Six reasons why you should stop thinking like a professional

Andy Raynor, CEO of Shakespeare Martineau, describes himself as a “failed welder” but he’s come a long way since giving up the metalwork. After college he qualified as an accountant with KPMG. Next he joined a small accountancy firm, which was eventually absorbed by RSM Tenon. Two years later he became chief executive of RSM Tenon, a role in which he remained for nine years.

In 2013 Andy joined Shakespeares as commercial director, in January 2015 became chief executive, and “a couple of days later was in the Martineau offices discussing whether it would be a good idea to bring the businesses together”. The result was the merger between Shakespeares and SGH Martineau in 2015.

Here, talking exclusively to the BDLN, Andy explains why he believes one aspect of the culture within professional services holds the entire industry back.

If I could, I’d ban the word ‘professional’

When someone tells me “I don’t think we’re being very professional” they usually mean, “I don’t want to do that”. What they’re really saying is: “I’m staying where I am.”

We need to challenge the dominant culture within professional services.

I believe one reason we have a safe hiding place behind the word ‘professional’ is because we’re afraid of change.

To succeed, we need to challenge the dominant culture within professional services and rather than seeing ourselves as ‘professionals’, should regard ourselves as business people, first and last.

Here are six reasons why…

1) The professional services industry is paralysed by ‘fear of failure’

When I ask why colleagues haven’t knocked on new doors, their usual real answer – they may not say these words – is that they’re scared of being told no, of not getting immediate traction, in which case they would have failed. That’s not failure. That’s getting to know someone you didn’t know before, and them getting to know you. It’s preparation for winning.

Professionals often don’t understand that success means shaking an awful lot of hands and kissing dozens of frogs.

I don’t know whether it will take two or 20 knocks on the door before you even get a sniff, but I do know that by the time you reach the 20th you’ll have thought about the benefits of linking some of the people you’ve met. And if you get nothing else, the people you introduce to each other will remember you for that.

But you will get something else. Professionals often don’t understand that success means shaking an awful lot of hands and kissing dozens and dozens of frogs. It’s a numbers game as well as one of skill.

Remember: you can’t go backwards. If I meet a potential client and return to the office without winning their business, that’s not failure. That’s having a go. That’s coming back having learnt something. That’s broadening your contacts, building up relationships. That’s ammunition for the future. This is a long game we’re playing, and looking for instant gratification guarantees disappointment. Resilience please!

2) Professionals are in denial that this is a sales business

This is a business; we need sales. We could be selling coal – it’s as valid a need. But over the years, the law and accountancy professions have built up their own cultures and ways of doing things. We hide behind those customs.

We shouldn’t think of ourselves as ‘professionals’, a people apart. The qualification gives us a product, and after that we must sell that product and treat it like any other business. And what does a business do? It does the best it possibly can to provide an exceptional client experience.

But it’s not the product you provide that’s critical; what matters most is how the client feels about the service. It’s the way you do it. So the persona of the business and the impact it has on the client is all-important. That’s what makes a client buy you and from you, not the answer you sell.

Over the years the law and accountancy professions have built up their own ways of doing things… we hide behind those customs.

3) The professional services industry is too fond of consensus

My experience at RSM Tenon taught me that it’s possible to take too much advice, as well as too little. You can have a lot of people advising and if you give all that too much airtime, it becomes design by committee. You end up smoothing over the features that might have made you a good leader in the first place.

You’ve got to be alert to what people are thinking, consider what they’d like to do with their own careers, but don’t be so sensitive that it stops you doing what you think is right. Professionals love consensus but that’s not leadership – leadership is doing what  is right, whatever others think.

4) Partnerships are poor at dealing with underperformance

It’s critical that any professional services firm is seen as a talent spotter by its people. If someone shows talent, they must be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. There is no crime in early-promoting. The fault is not dealing with underperformance.

Many businesses in this industry are littered with people still being given time to achieve things that they never will. That situation does not help the individual in the wrong role, and hinders his or her colleagues.

By not tackling that difficult (but ultimately constructive) conversation, and by not trying to find out if that square peg has a square hole somewhere else in the firm, you’re simply flogging a dead horse. There is not the time or money or career to waste on that.

This industry is littered with people being given time to achieve things that they never will.

5) Professional services firms are terrible at branding

“Trusted adviser.” “Partner-led service.” “Added value.” “Over 150 years’ history.” So many firms come out with the same old lines yet expect to stand out.

One reason for this is because firms often delegate their presentation and outward personality to branding agencies, who create something that’s recycled from the marketplace. A brand in a safety harness. As a result your firm either comes across as being as dull as ditchwater or just looking like everyone else.

Another mistake firms make is to seek reasons how they can be different to everyone else. If they do that they may fail absolutely to understand what they’re really good at and what their clients think of them.

You can’t simply look for unique selling points. Most things in the world are not unique. People like to buy from people and relate to simple, clear reasons.

So learn firstly what you excel at, and why clients buy from you. If you’ve got that clarity and repeat it – and repetition of a single, simple message may be  more important in branding than the message itself – then the market will know what you are about.

6) Good professionals are bad at letting go

Back in 1992 I’d built up a client base worth around £600k per year. I had a great team of managers who did most of the donkeywork. The senior partner at the time – an astute individual – sat me down and said: “If you’re going to grow a business you have to let go of a few things from time to time. So I’m going to give your client base to your managers and make them partners.”

I remember thinking: what a disaster. How will these clients survive without me? And for the next three months I felt extremely exposed and thought my world had ended.

But the managers – the new partners – did a fine job. And after licking my wounds I started knocking on new doors, and new clients started turning up. And after I’d knocked on enough doors, I had my best ever year. And two years later I had another £600k worth of clients.

Our best business developers – our most brilliant sales people – don’t have the time to sell because they’ve built large client bases and won’t let them go.

The old senior partner was right – to grow the firm you’ve got to give other people a go and get out there and win new clients yourself.

So there’s nothing to fear about being exposed – if you’ve built it before you can build it again. Most professionals are scared of that concept.

And because of that, our best business developers – our most brilliant sales people – don’t have the time to sell because they’ve built large client bases and won’t let them go.

So, if I could, I’d ban the word ‘professional’. It’s a term that we hide behind, with its own set of cultural norms. I believe we must challenge those norms and grasp the fact that professional services is a business like any other.