Timeless Marketing Principles For Consultants (Get More Long-Term Clients) with Larry Robertson: Podcast #213 | Consulting Success
Everyone will benefit from having long-term clients who will always return to you and even refer others to work with you. But garnering such individuals is not so easy to accomplish. For Larry Robertson, getting ideal customers boils down to the value you are delivering, not just the profits you are earning. Joining Michael Zipursky, the Founder of Lighthouse Consulting explains why patience is key in building lasting client relationships. Larry talks about his marketing principles that prioritize the customer’s needs more than your own business goals. He also shares his secrets in starting meaningful conversations, leveraging your network, using social media to establish a good reputation, and taking advantage of every customer referral.
I’m with Larry Robertson. Larry, welcome.
Thank you, Michael. It’s a pleasure to be here.
You are a Fulbright Scholar, founder, consultant, advisor, speaker facilitator and author of three books like Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. You also write recurring columns for Inc. Magazine, creativity posts in Fast Company and others. You’ve been running your consulting firm, Lighthouse Consulting for many years. I want to dive into how you’ve seen things change over that period of time.
You work with many well-known organizations from the likes of Visa, American Red Cross, Boston Consulting Group and others. I want to get into the work that you do, how you go about guiding organizations and their leaders to build more successful companies and organizations and a little bit more into that prestigious Fulbright Scholar. Before we do that, I always like to get started in the earlier years. Take us back to what you were doing in your career. What did your career, education or your path through education looked like before you started at your consulting business?
That can often be a telling starting point to understanding where somebody is and what their origins were. I’ll take it from the time up to when I began Lighthouse Consulting and doing consulting in that way. I had worked a number of years in at the time was a blended world of venture capital consulting and early-stage investment banking. Smaller companies were going public for the first time. I had the good fortune to work for a firm where we were tiny. We recognized that when it came to competing to be the finance coordinator and the fundraiser for an organization, which was how we made our money, we weren’t going to compete with the big New York banks. They had deeper connections, deeper pockets and larger organizations.
What stood out for us was, “Can we get to know our clients well enough that we not only can help them tell their story, not just raising money but to their customers, to prospective employees down the line partners and so on? Can we do that in such a way that we build a strong relationship underneath, which is based on this combination of we both understand where you’re trying to go as the client and that we bring unique things?” In a way, we were consultants to these perspective investment banking or clients along the way. In fact, we would spend weeks sometimes months working with these organizations without any contract, never taking a fear because building the relationship was so important to us. It was there in the DNA. Those were my origins before I went into consulting. I can tell you how I got into that as well.
I want to begin with that for a moment to make it very tactical and tangible for everyone. What were you doing? You’re surrounded by much larger competitors. It’s a pretty fierce environment. There are many different organizations that are trying to win the business of these firms that want to go public. How did you even get them to respond to your emails or phone calls? What was the initial approach that you found that allowed them to say yes to sitting down and having a conversation with you?
I’ll give you three things. One was we took the time to get to know them before we got the chance to get to know them. We did as much research as we could on the industry they were in, although we pretty much knew those industries. In many ways, we looked at the niche that they might be filling. We learned as much as we could about the organization, which is tough when they’re young, small and not a lot of what they do is public. When I was working out in those days, this was pre-internet. You can’t go to their website, do a search or things like that. We would try to get to know them so that when we arrived on their doorstep, the conversation wasn’t, “How can you give us business?” The conversation was, “What can we do to raise the value of your business?” That was the first thing. That deep interest in who we were talking to before they even took an interest in us.
The second thing and this is the part that might make you laugh is we were arriving on their doorstep saying, “Let’s not talk about money yet. We’re not here to charge you a fee or tell you how much money we could raise for you. We don’t even know if we can raise money for you because we don’t know you yet. If you’re willing to take some time to get to know us, not only does that help us to define a value proposition for how we could work with you much more specifically but we believe you’ll get value even in that process even if you decide not to work with us.”
Think about that. If you know what the client is up to, you have a sense of what they need and you’re willing to give some of yourself or your firm in the beginning stages to prove that you can bring value, it’s incredibly attractive. The third thing we brought was time. Oftentimes, we would meet a client. We might even like one another and see the possibility but we could tell within the first conversation or two that the timing wasn’t there yet.
