“I Don’t Get The CMO Thing”: 5 Ideas To Change The Conversation That Dooms Marketing Leadership From Day 1

The year was 2009. The law firm managing partner was confessing. Not in a contrite or inquisitive manner. The tone was incredulous. He didn’t get it; and he seemed to politely resent the idea that he should invest any time or energy discussing it.

Ironically, he was elbows deep in the process of interviewing for a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for his firm.

To be fair, it is likely that nothing in his experience had served to create the view that a senior marketing professional would be an asset to his management team or his partners. The law firm for which he served as chair, like most other AmLaw 200 firms, had enjoyed an amazing run for decades. Enviable partner profits, regular increases in hourly rates, and an impressive client list argued against any idea that something might be missing from his management suite.

His firm had experienced years of success without a CMO. The managing partner had no reason to believe that any of the things that had contributed to the historic prosperity might change.

But peer firms had CMOs. If the competition had it, there must be something to it. And someone in the management sphere had convinced him they should entertain the idea. So, there he sat.

That was nearly a decade ago, and the firm in question has had some ups and downs…but at the end of 2017 was slightly smaller than it had been in 2009, and was struggling for market share.

Though the function has come a long way, outside a handful of notable exceptions, most law firm leaders still have some semblance of the “I don’t get it” mindset“ when it comes to the professional management of marketing and business development. It may come in the form of debates over changes to the lawyer profile. Or an initiative to leverage capabilities and hunt in packs. Or the role of client interviews. Or project management. Or AFAs.

Presumably because most law firms shy away from being first-to-market with anything, the conversations tend to factor how other firms have responded to what is going on in the marketplace…and whether to follow suit. Precious few conversations broach the topic of where the market is headed and how to get there first. Or on how to capture more market share in a particular sweet spot.

No one should be surprised.

Everything about proactive marketing and business development (not to mention new or innovative service offerings) runs counter to the reactive approach that is typical of a legal practice — identify risk, spot what is wrong, name the problem. Never forget that the glass is always at least half empty.

New opportunity is most often perceived as additional risk.

When you get right down to it, lawyers and marketers are an odd pairing — one that tests even the most sincere spirit of collaboration.

So how does a CMO address the tension between, on one hand, a largely reactive approach to the market; and on the other, a proactive pursuit of opportunity? In the interest of a productive conversation, here are five ideas.

First, acknowledge the tension. To ignore the fact that on the best of days lawyers and marketers see opportunity in completely different ways is to handicap every attempt at consequential communication with lawyer leadership.

Second, relentlessly pursue a connection based on how the lawyer views the market. Speak to strategies that mitigate risk. Suggest executable plans where precedent can be cited that hints at future success. And identify the challenges. Name every issue. In short, build better conversations by staging dialogue on turf familiar to the lawyer.

Third, invest in speaking the lawyer’s language. Few things can bring an otherwise productive conversation to a halt faster than relying on marketing buzz words or consultant-speak. Communication occurs when we build on common ground and shared experiences. The use of language borne of a marketing mindset does nothing more than indicate we are willing to defer to our own shorthand, rather than invest the energy to craft a message that connects.

Fourth, focus on — to use consultant-speak — what keeps the lawyer up at night. Chances are it is not the newest marketing initiative or business development strategy unless he’s just had a less than fulfilling experience in one of these areas. And even where the lawyer’s most pressing driver can be spoken to by someone on your team, it is possible that the lawyer does not view the marketing team as the resource likely to have the solution.

And fifth, practice what we preach. Remember that if you’re in-house at a law firm, the lawyers are your targets. If the strategy you’re selling is worth anything, it should be the strategy you’re using to connect and market inside the firm. Believe in content marketing? Your internal marketing efforts should model what you’re selling. Coaching lawyers to know their client’s business? We’d do well to understand the lawyer’s practice before we preach too fervently.

Will these five ideas bridge the disconnect? This is where there is value in channeling the little bit of lawyer in all of us in order to acknowledge the downside. Things will not change overnight. And certainly not in the context of one meeting.

