He had a chapter in that book that I really, really liked. When I had a new practice leader or a practice leader that was struggling, I always shared that book with them, but pointed them to that chapter which is in the middle of the book, as the first one for them to read, so that they could understand what their job is. I think so many people that get to be practice leader have a misconception of what that job really is and it takes a while to get your sea legs in that role.
Jason Mlicki: Let me interrupt you for one second. It’s a lot like the podcast we did about leadership teams where you talked about that, where you said, “I always wanted to be on a leadership team and then I got there and I thought, I don’t know if I want to be here.” It’s a lot like that, right?
Jeff McKay: Yeah, yeah. Well you think, well now I’ve got this power title. I’m the king of the practice or now you’re in control. I really think neither one of those are true, because a practice leader role really is not one of operations and administration as much as you might think it is. It’s definitely not a power or title position. If you think of it in those terms, I would venture guess that you’re not going to be successful in it, because the role of a practice leader is very much one of servant leadership I would think.
The role is about engaging other type A, successful, driven, ambitious, intelligent human beings and enabling their success, by educating them and focusing them and channeling their energies and ambitions. The role really is coach. It’s about getting the most out of others, both as individuals but together as a team. If you don’t have that context, I just don’t see how you’re going to be successful as [inaudible 00:05:50].
Jason Mlicki: When you suggested this topic, one of the things I wrote down was that the practice leader, if you’re advancing up there, you have to shift from not just facing outward, but to start working inward, meaning, you can’t be entirely focused on clients and business development. You have to start developing the people behind you, the experts, and start really trying to work yourself out of a job from the moment you become a practice leader to some extent. Right? I mean, is that part of what you’re saying?
Jeff McKay: Yes. I think very much so. I think this is kind of the quintessential, what got you here is not going to keep you here, because the practice leader role is about engaging, encouraging, educating, and focusing and channeling the energies and ambitions of some very high-performance team players. The practice leader is about getting even more out of them, helping them achieve their potential individually and as a team.
I mean, it’s essentially, they should call it coach instead of practice leader because it very much is coach, what plays are we going to run, and who’s going to be the best person in those positions to run those plays so that the team wins, and how you motivate and encourage individual players, differs. This is very much, well it’s an oversight of a big function. It is very much an interpersonal and one on one type of role.
Jason Mlicki: Let’s buy in this for a second. When we’re talking practice leader, we’re talking about people that lead anywhere from a handful of people, a small practice of seven or eight people. I mean, I would argue an eight-person firm is a single practice from, up to running what? Something that in companies is thousands of people?
Jeff McKay: Yeah, absolutely.
Jason Mlicki: It’s interesting that the first thing you went to, and I think this was loosely on my list, although obviously you speak to it better, it’s just this idea that you have to start working inwardly. It’s funny, as I said that, the thing that I’ve seen is I see a lot of practice leaders, the mistake I see them making is that they’re a little too focused on the client all the time. It’s all about the client, all about business development. It’s all about sort of facing the market and bringing business in the door for that practice.
While that seems logical, I guess I learned the hard way from a former client of ours, an engineering firm at the time called River Consulting, the CEO, and he had kind of got up from the business development function. That was the first thing he told me. He became president, and he’s like, “Once you’re running the place,” he’s like, “that’s the first thing you have to realize is you’ve got to get inward.” You have to spend more time thinking about the culture and thinking about the people than you would do when your job is to go bring in new clients and new work solely. What else is on your list? Maybe what else comes to mind? If I’m new to this seat and you’re teaching me what I need to know, what else [crosstalk 00:08:39]?
Jeff McKay: I have about a hundred things on my list.
Jason Mlicki: Great, that’s awesome. Jeff’s hundred keys to success, that’s going to be great. I only have two, so either that means I’m a really bad practice leader-
Jeff McKay: Or maybe you’re an exception on one. This is the advice that I will give to marketers and what I think marketers or business developers should be teaching, communicating. When I say teaching, these are conversations with a practice leader. They’re a very important conversation and there’s not a hundred. The first one to me-
Jason Mlicki: [crosstalk 00:09:16], I thought we were going to get to a list of 100. That was going to be fun.
Jeff McKay: The first one, and this is going to be difficult for marketers, and it may be difficult for the new practice leader, but I think the first thing you need to teach a practice leader is that you’re his or her peer and that you’re there to help, but you’re not an order taker. That is a fundamental message that needs to be communicated right out of the gate or you’re never going to redirect it. I think a good way of thinking about this, is that the practice leader is not a restaurant patron coming in and sitting down and you’re not the waiter.