We were patient and followed up. Many people, when they seek clients, 1) They don’t want to take the time to learn. 2) They want to start charging right away. In fact sometimes they’re watching their own bank accounts so they feel pressure to charge right away and 3) If there’s not an ability to charge right away, they walk away. They don’t come back around to see if that prospective client has matured and could be a client. Frankly, those were the keys and then it became the relationship. Once there was the opportunity to get to know one another, we could express that we didn’t just have knowledge, unique points of contact or skills. We cared about our clients and it was abundantly clear.
You used the words, “We showed up at their doorstep.” Are we talking about literally their actual doorstep? You went to their offices or was this through some other method like picking up the phone or sending an email? Walk us through the actual mechanics of that.
We were in a time where we didn’t have as many modes of communication as we do now but I can tell you what the key was and it still applies. It was an actual conversation. Showing up at their doorstep could be a phone call but it wasn’t a text. It was words and emotion. It was the chance to show that we listen and ask the right questions, which you cannot do in electronic exchange, by sending something in the mail or putting it on your website. That’s a statement. That’s not a conversation. Sometimes we would literally show up on their doors. Usually, invited but not always. Other times it was on the phone but it was that interaction that we were looking for.
The image that comes to my mind as you were describing this process that you went through is that you would have already done a lot of research on the organization and the person before you pick up the phone to call them. When you call them, you would be able to sound intelligent because you knew some things. You weren’t calling just to sell something. You would call or make a statement that would clearly indicate to them that you had done your homework, that you might be able to add some value and then it might be worth them spending 10, 15, 30 minutes or whatever it might be to have a bit of a deeper conversation. Is that what happened? Is there anything that you want to add or change to what I described there? I want to make a full picture for people.
Everything you said is true. I’ll add for those that are reading. Most people don’t but anybody can do their homework or think about what the value proposition is for the other side. Not just your services but specifically is there a problem you’re trying to solve? Is there a place you’re trying to get to? It’s very specific. Anybody can also do those things with a mindset that says, “I’m only doing them to get an invite. I’m only doing these things to get business.” What came across, I believe and why we were so successful is that we were sincerely interested in those people and what they were trying to do. Getting their business was always secondary.
I can say that to you and we could believe or not believe that but I can also prove it to you. I go back to the point I made earlier. Even if a prospective client said, “Yes, we’d like to engage with you, teach you about our business, have you ask unique questions about our business and what we’re trying to do and and our needs and how we might fill them.” Once we would get started in that relationship, we weren’t charging any money.
I’m not saying that every consultant should be giving away their services for free. What I am saying is that if that sincerity isn’t there to say, “I didn’t do a little bit of research to have a couple of points that you would recognize stand out so I’d sound friendly to you,” that’s window dressing. It was, “I’ve learned these things about you and I’ve thought about them. I’ve also thought about how my skillset matches that. Here’s what I’ve got to say.” That ultimately was a difference-maker there.
The delay in charging holding back when you would begin charging a client, did that ever backfire?
The answer to that is no because of our expectations on the front end. Sometimes it was quite generous. We didn’t offer that time because we thought there was a guarantee that funds would start flowing at some point. We offered that time to say, “You and I agreed there’s a potential match here. Let’s have a window of time where we dig in and explore. Can I bring value to you? Will you feel like the value I bring to you is more than even what you think you seek?” Think about any consulting environment or arrangement. That can happen in a matter of an hour. Sometimes it takes months or years even to build that kind of relationship and trust. It’s hard to say it backfires unless, even subconsciously, you think that, “If I give this time, it’ll automatically have a financial payoff on the back end.”
If you believe that then there are moments where it doesn’t turn into that and we might call it a backfire. Anytime you’re willing to invest more in a relationship and show what you’ve got, to believe that what you’ve got is more than what you say in one conversation or even five meetings, that you still have value to give, anytime you bet on that, I don’t think you’re worried so much about exactly how this will turn out.
