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The Handful of Choices that Determine Your Consulting Firm’s Success

How cool would it be if you could choose greater success for your consulting firm from a drop-down list? Well, crown yourself the new monarch of freezerland, because that’s exactly what you can do. (Sorta)

There’s a straightforward exercise you can complete that will deliver the following benefits (and others) for your consulting firm over the next six months:

  • Higher likelihood of achieving your goals and your objectives
  • Faster, easier strategic decisions
  • Less conflict internally and with clients
  • Less confusion and overwhelm
  • More enjoyment and joy from your work
  • More successful hiring of employees, subcontractors and vendors

Plus, as a bonus, I’ll send you a cheat sheet to help you complete the exercise. (More info below.)

Before we get to the exercise, it’s worth noting that thriving consulting firms come in many, many varieties, serving different industries in different ways and with totally different management styles.

However, there is an extraordinarily common theme:

The most successful consulting firms possess a strong, well-defined culture that is true and evident.

In other words, top-performing consulting firms purposefully nurture a culture that is consistent with their beliefs and actual behavior, and those firms routinely spotlight the importance of their culture.

Nifty, but how do you define or identify your consulting firm’s culture? Easy:

Your consulting firm’s culture is the expression of your values in action.

Hence, your consulting firm’s values—the real values you act on, not those aspirationally captured in a credentials deck—dictate your client relationships, your internal team dynamics, your growth path, your fee structures, your choice of projects and virtually every other aspect of your consulting business.

For consulting firms, values are destiny.

That’s also nifty, and vaguely Greek.* And it forces another question: What are values?

A value is a descriptor of your consulting firm’s behavior at a moment of choice or conflict—particularly a difficult choice or conflict.

You may already have a list of your consulting firm’s values or you may have thought about them but never captured them explicitly.

Or, you may have developed a list of values without realizing they’re supposed to describe behavior at moments of choice.

Either way, clarifying your values and building a plan to live them loudly will deliver enormous benefits to your consulting firm.

The Exercise

Choose 4-10 values; i.e., descriptors of how your consulting firm behaves at moments of choice or conflict.

The Rule

Every one of your values must be true; i.e., your past behavior must show that your consulting firm acts in accordance with the value the majority of the time when you have the opportunity.

Occasionally, your consulting values may conflict with each other—and how you behave during those times of conflict is your best indicator of your consulting firm’s true values.

Some Suggestions

Include “easy” values that reflect the choices you make consistently without any gnashing of teeth.*

Also include values that are true but challenging—that require choices you’re committed to making even though they give you pause.

Exclude values that you have not lived in the past.

Exclude values based on false choices; i.e., where no consultant or consulting firm is likely to make a different choice.

A Few Prompts

If your consulting firm already has a list of values, work backwards. What choices do your values describe? Do you abide by your choice consistently?  

If you haven’t written out your values, start with your difficult choices. Look for areas of scarcity, cases of conflict, and instances of opportunity. For instance:

  • How do you behave when you’ve made an error? When someone else has?
  • Do you standardize your consulting firm’s offerings to create efficiency or customize them to create a “perfect fit”?
  • Do you invest in growth or do you maximize short-term profit?
  • When it comes to working on firm-growth initiatives, do you leverage in-house resources that are already paid for, or do you pay outside experts who may be more expert and experienced?
  • If your consulting firm is hungry for business, do you take on projects that are outside your skill set?
  • If you’re hungry, do you eat the box of truffles that was supposed to be mailed to your new client?

What is a choice you make at your consulting firm and how does it express itself in one of your values?

(If you post an example in the comments below, we’ll send you a cheat sheet with 237 values collected from over 90 consulting firms.)


41 Comments
  1. Paul Wicks
    July 14, 2021 at 6:29 am Reply

    A colleague reached out asking if I’d be interested in consulting for a company that supplies research to the tobacco industry. It wasn’t until then I’d really considered which companies I would and would not do business with. After all, I work with a lot of pharmaceutical clients and they’re not always universally loved by all. There wasn’t much reputational risk, they even said I could be anonymous (which in itself felt jarring) so the whole thing brought into relief some of my core values. One that I stated on the first day of my business was “Patients First, Always.” I declined that opportunity but hopefully maintained the relationship, and left a little clearer in my mind about what we do and don’t do.