Nothing is going to change the fact that marketers and lawyers see the world through different lenses.

In this way, the challenges facing marketing leadership are no different than those faced by peers in finance or IT. But it does seem that our challenge is unique. Unlike other chairs in the C-Suite, marketers do not handle the money or deliver the email. To the degree that our role is about intentionally moving toward the market instead of waiting for the market to move to us, we are insinuating a new behavior, and a mindset at odds with that of most lawyers.

The only way things change with the managing partner that doesn’t get the marketing thing is when a) she experiences or at least senses a painful change is coming; and b) marketing leaders are there to ease the pain, identify an alternative path forward, and assist with critical transition.

In order to be in a position to do this, we must find ways to keep the conversation going…even when leadership questions value. Even when the practice of law serves to derail the marketing/business development focus (remember…this is why they went to law school!). And yes…even when those we seek to assist simply don’t get it.

The Critical Difference Between Managing and Leading

Title, office location or size, number of direct reports and not even hiring and firing authority guarantees that one is a leader. The greatest leaders we encounter are not defined by trappings. This reality often hits hard at the peak of disruption or crisis, when what is needed is leaders who have what it takes to motivate and inspire the action necessary survive and thrive.

At least part of the issue we wrestle with is mistaking what it takes to effectively manage processes, operations and daily commotion for the ability to see consequential change on the horizon, and bring leadership to critical moments that will shape the future. In this article posted on forbes.com we examine the difference.

The Inspiration Of Real Leadership

In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek bases the title on a practice of the US Marines. When gathered to eat, the enlisted members of the group are first in line, while officers wait until everyone else has been served.

The book is, in my view a must read. But here is a timely taste.

The premise is that leaders place the needs, concerns and well-being of others above any self interest, thereby earning the kind of trust that inspires a group to follow — even into the heat of battle.

If you’ve known a real leader, you’ve experienced this brand of inspiration.

Leadership is not about access. It does not flaunt privilege. It is not the automatic byproduct of title or rank. It is something one earns.

Sure — some titles come with a corner office and access to a platform; but turn the platform into a pulpit with tired rhetoric, empty hyperbole or self promotion, and don’t expect to grow the ranks of those willing to sign up for the mission you wish to lead.

Leaders are not consumed by a need for acceptance or accolades. Solutions, tough decisions, ideas, constructive dialogue — this is the stuff of a leader’s focus.

If we’re constantly lobbying for a seat at the table, wishing for the acknowledgement we deserve, entangled in debates that are far from mission critical…it is worth asking whether we’re modeling leadership. Is our dialogue about personal agenda and advancement? Or is it focused on the needs and critical interests of those we aspire to influence?

One can have a seat at the table, own a title for a season, or even post up on a bully pulpit and demand action. But this is not leadership.

A leader inspires conversations that matter, dialogue that is about solution, changes that endure, and a legacy we can be proud to leave behind.

What does leadership look like? This is from Sinek’s book:

Leaders are the ones who run head-first into the unknown.They rush towards the danger. They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future. Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours; and they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs.

This is what it means to be a leader. It means they choose to go first into danger, head-first into the unknown. And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, we will march behind them, and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life. And proudly call ourselves their followers. — Simon SInek.

Title and Corner Office Notwithstanding, Here Is The Real Measure of Leadership

In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek sets the bar for what defines a leader. The book as well as Sinek’s TED Talks should be required for anyone aspiring to a leadership role. In short, the author suggests that the real measure of an effective leader is the degree to which she inspires a team to follow her into the heat of any battle or pursuit. The inspiration derives from the belief that the leader, forsaking self interest, operates in the best interest of the team.

Many will scoff at the suggestion, characterizing it as impractical and unrealistic in today’s marketplace. Perhaps this is the case. But it is difficult to debate the idea that there are plenty of corner office occupants few are inspired to follow. Or, that trust exists where a team or tribe perceives those with leadership monikers are driven by self-interest and a preservation instinct.

When a group believes those with position will address defining moments thinking first of their own well-being, not even the grandest title will inspire commitment to a mission.