Think about it this way. There’s a payoff even before they begin to pay. Every time I explain what I know, what I can do or test myself to make that match with a client, I’m honing my own skill. I’m giving myself a free look at that prospective client, which is a hugely valuable thing. Sometimes the backfire is you get into a relationship too quickly, early, deep and then you say, “There is not a match here.” What I’ve learned over years of consulting is I’d rather know that upfront. If that costs me a little time, it’s worth every penny.
It sounds like you and your other partners in this business had done a lot of mindset preparation, setting expectations that helped you so that you could navigate through that. I’m wondering, Larry. You had a lot of patience in that environment where a lot of people don’t have patience. The status quo or the goal that most people aim towards is success as quickly as possible, looking for the shortcut, revenue, income and client win. Whereas the approach that you took was not targeted to that as directly, maybe as most people have in their mindset.
Take me back to your earlier years whether it was growing up in the environment that you grew up, your time in education or any schooling. Is there a place that you think you could attribute that mindset to where you can be very mindful, conscious, patient with the setting of expectations? That is unique. Did you see any place that comes from in your situation?
I can certainly give you reference points that were examples to me and education trying to teach me those lessons. Everything you described is learned. Rather than it being delivered in one lesson or from one person or experience, it was learned from my own experiences over time about what makes a relationship valuable. We’re not stupid or silly here. Nobody’s giving away the store. Everybody needs to create value for themselves. Wealth and expansion are what I’ve heard you and your partner cousin talked about before. This is one of the episodes that you all did. The two of you together were talking about your ten guiding principles.
One of interestingly is one of the key points of the book Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. That’s this idea of a long-term mindset. When you’re young in your business and life, you may think you think long-term but you don’t think that way. Frankly, it’s learning from that experience of what happens when you don’t think that way, when you aren’t thinking about the long-term, when you cost yourself things, engagement becomes shorter than it should have been. It doesn’t lead to referrals to other relationships. It doesn’t lead to a lasting relationship with that client. It doesn’t lead to the lasting impact that you had on that client. That’s when you start to adjust your focus and say, “I’ve got to have this long-term mindset.” What comes with that is patience.
Early on in my career, I was impatient. I might’ve considered myself patient but I had no idea what patience meant. It’s a series of experiences, including ones that I created and then I lived through that taught me to have that kind of patience, not just with my whole business model but on those parts that we’ve talked about. That beginning that we used to have when I worked for a firm and it was an investment firm. We were building relationships there. That same kind of beginning, research and investment is exactly what I brought into Lighthouse Consulting. It’s a combination of, “It works. Why not do it?” Second, it’s far more rewarding. The value that you create all the way around in your own life for your client and finances is so much greater. There’s only one way to learn that. That’s to try the opposite because the opposite doesn’t work for very long.
In 1992, you started Lighthouse Consulting. You left the firm that you’re speaking with the investment firm here. Why start Lighthouse Consulting? Why not go and find another job or do something different? What was drawing you to start a consulting business?
I started Lighthouse Consulting in the middle of a job interview. I’d worked for a couple of firms in between the one that I described. I was looking around at opportunities in a lot of different spaces. On the side, I was doing consulting in my mind to bridge the gap, make some money in the short run, keep my brain and network engaged. You’d call it a side hustle on the way to something else.
I was sitting in an interview with someone and describing what I was doing with my time. What I will never forget about that meeting is that as I described how I decided to work with people in this side hustle, how I went about working with them, what kinds of things we were working on, how I was bringing a unique skillset to that, here I’m pitching for a job.
The woman who was interviewing me was behind her desk. Her chair was on wheels. She rolled it back a little bit. She put her feet up on her desk, put her hands behind her head and started smiling at me. For a few seconds, I let it go but ultimately I said, “Why are you stopped? Why are you smiling?” She said, “It sounds to me that you already have the best job you could ever have.” Frankly, Lighthouse Consulting wasn’t this thing that I calculated and I knew I wanted to build. In fact, I had to have someone else, that person who was interviewing me, point out that this was a great way to leverage skills that I had. There was a lot of good opportunity in it. Subconsciously, I knew some of those things but I had never pointed them in the direction of having my own firm.