You’re not taking the order. Your job is not to help that practice leader have a wonderful meal. I think a better way of thinking of the roles is that the marketer is the chef, that the practice leader is the waiter and the client is the patron. If you don’t get those roles straight, you’re going to have problems. You need to make sure you’re shifting away from order-taking and that the practice leader sees you as a peer. If you can’t do that, you’re going to have problems.
Jason Mlicki: I have a question and a comment. Here’s my question. Okay, so let’s just say I’m a pretty successful marketer and a pretty successful firm and I’m making some good money. Maybe I’m making, I don’t know, I don’t know what marketers make in firms, a hundred grand, 150 grand, something like that, whatever. I go have this conversation with this newly minted practice leader, and the practice leader looks at me and says, “I make $800,000 a year. Who are you to tell me that you’re my peer? Or whatever the obscene number is, right? How do you respond to that? And I’m not saying all practice leaders are like that, so I don’t want people to say, I’m not trying to offend people, but I’ve definitely heard marketers tell me that they’ve run into that where someone has basically said, “Look, I’m more important than you cause I make a lot more money here and I own the place.” How do you manage that? If that happens, if that plays out. What do you say?
Jeff McKay: Now there’s a simple question to answer and I’ll give the consultant response. It depends. I mean you’re dealing with personalities. Yes, there is in reality an imbalance of power there. But if you succumb to it out of the gate, you’re never going to recover. If you’re a talented marketer, you’re bringing something to the table and what you’re bringing to the table is the knowledge and capabilities to help this person be successful. So the message isn’t coming, “Hey, you and I are equals.” It’s we’re going to be working together on this to the firm’s success. We’re in this together. You’re allocating resources, I’m allocating resources, and we have to work together. And you’re not just going to have one practice leader, you’re going to have multiple, right? So there’s always going to be negotiations around resource allocation and prioritization, but if you start from a position of weakness, you’re just going to really struggle.
So out of the gate, that first conversation of setting expectations is really important. And that’s not all you’re going to be talking about. So having that conversation and just saying, I’m your peer. If you just did that by itself, yeah, that would seem weird. In the context of these other things, it makes sense. So maybe we should move on to some of the other things. Okay. The second thing, in the practice we may already understand this, but it gets back to what we talked about when we kicked this off. The practice leader’s responsibility in the context of growing the firm, of helping his team, or her team, be as successful as possible, it’s about bringing focus. Left to their own devices, consultants, and accountants, and architects can go about and do their work, just like a professional athlete. But they’re not going to reach optimal performance unless the coach is getting them focused on their strengths that are contributing to the success of the firm.
So what type of focus should that practice leader begin honing in on? Number one, market focus. Where are we going to play, where are we going to win? That’s a practice leader discussion in the context of the broader strategic approach of the firm. But he can’t just let these talented partners underneath him just run and pursue whatever they want. He has to channel that in some form or fashion, he needs to or she needs to focus on what are the high priority solutions. Solutions are going to be in different places in the life cycle of their development. The market is going to be facing different issues based on economics or regulation or whatever the case may be. They are going to be solutions that are a higher priority than others. And then finally the focus needs to come out of resource allocation. Where are we going to invest, where are we not? And a new practice leader needs to understand those are elemental decisions that need to be made out of the gate. So number two is teach them how to focus and help him or her focus.
Jason Mlicki: And those focus decisions. It seems to me going back to your point number one of this peer relationship where we’re working together to serve the client and advance the firm’s interests. Those focus decisions should be happening together, right? I mean, while market-focused decisions might happen in the senior leadership team, prioritizing solutions and resource allocation and messaging and leadership and all of the things that come out of the market focus, those are the things that the marketer and the practice leader need to be partnering.
Jeff McKay: Yes. In general, the practice leaders are going to bring their priorities up to you know, the broader leadership team and then fight for them up there. So it is a bottom-up, not top-down process generally in most firms. I guess you could look at it bi-directionally, but to me it just needs to be more cyclical in its nature. But you need to jump in early because those conversations are going to be happening and if you want to impact the broader priorities of the firm-wide strategy, you got to be playing at the practice leader focus level as well. Okay.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. Okay. All right.
Jeff McKay: Okay, so number three is a little deeper. So number three, now is the time to talk about key performance indicators and how success is going to be measured in this relationship, and how the practice leader expects you to contribute to their success.
This goes back to the podcast we had about the two schools of marketing thought. Are you going to be a productivity marketer? Are you going to be a growth school marketer? But it’s important to nail down and teach the practice leader the difference. Are you going to be measured by prettiness and responsiveness? Are you going to be married by strategic impact, pipeline contribution, market share, brand relevance, some type of qualified lead measure? Get that nailed down now because then in the future, all the data that you’re bringing is going to reinforce your arguments or education around how you’re going to best achieve those things. But if you don’t agree on how you’re going to contribute to the success of the practice and how you’re going to measure that success, you’re going to have problems.
