— October 16, 2017
Many firms have the potential to be high-growth superstars. These high performers come from every corner of the professional services universe. Some are large and some small, and they serve a diverse array of clients.
But far too many firms fail to achieve their growth potential. Why?
The knowledge to ignite growth is readily available. Yet somehow, sustained high growth never happens at most firms.
Often, the problem lies between a management team’s ears. They build their strategic plans upon faulty assumptions and outmoded beliefs.
High-growth teams look at things differently. In this post, we identify five traits of high-growth firms. If your leadership team is lacking any of these traits, you will be hard pressed to take your business to a place where it can deliver consistently high growth and profits.
Belief that you can grow
“We’re too large to grow quickly.” “We’re too small to compete against the big firms.” “Our industry is too competitive.” If there is one thing otherwise intelligent professionals are good at, it’s generating excuses why they can’t grow.
Naturally, if you believe you can’t grow, you will never try. Your firm will grind in low gear forever. Other firms won’t try because they are afraid to fail — if you don’t try, you can’t fail. The logic is flawed, yet it’s still appealing to some.
As with any business goal, success is never certain. But failure is guaranteed if you don’t try.
What you need is a mindshift — a dogged belief that growth is possible and that your team can make it happen. There may be many valid reasons you aren’t growing today. You just need to identify them, then eliminate them one by one.
Courage to be different
It’s very easy — and oddly comforting — to look to your peers for marketing guidance. If “everyone” calls themselves full service or has a blue logo, there must be a good reason. Right?
Wrong. Don’t anchor yourself to your competitors. That’s an anchor that will sink you. Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean it’s right. In fact, that’s a sure-fire indicator that you are missing a huge opportunity — one that’s happening in different waters.
The whole point of differentiation is to be, well, different from your competitors. And when that difference provides an important benefit to a segment of potential clients, you’ve got a true competitive advantage.
The roots of this blind spot go back to our evolutionary past. We humans are herd animals. Fitting in feels safe. Being different feels dangerous. But when it comes to marketing and business development it pays to take some risks and stand for something.
Respect for reality
If there is any overriding conclusion to draw from the last 30 years of cognitive and behavioral science, it is that humans are not by nature fully rational creatures. Strong emotions often influence and distort our perceptions even when we think we are being “realistic.”
It’s easy to find people and anecdotal evidence to support our biases and opinions. But we can counterbalance this weakness with research and science.
Using research and provable facts as the basis for making decisions can be immensely powerful. In fact, high-growth firms are much more likely to conduct frequent research on their target clients to uncover opportunities for growth.
So what does your team need to do? Believe in science and embrace research. Separate your assumptions from those things you know to be true. Recognize that anecdotes and opinions are not facts. And remember that snap decisions based on “gut feeling” can be very risky to the health of your firm.
Love of learning
“That’s the way we have always done it” is a very dangerous phrase in today’s fast-changing world. At a time when half of human knowledge becomes outdated every 2.5 years, no professional can avoid new learning.
But how do you approach it? Is learning something your firm embraces or avoids? And do you define learning as mandatory continuing education only, or is it something more?
Firms that love learning about their clients’ industries and the challenges they face are far better equipped to anticipate and address clients’ emerging and needs. And firms that love learning about their technical specialty are positioned to innovate and demonstrate thought leadership. What is your firm’s commitment to learning?
Nishith Desai Associates, an India-based law firm with offices around the globe, decided to make learning an integral part of their firm culture. So they dedicate the first hour of each morning to learning. When they aren’t doing independent study, everyone in the firm participates in live or virtual sessions. For a firm their size, this commitment represents an enormous investment, but it has paid tremendous dividends. They were named Asia’s most innovative law firm by The Financial Times. They have successfully built their world class reputation around their knowledge and creative thinking.
While your firm may not be able to make this level of commitment, that doesn’t mean that you can’t value and support new learning. Knowledge is power. But in an era of rapid change and increasing competition, those who value learning have the greatest power.
Having a clear focus and a well-defined goal are important to motivating and directing growth. This single overriding focus is something we call a “mission mentality.” When people are counting down the days until their retirement or chasing their personal priorities they are not working as a team to achieve a common goal.
Today’s professional services firms are complex organizations. They often have matrix structures and many practice areas with autonomous professionals working on complicated client projects. Add in a rapidly evolving environment and intense competition and you have a recipe for stress and confusion.
When everyone in a firm has a clear understanding of where they are headed and are working together to get there, growth is much easier to achieve. The mission becomes more important than any individual’s priorities.
Firms that have multiple competing goals are at war with themselves. We’ve seen too many firms let conflicting partner-level priorities torpedo growth of the overall firm. Don’t let it happen to yours.
How do you think like a high-growth firm? The five traits I’ve described above are crucial, and a firm has to embrace them at every level of the organization. Of course, that means starting at the top with the leadership team. You may have to work hard to purge the habits and assumptions that are holding you back. But once you get everyone excited and headed in the same direction the obstacles to sustained high performance become easier and easier to overcome.