10 Things We’ve Learned From Our Clients

Generally, it’s assumed that consultants teach clients by helping them to discover, diagnose and solve business problems. We’d like to acknowledge, however, that we learn a great deal from our clients. In the slides that follow, we summarize 10 things we’ve learned from working with clients. Our observations come out of both True North consulting assignments and Wharton Executive Education assignments.

By Observing Success, We’ve Learned…

The firms that get the most out of their strategies do not have an elaborate planning process that produces a complex strategy housed in large binders.  They simply get the people who have to execute the strategy deeply involved in a simple process. They do their homework on the environment and competitors, select a position that offers customers good value (and is hard for competitors to duplicate), sequence the timing of their major efforts, and then they execute to meet targets and schedules.

Protecting and extending a firm’s core business is often a good starting point for a sound strategy. Many of the successful firms we’ve observed build the core business through a process of documenting and replicating best practices.  They’ve realized the importance of past success as a platform for growth and have institutionalized the ‘how to’ aspect.

Many executives fail to come to terms with their own shortcomings, primarily because they just don’t see them.  As a result, behaviors that frustrate their top team and thwart the achievement of high performance roll on.  Executive development, as an on-going learning process that could address blind spots, is often ignored.

A leader’s top team can add value to his agenda when he or she makes it clear where the firm is headed and why.  When members of the top team have such understanding, they can translate the leader’s goals and direction into well-defined projects that advance the leader’s agenda.  For the leader, the key becomes learning how to be an effective ‘executive sponsor’ of such projects, taking up an effective middle ground between abdicating responsibility for their success and micro-managing the efforts of project leaders and members.

We assumed that most executives understood and executed ‘the basics’—selecting the right people, rewarding high performance, and ensuring consequences for poor performance.  Often that’s not the case.  Too few have a talent management process, substantial differences in rewards for ‘doers,’ and the will to help poor performers find the exit quickly.  As a result, these organizations lack energy and edge and the high performers find their way to the entrance of other firms.  But when the basics are in place, the right people are in the important jobs, the organization has bench strength, and its energy builds because ‘winners’ are working with other winners.

An effective leader knows how fast or slow to proceed with change because he or she knows the culture of the organization.  In an ideal world, everything moves quickly.  In the real world, if the pace of change exceeds the capacity for change, the wheels come off the wagon much of the time.  Good leaders deal with the culture as it is, but they also try to change it over time.

Great managers have a teachable point of view about the business, and they take the time to teach it.  Through their experience, they’ve come to know what matters most and they are able to simplify the complexities so that others can understand as well. They use what they know as a way of building the talent base of their organizations.

Trying to manage knowledge workers in traditional ways may be a waste of effort.  Skilled professionals do their best work when they are given clear goals and end-states to work toward, the autonomy and resources they need to achieve them, and reward systems that reinforce high performance.

Discussion, analysis and fancy charts can not substitute for execution.  When consultants add value they work with clients, rather than doing large, complex studies for clients.  As a result, they find actionable business insights that can be implemented because they are clearly understood by the people who have to execute—the management of the client organization. When consultants and clients work in tandem, it creates opportunities for learning by doing and it also sets a cultural tone that action is valued and that talk and analysis without action are not acceptable.

It is not a tactical consideration to be delegated down the line.  Execution is a specific set of behaviors and techniques that companies need to master in order to have competitive advantage.  Over the years, we have come to believe that “execution know how” is a discipline of its own. 

True North Advisory Group

True North Advisory Group