This article codifies the 4 components of a distinct cultural mindset that enables demand generation to flourish.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve taken a deep dive into the world of demand generation for professional services firms. I’ve provided examples of firms that have shaped the conversation in the market on a topic. And, most recently I mapped out 5 sequential steps virtually any firm could take to drive itself into a position of authority. I like to think it’s been a pretty clinical analysis of what to do and how to do it. But, as my good friend Jeff McKay will likely point out — I’ve left out the most critical piece of the story. Culture.
At the end of the day, I can map out a process, show leading examples, describe behaviors and codify all the best practices that we discern from the leaders in the market. But, if you don’t have a culture that’s ready to do something about it none of these things matter.
Now, culture is a mushy thing. And, I don’t profess to be an expert in organizational design, team building or leadership development. I’ll leave that to the really smart people in our client organizations, like Navalent, to unlock. But, as I see it, if you’re going to be a leading voice in the market you need to have some combination of these 4 cultural attributes in your firm that tend to push and pull at each other in interesting ways:
- Desire to be the Best
- Intellectual Curiosity
- Layers of Confidence
- Willingness to Fail
#1 – Desire to be the Best
When 19-year old Olympic snowboarder, Red Gerard, got up 2 days ago in PyeongChang, I doubt he said to himself, “looks a little windy out there; let’s see what happens.” Now, it’s a bit hard for me to imagine what someone who’s willing to flip themselves upside down 4x fifty feet up in the air with a board strapped to their feet is really thinking. But, I’m willing to guess that deep down he was saying, “I want to be the best in the world at this. I’m going to take this mountain, regardless of the conditions, and crush everyone in the way.”
At some level, for a firm to shape the conversation in the market it has to want to in the first place. There has to a practice leader or group of subject matter experts who say to themselves, “I think the whole market is looking at this wrong; we have a better view; we have to get everyone to see it this way!!” To me, it feels like designing a great product. It starts with that burning frustration about the current state of affairs. Generally, that frustration is coupled with a fuzzy vision of a better way. The mission from that point forward is to clarify the vision, document it, and shine a light on it for the world to see.
#2 – Intellectual Curiosity
That said, all too often, a fuzzy vision proves to be a little off. Worse yet, sometimes it proves to be flat out wrong. The best firms recognize this. They don’t allow hubris to get in the way of intellectual discovery. Sure, they set out on a mission to frame the way the market thinks about a big, pressing issue. And, they have a burning set of beliefs about that issue. But, they don’t let those existing beliefs cloud their thinking as they peel back the layers of the onion.
We’ve talked about the critical role of research in helping firms discover new points-of-view on what it is that they do. But, research conducted solely to affirm an existing hypothesis is generally ineffective. After all, data can be segmented to make the case for just about anything. So, the research can’t do the work alone. The subject matter experts need to look at the research through a lens of innate curiosity into the answers underlying the questions. If research proves our existing hypotheses right, wonderful. If it proves them wrong, we accept the conflict and move forward. Either way, we found new ground.
#3 – Layers of Confidence
The most successful people and companies seem to have an innate ability to believe in their own future success. In The Challenger Sale, Dixon and Adamson noted that the most successful sellers tended to have higher levels of confidence in their own value. In its work, the National Center for the Middle Market has found that the leaders of the fastest growing firms tend to have more confidence in the economy at all levels. When we’re confident, we’re likely to be more aggressive and more tolerant of risk. In turn, we increase the likelihood of success.
In the world of thought leadership, confidence is required in at least four layers. To start, a firm needs to believe they can be the best in the world. In fact, they see no reason why it should be anyone else.
Second, firms need to have the confidence to take a position that will both attract and repel potential clients. Every firm loves the former, but a lot of firms are scared to death of the latter. The fact is that a compelling POV is going to push some clients away. And, that’s okay. They simply won’t see the world the way you do, and will be much less likely to engage with your firm in the way you’d like.
Third, firms need to be comfortable with the fact that taking a distinct position is going to awaken a fair share of criticism. This is especially true if the POV stands in contrast to many years of deeply entrenched, conventional wisdom. There are going to be attackers. Simultaneously, a compelling position invites copycats. Other companies are going to slice away segments of your findings to sell derivative or competing solutions. Some, may even straight out plagiarize, which of course you’ll aggressively defend. Regardless, it’s going to happen and you need the confidence to weather both sides of the storm.
And, of course, this brings us to the fourth layer. A firm has to be comfortable giving away its insights through thought leadership. A lot of firms are scared to death of this because they fear layer 3 — competitors stealing their insights and using them to sell less expensive solutions. This is a valid concern, but it’s one not shared by demand generating firms. Leading firms are confident that their thought leadership is intellectual capital used to build their awareness and relevance in the market. Yes, competitors can copy or imitate that. But, it’s the journey that matters. The intellectual property that the firm develops through the research and discovery process is virtually impenetrable. And, it’s the IP that creates separation. It’s the IP that the firm will use to create organizational knowledge, design new products and create tailored solutions that flows from the thinking in the first place.
#4 – Willingness to Fail
The last attribute in the culture of a demand generating firm is a willingness to fail. In this case, I’m not talking about “failing fast.” It’s not really about that. Rather, it’s simply about creating a culture where people have the ability to try different ways of doing things without repercussions. It’s about knowing that if something doesn’t work, they’ll be met with a soft landing.
Firms like these understand that all profit comes from risk, and are wiling to make investments accordingly. I’ve recently read about companies where the word “failure” is not even part of their lexicon. They simply see failure as affirmation of what doesn’t work. As Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Over the years, I’ve described this as approaching a business as a massive collection of A/B tests.
Unlike so many of our posts, I’m not going to wrap this up with a pretty bow of selected action items. As I mentioned a few times, I’m not an expert on organizational culture. But, I will say this. If you’re going to substantively change the conversation in the market, you have to build a culture that enables you to do so. Your firm may have a wide range of corporate values. Some may align with these things. Some may not. But, if you’re going to make demand generation part of the DNA of your firm, you’ll need to imbed some, if not all, of these characteristics into your practice. So, just start with one. One conversation within your leadership team about any, or all, of the attributes on this list.