Invest in the interesting.
In this instalment of the Climbing Mount Audacity series, I take a brief excursion from my current thread on how the best professional service companies develop a systematic selling capability (combining firm-wide methods and tools into consistent, shared habits). Perhaps triggered by the fact that I am writing this in the air – on the way to a Paris weekend break with my wife – I am going to take a short philosophical detour. In this essay I share some thoughts for those readers who are on the cusp of bravely launching out into their own ventures – those engaged in final mental preparation as to what kind of professional service firm they want to build. The essay title provides the thrust of my answer: invest in the interesting!
Last year, I had the privilege of being asked to speak at a TEDx conference (you can see the video below). The conference was – uniquely – conceived, planned and organised by a group of ambitious UK sixth formers (equivalent to US High School seniors) around the theme of future proofing. As such, I could hardly say no even when presented with the onerous brief: to articulate a personal, sub-twenty-minute answer as to how someone stepping out into the world of work should future proof their career (and their life!).
The challenge was akin to asking me what advice I would give my eighteen year old self. Post some introspection, I decided to base my talk on five personal reflections.
Now readers have oft heard me labour point two in the context of business start-up – see this blog for example. In the talk, I make similar points in the context of life planning. The focusing potency of such thinking (best captured in written form) was reminded to me recently with a quote from the practical philosopher Alain de Botton:
“The more you know what you really want, and where you’re really going, the more what everybody else is doing starts to diminish. The moments when your own path is at its most ambiguous, [that’s when] the voices of others, the distracting chaos in which we live, the social media static start to loom large and become very threatening.”
But, I digress; what I want to focus on now is point five in the same (business start-up) context.
Invest in the Interesting
Many professional service firm entrepreneurs follow a similar journey. The early part of their career is often spent in employment: developing their skills, networks and professional confidence. If there is not an explicit, timetabled plan to break out into their own venture, there is often a long-residing, persistent itch to scratch with respect to helming their own ship. At some point on this journey, the push and pull factors, the risk and potential-reward equation will demand action. At this juncture, the aspirant entrepreneur (and I know because I speak to many of them) will start to fine-tune the design of this new company: the markets to serve, the services to offer.
Now of course, this question needs to take into account the relevant skills, experiences and professional networks of the founder(s). To disregard this would be to court failure – successful professional service firms are, of course, founded on genuine expertise. That said, there is often significant room for fine-tuning your proposed services, to bespoke them to a salient target audience. Founders often have a significant choice set in this regard and it is within this still wide bracket that I want to discharge my advice – linking back to my talk to sixth-formers.
What I encouraged them to do – in contrast to the cliched follow your passion type rhetoric (I don’t know about you but I didn’t have a clue what my passion was as an eighteen year old) – was to just get out in the world and experiment a little. Experiment, that is, in an intelligent way by taking something you are genuinely interested in and rubbing it against the world. As it is only when you do so that you discover whether such an interest has the potential to morph into a passion.
My chosen professional service focus on starting-up my own company was large-scale, complex transformation work (programme management). Some may view this as a dry offering but I found it of genuine interest – primarily as a function of the fascinating and privileged places it would take me. Such a service offering threw me into the heart of major organizational overhauls – working with others to supervise challenging, multi-dimensional change agendas. For me, it was the perfect nexus of intellectual puzzle-solving, leadership and team development. And every engagement so contextually different.
The point I am seeking to make is that once my professional focus was placed, there was a natural vigour to the growth and success of the business. It was incredibly hard work but we loved what we did and, as such, felt a real energy-replenishing pride and satisfaction in the outcomes we helped our clients achieve.
Surely this is obvious, I hear some readers mutter. You would think so but, alas, there are some (too many) who, conversely, set out to scratch their entrepreneurial itch but instead of really pausing to ponder the what really interests and engages me? question, lazily default to a simple trajectory of their most recent career stage. A travel-loving accountant jumps out from a big firm to offer generic, provincial accounting services when she could have led a great business supporting a hospitality sector niche. A new, bland “me too” management consultancy, marketing agency or web services shop is born every day – with the commensurate likelihood of mediocre energy levels once the initial honeymoon buzz concludes.
Now, of course, entrepreneurial success is predicated on the hard, cold reality of market demand. But, that said, there is often scope to have both market demand and provision of a service area that genuinely fires you up – as opposed to an espoused passion masking a candid, inner sense of well it pays the bills type energy. In final analysis, the relentless nature of the entrepreneurial journey will only be enjoyed and sustainable if the fuel in the fire is real.
So, this week’s short essay will have served its purpose if just one or two readers – poised at this pivotal juncture – spend just a little longer to introspectively explore what truly interests them – and then heavily invest their brave new ventures in that golden zone.
The advice also stands for established businesses adding new, innovative offers to their service portfolios. As well as meeting a sighted market demand, what is really going to engage you and your colleagues in the next chapter of your professional and intellectual development? If you can light this interest spark then, with even fledgling market demand for the proposition, it is far more likely to be a rewarding service (for your clients and your staff).
So, invest in the interesting and the rest will follow.
That, hopefully, is an idea worth sharing.
So, what’s next?
Next week, I will return to my focus on selling and how to build a sales capability with a look at how to win and develop (carefully targeted) new accounts.
Hopefully, you’ll join us on this journey. It’s totally free, and you don’t have to be a Method Grid customer (though you’re more than welcome to sign up for a free trial here).
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The first post in this current thread (all focused on how leading firms develop a systematic selling capability) can be found here.
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