Concealing Your Strategic Abilities Inside a Trojan Horse of Doing

I'm back. Not sure what you've been doing to justify the recent silence, but all I've got to explain myself is a 30-lb., 9-week-old Great Dane (Frida) on her way to being 150-175 lbs., as the vet has promised. She's adorable, but much more work than raising our kids: she pees and shits everywhere, escapes with glee, and has twenty-eight needle sharp instruments of pain, frequently applied to my ears and nose. Our 20-month Plott Hound (Loki) is even less impressed with this recent acquisition.

But back to what you and I are going to talk about today, and that's why firms like yours struggle to sell themselves as fully strategic from the onset, instead getting hired to "do" something, after which the client discovers how smart you are...and subsequently hires you for some pure "thinking", which is what they should have done in the first place.

This illustration from the ever talented Emily pictures this well. You are sometimes forced to be admitted into the castle disguised as willing and able implementers. Once the client gives you access to everything behind the gates, you spring out with your "thinkers" on and wow them.

This is not anyone's choice, by the way. There's no child sitting in front of a Zoomed teacher at the moment dreaming about having to dress down so that they are not taken too seriously. Nobody wants this, but they aren't sure how to fix it.

Another image that frequently comes to mind is this. You want a seat at the table where all the grownups are discussing important things. But the only way you can get into that room is to be a waiter. So you do your job as best as you can, hoping to interject some useful quip at a key moment and have the whole room go silent and stare at you, after which someone looks at her fellow tablemates and says, "Hey, why isn't this guy sitting with us? Why is he waiting tables? Somebody fix this travesty!"

If you aren't sure what I'm talking about, think about how some of your best relationships started. You got some smaller opportunity that you nailed and saved someone's bacon. And because you were on their list, they kept calling, and you kept answering. At every chance they gave you, you didn't just solve the specific problems they asked you about, but you explored the broader context that was causing those challenges in the first place. Throw some institutional memory that has lasted longer than some of your key contacts at the firm, and mix in a few times where you clearly cared more about the client's situation than even they did, and you have the perfect formula for climbing up that ladder and breaking out of your Trojan Horse.

All I want to do today is to give you a few kernel thoughts on what to do with all this. I don't have a neat package that wraps this all up in a nice bow, but there are some principles I can give you to think about.

  • If I'm being honest, most of your websites skew heavily to the "doing" rather than the "thinking" portion of what you do. The doing is easier to capture visually, and sometimes it's more what you are drawn to. If you're at a grocery store with your aunt, it's usually easier to point to something on the shelf and proudly tell her that you did that rather than show her how a double-blind SPSS research project works.
  • On that note, I think our websites (and marketing materials) are too finished looking. Your case histories, in particular, need to show more Post-it Notes, drawings on a whiteboard, discarded early approaches, and so on. Strategy is messy; finished products or services are not. We need to show more of the former.
  • There is no better time to demonstrate your value than during early new business conversations. That's the time to talk less while the prospect answers really thoughtful questions that are upstream of where the conversation normally falls, but it's also the time to provide some gentle pushback on what they are doing, the questions they are asking, or the assumptions they are making. Answering their questions will put you solidly in the "doing" realm; asking great questions of them will move you upstream.
  • Let's make sure we've identified the real problem, too. If a company has you in an early box but clearly listens well to other valued advisors, you have a positioning problem. If a company has you in an early box but doesn't really know how to use valued advisors, then you have a prospect screening problem, and you aren't going to suddenly turn them into a qualified client. Don't get engaged to those people--they simply are not marriageable.
  • A cornerstone of new business success is following your contacts to their new jobs, and thankfully you can count on starting off on a better foot with those secondary clients. You will have an internal advocate who can tell your story well.
  • If you aren't successful at moving an existing client upstream, take a reasonable risk. You could help set them up to do their own implementation, introduce them to another vendor (notice I didn't say partner), or even ask to reset the relationship by updating them on how your abilities have evolved.

In all of this, I think your goal should be to move 75% of your clients to a relationship where they see you for who you really are, leaving 25% who don't seem open to exploring that...yet. Be patient with yourself, though. It can take three or four years to really effect this transition across your client base.

  • Secret Tradecraft of Elite Advisors

    Secret Tradecraft of Elite Advisors

    Covert Techniques For A Remarkable Practice

    Buy Now