The bad news here is that absent some measure of trust, the highest potential of the group, team, organization or community will never be realized.

Where there is no trust, real dialogue rarely occurs. Singular perspective shapes direction. Progress and success are measured using benchmarks that are skewed. In this environment the rank-and-file will be certain of one thing: decisions will always be made in favor of those in decision-making positions. Any call to mission is assessed cautiously, while consistently glancing over a shoulder.

In this kind of environment the spirit that gives rise to innovation is stifled. New is the ultimate threat, bringing change to a comfortable status quo. (This may be the reason innovation is often born in the garage start-up or the isolation of eccentricity. It is certainly the reason organizations without a leader’s eye on the future are perpetually slow to make critical changes.)

Here’s the challenge for teams who aspire to endure. Ready or not, tomorrow is coming. It will inevitably bring challenges and change. Survival — never mind stability and growth — increasingly call for a brand of vision that sees beyond the short-term, that is willing to test the status quo, that understands that charting a path into the future might push the boundaries of preconceived convention.

Where this is understood, the management of daily commotion as discussed in this article on forbes.com is never mistaken for leadership.

Sinek speaks of a willingness to march into any fray, and pay any price based on the belief that leadership would sooner sacrifice self-interest than the well-being of the team. In the context of this culture the potential of the team flourishes. Change and innovation are not enemies. And the challenges of tomorrow represent opportunity.

How To Build A Marketing Approach That Delivers

Ask a dozen professionals to define marketing and you might receive a dozen different responses. From retailer to B-to-B enterprise, from service provider to widget producer, from Fortune-listed to start-up — marketing is defined based on what we’re selling, and who we need to motivate.

But all of us, unique perspectives notwithstanding, count on our marketing investments to change our business reality — in terms of awareness, behavior, and loyalty within a target market.

Marketing, after all, should instigate action. It may be about transforming a target into a client, expanding a customer’s use of a product/service line, creating initial awareness, or deepening devotion to a brand. If marketing isn’t making a difference it is not doing its job.

At The Heart Of It All

A number of things can be at the heart of a need to precipitate a change. Timing, economic pressures, an event, an emotion, even peer pressure are some biggies. But the life-blood of measurable and enduring change — in marketing terms, what turns targets into clients and clients into raving fans — is much more than a flurry of indiscriminate activities in hopes of getting the word out and/or waiting on the market to knock on your door.

An incentive, a compelling message, even marketing slight-of-hand can precipitate one-off decisions. But when it comes to making a difference that lasts — when you’re looking for what instigates an initial experience, return engagements, and a reputation that endures — an effective plan builds around four things:

  • Clear identification of your target market — know specifically who you need to connect with, and why. Not every target has to be a potential client / customer; but every target should play a meaningful role in your pursuit of clients.
  • Clear understanding of market drivers — this is about knowing your market well enough to understand why there is a decisions to be made. From pain points to peer influence, these drivers influence every critical decision.
  • Activities and experiences specifically designed to speak to the market’s drivers — create visibility, engage, and deliver discernable value around the issues that your market cares about, and you’re on the road to a productive relationship — and a plan that delivers results.
  • Tenacious pursuit — if you stick to your plan for all of three weeks or even three months, don’t bother. Connecting with targets, establishing credibility and motivating action is a process — one that takes time, depends on frequency, and is about investing in the future. How long you must persist, and the nature of the frequency depend greatly on what you’re marketing. But the strategic marketing of professional services bares no resemblance to selling widgets. Be tenacious.
    Invest in a plan based on these four cornerstones, and questions about return on investments in marketing tend to move away from how do we get by with less to how do we do more.

When you wonder about what your marketing strategy should look like — when you set out to determine whether a particular tactic or a “new opportunity” aligns with a defined approach — remember what gives rise to enduring change in a market is the instigation of an awareness that differentiates, the creation of valued experiences, and the facilitation of dialogue. Do this, and watch your marketplace change.

What It Takes To Build A Professional Service Practice

How do you build a professional service practice? Where do you begin? How much time do you invest? What constitutes progress?