Jason Mlicki: That’s fair point.
Speaker 1: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal: Divergent Thoughts on Growing Your Professional Services Firm. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki, principal of Rattleback, the marketing agency for professional services firms and Jeff McKay, former CMO and founder of strategy consultancy Prudent Pedal. If you find this podcast helpful, please help us by telling a friend and rating us on iTunes. Thank you. Now back to Jason and Jeff.
Jeff McKay: So number four, I wrote a blog post on these next two points and I think they’re relevant. The blog post was called “Why Partners Don’t Understand Marketing”. And I think this is very important coming out of the gate with a new practice leader is educating them that branding does not equal marketing, and what the difference is in that. And you might even throw in there, corporate communications does not equal marketing. And this is a great opportunity to deepen the knowledge of an individual who is going to be tasked with a lot of different to-dos, and they’re going to have a short attention span and they need to know where you’re coming from. And this is the time to reposition marketing more strategically. And this will reinforce the things before, that you’re there to help, the focus that you require in order to achieve that, and the success measures you’re going to use. But you’re going to have to start laying seeds about marketing being strategic and not something that just makes things pretty and throws events.
Jason Mlicki: So you’re backing up the first thing, the first thing was we need to have a peer relationship. We need to work together on this. We have to develop, co-create what we’re going to do from a marketing perspective. Now you’re backing it up with some real meat saying, “Okay, let me show you what marketing really is supposed to be.” Versus maybe what you’re thinking of it as. I would argue, you said branding, but I would actually kind of argue maybe business development, marketing do not equal business development. That’s where I tend to see the miscommunication, be more around you’re here to support the sales process and only support the sales process, not to contribute to client acquisition in a meaningful way. How many more we talking here? Is this list really a hundred? I think it is a hundred.
Jeff McKay: No, it’s only 99. I’m sliding one in right here. Number five, and this is why this is divergent thinking on growing professional services firms. I think it’s important for the marketer to educate the practice leader that marketing, business development, and client service delivery are not individual and unique capabilities and function in the client’s mind. Clients see all three of those as one and they call it client experience. And if a practice leader creates these strong delineations between those three things, you’re going to sub optimize. And we’re going to have a podcast on that it sounds like.
Jason Mlicki: We are? We should, that’s a great one. I really like that one a lot. I know in our agency, I’ve thought about this over the years, I mean we have primarily the marketer, right? We have a business development lead. I play obviously a function in business development. We have account leads and it’s all a delicate transition from one resource to the next for the client and how do you make that seamless for them? It’s really hard. Yet you also know you can’t. I think the mistake that a lot of small firm owners and a small agency owners, whatever you want to say, they try to wear all those hats at once and they can’t do it. I mean you can’t be the key client liaison and the practice leader and the marketing leader all at the same time. Usually, that doesn’t work out. So you have to make some choices there and so I like that one a lot. It’s a really good one. And yeah, we’ll do one on [inaudible 00:10:36]. It sounds like fun.
Jeff McKay: Number six, and this one is critical. This is really critical. And I know the marketers, when I say this, are going to go, “Oh, thank you for saying that.” And it is this, the practice leader cannot let the urgent drive out the important. The measures of a practice leader will always drive towards short term number hitting or deal closing.
Jeff McKay: Number hitting or deal closing and those important long-term contributions to the success of the firm and the practice get pushed to the side. The intellectual capital development, the relationship building, marketing in general. The practice leader needs to make sure that he’s keeping his people balanced in their contribution to the success of the firm. It always happens in firms. Utilization comes first, utilization. So the practice leader needs to be the same voice thinking long-term and keeping people focused on long-term, otherwise no one else is going to do it. I think a mantra, I think I wrote a blog post on this one too, that I took is I don’t beg, I don’t babysit.
If a practice leader is going to be thinking short-term and they’re going to neglect these long-term reputation brand building and cultural elements, you move on to another practice leader who gets it and you allocate your resources to those things that are going to have a higher return for the firm. You can’t keep going back to the well like I said, babysitting to get stuff done. If you set that expectation early, it’s going to be a lot easier to deliver.
Jason Mlicki: That’s a great one. It’s long-term versus short-term thinking. It’s legacy firms. You’ve talked about that in the past. Maybe kind of legacy practices, legacy thinking. The interesting thing as you’re speaking is so many of these concepts sort of map to the seven capabilities of exceptional thought leadership, that research that we’ve done on so many levels. In some ways it’s like we have this notion of a patient champion and you’re saying that the practice leader is a patient champion and the whole peer relationship is this notion of argument shaping that kind of comes into that as well. So it’s just fascinating to me how in some ways the things you’re saying are critical to the marketing practice leader relationship are critical to successful thought leadership, which of course is really one of the key levers of success and marketing for more practice in my mind.