Have you ever gone back to that person and told her the story?
I never have. I think about her often. She’s gone off in many career changes. At the moment, we both had a good laugh. We stopped the interview. She said, “I’m going to recommend that we should continue to consider you but I encourage you to think about it.” She called back to say, “I’d love you to meet more of my colleagues.” I said, “I don’t need to. You told me where I need to be and that’s where I’m going to focus.” There was that mutual appreciation of the moment at the moment.
You probably put a smile on her face to read this conversation. Identifiable information for her to know who she is but maybe she does. You made the decision to make the consulting side of what you were doing a more formal business and that became Lighthouse Consulting. You are already working with some clients on the side. Take us through the initial clients that you brought on. How did you get those first few clients for the business?
I have been part of another group that was trying to form a merchant bank. It’s a combination of investing and consulting. Fewer clients you spend more time with them is the way to look at it. I was a junior person in that group, even though ironically, I had the most experience with the people involved. One of the partners was pointing people my way and encouraging me to do whatever I wanted to call it with them some form of consulting, advising or something like that. I had a good fortune that occasionally, he would point somebody my way. I also was in the process of looking for a job. I’m talking to friends, not always saying, “Is there a job available. Tell me about what you’re doing and what you’re working on.”
Without being conscious of it, I was prospecting and some of those conversations turned into projects. Initially, my consulting was very project-based, doing some market research, doing the strategic analysis, analyzing somebody’s business plan. That was the zone that I was in at the time. I had a good sense of what it took to do a project like that. How many hours? What was it going to cost me in terms of time and effort? What I’ve always called in consulting, what might the headache factor be for working for this particular client? Meaning, do they know what they want? Is it going to take us some time to get around to it? Could there be some scope creep when they change their mind?
Either way, almost subconsciously, I knew what the work took. I put a price on it and did project work. Over time, a lot of those relationships evolved from one project to another that naturally went together. The way I presented them and planned them was finite but they are connected to one another. Those led to some retainer relationships and some of them very long-term because I was working with companies that were themselves growing and scaling over time.
Their needs kept changing. My value even though we would test it at every stage, I kept adding to it and redefining it in new ways so I was relevant. On the backend, I would have some of these clients that no longer need the time and effort that I had put into them but I had this institutional knowledge of where they were. They had my trust as an objective perspective in how they looked at their business. I developed these relationships. Sometimes I’d be on an advisory board or on a retainer but it was a low time involved. Eventually, that defined the span of my consulting, projects, long-term retainer relationships that were in-depth and then these continuing retainer relationships that were very low in time, commitment and also costs ever since I’ve always had that arc of clients at any one time.
It sounds like in the early stages of your business, you are having conversations with people in your network receiving some referrals and introductions. Those are the first group of clients. Work us like up one notch from that of a progression of the business. What were you doing when you got beyond that first stage to bring in new qualified leads and opportunities into the business? Was there a specific tactic approach and strategy that you were using that at the early stage was working best for you?
I’ll break it into two parts. The first thing is when someone introduces you to a client, at least in many of the cases I was introduced to, you benefit from the trust that they’re conveying. I wouldn’t introduce you to this person unless I trusted him or her. In reverse, I wouldn’t introduce you to this prospective client if I thought they weren’t going to be worth your time. Some of that is about trusting your network and the people who help you out there. The engagement would often start with that. What I didn’t have to do as much is make my own case. What was the value of my business? What was my unique selling proposition? I was given the opportunity to have a looser conversation where that came out rather than a formalized pitch.
One of the first things I did when frankly, I needed to fill the pipeline was I had to learn to tell my own story. “What is my narrative here? How is it distinct from anything else they might see in the market?” I can do lots of things but what are the things that I do well? Meaning, if I could create a pyramid or multiple pyramids of the things I do, which ones are paramount and which ones are supporting so that frankly, anybody you’re pitching can remember that? A lot of the next stage for me was, “How do I package what I’m offering so that if I don’t have that introduction, I can get right in the door?”
