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Jagdish Sheth, Ph.D. and Andrew Sobel | From Consulting to Management (August, 2000, Volume 11, no. 2)

Behind every great leader—in fact, behind most successful individuals—you’ll probably find at least one great advisor. Alexander the Great’s tutor and counselor was Aristotle, ancient Greece’s famed philosopher and scientist. France’s King Louis XIII chose as his chief advisor Cardinal Richelieu, who became the architect of modern state government; and President Franklin D. Roosevelt benefited from the services of the great General George Marshall as well as the trustworthy Harry Hopkins. References to famous advisors in history and literature are contained in words like éminence grise, mentor, and Machiavellian, which are now fixtures in our modern vocabulary.

Today, a group of over five million service professionals—in fields as varied as management consulting, law, banking, advertising, finance, and accounting—have replaced the clergymen and philosophers who once advised society’s leaders.

Collectively, these professionals comprise one of the largest industries in the world with over $500 billion in annual revenue.

Nearly five years ago, we became intrigued with the major changes we saw occurring in these service professions—this “advice” industry—and we began to research in earnest the roots of professional success and in particular, effectiveness with clients. We knew that a great deal of work had already been done in the area of customer loyalty and retention, but we felt that clients, who buy a sophisticated service from a professional who is personally involved in the transaction, were quite different from customers, and required a different approach.

Why, we wondered, were some professionals always drawn into their clients’ inner circle of advisors, their telephones constantly ringing with requests for new work? In contrast, why did so many other professionals get treated like vendors by their clients—constantly challenged on price and bought like commodities? As we interviewed dozens of corporate leaders—the heads of leading companies such as Kodak, BellSouth, Cox Communications, Motorola, American Express, Citibank, Eli Lilly, and General Electric—about their use of professionals for services and advice, a number of stereotypes about how professionals add value were debunked. We were struck by the dissatisfaction many clients expressed about the outside professionals they engaged and by the difficulty they experienced in finding truly objective individuals to help them resolve their most important issues.

Our research also included extensive interviews with many extraordinary professionals, as well as a study of great historical figures who advised clients. This built on our own combined 50 years of experience in consulting to senior management in several hundred different organizations around the world.

The great client advisors we studied all developed a common set of specific attributes and strategies that are discussed in our book, Clients for Life. They also possess certain outlooks that frame and inform their work. We call these outlooks the soul of the great professional. They are not so much personal characteristics as they are ways of looking at the world. As we cultivate them, our ability to add value is enhanced, and we become more appealing to our clients—someone they will both respect and enjoy spending time with. Developing these outlooks helps consultants in any field—from management consulting to investment banking—to build and sustain long-term, broad-gauge client relationships on a consistent basis. They are discernible in virtually all the great advisors we studied.

Abundance Mentality

Great Professionals Have an Abundance Mentality

An abundance mentality allows us to see the possibilities and opportunities inherent in every situation we encounter. The opposite is a scarcity mentality that focuses on limitations and risks.

Professionals with an abundance mentality look for opportunities, growth, and expansion; generate new ideas; are positive and upbeat in their demeanor; feel there are rewards enough to go around for everyone—they know that a “rising tide” lifts all boats; and are willing to invest time and money in the short term in order to earn more later.

Professionals with a scarcity mentality, in contrast, have very different attitudes. They are primarily concerned with what might go wrong and what won’t work; focus on the risks of new proposals rather than the potential rewards; believe that life is a zero-sum game, with a limited amount of opportunity to go around; are concerned with “getting their fair share” at all times; and avoid investments that don’t show an immediate return.

If you were a client, with whom would you rather spend time? There’s no contest here. All of us would prefer a positive, energizing individual to someone who always sees the dark side of things. Some situations, such as a tax audit, may benefit from the scarcity mentality. But generally, clients prefer and benefit from the expansive thinking of consultants who see abundance not scarcity.

Don’t confuse an abundance mentality with laxness, laziness, or imprudence. The consultants who perceive abundance often have a healthy dissatisfaction with the way things are done today. They know there’s often a better solution. Like strong leaders, they push and stretch for new ideas and innovations—they don’t wait for them to float down from the sky. Think of strategist C.K. Prahalad pushing Citigroup to aim for one billion customer relationships. Clients like having these professionals around because they constantly energize, motivate, and inspire others.

