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Your Next Mindset Shift as a Consulting Firm Leader

Consulting firm leaders traverse an interesting, attitudinal path, with numerous inflection points. If you’re like the majority of leaders, your thoughts about parts of your consulting practice will shift dramatically as your firm grows.

Why is knowing a typical progression important?

Imagine two different teams attempt the same escape room (at different times). Team Vanilla doesn’t know there are two more rooms to solve and that most groups solve the first room quickly. Team Chocolate is fully aware of these facts.

Which team will more confidently and eagerly rush to finish the first room? (My money, unsurprisingly, is on Team Chocolate.)

Knowing that your journey is not unusual may make your current struggles more tolerable. In addition, recognizing the typical next stage in your journey may precipitate a faster, easier evolution.

One attitudinal metamorphosis among consulting firm owners is particularly striking:

The mindset shift from sales-avoidant to ardent rainmaker.

We regularly see firm founders advance from disliking business development to tolerating it, to enjoying it, to craving it.

(If you’re not a founder, your mindset and attitude may correspond more tightly with your role in the organization as you progress.)

Many consulting entrepreneurs in the early stages of their practice love delivering value to clients, but dislike engaging in business development. If that’s your situation, you may doubt that you’ll ever actually want to devote all your time to winning business.

Future you will surprise the heck out of current you.

Owners of sub-$1 million consulting firms often groan, “I really do not enjoy BD—can’t I hire someone to do that for me?”

When those same owners’ firms top $10 million, they exclaim, “All I want to do is win new clients. Can’t someone else take care of delivery and running the firm?”

From the outside, the transformation is as dramatic as watching a kid who hates vegetables mature into the Green Giant.

Wherever you are in your journey as consulting firm leader, rest assured that you’ll probably enjoy business development much more as you (and your firm) grow.

Action Step: Try approaching your business development activities now with your “Future You” mindset; i.e., act as if it’s a load of fun!

Three questions for you. Answer any:

  • Has your mindset on BD shifted at all as you’ve owned your consulting firm?
  • What’s the next step for you?
  • Does it help to know that you’ll probably enjoy BD more as your firm grows?

Let me know your answer by posting a comment.

  1. Kevin
    February 1, 2023 at 5:58 am Reply

    Thank you for this very concise yet inspirational article. I have only recently launched my practice, and I hate BD. You described me perfectly. I know of course it is critical, and I think I like the temporal projection approach. I’ll work on considering myself a future BD addict.

    • Michael
      February 1, 2023 at 7:04 am Reply

      Most of us naturally prefer operating in our scope of competence rather than what is foreign, emotionally tedious and painful. We forget though that we often have to travel through the latter to reach our goals.

      We struggle to realize that improving to becoming competent in what we dislike can make that discomfort or pain less intense.

      • David A. Fields
        February 1, 2023 at 7:58 am Reply

        Well said, Michael. Even folks who are “naturally talented” at an activity have to wade through the waters of discomfort, learning and practice in order to achieve mastery.

        I appreciate your joining the discussion, Michael!

    • William J Ryan
      February 1, 2023 at 7:32 am Reply

      Hi Kevin, I get it and even after 71/2 years BD still isn’t what jazzes me but I’ll share one key shift for me was when I reframed the process from working to develop business to having a conversation with a potential new friend. My measure of “success” has become being able to learn 1 new thing about the person (their work, interests, etc.) from our conversation. I stopped pushing me and relaxed, now I see if I can expand their connections instead and intro/refer them to others. Has taken a lot of pressure off me and some have become clients too!

      • David A. Fields
        February 1, 2023 at 8:13 am Reply

        That’s good advice for Kevin, Bill. It may be time to resurface an old article on the metric of success which, in my opinion, is relationship strength. The more healthy, vibrant relationships you have, the wealthier you are. As you point out, Bill, when you approach every conversation with the attitude that building the relationship (not winning business) will make you wealthier, BD becomes easier and more rewarding.

        Thank you for bringing up that point, Bill!

        • Barry Witonsky
          February 1, 2023 at 7:52 pm

          Makes me think if we can share one thing that our contact learns maybe even better. I’m about to enter the BD space with excitement and trepidation. Trying to be comfortable while uncomfortable.

