Six Beliefs Of Hazardous Firm Cultures

DangerContributed by Ted Harro

Some organizations should have a warning label: Caution, working here can be hazardous to your health. Complications could include high blood pressure, weight gain, insomnia, and bleeding ulcers.

Behind every hazardous work culture there’s probably at least one dangerous leader who sets the tone. Crawl a little further into these leaders’ heads. Probably, they live with beliefs that make counter-productive behaviors seem totally rational and healthy. I heard those beliefs vocalized by an administrative assistant a while ago in such bald terms it took my breath away.

I was about to start a strategy session with a leadership team. She was organizing the otherwise-empty room, setting out breakfast, dropping off snacks.

She said quietly to me, “I wish I could be here in the meeting.”

I paused, sensing something else was coming. “I mean, how do you do it?” she asked.

It’s a good question. How do I do it? I wondered.

Wait, do what?

So I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘do it?’”

She smiled slyly. “How do you get a group of senior leaders to actually work together? It must be a huge challenge.” She blinked at me knowingly. I stared back, puzzled.

“Ummm. Well, it has its moments but which challenge are you referring to?”

“Well, let’s face it. All of these people got here by stepping on others, by using and abusing people, by watching out for themselves. How do you get them to turn that off and start working together?”

Her belief system was stunning. Leaders use. Leaders lie. Leaders scrap. Because of their inherent selfishness, leaders are highly unlikely to work together.

I later learned that she had cut her teeth at a top professional services firm, one equal in reputation for excellence and aggressiveness. I couldn’t help but wonder if those formative experiences had shaped her view of leaders and work and what’s possible in a company.

Just like family backgrounds have a profound impact on how we see the world, so our early companies often shape how we see life. We pick up their beliefs and attitudes like lint – or sometimes we have an allergic reaction to them and choose to go the opposite way.

Unlike family backgrounds, we can exercise some choice about our companies of origin – at least early on in our careers. So now, when talking with young people entering the workforce, I’m going to give them a little advice: choose your company of origin carefully. We all like to believe the myth that we’re independent thinkers, impervious to the influence of those around us. It’s a lie. And we should get over it.

Here are a few beliefs you might pick up from the behaviors around you early in your career:

  • Cut-throat vs. Collaborative: If your early companies allow colleagues to be cut-throat, you’ll start to believe that you have to watch your back if you want to survive. But if your early companies expect people to help each other out – sometimes sacrificially – you’ll start to believe that loyalty and teamwork will help you thrive.
  • Corner-cutting vs. High Integrity: If your early companies are willing to bend the truth to sell stuff, you’ll start to believe that the sales goals justify the means. But if your early companies only make promises they can keep to customers, you’ll start to believe that integrity leads to long-term success.
  • Perfectionistic vs. Learning-Driven: If your early companies punish people for making mistakes, you’ll start to believe that you should keep your head down if you want to survive. But if your early companies encourage people to take smart risks, you’ll start to believe that accelerated learning is the best path to long-term earning.
  • Passive-Aggressive vs. Straight-Talking: If your early companies carefully avoid confrontation, you’ll start to believe that it’s smarter to passively resist things you don’t like instead of dealing with things head-on. But if your early companies practice constructive truth-telling, you’ll start to believe that caring enough to speak the truth is the smartest policy of all.
  • Takers vs. Servants: If your early companies only care about customers because of the profit they bring to the company, you’ll start to believe that customers are conquests or even opponents. But if your early companies show radical concern for customers, you’ll start to believe that all great work starts with the attitude of service.
  • Hype vs. Substance: If your early companies do token “community service” or “social responsibility,” you’ll start to believe that work is primarily about making money and keeping up appearances on everything else. But if your early companies have woven social responsibility into the very fabric of their business models, you’ll start to believe that great work always serves the common good as well as the bottom line.

Many of us are past those days of choosing our companies of origin. We have a stack of beliefs we’ve picked up along the way at our various employers and clients. But we aren’t powerless about this either. We aren’t doomed by the attitudes we picked up. We just have to challenge them a little bit.