The sources of our fundamental outlook on life—abundance versus scarcity—are varied and complex. Our early childhood experiences and upbringing clearly have a strong influence on this dimension of our personality. Someone who suffers physical or emotional deprivation as a child, for example, may always harbor a deep-seated sense of scarcity. A lack of love and affection damages self-esteem, making it hard to have an abundance outlook. There is an element of personal constitution involved—some individuals just seem to be born with more resilience against the vicissitudes of life. And family role models are also an important influence on our attitudes of either abundance or scarcity.

Our education plays a critical role as well. Economics, accounting, and engineering, which are typical backgrounds of many consultants, are founded on principles of scarcity. These disciplines are concerned with the optimal use of scarce resources. They focus on the tradeoffs that have to be made—for example, “guns versus butter,” a graph recognizable to many readers, which is found in many introductory economics textbooks. The liberal arts, in contrast, are premised on abundance. The liberal arts perspective sees a world of nearly infinite ideas and resources, a world where tradeoffs are not always necessary. It also raises important philosophical questions.

Rajat Gupta, McKinsey’s worldwide managing director, says that he reads poetry at the end of each partners meeting: “At first, that took people by surprise. But over time, poetry has affected what we’re doing. Poetry helps us reflect on the important questions: What is the purpose of our business? What are our values?”

The European Renaissance, which was a time of enormous scientific and artistic ferment and innovation, exemplifies the power of the liberal arts perspective. The concept of humanism, which fueled the Renaissance, was based on a belief in the potential of human beings and their ability to reach self-fulfillment without recourse to higher powers or supernatural means. The most accomplished and inventive figures of the period—from Niccolò Machiavelli to Leonardo da Vinci—were consummate liberal arts scholars, equally at home with art, science, mathematics, philosophy, history, and literature.

Does this mean we have to study liberal arts to become accomplished professionals and develop lifelong clients? Yes and no. What we’ve found is that the best client advisors, regardless of what they majored in at college or studied in graduate school, become deep generalists. They complement their technical expertise with breadth, becoming business advisors with technical mastery not just technical specialists. They read widely, take an interest in a variety of subjects and disciplines, and cultivate personal interests. Recall Peter Drucker, for example, who has a passion for Japanese art, or the advertising pioneer and skilled client advisor David Ogilvy, who had a deep interest in French culture (he eventually went to live in France). The risk of burrowing too deeply into one discipline like economics, engineering, or accounting is that we begin to adopt a scarcity mentality. Broad knowledge and learning, in contrast, open the way for an outlook of abundance.

Mission Orientation

Great Professionals Have a Mission Orientation

The individuals who have had a significant impact on history—figures such as Jesus, Buddha, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, and Abraham Lincoln—had clear missions that led them to perform at extraordinary levels. The great advisors we looked at also had well-developed personal missions. For Thomas More, Henry VIII’s chief advisor, it was fulfilling God’s work in this life; for Niccolò Machiavelli, it was creating a stable, unified Italian state; for J. P. Morgan, it was establishing an orderly financial system in the absence of regulatory agencies. Gertrude Bell, who was a key advisor to the British government on the formation of the modern Middle East, felt her mission was to promulgate an understanding of the Arab world among Westerners and ensure peaceful cohabitation of the Iraqis and the British. Early on, General George Marshall was driven by a desire to create a professional, respected U.S. Army founded on principles of excellence, efficiency, compassion, and hard work; later, his mission became no less than ensuring that the U.S. kept the world safe for democracy.

For most of us, our personal missions are more down-to-earth but no less sincere, sacred, and important to us. When we ask great professionals what drives them in their careers, we hear phrases such as “making a difference to my clients’ business,” “enriching management practice through my ideas,” “being a teacher—teaching and explaining the importance of people’s rights,” “educating managers so they lead more successful, effective lives,” or simply, “practicing excellence in everything I do.”

Fred Brown, who descends from the famed Brown Brothers Harriman banking family, is an example of an extraordinary advisor who has a clear mission that drives his daily behavior. A highly successful financial consultant, Brown has authored several books on financial management. He writes a weekly newspaper column entitled “Money and Spirit,” and he has a waiting list of clients. He could well afford a trophy house and latemodel luxury cars, but his relatively modest home in the Southwest and his utilitarian Subaru suit him just fine—he prefers to live his values of moderation and balance rather than flaunt his achievements through flashy possessions. Using a powerful, unique approach to financial management that blends cutting-edge financial expertise with a deep understanding of each client’s personal, familial, professional, and spiritual life, Brown has developed an intensely loyal following of individuals and families who come back to him year after year.