        • David A. Fields
          February 1, 2023 at 10:02 pm

          Boldly stepping into discomfort is how you ensure growth, Barry. Kudos to you! One piece I’d gently push back on is the idea that you need to share something that creates learning for your contact. That puts much too much pressure on you and on your contact. It also creates a convenient excuse to not reach out. (“I can’t reach out to Fred… I don’t have anything new to teach him.”) If you set that aside and just focus on the relationship you’ll move past trepidation faster.

          Excellent contribution to the discussion, Barry. Thanks!

      • Brian Kelly
        February 1, 2023 at 9:24 am Reply

        That sounds like a great approach and valuable goal. As I look back on 11 years consulting, the relationships are indeed the real wealth. (maybe I am not charging enough :))

        • David A. Fields
          February 1, 2023 at 11:31 am

          Brian, you’re absolutely right that the relationships are the pot of gold. (And it goes without saying that you’re not charging enough!)

          Thank you for adding to the dialogue!

    • David A. Fields
      February 1, 2023 at 7:56 am Reply

      Congratulations on your new practice, Kevin! Embrace that future you.

      It truly is remarkable how consultants who stood in the same shoes as you are now asking us to put structures in place so that they get to spend more time on BD. If I hadn’t seen it first hand many, many times, I’m not sure I would have believed it.

      Thank you for sharing your reaction, Kevin, and keep me apprised of your journey.

  2. William J Ryan
    February 1, 2023 at 7:28 am Reply

    I’m 71/2 years on my journey and I do see the progression, but I think I’m following a third path. I have been able to partner with a couple of different consulting groups that don’t have the skills I bring, that was what the initial work was to create the connection but I have been able to develop those partnerships to the point that they are looking for work that can be done together so I am able to focus on what I like to do more while they follow the BD path more.

    • David A. Fields
      February 1, 2023 at 8:05 am Reply

      Great perspective, Bill. A “freelancing” approach, where others (such as partners or staffing platforms) source the work, is absolutely a viable path. It’s rare to grow a substantial firm following that course, but you can definitely create a solid business.

      You’ve also pulled back the curtain on a set of completely alternative routes: one is when a group of partners found a firm and one of the partners is never expected to engage in BD–that partner becomes the Managing Partner or COO; the other is when a founder/owner establishes a solid BD engine, then quickly steps back from being the face of the firm. That latter route is extremely rare, but we’ve seen it once or twice. Call it one-in-500.

      Thank you for the provocative addition to the conversation, Bill!

  3. Kevin Dougherty
    February 1, 2023 at 7:32 am Reply

    Now I know why I love chocolate:)

    • David A. Fields
      February 1, 2023 at 8:10 am Reply

      Hold on, Kevin. You mean loving chocolate is not a hardwired human attribute, like seeing faces in clouds, tree bark and piled-up laundry?

      Come to think of it, the faces in the laundry may have been my children.

      I always appreciate when you contribute a reaction, Kevin!!

  4. Bruce Imel
    February 1, 2023 at 7:54 am Reply

    The graph made me laugh as I saw myself over the last 20 years depicted in the green line. I think I have had few more peaks and valleys.

    • David A. Fields
      February 1, 2023 at 8:27 am Reply

      You’re not alone, Bruce. Most consulting firm leaders see their time (and interest) in BD ebb and flow over time. That’s partly the nature of the business and contract structures. (Consulting is typically not a subscription business, though there are some interesting, subscription-ish advisory services.)

      As firms grow, the overall trend tends to reflect the curve, with delight in BD typically peaking between $10M and $40M in annual revenue. By $50M, many leaders of small firms have shelved their BD addiction and are playing with acquisitions, etc.

      I’m glad you chimed in today, Bruce!

  5. Carole Napolitano
    February 1, 2023 at 10:45 am Reply

    Thanks for your article, David. One way to love BD more, is to find an easy way to make it happen (other than delivering consistent value, of course, so that your current clients sign up for more). Many years ago, when I was unable to book a flight to return one day earlier than anticipated from a client engagement, I had occasion that evening, as part of the program I had been working with, to meet a person who happened to be developing a network of coaches and consultants that she refers. Since that time much of my business, including with some major national and international organizations, has come through her referrals. I am a small solo practice, so the value of an active referral system has been priceless in opening doors to great clients and great work!

    • David A. Fields
      February 1, 2023 at 11:34 am Reply

      Great point on referrals (and building relationships), Carole! Most consulting firms–large and small–win their business through referrals and introductions. Take a look at this recent article, and keep an eye out for parts 2 and 3 of the series on creating more referrals!

      I appreciate you contributing your case study, Carole. It’s inspiring to many readers!

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