A second thing I did related to that was I began to go back to the people who had hired me. I asked them for some equivalent of a testimonial. It’s interesting, especially when you’re early in a consulting business and I’m sure you know this too. You’re so focused on getting that business up and running or serving clients that you forget that the work you’re doing should feed and return to your benefits on the work you’ll do in the future. Among the simplest things you can do is ask somebody to write a supportive letter. That’s what I did in the old days. I would get that letter of recommendation, even a brief testimonial or something that I can queue off of to signal other people, “I have credibility here.”
You built up your social proof and honed in on, “Here are a lot of different things that I could provide and offer but one of the ones that I want to make more memorable, that I want to place at the forefront that will differentiate me and create an advantage.” What were you doing in those days to land conversations? One of the greatest challenges that consultants have is getting to the point that they might be very skilled and good at what they do but creating conversations with a real buyer can be a challenge for some. What were you doing? How do you overcome that challenge?
It’s so important. I’m going to put this out there first. It’s very personal how you go about doing that. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to do things that are hard for you but you have to know what you’re good at and what fits for you because you’re likely to do more of that. You’ve got to challenge yourself to do some hard things. For example, back in those days, I would engage. I can summarize it that way and say I went to networking events and presentations where I was an audience member but I took the time to go up and meet the people on the stage afterward. Why? It’s because I thought I could learn something from them, our networks had synergistic elements to them and I might bring something unique.
Here I was interested in learning about them and getting to know them but I’m networking for my businesses as I do that. If I was to summarize, if you think of finding ways to actively engage either in the learning, network or finding the opportunities to tell somebody about what you do, not always a pitch but to get the word out there in as many ways as you can so they remember who you are and that you’re out there, that’s critical.
Here’s what goes with it. You have to ask for help whether that’s asking a prospective client for the opportunity to come in and make a formal pitch or you’re asking the person that presented at an event you went to, you met them afterward, you ask and say, “Can we have lunch sometime? I’d love to pick your brain about such and such thing,” or it’s people you know well in your network and saying to them, “Here’s where I need some help. I’ve thought about how you might be able to help me but do you think you can help me? Would you be willing to help?”
I was always hesitant to do both of those things. I don’t like networking at least in the old way that it used to happen where it’s very transactional. I like building relationship networking that takes time. The second thing I haven’t liked over the years is asking for help. It is the only way to move forward in whatever you do.
Is there anything you tried from a marketing perspective and building your pipeline over the years that did not work for you?
Lots of things.
Give me a few things you tried that did not come together well.
It’s interesting because I not only market for my consulting business but I market for the books that I write. There is an overlap between the two because the subject matter I write about is entrepreneurship, creativity and leadership. That’s what my books are about as well. I also consult on those things. Some of the promotional things I’ve done have been related to books, sending out free copies of a book. When people looked at regular mail, I used to send something in the mail, even a postcard with a cover of the book on it. What this boils down to is a single lesson. I tried a lot of the things out there that I saw other consultants or other authors trying.
I listened to those in the publishing industry or in associations of consultants who said, “These are the things you must do.” I played around with what the typical stuff, traditional stuff or even the stuff at the moment. Some of that worked for me and a lot of it didn’t. What was key was to stay tuned into two things. “Why am I doing this in the first place? What do I expect to come from it?” Second is it coming from it to monitor your efforts to market and try to generate business to see if they’re doing what you expected them to do, not just delivering a client but did they get you in so you could have a meeting? Did your name your firm? Did you get more recognition? Did those testimonials reach someone’s ears such that they remembered?
They picked up the phone and called you, sent you an email, a text or whatever it was. Many consultants once they engage in marketing, 1) They look at what’s out there and assume it must be a guarantee. 2) They don’t think about the reason why they’re doing it other than, “I should market myself.” 3) They don’t measure the results. You can’t possibly know if you’re doing the right thing if you don’t do those things. When you do those three things, you also figure out very unique ways to market yourself, things that others aren’t thinking about that tend to lean towards your strengths or what you’re already doing. That’s where the real magic happens.
Looking into 2022, what are you doing that you’re finding is working best from a marketing perspective, specifically that is helping you to create more conversations with qualified buyers?
