Will Bachman: Hey there, podcast listeners. Welcomed to Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top tier independent management consultants. I’m your host, Will Bachman.
Our show today is an in between-a-sode, and our topic is defining the strategy for your independent practice. Were going to use my favorite strategy framework, which is easy to remember and incredibly flexible. I’ve used this framework in advising companies ranging from one of the top three pet food companies in the world to a 9-year-old girl’s baking kit start-up. I did not make up the framework. I have stolen it from Playing to Win, How Strategy Really Works by A.G. Lafley, the former chairman and CEO of Proctor and Gamble, and Roger L. Martin, the Dean of the Rotman School of Management.
Now, I was a strategy consultant for a decade before I could clearly articulate what I meant by the word strategy, but now I have an answer, and my answer is strategy is your set of answers to a set of questions that includes:
Number one, what is your definition of success, or in other words, what is winning?
Number two, where do you play?
Number three, how do you win on the battlefields where you have chosen to play?
Sometimes I’ll add a couple of extra questions that include:
Number four, what has to happen to and,
Number five, how are we going to manage the process.
For today, let’s just focus on the first three questions. All right.
Number one, what is your definition of success? The answer is not obvious. If you’re working in a large firm, the path up the ladder is tightly defined. Being a partner at a big firm has a set of characteristics, and you can sort of take it or leave it, but when you run your own practice, you suddenly have more choice over which dimensions you will optimize. Maybe you will only work three days a week to take care of family members on the other days. Maybe you will only work six months a year so you can travel or write movie scripts the other six months. We often hear about work-life balance, and that reduces the prioritization to a single dimension, and that is an employee mindset.
Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, an educator and Unitarian minister, wrote in the 1930s, “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.” Now, I love that quote and expect that every independent professional aspires to be a master in the art of living, so the question is what are you trying to optimize? What would a fantastic success look like? You cannot optimize on every dimension, so what will you prioritize?
Here are some dimensions to consider. I encourage you to write down your answers as you start your practice and then to revisit that periodically your definition of success.
1-A: Impact. Do you aspire to help your clients significantly improve their performance or do you aspire to transform an entire industry? What effect do you want to have?
1-B: Stability of work flow. You can design your firm so that you’re always going from one ad hoc project to the next, or you can decide to cultivate clients where you’ll have a relatively steady stream of work over the longer term.
1-C: Money. More is generally nice, but how much would you be satisfied with? Write down a number now for reference. Research in The Atlantic suggests that as your income goes up, the number you think you’d be satisfied with will always be about 25% or more above what you’re earning today. If you write your number down, at least you’ll be forced to recognize when you’ve moved your target.
1-D: Firm equity value. Are you building a solo practice which is not worth much when you quit, or do you aspire to build an enduring institution that has equity value even with you out of the picture? Either objective is perfectly legitimate, but be clear about which one you are pursuing.
1-E: Vacation days. When you get to the point where you could fill every day with work, taking vacation has a real opportunity cost and it can be tempting to cancel vacations, so it is essential to have the discussion up front with yourself if you are single or with your partner if you’re in a relationship on the topic of how much vacation days will you take.
1-F: Work travel. What is your ideal and what are you willing to live with?
1-G: Working hours versus time with your family and friends. So what counts as a win? Eating dinner with your family every night, being there for every recital or game? What is success for you?
1-H: Prestige and recognition. Do you care about being known? Do you want to give that keynote speech, to be quoted in the papers?
1-I: Thought leadership. Would you be happy doing routine work if you get paid well for it, or is it important for you to be at the cutting edge and do true innovation?
1-J: Pro bono and volunteer work. How important is it for you to support causes that you care about?
1-K: Personal fitness. What does winning look like in terms of your physical fitness, your diet, and your mindfulness practice?
1-L: Spiritual life. In addition to your religious life, I’ll include here your mindfulness practice and your time in nature.
1-M: Intellectual life. To what degree for you does a successful practice and life including deep and extensive reading or engagement with the theater and other arts?
1-N: Relationships. With your life partner, your family, your close friends, and your wider circle of acquaintances, what does success look like?
1-O: Skills. What capabilities would you want to have five years from now?
1-P: Knowledge and understanding. If your practice is successful, what will you know or understand in five years that you don’t today?
1-Q: Your parallel career or your serious hobby. Are you a musician, a novelist, a TV writer, sommelier, and how important is that for you?