Here’s how. Start by recognizing beliefs when they pop up, often in statements that begin with “all” or “none.” For example, the assistant I described above had a belief, stated bluntly as “All leaders are self-serving, Machiavellian liars.”

  • Ask yourself, “Where did I get that belief?” Play back the situations and characters who shaped that thought.
  • Ask yourself again, “Is that belief really true now? Does it need to be true now?” Does that belief pertain to your current situation or are you saddling today with yesterday’s beliefs?
  • Think for a moment about how those beliefs might be holding you back in your work today. Are they making you less trusting, less giving, more cynical, more defensive? And are those responses helping you do your best work?
  • Choose models and mentors for your future who help you do your best work with your most constructive mindset. They shouldn’t be pollyanna-ish any more than they should be hardened cynics. They should be those who are at home with the way things are, while still being their best selves.

Wherever you are, do all in your power to create your own exemplary workplace – a place where you’d want your child or your best friend’s child to have her first work experience.

Be prudent.

Four Keys To A Successful Breakthrough – contributed by Ted Harro

Four Keys

“I’m worried about where you’re going here!” It had taken the CFO a day and a half to finally burst. He had been watching our planning session proceed, only commenting when his financial expertise seemed relevant. But after the CEO’s description of his expansive vision for the company, the CFO had finally had enough.

“What are you worried about?” Chris the CEO said, a little stunned that his normally taciturn financial sidekick had been so direct.

“You’re telling us all of the beautiful things our organization should be doing. It sounds great on the surface. You call it vision. I think it’s really mission creep.”

I felt a familiar mix of reactions to this exchange. On the one hand, I was rubbing my hands together with anticipation. This moment in the planning process can precede a breakthrough, that moment when we climb beyond superficial solutions and find creative alternatives to deep issues. This company desperately needed a breakthrough. Its market was depressed. Its products were aging. Business as usual could end up badly.

On the other hand, this moment can get messy. Though I’ve never personally experienced labor beyond witnessing the birth of my two sons, the process of a leadership team achieving breakthrough can look like collectively giving birth. There’s pain. There’s pushing. You get stuck for what seems like an eternity.

The whole experience sometimes scares people off. Teams fear getting stuck. The leader fears giving up control. Many teams either avoid the whole chaotic affair or they do a sanitized, superficial version of the process that promises safe outcomes. While tidier, there’s no baby after that approach. Maybe you get to cradle a doll that looks and coos and even pees like a baby. But the real thing comes from the mess.

After the CFO’s outburst, I called a break. I knew what was going through Chris’s mind. He had had private reservations about opening up his strategic planning process to his team, fearing that the group would slam on the brakes when he wanted to go in a different direction.

Out in the hall, Chris asked me, “How should I handle this situation?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “In the end you won’t have to lead a charge in a direction you don’t believe in. But we might just be on the verge of a breakthrough.”

Chris took a deep breath. We agreed that he would listen carefully to his team members, to understand where they were coming from, to try to find that place where their points of view intersected with his.

In other words, to wait for the breakthrough.

After the break, I called the group back together. “I’ve been talking with Chris over the break. Here’s what it looks like to me: Like many visionaries, Chris wants to stretch your organization to achieve more for your customers and stakeholders than we’ve ever even imagined. He sees possibilities. Beyond that, I think he believes that holding pat is actually a risky path, maybe even a slow death.” Chris nodded his head.

“Others in the group are worried that this expanded vision will set unrealistic goals that they will never meet. They’re worried they’re being set up to fail.  You want to succeed. And success means hitting realistic goals.” The CFO and a few others in operational roles gave knowing smiles.

“OK,” I continued. “We’re at a point in the process where it’s time to go for breakthrough. This isn’t on our agenda because you can’t plan for when it will happen. It’s a detour. But if you’re up for it, it could be very productive.”