I’m finding as many ways as I possibly can to engage. I can’t tell you the number of Zoom presentations, where I have nothing to do with the presenting person or group and may be very little to do with the audience. I’m watching just to see where people’s pain points are. What are they talking about there? What other resources are they referencing that I can learn from? There’s engagement even in the learning process but I’m also participating in those sessions where there are active Q&A back and forth. Meaning, I’m not only signing up for the sessions. I’m asking questions so people can get to know me.
I’m following up on that. If there’s a panel of presenters in a Zoom call, I’m reaching out to them and say, “Can we have a phone call or a one-on-one Zoom call so I can learn more about your business?” A lot of those feel initially like they’re a decent distance from finding a consulting contract but it’s keeping me engaged and up to date. Frankly, a lot of them are turning into business for the very simple reason that I’m paying attention and then reaching out. There’s not as much of that going on as you might think.
It sounds like you’re very active whether it’s organizations or professional groups. You attend those, connect with people, send emails and follow up. Anything else that you’re doing from a marketing perspective or anything that you feel excited about to try or that you feel is going to help the business going forward that we haven’t touched on yet?
I’ve had a couple of things in my head as you’ve been asking me these questions and I hesitated to put them out there only because I thought those were specific to me and to what I do but that’s not true. Let me give you the example and then back up from it for everybody else. I write several recurring columns. I’m also a guest columnist for other different publications in a few scattered here and there. Every time I write a column, it gives me a chance to put myself in front of an audience. People I know in my network, I tend to post the links to these columns in my social networking areas, LinkedIn, Twitter or whatever it might be. Those columns being out there gives me presence.
When I do a show like this, it gives me a presence and a reason to talk about what I do that brings value to somebody else. For me, those articles, these shows, interviews or things like that have been enormously valuable for keeping me out there and bringing me prospects. The way I would bring it around to anyone is maybe it’s not writing columns or being on a podcast but there’s some way you can take parts of what you do, what you have to offer and put it out there for the general public to see whether it’s writing for medium on your own, your own blog or even the way you use your social media. That is a way to stay in front of people and get feedback from them. Everybody has their version. It just takes work.
It looks like you’ve structured your company. You are the brand. You’re operating, delivering the services and value for your clients. Have you ever considered building a team or having a different structure for your business? You’ve been here for many years. Walk us through the different thought processes and ultimately why you’ve arrived at the current model that you use.
I thought about it a lot more so in the early years and I don’t mean the first 1 or 2 but probably through the 15 years. What it came down to was, “What did I want out of my business? What did I like in my business?” Part of what I wanted out of my business was to be actively involved in those client engagements. That gets tougher when you build a firm. Another thing that I wanted out of it was I wanted it to be lucrative but not just the money. I used to get bored, at some points, in client engagements, thinking I might be doing the same thing I’d always done. I kept asking myself, “Are there new ways that I can add value for this client to think about things in a different way to advance myself?”
Wanting to be engaged actively at the client level and be able to experiment about how I went about doing this, both of things were much better served by staying solo. The other thing that was related to that is I know the topic of growth. What does it take to deal with growth as an organization? I’m talking about my clients. How do you anticipate it? How do you define it correctly? How do you keep carrying it over the long-term? That was my niche. What I found over time was my clients needed other things but they didn’t need them for me. Even though my business has always been a solo operation and very oriented around strategy, I have partners in the marketing space, finance space, HR space, on down the line product development and so on.
My job and focus are, “How can I serve my clients best?” Part of serving them best is knowing where to point them when their needs grow beyond my own. Instead of building a firm, I built this network of partners. Another benefit of that is I can have multiple partners in any one space. I then become very valuable to my clients because of who I can introduce them to, in addition to what I can teach them. My value rises in their eyes because I’m not trying to make a buck on them at every turn. I’m saying, “I’m trying to find you the highest value that you can get and sometimes that isn’t me.”
In the early years, I thought about it over and over again but eventually, it came down to that filter of, “What is it I want out of this business? How can I best get that?” I hate to say it this way but, “How can I stay in my own lane enough to let my creativity and experimentation advance me there instead of trying to become an expert where maybe I don’t belong?”