In a previous post on the similarities between business development and planting a tree, we recounted the story of French Marshal Lyautey, who instructed his gardener to plant a tree that would take 100 years to mature. The story underscores the fact that growing something strong takes time, and requires equal parts capability and vision.

The practical challenge is that between the planting and any tangible signs of growth, it can be difficult to measure progress.

When it comes to business development progress the challenge is compounded in a professional services environment where often the issue is addressed when short term results are expected. Add the fact that a sporadic approach makes it tough to be confident in strategy and methodology, and firms are left to wonder whether the work will actually pay off.

Unable to discern signs of growth, the temptation is to survey new options. Where is there more fertile ground? What can be done to accelerate measurable return? 

By contrast, a mature and successful strategy is based on a realistic understanding of time, and has been in play long enough to incorporate a healthy blend of investments in the future, and past efforts that have grown strong relationships.

A Formula For Successful Planting

Build around quick fixes and you may be able to skate for a time. If you’re lucky (and some are), you’ll invest in the right area often enough to stay flat, or enjoy modest growth. But look around; firms that have embraced the this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it strategy are struggling with the realities of disruption and change.

On the other hand, if the goal is to design a strategy that delivers marked organic growth from the investments you make in business development, consider these three principles for effective sowing and reaping.

1. Plant wisely. Strong relationships don’t grow on trees. Throw seeds everywhere, and you’re wasting time and resources. Here are three ways to evaluate whether the ground is fertile. Look for areas of:

  • High consequence change
  • Personal affinity
  • Deep expertise (personal or organizational)

2. Nurture carefully. Want weeds (wasted resources and unproductive opportunities) consistently invading your marketing and biz dev efforts? Pay attention to them only when its convenient…or urgent. Sporadic attention to business development will not deliver appropriate return, much less grow anything that will endure. Quality relationships (and this is what business development is about) grow in the context of conversation, collaboration, and valued contributions. Invest here…and invest long enough, and questions about ROI will disappear. On the other hand, neglect or avoid the work of relationship building, and you will perpetually search for business development answers.

3. Pay attention to the season. Success follows a strategic look at the calendar. While planting takes time, effective biz dev isn’t about waiting 100 years for the tree to grow. Each effort is unique; but if you’re planting today and counting on seeing significant results in less than somewhere between 12 and 24 months, you’re not building around a realistic timetable. This doesn’t mean you won’t see results based on work done earlier; often a focus on quality nurturing activates some “planting” that has already taken place.

Target smart, focus on building relationships, and do this over time in order to maximize your investments. And while a successful approach takes nowhere near 100 years, look for easy solutions, quick fixes or silver bullets to any part of this formula, and be prepared to start over — again and again.

Thoughts On Solving The Networking Puzzle

If you wrestle with business development — where to focus, how to start, what to do next, how to make it seem natural — if you struggle with the whole idea , chances are one of the causes for the struggle is an anemic or nonexistent professional network.

If this describes you and you’re among those who follow this space (thank you!) you may be tired of hearing this diagnosis. Maybe almost as tired as you are of reading about how central target identification is to business development success.

Admittedly, this conversation would be much more attractive were there a formula that factors some data, revolves around your expertise, incorporates brand equity, and results in business thanks to your experience and reputation

But strategic business development doesn’t work that way.

Note that I didn’t say you’ll never close a deal working that kind of formula. It happens. But any time you are tempted to believe that’s what has occurred can likely be linked to the relationship equity you or someone close to you built over time. Or just pure luck. And rainmakers enjoy a measure of all of the above, to be sure.

But the strategic development of a rewarding network— ore that will build a practice, and endure — begins with the identification of a target market, and a plan that creates a professional network that connects you to that market.

The reason for the difficulty is not that you were not born a rainmaker. There’s no secret handshake. You don’t have to be naturally gifted at working a room or making small talk.

You do have to consistently, and with some rhyme and reason, invest in building and nurturing a viable network.

It has not always been this way. In the good-old-days you could hang a shingle, do quality work, take care of the needs of your client, and experience a growth in both reputation and practice. But for most professional service providers, today’s marketplace relies on networking to connect and differentiate competitors.