Brown charges an hourly rate that is a fraction of what the market would bear—but this is a conscious choice he made that is consistent with his mission of helping people lead better lives through improved financial management. “By charging what I do,” Brown tells us, “I am able to serve a very broad clientele—I get the millionaires but also people who are scraping by and desperately need help just to survive.”

The opposite of a mission orientation is a strictly material orientation where the main focus is money, title, a promotion, or publicity. When we have no mission, we risk becoming mercenaries—people Machiavelli cautioned against 500 years ago when he wrote, “Mercenaries are disunited, thirsty for power, undisciplined, and disloyal.” Machiavelli urged the creation of national militias—citizens’ armies with an overriding purpose and an intense loyalty to their home state—a revolutionary concept at the time but now the norm.

Victor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz during World War II, summed up the importance of a mission when he wrote, “Nothing is more likely to help a person overcome or endure troubles than the consciousness of having a task in life.”

Channel Adversity

Great Professionals Channel Adversity into Wisdom and Confidence

The extraordinary client advisors we studied all went through difficult experiences. They made mistakes, suffered reversals of fortune, and were even humiliated. Whereas many people become embittered, cynical, or distrustful as a result of these setbacks, really great professionals get stronger. They become wiser and more confident. Their comfort zones expand, enabling them to tackle ever-more varied and difficult situations and assignments.

Laura Herring illustrates how extraordinary setbacks can be channeled into resolve and determination. In less than ten years, Herring’s firm, The Impact Group, has grown to 120 professionals who deliver a variety of relocation consulting and support services, from strategy to counseling and résumé preparation. It had an inauspicious beginning, however. The concept got its start when Herring, originally a family therapist, pointed out to a Monsanto executive that relocation was one of the toughest personal issues facing his employees. Challenged to develop a solution, Herring invested $360,000 and months of time to create a program called Momentum. Just after Monsanto placed a major order for her services, however, its relocation manager vetoed the idea, leaving Herring with no business. “I had double-mortgaged my house,” she told us, “and sold some real estate my husband and I owned. I was deeply in debt, with no cash flow. Panic set in.” She went on to say:

I was unable to go home and tell my husband what had happened. So I went to the phone book, and began looking through the Yellow Pages for other companies that I could sell the program to. I called the vice president of marketing at United Van Lines and told him I thought he should have the first shot at buying our services. He agreed to meet the next day. He loved the materials so much that he immediately placed an order for 10,000 tapes, books, and related services—it was a $1,000,000 sale. I was ecstatic. Two days later, however, he called me back with terrible news. “We’ve decided to develop this internally,” he told me. “We can’t go forward with the order.” Unfortunately, I didn’t have a signed contract.

Shortly afterwards, Herring flew to a relocation conference being held in Florida—her last hope—but after arriving, she learned she couldn’t actively sell her services to any of the participants. There, after three fruitless days walking the floors of the conference hall, she finally met a top Johnson & Johnson executive who was literally walking out the door. Intrigued with her new (but still untested) service, he invited Herring to come to his office to make a presentation. “Gary Goran,” Herring concludes, “was the J&J executive. He became our first client, and ten years later he is still one of our best and largest

When asked about how this and other difficult experiences affected her, Herring replied: “The other day I took my young niece to a club I belong to in St. Louis. When we walked in, a lot of people came over and greeted me. My niece was a bit shocked—she said to me, ‘Everyone knows you—do you ever marvel at how far you’ve come?’ And I told her that I know what it’s like to be invisible, and therefore I never take the end result for granted—you’ve got to earn it. There’s always someone out there who is better and smarter than you are. There’s always someone’s uncle who knows more. You just have to keep driving toward your goals. I believe that failure is not a possibility.” Herring’s account—and how it steeled rather than diminished her resolve and determination—is typical of great professionals. Consultant James Kelly, former chairman of Gemini Consulting, tells another story of early-career trauma:

When I finished business school, Professor Dick Vancil hired me with the idea of building a faculty-based consulting firm [which under Kelly’s leadership became the MAC Group, a $125-million strategy consulting business]. The second year we did so well that we extended employment offers to a dozen top MBA graduates from around the country. But suddenly our backlog of business just died. It was early summer, and we were going to go bankrupt if we took on all these new hires. I had to call each one of them up, tell them what had happened, and rescind the offers. It was one of the worst days of my professional life.

