Learning from external sources can be highly beneficial, but you must also master the art of blocking out the noise and staying the course.
I have to admit it: I often feel like a fraud dispensing advice to our readership in articles like this one. Our audience consists of some of the most intelligent, thoughtful firm leaders that I’ve ever met (and many I have not yet met), who have overcome unique challenges and approached growth and evolution in creative, inspiring ways. I learn from every single client engagement and each seminar I teach, and it’s humbling. But this isn’t an article about my own personal insecurities. That would take at least a full newsletter, maybe even a month’s worth of newsletters! Instead, this is a discussion about the value of outside perspectives, which come from a variety of sources.
- External board members will challenge your leadership team. A good external board member will not only infuse fresh life into the routine meetings, but they will also push back on the dreaded “We’ve always done it this way” approach with one simple question: Why? Suddenly, your leaders will have to be prepared to explain their logic to someone without the confines of internal politics holding them back.
- Seminars and conferences have been the setting for some of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve had. These dialogues cross vertical lines in the organization chart (CEO to new principal, for example), and in terms of the services that participants provide (from design to construction), cross horizontal perspectives as well. Hearing the challenges that PMs in 25-person architecture firms face versus PMs in 450-person engineering firms face – and listening to these PMs speak to each other about their common problems and solutions – is fascinating.
- New hires are one of the demographics that I always request to include as part of our on-site strategic planning interview process. New hires – not necessarily brand new graduates, just people who are new to the firm – have not only seen how other firms operate, but, importantly, they’ve chosen our firm. They’ve invested their careers and their talents and their enthusiasm into our company – and knowing as much as we can about how we look to these people and how we can harness their energy is a worthwhile endeavor. Take a new hire to lunch after they’ve worked at your firm for a month and ask them why they took the job, how reality has lined up with expectations, and what they think this firm could do, and you’ll be blown away by their feedback.
The counterpoint to my urge to look to the outside is that we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from our strategy by external noise. Outside perspectives can inform our actions, but they can also cause us to make bad choices. If you have a strategic plan and have taken a direction as a company that you believe in, stay the course. It’s all too easy to look to a single instance – losing a job to a competitor, for example – and react suddenly and erratically. “Lower the fees! We charge too much!” Have you worked to differentiate your business as the lowest cost provider? If so, then perhaps you do need to lower the fees. If your strategy is to differentiate with expertise, however, focus next time on selling that knowledge.
It is challenging to find the line between innovation and context that helps us move forward and upward on one side, and on the other, keeping our heads down and focusing on what drives our company’s success. Being a good consumer of external perspective is an art, not a science. As my opening paragraph pointed out, y’all are more than equipped for the task.
Jamie Claire Kiser is Zweig Group’s director of consulting. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.