Jeff McKay: Absolutely, absolutely.
Jason Mlicki: All right, so let’s pull more off the wall here.
Jeff McKay: So number seven, you’re going to love. You’re going to love.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: So as a marketer, you need to teach a practice leader why you’re making the marketing choices that you are. Why are we using this channel? Why are we making this investment there? You have to bring the data and business rationale with it, but help the practice leader understand why you’re doing A instead of B. If the practice leader wants to do B and you know that it’s not the right way, you need to be able to substantiate that with data and business rationale. That business rationale is always going to tie back to his goal of getting the most out of his people, of channeling their energies and ambitions, helping them be successful. If you talk in terms of the time it takes to do something or the investment of limited marketing dollars, or the ROI, however, that’s measured. Most practice leaders will say, oh okay, I get it. I get it. That makes perfect sense. Some will say, I don’t care. I want to do it this way. I think that’ll be a small amount of those. You need to bring data then and talk in terms of business rationale.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, it’s funny, and this is just an anecdotal comment. I’ll never forget I used to have a client that was a chemical company and the marketing and comms leader that we worked with there, he would always joke that the chemists always were coming up to monkey in the marketing, but he’s like I don’t come down there and mess in the lab. I don’t come down there and tell you how to make chemicals. I loved the comment because I think that’s what marketers face is everybody thinks they’re a marketer. Everybody says they’re a marketer. Hence practice leaders are always thinking you’re doing it wrong. So I like the way you put it though. It’s how you counter that, say well that’s just reality. So just be comfortable with it and then bring rationale to explain why you’re making the choices you’re making. I love that one.
Jeff McKay: All right last one. The last one, we can wrap this up.
Jason Mlicki: All right.
Jeff McKay: This is very important. You need to have an important discussion with the practice leader about how and when you and she will meet and communicate progress towards whatever focused goals and measures that you’ve agreed to. You need to open up those channels and it needs to be regular. Not haphazard and not so regular that it’s a burden, but regular in that there are open channels and that these are very productive discussions that help both of you address obstacles, make decisions, and put others in action. You can only do that if you use the channels that work for both of you and a cadence that works for both of you. A practice leader is going to be very, very time-pressed and you’re going to need to fit into that very chaotic schedule. Those are my eight.
Jason Mlicki: 92 less than I was expecting, but I like the cadence one the most. I actually think that may be the biggest challenge for marketers is trying to figure that out. Yeah, that’s a really good one to think about is trying to make that explicit because I don’t think that happens a lot. I know we struggle with that in our relationships because we get stuck, right? We get stuck as the practice leader becomes unavailable. There’s nothing we can do about it.
So having a formalized cadence would probably reduce that. So that’s a good one. We do need to wrap. I think you left a couple off.
Jeff McKay: Throw them out.
Jason Mlicki: That are really important. I’ll throw them out and then we’ll cut it off because I think that we’ve already talked about them. One is just developing a point of view. I actually think that’s probably the biggest one is that what’s the point of view for the practice? So yeah you’ve got focus, but okay. So what are the beliefs that drive how we do what we do and how we do it differently than anyone else? That’s a big one. We obviously have a podcast on that. Then when we did the interview with Jody about developing mining for point of view. Then the other one I also think is critical is methodology, developing a governing methodology that describes how the practice does what it does. Ideally, a methodology that’s unique and different from the other options that are out there, so that the practice actually has a truly differentiated way of operating that makes it valuable and something that clients want to engage with. So like I said, I only had two on my list. So those were my two.
Jeff McKay: I think those are both excellent, particularly the point of view. The methodology one is really important as well. It triggers a thought in my mind. Going back to number seven, why you’re making marketing choices that you are, are really predicated on the methodology of marketing that you’re using for the marketing group. Which brings me to probably the most important point about this podcast. That is marketers, you are a practice leader. If you don’t see yourself as a practice leader like I said in point number one you’re a peer, but you’re also a practice leader. Your practice is not “revenue-generating” and doesn’t have utilization and a P&L associated with it, but for all intents and purposes you are a practice leader. All eight of these apply to you as well with your teams. So think of yourself as a practice leader and you’ll see significant changes I suspect if you’re not already doing it in how you run it, manage a marketing function in the firm.
Jason Mlicki: Those are wise words of wisdom that’s on there. Thanks. It’s a really good list. 92 short. It was good.
Jeff McKay: Thanks buddy.
Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to Rattle and Pedal Divergent Thoughts on Marketing and Growing Professional Services Firms. Find content related to this episode at rattleandpeddle.com. Rattle and Pedal is also available on iTunes and Stitcher.