This is not about attending every event that comes along. It is about establishing connections — with centers of influence, referral sources, and the seats of decision.

Building a professional network is about investing in strategic relationships that introduce, inform, educate and connect.

It is not about partying, hob-knobbing or wining-and-dining. Nor is it about schmoozing your way onto a preferred provider list.

The art of networking is what it takes to establish and nurture a productive link to your market; appropriate attention to a network is what creates a pipeline of future engagements. A vibrant network minimizes those painful lulls that occur when you have no idea where the next piece of work will come from.

More often than not, a vibrant network is responsible for what otherwise appears to be a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

A killer network markets for you even when you believe you’re too busy to think about marketing.

This is not to suggest it is easy. It requires tenacity, and doesn’t happen over night. But work on your network, and anyone can develop a robust book of business.

The Hard Part

Building a community — that’s the way to think about your network — is a proactive exercise. And for many, the most difficult part is resisting distraction, and focusing time and energy in the right place. This isn’t about creating a cloud of dust with activities.

Events, speaking, writing and social media can all be tools. And they can be unproductive distractions that drive one to despise the idea of networking.

The key is to focus on actions aligned with strategic targets.

Which brings us back to that sticky issue of target identification. Who is in a position to connect you to the work that will build your practice? The closer you come to actually naming these individuals, the closer you are to being able to build a strong network.

If You’re Just Getting Started

Finally, if you’re just now beginning your practice development, here’s some of the best advice you’ll ever receive. It comes via a colleague and long time consultant to law firms — Ann Lee Gibson — and was shared during a Legal Marketers discussion on Facebook.

Maintaining the relationships you already have is key to lifelong networking. {The} biggest, best thing {you} can do is come up with an actual plan to stay in touch with friends who have gone on to work for companies that {you / your firm} may work for one day. It means scheduling on a calendar…”

If you struggle with business development, and — for whatever reason — can only get one thing accomplished in that area this week, make it strategic work on a network. You’ll reap the rewards as long as you practice.

Typesetters, Kodachrome and Taxi Cabs: Perspectives On Changing Direction

Long ago, before digital became the state of the art, the print industry hadn’t seen significant change for decades. Actually it wasn’t all that long ago in the scheme of things. Less than twenty-five years.

Then someone figured out ones and zeroes. And norms for an entire industry began to shift.

Seemingly overnight, what had once been the purview of trained typesetters, and skilled printers was suddenly open to alternatives that streamlined the process and had impact on the bottom-line. Upstarts with nothing more than a desktop computer and laser printer began nibbling away at market share.

Everything Looks Worse in Black & White

The invasion wasn’t limited to print. Digital solutions were changing every facet of advertising, marketing and the related production.

Even film was losing ground. (If you’re of a certain age, you recognize the above line from a Paul Simon song, and you remember Kodachrome and Ektachrom.) I had friends at Kodak who went from scoffing at the idea that anything could replace film, to arguing that when and where there was demand for the highest quality, film would always be the choice — the quality could never be matched.

Alternatives and Opportunities

Scarcely ten years ago taxis owned what is now defined as the ride-share market. In cities worldwide hundreds of cabs would line up at airports, hotels, convention centers and popular social spots just waiting for the next patron to call for transportation service.

With the vehicles, personnel and infrastructure essential to the service area, few saw the approaching tidal wave.

And then there was UBER — presenting a software solution to a transportation opportunity.

The change that served to disrupt publishing, imaging and ride sharing is not unusual. It is normal. While disconcerting to some, professional service providers and those possessing solutions to today’s business challenges should take heart; anyone able to navigate the changing landscape is poised to become a trusted voice.

What are the keys to occupying this coveted space? Here are three for your consideration.

1. Build Communication and Development Strategies On A Listening Platform

There are at least two big reasons change is unsettling: it is often a corridor to the unknown; and it tests existing processes and values. Intentional Listening changes everything. It accelerates learning, nurtures legitimate insight, and results in improved perspective.