With your referral network and these arrangements that you have, are you providing or taking referral fees? People often wonder, “What’s the best way to structure this?” There are many different ways to go about it but what have you personally found when you are either sending a client to someone in your referral network or someone is sending business your way? Is there an exchange of a percentage of fees? What’s your structure? How do you approach and think about it?
No finder’s fees. No referral fees. No, I get 10% of the contracts you win or whatever it is. I considered all those things along the way. To me, that’s a very short-term focus versus what you and your cousin highlight. It’s about that long-term mindset. For me, I found there’s a far bigger payoff when you sincerely put out there that you’re not trying to make a buck. You’re trying to do the right thing for your client.
What I find is that the referrals come back to me in other ways. Sometimes direct and sometimes indirect. That’s far more valuable and lucrative. I don’t do any of those fees upfront. Frankly, it attracts better partners to me. They scratch their heads for a while saying, “Why would you do that and not take a haircut off it?” It helped me weed out the herd down to those who approach their business in a similar way, including wanting to bring value to their clients. We’re more powerful as a network of that sort than any one of us as a firm. We were everyone from a single person from up to a firm of several hundred.
We all have 24 hours in a day. For you as a solo practitioner, you have this referral network, which is fantastic. There’s only so much impact. What I’m getting at, is there anything that you’ve done in your business in the way that you deliver your services and structure the engagements that have allowed you to achieve greater impact, greater income, building your wealth, even though you are a solo one person entity?
It’s a little bit of what I described to you. When I first started Lighthouse Consulting, I didn’t consciously think of my buckets of consulting clients as breaking down into finite projects more intense retainer relationships and then ongoing retainer relationships. Once I began to think about it that way, it defines work in a completely different way for each one of those clients. This was a further evolution in my understanding and thinking. I used to think of the project as the logical entry point. You made your way along the continuum if the relationship went somewhere to a client who converts you to a retainer relationship down the line. What I’ve found with time is that it was three different entry points.
I was thinking about the fact that I don’t always consult in the same way to clients. How can I break that up? What does each of those models look like? How intense is the required amount of my time? Am I thinking about my effort? It runs from medium, high to very low. Related to that, how can I look through different entry points for getting clients, change who I approach and how I approach them? Even that process of how you get the client and making that more efficient can make the business more efficient and lucrative overall.
You talked about three entry points you are using, not just one. What are those three?
Specific project work. That could be clients tend to know me for, “Can I come in and do a strategic assessment of their team and business model?” This isn’t the typical company that we’re talking about but they’re in my clientele. They want to pitch for money. Can I look at what they’re using to pitch, their business plan, materials and things like that and bring my expertise to it? Those are two examples of probably half a dozen types of projects that I do where I know exactly what they require. I’m building on a wealth of knowledge from having done other projects, which makes that more efficient. That is one type of entry point or project type of work.
For the retainer type of work, I can get that even when I haven’t done a project for a client. Most often, it’s because I’ve worked with somebody in that organization before or there’s an excellent referral who says, “You got to trust me. This guy knows what he’s doing. He’s worth every penny,” or it’s just somebody who’s tried everything else and they know they need somebody on their team who isn’t an employee isn’t an investor but it’s going to be part of that team in a more robust way.
I can go pitch that directly and then there are people who want an advisory board type of person around where I can either fill that role. This is interesting too. I help them create their definition of what that looks like. Meaning, I do a project for them, even though they’re seeking an advisor. The project is, “How do you design an advisory board that works or a board of directors?” Sometimes I will be asked to join that and there’s a payment that goes along with that. Those are examples across all three entry points I was talking about.
I want to then transition to your book called Rebel Leadership. First of all, why that title?
It’s a new term to me made up of those two individual words, rebel and leadership. We think about rebels in certain ways, positive and negative. We think about leaders in certain ways, positive and negative. The idea here was to say in the uncertain times in which we live and these are deeply uncertain times, not just the last two years of COVID. The last years have been progressively more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, as they say, VUCA type of environment.
