As originally featured in Forbes on July 5, 2019

A professional service firm is hired for its strategic insight on a business challenge, whether it’s a law firm being asked to guide a client on litigation or a consulting firm advising how to bring together two corporate cultures after a merger.  These firms of advisors are getting hired for their advice.

Yet, when it comes to their strategic planning, it’s easy for professional service firms to misstep. I believe part of the reason is that most firms operate with a flat-pancake structure, with lots of “workers” (lawyers, consultants or accountants) striving towards a common goal (to do the best work possible). Above them, there are few leaders without much hierarchy within their own smaller pancake, often operating in committee structure or practice silos.

Brilliant as these professionals are, and regardless of their ambition to do the right thing, their attempts at strategic planning often fail. While there are common mishaps, there are also some steps I’ve seen several firms take, leading to things going right!

Whether they hire an outside consultant to advise them or attempt to do this on their own, here are a few things that firms can do to increase their likelihood of success.

  1. Involve a wide range of parties at different stages of the planning process. Firms that communicate with their partners and senior staff at the very beginning, prior to initiating a planning process, set themselves up to succeed. By explaining what will be taking place and why, as well as who will be involved, firm leadership demonstrates that the process will be transparent. The opposite approach is to keep things quiet, lend an aura of mystery and let the firm believe something nefarious is taking place.
  2. Plan and focus on key milestones and dates. Programs in professional service firms that are not directly driven by a client’s timetable can easily be pushed aside and fall behind. Members of the steering committee assigned to work on the plan may get involved in pressing client matters or placed on additional committees. Agreeing in advance on concrete deadlines and key people who will be responsible for the specific tasks involved in meeting those deadlines is an essential factor to keep the momentum going.
  3. Involve and respect input from the CMO. The firms that have succeeded in this process involve the leadership of their marketing efforts from the very start. Your chief marketing officer (CMO) likely has a wealth of industry knowledge and understanding of your own firm’s culture. I find that the firms that involve their marketing leadership from the onset are more likely to achieve greater success. These are the folks who, in many cases, will be working with partners to implement these plans. Bring them in on to set strategy and tactics early on in the process.
  4. Agree on actionable steps. When the plan is completed and changes are agreed to, the steering committee needs to agree to steps that are concrete and actionable. Rather than an advertising agency stating, “We will grow our consumer advertising business,” the steps are focused on what industries and part of the consumer business the firm expects to grow, the actions that will be taken to grow it, and what team of people will be responsible for making it happen. These firms also include a mechanism, such as a quarterly meeting or the use of technology, to ensure the steps are taking place.

By being strategic about strategy, you’ll be more likely to accomplish your goals.

 

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