Strategic thought and logical action are within us; we just don’t always tap into them when the context is our business.

If you have ever had to make a decision about your future, it’s likely you’ve considered it from three different perspectives: your goal, your ability to get there, and the impact of the goal on your life. Take, for example, the purchase of a home.

  1. To determine what kind of home to buy, you first need to envision what your needs will be.  How many bedrooms will you need and what kind of rooms do you require (i.e. do you need a home office? A rec room?)  What location would be ideal?  How big should the yard be?  By imagining yourself in an environment that will satisfy your needs in the future, you can determine what kind of house you’ll need to look at today.
  2. Coupled with the physical requirements of your home, you’ll need to ensure that you can maintain a suitable standard of living while paying the mortgage over the next twenty years.  This reality check might cause you to adjust you requirements list (either in terms of house needs or lifestyle needs).
  3. As you begin to consider the image of your future home against your financial ability to obtain it, you will start to compare these images with other goals in your life: health, security, adventure, etc.  This may cause you to further refine your belief systems about points one and two above, resulting in a game plan that meets your house needs, protects your financial stability and enables you to simultaneously pursue the other important elements and goals of your future.

It is only when we have contemplated and harmonized all three of these considerations that we feel truly ready to proceed with confidence and assertiveness. When we do not contemplate these areas prior to making a major decision, several things can happen.  Going back to the house example, we can have buyers’ remorse shortly after signing the new mortgage.  In time we might find ourselves struggling to make the mortgage payments, causing rife in our relationships and stress on ourselves.  Our financial limits and resulting stress can result in less access to those other important elements of our life that we wanted to pursue.  In time, we can feel disappointed, depressed and even trapped by how our lives are unfolding, and lose our ability to experience joy in our life.   Or there’s always the chance that our luck holds out and everything works out for the best, despite our lack of planning.

We understand this intuitively about our personal lives, yet seldom apply the same rational foresight and strategic decision making to our business life. A surprising number of firms I’ve come across do not require their practice or industry groups to create annual business and marketing plans.  While no one would admit that a business unit of a firm didn’t have any business goals, those goals may not be very clear to everyone on the team.  I’ve most often seen loose goals around revenue targets – but these are seldom based on any strategic analysis of the group’s capabilities or the marketplace.  More often they are simply a compilation of arbitrary adjustments to billable rates.

There may also be loose understandings about improving the reputation and credibility of the group, maintaining its professionals, preparing for succession, engaging with other groups to cross sell clients into and outside of the group, etc. But without declared and documented goals, what are the chances that any group within the firm will end up achieving any of these loose objectives?  What are the chances that the group will excel?  What are the chances that group members will feel a valuable part of a strong team?  What are the chances that there will truly be cross-selling and shared marketing interaction between that group and other groups in the firm?

Self care is one thing, but aside from a business unit’s ability to promote, sustain and grow itself, it also has a responsibility to promote and grow the firm. A firm’s reputation is the result of two successes: that of the firm’s institutional marketing program; and that of its business units.

I have seen firms with almost no practice substance take over market share just because they flooded the marketplace with a cool, memorable message. It’s expensive, but done well it can work.  Human nature is such that we are tremendously influenced at some level by popular opinion.  That is in part why political candidates seek to put out as many of their signs as possible on front lawns, boulevards and road sides.  So a large ad campaign with a memorable message can actually help a firm to gain ground – at least for a period of time.  But ultimate, clients must find substance in the campaign’s message and in the firm in order for the firm’s marketing popularity to continue.

It is far more common for firms to be recognized for excellence in their industry as a result of professionals and practice/industry groups being seen as the experts in their field. The more professionals/groups within a firm that are recognized as leaders, the higher the reputation of the firm as a whole.

This means that practice groups can actually contribute toward and even set the brand value of the firm as a whole. In fact, firms count on as many practice groups as possible achieving leadership status in order to help set the value of the firm name generally.  And this, in turn, means that the practice or industry group has a tremendous responsibility to a firm for that group’s reputation and credibility development.  With so much at stake, it seems irresponsible for any group to operate without declared goals and a strategically developed plan for achieving them.

And finally, each business unit in the firm is responsible for the legal capabilities and practice satisfaction of its individual members. I’m not suggesting that each individual professional isn’t responsible for their own development – they are.  But practice/industry groups are also responsible for ensuring that each team member feels properly supported, is obtaining the education and experience they need, and is ultimately assisting the practice groups with leadership recognition by becoming a leader in their field themselves.  Further, it is much easier for an up and coming professional to strive for practice excellence when a more senior team member is already considered an expert in that field.  Not only will the younger professional have access to a great mentor; but their developing expertise will be assumed due to their proximity to the expert.  Such professionals can cut down on their own progression to recognition within their field by many years: guilty of knowledge by association.

It is easy to see the value – to our firms, to our practice groups and to our individual professionals – of proper business/marketing plans for practice groups. So why does it happen so rarely?  Two reasons:

  1. Most firms don’t have strategic plans so they can’t develop meaningful annual business objectives.  In the absence of the firm’s business objectives, practice groups only have half of the business objectives they need in order to create and execute a strong plan for themselves; and
  2. It is easier for firms (and practice groups) to be satisfied with loose objectives and undocumented plans than to insist that this behaviour changes. They convince themselves that this satisfaction is based on mutual respect and logic, rather than fear of change, or laziness.  For example, they often use the excuse that they trust their practitioners to do the right thing and that by collectively doing the right thing, the practice group and thus, the firm, will progress as intended.

We are capable of strategic thought and logical action, but for some reason, it’s easier for us to apply those skills in areas of our life other than business.  So consider this sports analogy:  a soccer team playing in the dark. They each may be very skilled players, very willing to work together in team-like fashion. But without knowing who has the ball, what play will be used or where the goal posts are, it’s unlikely they’ll score many goals.  And it’s also unlikely that the strongest team members will stay on that particular field for very long.