And your values. What are your non-negotiables? For me, all four of my grandparents died of smoking-related illnesses, so I’m not going to serve a tobacco client full stop. That’s a pretty easy one, I suppose. What are you willing to do to pay the bills? Are you willing to recommend a client abandon a deal that if it proceeds would generate more fees for your practice, but you don’t think is a good idea? It helps to think through that type of question before you’re in the position where you need to make that call.
Okay, so when you’re crafting life as an independent professional, you have more degrees of freedom than a typical employee does, and it’s worth writing down your definition of success and revisiting it periodically for a self-assessment of how well your decisions and investments are leading towards your desired destination.
Question two is where do you play? So it’s fine to revisit this question and revise your answers over time. It’s okay to iterate, and you should, but do write down your answers so at least you know your current point of view.
In the beginning, you might be tempted to take any project you can get. Now, as you build a flow of referrals and repeat business, you’ll have to start saying no to things, and as you make investments to build relationships and visibility and skills and knowledge, you’ll need to prioritize those investments, and you ought to be prioritizing such that the investments will help you in the battlefields where you want to play. If you aren’t clear on what battlefield is, you can easily fritter away your efforts. If you say yes to a project that doesn’t fit your criteria, you at least want to be crystal clear that the project is taking you off track, so there are five subordinate questions to answer when you’re thinking about where do you play.
- What is your industry focus?
- What is your functional focus?
- What is your geographic focus? Now, some consultants will work anywhere within a reasonable flight. Umbrex member Jeff Wilson has a tight focus, for example, on serving clients in South Carolina and the surrounding states. That geographic focus informs how he invests his time and has contributed to his success. He knows when to say no.
2-D. What types of projects do you focus on? Do you do two-week due diligences? Do you do year-long PMO?
2-E. What is your ideal client type? What size of company do you want to serve? If you are equally willing to serve a one hundred million dollar privately owned firm and General Electric, then you may not have thought through where your skill set and personality best positions you to play.
Okay, so think through and write down where you will play.
Question three, how will you win? What is your competitive advantage?
There are several possible answers to this question, so one possible answer, a pretty bad answer, is that you will be reliable enough and the cheapest available option. Let’s acknowledge that both you and I want to serve clients who will happily pay more than the cheapest option charges because we bring something special. Now, we all have finite energy and capabilities, so it isn’t possible to be distinctive on every dimension, so think through what is your super power? Here are a few potential super powers you might want to choose among. I think you need to be good enough to meet the bar on each one of these, but you have to stand out and win, you need to be distinctive somewhere, so some options are:
- What you know, thought leadership. Do you build a reputation as a distinctive original thinker primarily through writing? Maybe through speaking as well, but that’s mainly a matter of converting your writing into oral form. Probably I don’t need to mention it helps if your thought leadership is on some topic that clients care about enough that they want to pay for an expert; or,
- Whom you know or who knows you, relationships. So are you awesome at keeping in touch with all of your weak ties? You stay in touch with former clients, emailing, calling, stopping by in person, and connecting others with each other. Are you always looking for ways to add value to those you know; or,
- What can you do, your skills. Your execution is awesome, not necessarily cutting edge in your process, but you nail it. Whether your skill is lean operations implementation on the factory floor or back office org design, you are a master of getting it done.
So now you’ve answered the questions what is winning, where do I play, and how do I win. A final tip is to create what David A. Fields calls a fishing line which in a compact form will encapsulate your strategy. David defines the fishing line as a short phrase, under 15 words, that describes your target and the precise issue that you help with. For more on the fishing line concept, see David’s book, The Irresistible Consultant’s Guide to Winning Clients.
Now you may want to iterate your strategy over time. Over the course of your work, you’ll learn new skills and develop new relationships that might open new doors you aren’t currently aware of. Revisiting your strategy and updating it is healthy, so while understanding that it may evolve, if you have a written strategy, you can use that strategy to guide your investments and building skills, knowledge, visibility, and relationships, and you can also periodically assess if your actions in practice are leading you to achieve your original definition of success.
I’d love your feedback on this episode, and hope you found it helpful.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional.
Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top tier independent management consultants. The mission of Umbrex is to create opportunities for independent management consultants to meet, share lessons learned, and collaborate. I’d love to get your feedback and hear any questions that you’d like to see us answer on this show. You can email me at Unleashed at Umbrex.com. That’s U-M-B-R-E-X.com.
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Our audio engineer is Dave Nelson, our theme song was composed by Gary Negbaur, and I’m your host, Will Bachman. Thanks for listening.