Climbing Mount Audacity

05: What makes a professional service firm successful? Part 1

A reflection - That week in the attic - Know what you are not - Your vibe and values - The journey’s reason

Each year, for the last five years, I have run a three-day event for professional service firm leaders seeking to understand what makes a professional service firm successful? Attendees range from directors of $multi-million established companies seeking a growth inflection point through to the aspirational entrepreneur making final plans to leave employment and start-up a new business*.

It is one of the highlights of my year – surrounded as I invariably am by motivated, super-bright, engaged delegates for an intense few days. The core aim of the event is to leave all attendees with a detailed appreciation of what capabilities exist within the best professional service firms such that they leave with plans – and rejuvenated energies – to systematically build value in their own ventures.

For the course of the three-days, I lean heavily on my own entrepreneurial escapade: taking Moorhouse from singleton start-up to a c. £20m business within a premeditated five-year plan. This personal case study really helps bring each of the sessions to life.

To kick-off the course, I briefly describe this personal entrepreneurial story – from start-up to sale – in order that all subsequent references to it are given context. When I initially developed the materials for this opening session, I was minded to tell this story along a chronological “… and what happened next” narrative. It occurred to me, however, that this construct would quickly become quite dull. Far more useful, I thought, that delegates get an initial sense of the what makes a professional service firm successful? question. As such, I forced myself to reflect on this incredible journey and muster my personal top ten success factors – to get quickly to the root of the entrepreneurial challenge.

In this blog, I am going to share the first three of these success factors with you and, in coming weeks, work through the full list of ten.

So, here goes …

What makes a professional service firm successful?

Or, at least, what is my personal reflection on what contributed to the success of my own professional service business in these foundational years.

1. Have a plan!

what makes a professional service firm successful image 1

First and foremost, have a business plan. Ensure that this is then regularly updated – as a whole team endeavour (annually makes sense). There is a lot of nonsense written about the death of the business plan – often in a confused conflation with sensible product-development methodologies such as agile delivery. When it comes to your over-arching commercial ambition, however, success factor number one is investing the time and energy (and it does take time and energy) to develop your future business plan.

Before setting off on my start-up, I took a week of leave from my employer, hid away in my then cramped attic office, and wrote a detailed 80-page plan – capturing my new company’s vision, values, growth objectives, strategies for growth, financial goals and incumbent risks. It was, by some margin, the most potent week of my professional life and the resultant artefact became the single most important reference point for everything that followed. I cannot claim that having such a plan will necessarily predicate your future success. I can, however, with confidence, say that not having one is invariably the precursor of meandering mediocrity.

2. A clear service proposition and market focus … placed into a growing market

what makes a professional service firm successful image 2

Whilst working at a major global consulting firm, I had long suffered the entrepreneurial itch. I took my time, however, to research and understand what service offering to land my new venture upon. My area of technical expertise was major corporate transformation (project and programme management) so it made sense to start there. I could see from scanning growth trends, and my own primary web searches, that this was set to be a growing market – based on understandable market drivers as opposed to any sound-bite-led, transient fad. From the outset then, the company set out with a very simple remit: to become a premier provider of services to client organizations grappling with complex, transformation agendas – often with real strategic import.

Being clear about your service proposition(s) entails also being very clear about what you are not. So many startups bleed into an “all things for all people” offer desperate as they are for the first piece of business. This strategy is doomed. Rather, hold your nerve and confidently delineate where your expertise falls and, commensurately, describe to prospects what lies outside this boundary. Such an approach will win you far more work (as well as professional respect) and start laying the foundation for onward growth.

3. A carefully-nurtured, high-performing team culture

what makes a professional service firm successful image 3

Readers of my blogs will know that I am fascinated by the topic of high-performing teams: centric as they are to what separates successful ventures from the mediocre masses. If I had to single out one of these ten factors as being the nub of what makes a professional service firm successful it would have to be this one. “Get the right people on the bus” as the hackneyed expression goes and, truly, anything is possible.

This is, of course, a vast topic; one that future blogs will unpack in some detail. To get you started, however, you will want to read my research into what truly motivates people to work (see blog and free paper download box).

Please send me
The most important equation a business leader need ever know
Or, what truly motivates people at work?
What truly motivates people at work?

The nuanced point that I seek to make here (beyond the generic “build a great team” platitude) is the everyday investment in the vibe and values of your forming collective. If you are starting out, then you have the luxury of a blank sheet of paper in this regard. Stand for something. Critically, stand for something that aligns to your personal and professional values; values that will differentiate you in a crowded market place. By example, at the heart of my team’s success was a fiercely held belief that we should always take our profession unbelievably seriously but not ourselves. This was, we felt, in direct contrast to many competitor organizations seemingly puffed up with an air of earnest, self-importance. This values-based culture self-regulated the quality of acceptable work (fitting of a premier aspiration) and quickly neutered any growing, energy-depleting ego or politic. This communal principle, this unspoken code was the heartbeat of the firm, the ethereal fuel in our tank.

I should also note here – as I do when speaking to the delegates at my annual event – not only is this aspect critical to your entrepreneurial success it is also the aspect that gives it real, human substance.

This blog series carries the strap line: “How to build a professional service firm (and enjoy the journey en route)”. My primary reflection on this personal experience is just how much I did enjoy the company of my colleagues en route; it was a genuine privilege to be in their midst. So, I always implore business leaders to start here: as not only will a real focus (and investment!) in building a great team fuel your commercial success, it will, more fundamentally, be the reason why the journey is worth taking in the first place.

So, what’s next?

Next week, I will continue this perspective on what makes a professional service firm successful and a reflection on my own personal journey from singleton start-up to valued business within five-years. Specifically, I am going to reflect on the next few critical success factors, in my top ten list, that enabled this fast growth to value.

Success factors 4-6 (Part 2): see blog

Success factors 7-8 (Part 3): see blog

Success factors 9-10 (Part 4): see blog

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).

We’ll be releasing a new post each week. To get each post emailed to you as soon as it’s published, sign up for the Climbing Mount Audacity mailing list below.

Climbing Mount Audacity…
From Startup to Scaleup!

We're sharing everything we know about how to build an awesome professional service firm (and enjoy the journey en route!) PLUS travel updates, reflections on our stumbles and general musings on our Method Grid journey.

See you next week. Have something you want to hear more about? Let me know in the comments below or via Twitter.

*Details of Dom’s Annual Retreat for professional service leaders (including previous delegate testimonials) can be found here.


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