Perhaps Kelly (who was 26 at the time) exercised poor judgment in hiring so many new people, but he learned from the episode. He could have become gun-shy, retrenched, and never made a bold hiring move again. Instead, he assimilated the experience in a balanced, constructive way. His subsequent careful management of revenues, backlog, and professional staffing at the MAC Group resulted in 25 years of continuous growth and profitability under his leadership—a far better record than most consulting firms can show.

View of Clients

Great Professionals Always View Old Clients as New Clients.

A marriage requires constant work and investment—just ask any couple that has successfully been together for 15 or 20 years. When a couple divorces, the partners will often look back and describe a long period of mutual neglect prior to the eruption of real acrimony. If one spouse is working in a demanding occupation, for example, it may seem as if his or her job gets all the time and attention, leaving little energy for the other person.

The bases for successful marriages and successful long-term client relationships are similar. When we’ve been working with a client for many years, the tendency is to take each other for granted. If we’re like the vast majority of professionals, most of our marketing and promotional resources go to new, prospective clients rather than to our existing clients. As benign neglect sets in, our long-term clients may become intrigued by other competitors whose ideas seem newer and fresher, who are courting them aggressively. Just as in a marriage, the antidote to wandering clients is constant reinvestment that revitalizes the relationship.

When we find consultants who have long-term, broad-based client relationships, who inspire great client loyalty, they all have a similar approach: they bring the same energy, creativity, and drive to their long-term clients as they do to the new clients they are trying to impress. They communicate constantly, and the flow of ideas never stops. Even if they aren’t working on an assignment for the client at that moment, they stay in touch. The courtship, so to speak, never stops.


Great Professionals Engage in Continual Self-renewal

Too often we focus on our income statement. This is true whether we work for a large firm or on our own. If we invested a lot in a proposal that fell through, our income maybe less. If we sold a large piece of follow-on business, our income may be more. The focus is this year’s sacrifices and rewards.

If we earnestly develop the attributes and outlooks we’ve been discussing, however, we will naturally build the assets on our balance sheet. Deep generalists, for example, make investments in learning and acquiring knowledge that may have no immediate payback but bring rewards many years down the road.

Our personal capital—the sum of our talents, skills, experiences, and knowledge—can be developed in many ways. This personal development can but doesn’t have to occur through dramatic actions such as taking a formal sabbatical or making a career change. Many professionals embed it in their daily routines, indulging in leisurely reading, selfstudy, and the gradual cultivation of new areas of interest.

C. K. Prahalad, the noted academic, strategist, and top-management advisor, says that, “We must constantly push ourselves into new areas and unfamiliar territory—we must get out of our comfort zone if we are to keep fresh as advisors.” Rather than milking his past research on strategic intent and core competencies, for example, Prahalad branched out into new areas such as multinational marketing strategy.

Moving to Europe in the midst of his career as president of the MAC Group (and stepping down from that role), James Kelly added a whole new expertise—international business—to his quiver. As globalization heated up in the mid-1980s, his understanding of the international environment that his clients operated in greatly enhanced his effectiveness and ability to add value. Management consultant Ram Charan just followed up several years of work on effective corporate boards with a book on growth strategies.

And although he is part of the pre-Internet generation, financial consultant Fred Brown is going up a steep learning curve to set up an interactive website—which may not yield significant results for a year or two—to extend the reach of his innovative financial counseling.

How do we know when it’s time to push into new areas? Peter Drucker counsels that it’s time for a change “When the harder you work, the less you seem to accomplish—or when you’re sure that you know all the answers, and you’ve stopped asking, ‘What are the right questions?’”

Just as we do best when we take a long-term view of client relationships, so do we thrive when we have a multi-year perspective on our own personal and professional development. As Thomas More put it, “live as if you are to die tomorrow, study as if you were to live forever.”

