A professional service firm’s portfolio of relationships is its most valuable asset. Sadly, that asset is almost universally unappreciated by the leaders of professional service firms. The result will likely be stubborn revenue stagnation.
An ongoing frustration of mine is that not a single class in the educational path for professional services focuses on relationships. No one pursuing an engineering degree, or preparing for the CPA credential, or studying for the bar exam, is offered a class that focuses on the relationships they’ll need to succeed. A fundamental appreciation of the value of relationships, much less the skills, knowledge and behavior that develop that asset, simply are not taught in our educational institutions. As a result, professional service firms hire individuals who come out of school are highly competent technically, but who struggle to align what is expected of them with their own skills, knowledge, and behaviors.
Case in point: I’m working now with an engineering firm that is technically very competent, but on the rocks relationally. (I could just as easily be talking about an accounting firm or a law practice—the problem is widespread across the professional services.) In this firm, you are hired because you’ve shown you’re brilliant at doing engineering work. At some point, a higher-up recognizes that you also have decent “soft skills,” so you are promoted to a managerial position. Over time you work your way up to a partnership in the firm. Now you’re leading the future of that firm, and you’re just as ignorant of the value of relationships both within the firm and external to the firm as you were the day you were hired.
Leaders like that perpetuate a number of anti-relationship behaviors that become part of the organizational structure of the firm. Do any of these behaviors sound familiar?
- Maintaining technical silos. In this firm, the mechanical engineering group seldom if ever interacts with the electrical engineering group. The firm makes the huge mistake of putting these two functions on different floors of the building, so half the firm’s partners don’t even know each other! Has your firm accidentally kept different functions sequestered from each other?
- Failing to build common bonds. If individuals across the company don’t get a chance to get to know each other, don’t break bread together occasionally, don’t find opportunities to discover that they like and trust each other, you cannot expect them to collaborate willingly. Does your firm regularly encourage people to bring their whole selves to work, and get to know each other so trust and candor can emerge?
- Applying broken metrics and compensation. In the engineering firm I’m consulting with, I discovered that if you alone manage and execute your project, you’re measured and compensated one way. If you bring in other people, you’re measured and compensated a different way—typically not to your advantage. The president of this firm is asking me, “Why don’t our people collaborate?” Follow the money—his firm’s metrics and compensation are actively structured to discourage collaboration, with rewards for refusing to play nicely with others.
- Hiring and/or keeping the wrong talent. If I heard this from one or two people I met in the firm, I’d suspect they were outliers. But when eight out of ten people consistently point out that, ”We are afraid of letting people go,” you know there’s an issue. Reluctance to outplace those who aren’t a good fit, perhaps due to fear of litigation, highlights a talent agenda that is broken. Meanwhile, hiring for core competency in the technical work (whether it is engineering or accounting or law) without attention to the “soft skills” of relationship development creates problems that a failure to let go of dead weight exacerbates. This firm’s structural flaws in recruiting, developing, and outplacing when necessary, leads them to shuffle the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. They put people on different projects, or worse, deploy them on internal projects.
- Encouraging infighting. Is it a firm of “5 lions” or “20 panthers”? Who is encouraged, empowered, and respected for bringing in the bulk of the work? In a “5 lions” firm, a few people with both technical competency and relationship skills go out into the jungle and find work and bring it in. In a “20 panthers” firm, if a panther tries to become a lion the others tear that one apart. “Who made you a lion?” “We’re really good as panthers, we don’t need a lion like you here.” “I remember when you were just a cub. I don’t know who you think you are now.” They create internal politics and bickering. When a firm allows its high-potentials to drag each other down, it reduces the performance of the whole organization.
- Neglecting leading indicators. Many professional service firms are reasonably good at looking at the staff utilization and profitability of completed work, but fail to project and prepare for the resource requirements of future projects. When I ask them, “With any level of confidence, do you have forward visibility into what your business looks like in 2017?” The responses are intuition, gut feel. “We’re doing this kind of project, and it has these components, and these are our departments that will be involved in delivering it”—they can talk about their perception of what the future work could be. but they have no disciplined forecasting process.
Without a pipeline forecast, how do you ramp up your capacity in time to meet the need? This leads to a vicious cycle where you get a project tomorrow that needs 200 [engineers][CPAs][lawyers], then scramble to fill that demand. You lower your hiring standards. Now you have recruited a cohort of low-grade talent you will have to babysit over the next two years. And then you wonder why your client starts losing confidence in your ability to deliver.
This all points back to leadership. It is difficult for leaders to change the educational system that prepares your next-generation engineers, accountants, or lawyers—you cannot easily get relationship skills added to the curriculum. But you can prioritize increased training outside your hires’ area of technical competency. You can train them, through apprenticeship and mentorship, to initiate, nurture, and capitalize on relationships.
Your firm can leverage the value in its portfolio of relationships, and develop a meaningful point of differentiation from competitors by doing so, since so many professional firms suffer from this fundamental lack of relationship skills. This fundamental shift can bring about dramatic growth—but only if you are willing to stop perpetuating these six anti-relationship behaviors.
- Because relationship skills aren’t taught in the educational path for professional services, new hires are typically technically competent but challenged to align their skills with what is expected of them on the job.
- Some common anti-relationship skills include maintaining technical silos, failing to build common bonds, broken metrics and compensation, hiring and keeping the wrong talent, encouraging infighting, and neglecting leading indicators.
- Leaders must change the organizational structure to replace these anti-relationship behaviors with a focus on development of relationship skills.
David Nour has spent the past two decades advising executives on building business relationships. In the process, he has developed Relationship Economics® - the art and science of becoming more intentional and strategic in the relationships one chooses to invest in. In a global economy that is becoming increasingly disconnected, The Nour Group, Inc. has worked with clients such as Hilton, ThyssenKrupp, Disney, KPMG and over 100 other marquee organizations. David Nour is a strategic relationship keynote speaker, consultant, and advisor that helps these companies drive profitable growth through unique returns on their strategic relationships. Nour has pioneered the phenomenon that relationships are the greatest off balance sheet asset any organizations possess, large and small, public and private. He is the author of nine books translated into eight languages, including the best-selling Relationship Economics - Revised (Wiley), ConnectAbility (McGraw-Hill), The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Raising Capital (Praeger), Return on Impact (ASAE), and the 2017 forthcoming CO-CREATE (St. Martin’s Press), an essential guide showing C-level leaders how to optimize relationships, create market gravity, and greatly increase revenue. Contact David Nour to learn more, subscribe to the Blog, sign up for the Rendezvous Newsletter or request his speaking schedule availability for your organization’s next event.