There you are, cruising around the bay on your one-sailed Sunfish, Hobie-cat or multi-sheeted catamaran, fishing for consulting projects. A fellow sailor hails from his small craft, “Would you like to join forces? I’m sure we could catch more together.” What do you think? Will adding more sailboats to your armada result in a better haul?
Take a moment to look at the reality and rules of partnering.
(First, apologies to all mariners who frequent my blog; lack of nautical knowledge couldn’t deter me from torturing this metaphor.)
Reality: Prospects who want berths on ocean liners won’t choose
your skiff, no matter how many sails you add.
Many solo consultants and boutiques consider partnering to make themselves more attractive to buyers who lean toward big-name consulting firms. “Companies don’t want a solo firm like mine,” they reason. “Adding a confederate or two will make me a viable option for more projects.”
But this course is flawed. Most prospects who will seriously consider a 15-person firm, will also hire a solo shop or boutique. In contrast, decision-makers who dismiss single-shingle consultancies out of hand express equal disinterest in boutiques and loose networks of small players.
Don’t fool yourself into thinking a partner or two will convince a prospect to jump ship from his Crystal Cruises mega-steamer. You’re a different type of vessel, period. Take on the clients who appreciate your sleek lines.
That isn’t to say partnering will always leave you high and dry. My consulting practice is buoyed by partnerships. Which is why I always navigate the depths of collaboration with the following three rules in mind:
Rule #1: Only Add Sails That Capture More Wind
Unless a partner can reach prospects that you can’t touch already, they’re not adding value. At least in terms of business development. Overlapping networks do nothing other than steal wind from each other’s sails and cause confusion over who gets credit for propelling the ship.
Rule #2: Your Partner Must Instinctively Duck When You Jibe
Let’s be frank: not everyone works well with others. Some well-intentioned souls are so frustrating, they make you want to scuttle your own ship. Others who like the cut of your jib make reasonable mates; but reasonable isn’t good enough for partnering. Give them a wide berth too.
Only a precious few work with you like an America’s Cup crew. Those are the only consultants you should consider as partners.
Rule #3: Join Forces When a Catch is in Sight
The greatest white lie of consulting is, “When I see an opportunity that looks right for you, I’ll definitely send it your way.” Consultants are well-meaning, but promises to help each other are worth their weight in vapor.
Far too many consultants are building loose coalitions with the naïve hope that colleagues will produce hot, leviathan-sized leads.
Save your partnering energy for those times when a concrete opportunity is well-defined and you can steer toward it immediately.
While I’m a big fan of partnerships, I know that multiple boats tethered together don’t travel faster. Most often, they just get tangled up until they cast off the linkages and drift apart.
Consultants are constantly taking each other out for “get-to-know-you lunches.” Give 90% of those invitations a polite heave-ho, and devote the time to prospects instead.
Use the reality and rules above as your anchor, and you’ll weather the stormy seas of independent consulting better than you’d think.
What other rules have worked for you in partnerships with colleagues?
Text and images are © 2023 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.
Nautical references aside, you are spot on here. When I first started out as a solo consultant, I met with every other independent consultant in the tri-state region. Spent a lot of time at Panera with other consultants getting to know them and identifying “synergies.” And you know who made the most money after all of these meetings? Panera.
That’s not to say the intentions were not real. Most conversations were engaging, pleasant and perhaps even inspiring. However when it came to truly “teaming” hardly any opportunities arose. Partly it’s because when you’re independent you want to win any dollars that might be available and sometimes the pot might not be big enough to share. And even though an opportunity might present itself, you still need to go out and find your own book of business while the partnering opportunity bakes.
In dozens of cases, though, I’ve subcontracted to other peers when the opportunity arose, or I’ve been the sub, but have never really partnered in the true sense. It’s always a nice sentiment – bringing two independents together to represent a larger entity – however I’ve not seen it happen often.
Funny story about Panera, Fred. I totally agree that the intentions are good all around, it’s just the results that are lacking.
Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience.
You are welcome.
Hi David, some clear thoughts on partnerships and often less realised.
Just out of interest is the project portal which you higlighted earlier now out-
Thanks for your affirming comment. Please contact me offline for information on the project portal. The “packet” was moved to the back burner, but if you email me I’ll give you some helpful materials. I appreciate the follow up.
“Save your partnering energy for those times when a concrete opportunity is well-defined and you can steer toward it immediately.”
How true. Last month, a colleague who has been “tinkering” with consulting for 2 years called with a referral – he could not bid the project himself due to the level of effort and complexity of the project.
The proposal was due in 3 days. He wanted to be an equal partner, but it was clear that he lacked the experience to put together a winning proposal.I handed him my standard subcontracting agreement and we got started – and won a 6-figure contract – and it’s clear that there are several follow on projects that we could win in the future.
Lesson learned – understand the balance of power and decide if you have the guts to negotiate a workable business relationship.
Congratulations on a winning a big project, Loraine! You’ve raised an interesting (and sometimes contentious) issue: how is revenue divvied up among consultants who collaborate on a project? Larger firms struggle with the same question; even though all the money flows into the same coffers, credit and compensation for individual consultants reflect revenue won. I always suggest firms and collaborators take a partnering approach, making sure everyone on the team is treated fairly and rewarded for the value they contributed.
Given my history, those power lunches always amounted to others picking my brain for insight. That’s what I get for being a passionate multipotentialite. Nowadays, I give lunch invites the heave-ho, just like you suggested. No more riding my coattails. I prefer jackets, anyway.
Thanks, as always, for sharing your brilliance with us, David.
You’re very welcome, Lacey. Alas, mutlipotentiality is a difficult disposition for aspiring consultants; clients typically choose deep, narrow expertise over broad-based knowledge and interests. Either way, fewer lunches will serve you well (and make your jackets last longer).
Wise words from the trenches, David.
Keep up the great work on the posts. As a collective they will no doubt make a fantastic book for all of us!
Thank you for your feedback, Jamie. The next book is in the works for very early 2016. Stay tuned…