We dove in to a rigorous and difficult conversation that had an unusual outcome: everybody got a version of what they wanted. Here’s why:

  • The team members vocalized their concerns. They needed coaxing at first. They stumbled around with their thoughts. They trod carefully, aware that they were dangerously close to stepping  on Chris’s toes. To support the process, I took their point of view and agreed with some of what they said, trying to get them to extend their necks further.
  • The leader listened. Chris hung in there on his own vision but he listened to their concerns. He supported their desire to be successful. He avoided the two usual tactics of leaders in this situation: he neither shut people down nor did he shut himself down. Together, they kept digging and waiting and believing that an answer would emerge.
  • They were honest and skillful. This is very different from being honest and unfiltered. If Chris had been unfiltered, I think he would have said that he was about to blow his stack and that he was bound and determined to expand the mission of this organization whether the team liked it or not. If team members had been honest and unfiltered, they would have rolled their eyes and said, “There you go again. You always do this. And it winds up creating messes that we have to clean up.” Neither of those approaches would have been helpful. Instead of being their worst 5-year-old selves, they were their best grown-up selves. That made a difference in how long they could hang in during the mess.
  • The mission was clear and compelling. Though it may have seemed a throw-away exercise at the time, we had spent a good chunk of time earlier in the session talking about why each member of the leadership team chose to work at this organization at this time – besides the chance to earn a paycheck. They had a surprising amount of commonality in motivation. They all wanted what was best for the company and the community it was serving. The mission was important and highly personal to each of them. Most of all, the mission was way bigger than themselves.

Even when you persevere in the labor for a breakthrough, it doesn’t always happen – at least not on schedule. And when you do get a breakthrough, it will need tender care and feeding until that fragile new life is ready to leave the hospital and venture into the big, bad world. But you dramatically increase your chances of seeing that breakthrough burst into life, seemingly out of nothing, when you navigate the mess skillfully like these folks did.

You Don’t Have a Marketing Problem

Head in the SandIn 2002 Rajat Gupta, then managing director of McKinsey, pushed the firm’s head of marketing and public affairs, Javier Perez, out of the firm. The reason: multiple partners had shared their dissatisfaction with the firm to writer John Byrne in a wide-ranging feature in BusinessWeek.

Gupta had spent his tenure refocusing the firm on growth. He put a halt to what he considered money-wasting research, implemented what was known as “100 percent cubed”—bringing 100 percent of the firm, 100 percent of the time to 100 percent of the world. The firm had grown from 58 offices to 81; from 3,300 consultants to 7,700 and it nearly doubled its revenues from $1.2 billion to $3.4 billion.

The average tenure of a Fortune 500TM CMO is around 18 months. While the tenure may be longer for marketers in a professional services firm, life can be a lot more messy. I have held senior marketing roles at some of the world’s best consulting firms and have consulted at many others.  A theme that arises time and time again is how ineffective marketing is—whether the problem is strategy, organization, leadership or something else.

Firms’ actions swing like a pendulum as they try to drive growth and get marketing “right.” They hire “doers” and then they hire “thinkers.” They fire the “thinkers” and then hire “doers.” Partners want only marketers who understand law firms, accounting firms, architectural firms, then they want anything but. They centralize, and then they decentralize marketing. They align marketing with geography, and then they swing to lines of business. Firms buy technologies, hire cold-callers to get leads, add budget and take budget away. The pendulum swings back and forth desperately searching for a solution to their “marketing” problem.

When these activities and the co-morbid destabilization are in a firm, it is a telltale sign that the firm is not focused on the right “problem.” After achieving its results, McKinsey’s directors had begun to worry if the focus on growth had cost the firm its soul. Do you believe that Gupta’s firing of Perez had any impact on the quality of press coverage the firm was getting? Do you think it appeased the dissatisfaction of the McKinsey managing directors?  Do you think that bringing in another marketer changed the trajectory of the Gupta’s vision?


Marketing is a visible and easy scapegoat for problems that the leadership of a firm may be unwilling to address. True: there are incompetent marketers, but let’s be honest about how much pull any non-partner marketer likely has inside most firms.

At the heart of any thriving firm is a culture of integrity, leadership, authenticity, stewardship, client-focus and great people. Market opportunities come and go. Brand relevance ebbs and flow.  Competencies grow and die. Culture remains.

What was the culmination of Gupta’s tenure at the top of McKinsey? It was his indictment and ultimate conviction for insider trading.   While your firm may not be dealing with insider trading, ask yourself, “Do I have a marketing problem or is something else going on?”

Be prudent.