2. Cultivate An Opportunistic Perspective

Perspective born of intentional listening is uniquely positioned to understand market place realities. While keenly aware of problems, pitfalls and risks, change management — not to mention, leadership — derives from a perspective that discerns opportunity.

3. Focus On Solutions

In the midst of high-consequence change the market covets solutions — to the fear of unknowns, the pitfalls, and the risks — to the new realities that precipitate sleepless nights. Focus here (versus preoccupation with historic models, offerings and capabilities), and the market will pay attention.

Listen, cultivate opportunistic perspective, and deliver viable solutions; follow this roadmap, and you’ll likely avoid the fate of the typesetter, Kodachrome and your friendly taxi driver — even in the midst of the volatile new normal.

They Don’t Pass Out Awards For Listening

From the sublime (Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural for example) to the ridiculous (see the latest viral video of parent taunting child or furry cat being a furry cat) — we celebrate the art of messaging.

In a few weeks we’ll actually perk up during commercial breaks of the Super Bowl to spot this year’s benchmark for advertising’s capacity to entertain.

We reward performances that move us — from theater to big screen. We’ll stand in line and then stand and applaud those whose art transcends the moment.

But no one hands out an award for listening. We barely notice the act.

Yet, listening is where it all begins. Without the attention of an audience, the commercial, YouTube video, even the most eloquent orator are no more effective when it comes to prompting a response than the tree that falls in a desolate forest.

If communication is the objective, the best messaging we can muster is of no consequence unless the right audience decides to listen.

(While we’re on the topic it should be noted that simply creating awareness isn’t the same as prompting action; but that is for another post.)

Extraordinary communication begins with intentional and practiced listening. The act of listening before attempting to create or deliver a message is at the heart of what makes it extraordinary.

Perhaps there is a handful of gifted communicators for whom the art of listening is organic — the product of empathy. And, to be sure, there are moments that are so universally experienced that the slightest reference establishes common ground.

But for most of us most of the time the creaction of a message that generates a desired response requires intent that is manifest in at least three things:

  • A clear understanding of specifically who a given message is intended to motivate;
  • Measurable empathy with respect to experiences of the target audience;
  • An awareness of the inevitable “noise” that will distract or compete for the attention of the audiences, and a plan to deal with it.

If you distribute a message and hope to connect with everyone, be prepared to be disappointed. Discount the value of identifying shared experiences at the risk of completely missing your mark. Underestimate the noise of the marketplace and gain first hand understanding of the fate of countless better mousetraps.

Intentional listening is proactive. It may well require more creativity than award winning messaging. And here are just a few platforms through which the art can be accomplished:

  • Market research
  • Focus groups
  • Client feedback initiatives
  • Collaborative events

No matter the platform, effective communication does not begin with a focus on the message. Those who consistently hit the mark, and inspire a target audience to take action begin with attention keenly fixed on the target market.

And though plaques and statues aren’t passed out, the reward for intentional listening is communication that consistently inspires consequential action.

Working On Resolutions? Begin With A Clean Slate

There is still time to give a gift that can change everything in the coming days, weeks and throughout the new year.

The gift? A fresh start. A new beginning.

Give it to everyone with whom you interact — family, colleagues, team members, clients and customers. Extend it even to those from whom you expect to receive little or nothing in return.

And give it to yourself.

Forget the past — successes and failures, hits and misses, promises broken and opportunities missed. The preconceived notions and expectations that come with past experience inevitably inhibit our ability to take full advantage of a clean slate.

A fresh start cones with clearer vision. A new beginning fosters the capacity to dream.

This is, at least in part, why we celebrate the turn of the calendar and the promise of a new year.

The best beginnings come with renewed emotional energy and uncluttered perspective. There is no quicker way to adjust the course of relationship or enterprise.

Want the benefits of a clean slate to last longer than your average resolution? Try this:

  • Forget about making a case for or justifying decisions, actions and plans of the past.
  • Begin with your most noble aspirations.
  • Define success by the degree to which actions align with these aspirations.

Resolved to make the new year more productive on every front? Work with these basics and the slate will stay relatively uncluttered.

What would you add to this list?