Seize Opportunities

Great Professionals Seize Breakthrough Opportunities

In addition to an abundance mentality, a clear sense of mission, the ability to use adversity constructively, treating old clients like new clients, and continual self-renewal, we need to look for and seize breakthrough opportunities in our relationships. In examining the careers of great professionals, we found notable moments when they performed in extraordinary ways. The result was a major increase in their stature and in the respect and trust that clients placed in them. These distinguishing moments are enormously important: they separate us from the rest of the pack and propel us toward the breakthrough relationships we seek. The extraordinary historical advisors we studied all had moments when they acted rapidly and decisively on their client’s behalf, and so distinguished themselves from ordinary advisors. For example:

  • In October 1917, George Marshall, who later became the chief military advisor to two U.S. presidents, was a young colonel serving under Major General William L. Silbert at the front lines in France. During a field inspection, the commander of the U.S. forces in Europe, General “Black Jack” Pershing, publicly chastised Marshall’s commanding officer for conducting sloppy field maneuvers. Without hesitating, the young Marshall spoke up and vigorously defended Silbert, telling Pershing that his criticisms were unfair and his staff didn’t know what they were doing. Pershing tried to defend himself, saying that he had some difficulties in his headquarters organization. Marshall retorted, “Yes, General, but we have them every day and they have to be solved at night.” Pershing was immensely impressed with Marshall’s loyalty, conviction, and honesty in the face of authority, and after the war asked him to become his aide-de-camp. Pershing became a mentor to Marshall and greatly aided his subsequent career.
  • During Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office as president, he asked Harry Hopkins, who trained as a social worker, to head the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which had been created to provide direct financial relief to regions of the country that had been impoverished by the Great Depression. Told by the president that his job was to get relief to people who need it, Hopkins, whose new office didn’t even have a desk, immediately sent telegrams all over the country, and in his first few hours on the job distributed millions in aid. Knowing he was ruffling the feathers of various politicians, Hopkins said to a colleague, “I’m not going to last six months around here, so I’ll do as I please.” A newspaper article the next day began, “The half-billion dollars for direct relief of States won’t last a month if Harry L. Hopkins, new relief administrator, maintains the pace he set yesterday in disbursing more than $5 million during his first two hours in office.” Roosevelt instantly recognized that Hopkins—who viewed his job as identifying the President’s objectives and getting them accomplished as soon as possible—was no ordinary White House advisor. From that day onwards, he increasingly drew Hopkins into his most important initiatives. Hopkins later became Roosevelt’s most trusted advisor, helping him to continually clarify and implement his objectives, and acting as an invaluable liaison with Churchill and Stalin.
  • As President John F. Kennedy’s helicopter waited on the lawn of the White House, an aide ran to the door with a small folder. Inside was a memo written by Henry Kissinger, who at the time was merely an informal foreign policy advisor to several of Kennedy’s staffers. As Kennedy leafed through Kissinger’s note, he realized that he now had the right conceptual framework for dealing with Soviet aggression. It became the centerpiece of a major foreign policy speech on Berlin—where the wall was about to go up—the very next night. At issue was how the United States should react to Russian threats in Berlin and other parts of the world. Was there any option between doing nothing and engaging in all-out nuclear war? The only viewpoint that Kennedy had was the black-and-white one that had been prepared by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. But he needed something more workable. Toiling feverishly the day before the speech, Kissinger poured out a five-page memo that advocated a flexible response to Russian moves — for example, the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons. “We intend to have a wider choice,” the president subsequently said in his speech, “than humiliation or all-out nuclear action.” While it would be seven more years before Kissinger formally entered the White House, the incident greatly raised his personal capital in Washington and enhanced his reputation for flexible, big picture thinking.

Later, in another breakthrough incident, Kissinger was asked by Nelson Rockefeller to advise him during his 1968 presidential bid. When told he would report through one of Rockefeller’s staff aides, Kissinger refused. “I must report directly to Nelson,” he replied dryly, and Rockefeller assented. It was a risky move, but one that set Kissinger apart from all the other advisors hovering around Rockefeller’s presidential bid. Kissinger wanted to influence leadership directly, and was willing to walk away from the job if that wasn’t possible.

In summary, it’s not enough simply to do good work for our clients—we have to seize breakthrough opportunities to act boldly and decisively on their behalf. To stand out—to be seen as extraordinary professionals—we need to demonstrate a strong sense of purpose and mission, and allow the attributes we’ve been discussing to infuse our words and actions so we truly distinguish ourselves. We must dramatically demonstrate the soul of a great professional, display a rare sense of urgency, and offer unusual capability to help accomplish our clients’ objectives. If we do this, they will always remember us. They will call on us again and again for our sound, wise advice.

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