Three Mindsets of Long-run Salespeople

Mindset Sphere

Ted Harro

Ted Harro

Contributed by Ted Harro

One of my first assignments in my new job was to fly out to see one of our firm’s clients who was well-known for being a bit of a pickle.  He was a middle manager at a very large telecommunications firm and was an old hand at dealing with… vendors. I was just the latest in a parade of account executives this guy had seen – and an exceedingly green one at that. I didn’t know the precise reason for our visit that day. He had called the meeting, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be a banner day for the new kid.  Mentally, I was prepared for just about anything.

After the bare minimum of chit-chat, the client gave me the bad news.

“I know you’re the new guy and I don’t want to ruin your day, but I’ve decided to take my business to your competitor.” He went on, brusquely explaining his reasons. But I couldn’t help noticing that he kept semi-apologizing for what he was doing, like he was in a position of strength and was perhaps enjoying a moment of guilty pleasure as he dealt with a young sales guy.

I remember that moment well.  I remember sitting there in my brand spanking new double-breasted suit. I remember the cramped, windowless office. And mostly, I remember feeling unusually calm.  I had prepared myself. I knew this might happen. I had told myself many times that the outcome of this meeting wasn’t going to determine the rest of my life – so much so that I truly believed it.

As a result of that preparation, I felt really strong. I said with a smile, “Hey, I appreciate how you keep saying that you don’t want to ruin my day.  And I want to reassure you about something – you won’t.  Of course, I’d rather you kept your business with our firm. I’ll be disappointed if you leave us, no doubt. But it won’t be tragic. You have to do what you have to do.”

My unconscious ability to manage my mindset – and especially my fear – changed the whole dynamic of that conversation.  Suddenly, we were peers talking about a business situation instead of a groveling young sales rep dealing with a powerful client. The outcome of the meeting was the same.  The client left us. But the outcome of my sales role was actually strengthened by the experience.

I started to study mindsets that work for long-run salespeople – and influencers of all stripes – and mindsets that get in the way.  Business development is a mental game – maybe one of the most mental games you can play. All of the best techniques and tips and tricks mean little if you can’t manage your mindset.

Here are a few mindsets I’ve observed:

  • Curious vs. Judgmental – While observing a high performing salesperson do cold calls on small businesses, I saw a sharp exchange with an office manager that led to us being shown the door.  As we walked away, the salesperson muttered “I knew she was going to be a bitch from the beginning.” It didn’t take long for him to realize that his mindset – that office managers in general and this one in particular were bitches – led him to feel and act… well, bitchy.  His whole approach to an office manager’s understandable reluctance to allow him into the office changed when he shifted his mindset from irritation to curiosity about what he was doing to provoke a bad reaction. Mindset matters.
  • Friendly vs. Adversarial – Another salesperson surprised me by saying over breakfast, “I really love figuring out how to beat the client.” He must have seen me choking on my scrambled eggs because we had a lively discussion on which is a more effective mindset: seeing clients as opponents to be conquered or as potential friends whom we may be able to help.  My argument: you do have opponents. They’re called competitors.  Potential clients will smell it if you’re trying to beat them. And they will not want to lose. How much better to have clients believe you have their best interest at heart? Mindset matters.
  • Proud vs. Ashamed – What’s the first thing a prospective client asks a salesperson? “Who do you work for?” The hidden question: “Is your firm any good?” Salespeople who are proud of their firm answer that question fearlessly.  Those who think their firm is shoddy or shady wind up mumbling. Next time your senior leadership team is wondering whether it’s worth it to treat clients and employees well, think of that poor salesperson answering that question every day: “Is your firm any good?”  Make them genuinely proud vs. having to win Emmy Awards for acting proud when in fact they’re ashamed. Mindset matters.