    • David A. Fields
      July 14, 2021 at 8:45 am Reply

      What a terrific example, Paul! Every time you create more clarity in your values, decisions such as whether or not you’ll work on a client become faster and easier. Thank you for kicking off the discussion today.

  2. Herman Gothe
    July 14, 2021 at 7:03 am Reply

    We were invited to a project with a high chance of winning but that demanded skills tat were outside our usual business, so we decided to withdraw from that opportunity.

    • David A. Fields
      July 14, 2021 at 8:47 am Reply

      Well done, Herman, and also impressive. It’s important to strike a balance between a “Yes I can!” attitude and an honest assessment of capabilities. Fortunately, as long as you stay Right-Side Up and consider what’s best for the client, that balance is usually easy to maintain.
      I appreciate you contributing the excellent example.

  3. William
    July 14, 2021 at 7:07 am Reply

    One of our long term Clients also went to a tobacco firm, and contacted us immediately. It was a tricky conversation – I had to carefully explain why we couldn’t support him. We then had a long conversation about ‘values’. Three months later he left and went back to FMCG – and engaged us immediately!

    • David A. Fields
      July 14, 2021 at 8:50 am Reply

      Wow, William, you’ve provided a case study that is instructive on many levels. Not only did you let your own values guide you, you demonstrated your commitment to your values, and that strengthened your contact’s trust in you. By acting with overt integrity, you showed yourself to be the type of consultant that clients want to work with.

      Outstanding contribution, William!

  4. Chris Chapman
    July 14, 2021 at 8:12 am Reply

    I find our values are challenged when faced with the potential of losing a deal. Can we confidently defend our unique value proposition and related approach when challenged on price? This thinking has reinforced our belief that every client is unique and that custom solutions require a rigorous discovery process. The result has been to secure work with clients that value what we value.

    • David A. Fields
      July 14, 2021 at 8:53 am Reply

      You’re absolutely right, Chris, that values appear under pressure. Hence the definition of values as your behavior when faced with difficult choices and conflict. You’ve arrived at a construct that works well for your firm, and since it’s true to your beliefs it will play out in your culture. I’m glad you shared your example today.

  5. Dave
    July 14, 2021 at 8:14 am Reply

    I consult in leadership development, and I believe that leaders need to be able to connect with others, have a concern for others, and want others to succeed. I have run across a few CEO’s who don’t possess those qualities, and as a result, I’ve declined to work with them. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy to develop skills in working effectively with people if your natural tendency is to be abusive, dismissive and self-centered.

    • David A. Fields
      July 14, 2021 at 8:59 am Reply

      Dave, your clear definition of the type of individual with whom you’ll work (or won’t work) is a terrific expression of a value–and raises the interesting question of what value? If one of those leaders that you think is a waste of time offered you, say, $1 million to work with her, would you? If not, what value are you acting on? I’ll be interested to learn where you come out on that.

      • Dave
        July 15, 2021 at 7:24 pm Reply

        Well, it’s all hypothetical, right? :-). I think the value is in consistently delivering value with those that I choose to work with. I need to be able to make an impact. I’ll certainly get a financial impact if someone offers me $1 million – but based on my experience, it’s highly unlikely I would impact someone without the characteristics that I describe. Certainly a tough call, but I’d prefer to work with 5 folks who would pay $200,000 each and have a chance of creating five testimonials and satisfied customers, than the $1 million where I wouldn’t expect either.

        • David A. Fields
          July 19, 2021 at 8:35 pm

          You’re demonstrating a commitment to only accept projects on which you’re confident you can create an outstanding outcome for the client. That’s an admirable value to live by and, as your hypothetical example illustrated, it guides you on whether or not to take a project that would be “over your head.” Great addition to the conversation, Dave!

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