We need the best of those rebellious innovators, people who are willing to be open, willing to question their assumptions and who question all the time. We need that positive side of rebels. We also need leaders who realize their job isn’t just to sit at the top of the pyramid, have all the answers or play that heroic figure. It’s to create an environment in which everybody can be a leader. The title comes from the combination of those two things, which are what I believe we need this time that we’re in.
You’ve done a lot of work studying leaders for the book and leadership. Is there anything that you’ve learned that stands out to you from a consultant’s perspective that would be an opportunity and best practice that would allow them to either engage more effectively with leaders or to support leaders in a more effective way?
I wish I could say we planned this but maybe subconsciously, we were. I’ve thought a lot about that because the theme of these uncertain times and what that means for leadership is relevant to every single type of consulting, no matter what you’re consulting, even if it’s an awareness of the dynamic that’s going on around the people you consult. Let me give you a couple of these things. First of all, if you’re a consultant, working with clients, you’re not starting with that statement that we live in these deeply uncertain times.
Doing things as we’ve done before isn’t enough. How are we going to account for this uncertainty and the need to adapt? That should be a conversation you have with your clients. Even if you’re not providing the solution, to make both you and your clients aware of that is to increase your odds of being successful with them and that’s success lasting.
Number one is you are a resource for reminding them that this doesn’t end when COVID ends. The second thing is that there’s a bigger role for consultants to play in this uncertain environment. I’ll simplify it to say, a lot of times, people look at consultants as guides. In this environment, there’s a need for a guide ongoing and at every level of the organization. As a consultant, you should think about, “How can I be there overtime for this client and tie it to the environment we’re in where things will change? I can’t help them come up with a formula for how they should fix things because it won’t last very long in a very uncertain environment.”
The third thing is that if you’re not thinking about what you consult on and how you can teach adaptability skills, it’s time to start thinking about that and how you can teach your clients things like how do they infuse inquiry into everything they do ongoing? How do they leverage diversity as a key competitive advantage? How within their organization do they co-create solutions rather than thinking of one person or one group to do it? Those adaptability skills should be in there no matter what your umbrella topic is for consulting.
The last thing that I would say is that think about how you can teach clients a framework rather than a formula something that they can reference ongoing whether you’re there or not that is valuable to them as their assumptions, market and challenges change. If you teach them that framework and how to use it effectively, they’re never going to forget you, which means they’re probably going to rehire you.
That’s a lot of golden nuggets right there, the four key points. I want to encourage everybody to go back and reread this because of your answers and thought to those questions. I feel confident that will help you to identify new opportunities, ways to serve your clients and add great value that you can share in as well. Before we wrap up Larry, a couple of additional questions for you. The first is when you think about the habits that you employ and bring to life every day that are critical to your success, what are 1 or 2 things that you do on a daily basis that you feel are central to the success that you have?
Two that we haven’t talked about and in some way have talked about is engaging and asking for help is critically important but being curious and open. Not just in the sense of problem-solving. Be curious in tiny ways and make it a practice because curiosity and creativity are key to the human race. They’re critical in uncertain times where things are changing a lot. We need the skill of adaptation. They’re the source of fun and innovation. They’re not things you can call on in an emergency. You have to practice doing them and they can be in the simplest of ways. That creativity and openness that come with it are things that I try to do every day in some way, even at the moment where it doesn’t seem important because I know it pays off in the end.
What’s the best book you’ve read or listened to? It could be fiction or nonfiction.
I wasn’t thinking about this but I was looking at this book written by a friend of mine called The Tough Stuff. This is written by a gentleman by the name of Cody Royle. He was the head coach of Australian rules football, the national team up in Canada. He knows head coaches from all across the world. This is a book for leaders and for those that advise leaders about what’s the truth about what’s the hard part of any leadership job. At the end of the day, we’re all leaders at some level. I recommend this book to anybody.
Where should people go to learn more about you to find out more about your book?
You can find the book on Amazon if you feel like you’ve read enough that you’re interested. It’s Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. The best place to learn about me, all of my books and everything I do is my main website, LRSpeaks.com. That’s the best place to find me.
Larry, thanks so much for coming on. I enjoyed the conversation.
It was my privilege. Thanks for having me.
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