While mindset is partly each person’s responsibility, companies have a big impact on the mindsets their people show in the market. So as a leader of your organization, think about the mindset you build into your people.  Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do you talk about mindset as much as technique? When is the last time you told stories and taught people to take a higher road in how they think so that they can pull off great behavior when it counts?
  • Have we studied the moments in client interactions when our people are most likely to be under stress – the moments when a client pushes, challenges, or dismisses? Have we helped our people to think about those situations differently so that they can actually behave in a way that really represents our brand on its best day?
  • What do you notice about how your firm talks about clients? Listen, we all have difficult clients who haven’t been to Service Provider Appreciation School. But do we talk about our average clients like we would talk about our best friends – full of genuine interest and a desire to make a positive difference to them – or are they simply means to our paycheck. Or worse yet, an inconvenience?
  • What do we allow or even encourage in our firm that might undermine the pride of our people in our firm? What can we do to arm our people with rock solid confidence? I’m not talking about hype here, the stuff we so casually throw into sales meetings to get the troops fired up. Salespeople quickly figure out what’s real and what’s hype – and hype deals a blow to real pride.

Are your firm and your people demonstrating winning mindsets – or even talking about them?

Professional Services, Fear and Answers to Life’s Big Questions – Top Books for 2013

BooksIt seems like everyone is an “author” nowadays. Books are popping up everywhere as part of the content marketing fad. Most are nothing more that veiled sales pitches and .pdfs of Power Point decks.  Repackage an idea, pick a word or phrase and market the hell out of it (innovation, content marketing and story telling to name a few).

When I recently recommended a business book to a CMO friend of mine over lunch, he emphatically commented that he no longer reads business books. He thinks most are common sense diatribes that preach self-absorbed opinions of their authors. He prefers to read biographies and history.  I think he has a healthy, albeit cynical, perspective. I personally find inspiration and great ideas in all kinds of content (economics, biography, political science, history, self-improvement and spirituality are consistent genres) and believe it is this unique combination that helps me to “connect the dots” and form new ideas. Those ideas inform who I am and the way I move through life.

I love “talking books” with others and learning about books that have changed their perspectives or lives. So, I thought that I would start a conversation to hear about your recent reads. 

Following are a few of my Top Books for 2013. Some were “rereads” from long ago, some I wish I had read long ago and some were hot off the press.  As I told my friend, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” 

The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business- Not only is The Firm a “must read ”for anyone working in professional services, The Firm is a delightful read.  While covering the origin of today’s conventional business wisdom and introducing readers to the grandfathers of business consulting, the book also offers readers a deep appreciation for the corporate insecurity and groupthink of American business leaders. One idea espoused in the book: If you or someone you know has ever been “laid off,” you can probably thank McKinsey thinking for it. I highly recommend this thoroughly readable book.

Worry: Hope and Help for a Common Condition- Written by best-selling author and ADHD expert Edward Hallowell, M.D., Worry was a fascinating and enlightening read that provided incredible insights into understanding what makes humans tick. It helped me to worry less, take more risks and be more empathetic toward everyone I meet.  If you are one of the lucky people to be blessed with high self-confidence, you might choose another book. But if you’re like most people, then pick it up.

What Should I Do With My Life: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question- My entire life has been a search for “my calling”  (i.e. what should I do with my life?)  No coincidence that this book ended up on my list. Po Bronson flew all over the world to capture anecdotes from people on similar journeys.  Bronson brought each story to life in a relatable form and provided insights from his own journey to answer one of life’s greatest questions. My favorite quote from the book is, “A conventional ‘success’ story is one where, with each next, the protagonist has more money, more respect, and more possessions.  I would like to suggest an alternative ‘success’ story—one where with each next, the protagonist is closer to finding that spot where he’s no longer held back by his heart, and he explodes with talent, and his character blossoms and the gift he has to offer the world is apparent.” Powerful.

Never Eat Alone- Written by Keith Ferrazzi, former CMO of Deloitte, this is one of the best books I have read on building a network. I did not read this book when it first published because close friends of mine who worked at Deloitte described it as a narcissistic diatribe and not worth the time.  They were right on the first part. On the second part, I disagree; it is worth the time. After wading through the self-congratulation and name-dropping, I found the book excellent in providing practical advice and actionable ideas to build business. I would definitely recommend the book to people getting started in their careers and to people who feel their networks need developing.

Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change- I heard Joseph Grinney, one of the six authors of Influencer, speak at the Global Leadership Summit. Grinney’s presentation was funny and enlightening.   He highlighted the six levers used to impact organizational change: 1.) Personal Motivation, 2.) Personal Ability, 3.) Social Motivation, 4.) Social Ability, 5.) Structural Motivation and 6.) Structural Ability.  I bought the book because I thought the ideas could be directly applied to marketing communication efforts. They are even more applicable to changing cultural and structural issues between sales and marketing. I have already begun applying the insights to our clients. The ideas even help me get out of bed a 5:30 a.m. in the dark and to go for a ride in the cold.

Creating Rainmakers- Ford Harding gave me this book several years ago when Gary Pines introduced us at Towers Perrin.  Rereading it this year demonstrated the timelessness of Harding’s ideas. If you have not read it, then move it to the top of your stack. It is full of actionable, “no BS” guidance on how to build client relationships and develop future “rainmakers.” I enjoyed it so much that I reached out to Ford to tell him again how much I appreciated the book.

Lead Generation for the Complex Sale- Before the latest “content” fad became out of control and marketing automation became a basic utility, Brian Carroll had his finger on the pulse of lead nurturing. This insightful and timeless book is a must-read for all professional services marketers.  Brian provides a fact-based approach to lead generation and sales and marketing integration. Make sure your sales and marketing teams read it together.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead- TED sensation and Global Leadership Summit presenter, Brene Brown, tackles the tough subjects of shame and vulnerability and shows us how to be courageous in spite of our shortcomings. As she did in her now famous video, Brown encourages us to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to forget about our critics, to look beyond corporate mores, to take risks and to live greatly.  If you don’t have time for the book, watch her vulnerability video.  It will call you to authenticity—something the world desperately needs more of.

Waiting For Your Cat to Bark- Authors Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg outline how to understand the client buying cycle and how to use empirical data to target client personas. And while much of what’s covered has become conventional wisdom since the book’s publication, this title is still a must-read for marketers and business developers. (My friend Gary Slack, CEO of Slack and Co., deserves a shout out for giving me this book several years ago. I wish I had read it then. It would have saved me the effort of learning so much the hard way.)

Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway- In this classic, Susan Jeffers tells it like it is:  everyone feels fear.  The secret is in how we interpret that fear. Life is about growth, and growing requires living outside of our comfort zones. If we use fear as a warning sign to pull back, we have robbed ourselves of the opportunity to grow. If we feel the fear, appreciate it for what it is (i.e. being outside of our comfort zones) and then move through the fear, we grow.  Learn to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Icarus Deception- While I generally think I get what I need from Seth Godin’s blog posts, I occasionally read his books.  I find him thought-provoking and insightful. In this book, Godin uses the mythical story of Icarus to encourage his readers to “fly” higher than they currently are in work and the creation of their “art.” The book was timely for me because Godin calls out the stifling corporate culture that keeps people from doing their best art and encouraged me to demand and release more of my “art.” Be warned: if you are contemplating leaving your firm, this book may push you out of the nest.

Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else- I first met Geoff Colvin when he spoke at an Andersen event many years ago.  He is incredibly articulate, insightful and fact-based.  Colvin delivers on all three in this instant classic about what it takes to perform at the highest level.  He takes examples from the sports and musical world, dissects the successes and applies the principles to the business world. If you want to perform at the highest level and build teams and organizations that perform as well, read this book. I have begun applying the principles to multiple areas of my life: work, cycling and parenting.

The Success Principles: How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be- I am very wary of most “success” gurus and “law of attraction” thinkers. They always seem like over-the-top snake oil salesmen. BUT, I really liked this book.  Author Jack Canfield offered meaningful, actionable insights into overcoming obstacles, creating a vision and building a plan to achieve my life’s goals without going over the top.  I will reread this title for years to come, and I will buy each of my kids a copy of this book to take with them on their life journeys.

The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of Insight and Motivation for Getting the Right Things Done- Peter Drucker is one of my “heros.” I love his genius, wit and humility.  In the Daily Drucker, I get all three on a daily basis to make me smarter, more focused and humbled. Every business executive should start his day with this book.

Like I said, “Take what you like and leave the rest.”  I would love to hear what books helped you grow and connect the dots, personally and professionally.  Leave a comment, send me an email or give me a call to talk.

Be prudent.