Awhile back I wrote about a willingness to have my ideas stolen and used.
I was reminded of how unreasonable a stand this is in a conversation with a friend of mine who expressed an interest in becoming a consultant. My basic advice was that it was indeed difficult to do well in the profession, but not for the reasons most outsiders think.
The difficulty is related to a question I am asked frequently — how do you market yourself?
Consultants are best known for some area of perceived expertise. When a consultant has really done good work at branding themselves, their name becomes synonymous with a field. For example, the name McKinsey & Co. immediately evokes the word strategy, and the phrase “strategy consulting” immediately evokes the name of McKinsey (among others).
However, the association is more than a function of mere advertising, marketing and promotion. These short-cuts just do not work in isolation, and hardly work when the link to be created involves ideas, concepts or thinking — such as “strategy.”
Instead, this kind of relationship takes time to create, and does not come from a billboard. What gets formed over time is an increasingly strong connection between the listening public and the intellectual heart of the firm, consultant or individual.
When a client looks to a consultant for assistance, the implicit assumption is that they are looking to spend their dollars on expertise or knowledge that is uncommon, and specialized. Consultants that provide an average service in every respect will only be hired to do things like fill in manpower shortages. At the highest end, consultants can make themselves unique by developing expertise in the eyes of their clients. This can be done by developing a bundle of 2 things — Questions and Answers.
Developing this bundle, and making it available to prospects is the essential marketing a consultant should do. This bundle is the consultant’s Intellectual Heart.
Picture a possible client CEO. She stays awake at nights in her home in Kingstown, St. Vincent, wondering about a new executive that she is thinking of hiring from Chicago. He comes highly recommended, but she wonders about the cultural difference between him – an African American – and the workers in her company.
Will he fit in? How can she prepare him, and her workers, for this very new relationship?
She starts to look for professional help.
The first firm she calls (a large multinational) lets her know that they can find someone in their network of 10,000 consultants world-wide who has done work in this area, and they could fly them in to assist. The person would not have direct experience of Caribbean culture, and might be quite expensive. She is not satisfied with the idea of bringing in another outsider (probably not Black) whose very presence would introduce a new dimension. She mentally puts them on hold.
Next, she calls a solo consultant who assures her that he can do this kind of work. While he sounds quite willing, it sounds to her as if this is the first time he is considering the issue seriously. He can sense the opportunity, but she thinks that he will say anything he can to get the business. When she presses him on the issue, he gives no evidence that he has done any more thinking than she has. His website is vague, and does not mention the topic, even in passing.
On her third attempt she strikes gold. The third company, was referred to her by a friend who happened to hear the CEO mention the topic in passing in a speech to a local Rotary Club. She calls and finds him honest in telling her that they have completed no actual projects in this area.
In fact, all they have been doing for 2 years is thinking about the issue, and what they think companies should do to overcome it. They freely admit that the field is not very well developed.
However, when she listens to them talk about the challenge she is facing, she can hear a distance between where she is and they are in thinking. It almost seems as if they are 2 years ahead. She visits their company website and downloads a white paper on the subject. A short search of their blogs shows some how their thinking has evolved in the past few months. An entertaining recording of an interview of an African American and his Jamaican subordinate tells her that she is right to be concerned.
It is not too hard to see why the CEO would chose the third company in this fictitious example. She was easily able find a place for herself in the Intellectual Heart of the company.
When people ask me how I market my own firm, I find it quite difficult to explain that I want to be like the third firm above. In fact, when I recommend that they consider doing some things along the same lines, what I get back is derision – “You must be mad!” This was the response of my friend who originally shared the interest in becoming a consultant.
Following the retort, often I hear a story from them along the following lines… “I once put my ideas in a proposal, and the client turned around and stole them, implementing them without paying me a cent!”
This reasoning, although widely shared and often repeated, is deeply flawed. Beyond the fact that it is based in a paradigm of fear and scarcity, the ultimate results are the most damning.
Essentially, a consultant who seeks to be successful must become known for their ideas. However, if the fear expressed above is to be believed, the effect is to limit the consultant from ever being seen as a source of ideas. The consultant who tries to save or even worse, protect their ideas will never write a white paper, author a blog, become a columnist, publish a book or give a decent speech. The fear that this thinking generates is enough to stop any bright consultant from becoming recognized, and ever discovering its Intellectual Heart. The same is true for for knowledge professionals in any field, at the individual level.
Over time, I have come to believe that ideas are not mine to own. Instead, they come from the Universe/God, and I am like a television set, transmitting these ideas into the world. If someone uses them, good for them. If not, I don’t care.
I prefer for them to be picked up and used by others, rather than ignored. I prefer to put them out in the world rather than to die with them bouncing around in my private thought-box (i.e. brain.)
After all, my experience has been that the more I write, the more I receive to write. The more ideas I express in writing or speaking, the more I receive.
When I slow down my writing, they come more slowly.
I am therefore quite willing to have my ideas “stolen,” and I see it as the only path to becoming a firm known for having an Intellectual Heart.
The same applies to professionals — there are those who are invisible in their profession, and do not stand out in any way from the sea of mediocrity around them. Then there are those who have the courage to share their ideas, along with the criticism, “stealing” and risks that are involved.
The difficulty in becoming an effective consultant has to do with courage — developing the guts to not just share ideas and thinking, but to invest time in developing them in a serious way, in the face of the existential risk that it might all amount to nothing.
That, I think, is a heck of a surprise to a would-be consultant.