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Position your firm now to thrive in the next downturn.

Although a lot of firms currently have more work than they can handle, and their biggest problem is recruiting quality individuals, many would argue that the next Great Recession, or worse, is just around the corner. Now is the time to begin contemplating how to position your firm to thrive in the next downturn. Firms that are successful in troubled times are market leaders, thought leaders, and experts in their fields that are responsive to clients and fulfill their needs.

Being a leader is more about who you are than about what you do. It is your value set and principals that inform your actions which, in turn, attract talent and clients. Following are a few things that firms can do to become recognized leaders.

Remove friction for clients — Solving problems for clients is what produces revenue. Being a leader is about listening to what your clients are trying to tell you. Do you have a process in place that solicits feedback from clients at various touchpoints in a project, or at the very least as part of project closeout?

If you want clients to be passionate about your firm, the key is to remove obstacles in their lives. Keep it simple. Each step that makes your clients’ lives more difficult or time consuming — figuring out what you do or how to get in contact with you — leads to decreased motivation to do business with you. Further, what are the pain points they face from ideation through project completion? Are you responding to clients quickly and providing them answers that add value? In the age of instant gratification and connectedness, you cannot be unresponsive or competitors will eat your lunch. Identify these things and you will have passionate brand advocates for your firm.

Align by market sector — This is all about determining how clients find the services they need. When times are tough, will health care systems be looking for the best health care firm to work on their project or an architect or engineer that has done a few hospitals in the past? It is a subtle difference. Market sector organization improves project expertise and provides additional leadership opportunities. It is a mindset shift that positions your firm to be thought of as the market leader or thought leader for the specific markets you serve.

The first step is to identify the specific market sectors that make sense to establish as areas of differentiation. Once determined, the next step is to identify market sector leaders within your organization who will function as the “CEOs” of the markets they lead. They will be charged with creating business plans that will become retention, recruiting, and staff development tools as well as accountability tools.

Practice discipline for greater freedom and flexibility — The best firms practice discipline at each level of the organization down to the individual. They develop values, standards, and procedures that they consistently follow and act upon. We only have so much time in the day. The best performers get up early, put in more hours, spend the extra time to market and network for their firms, and actively improve their skillset with or without the firm’s help. You need to make time for these activities. This is an intrinsic self-discipline, a matter of personal will. Discipline is paramount to success; it is not easy but results in increased freedom and flexibility of choices and actions.

A firm that has disciplined standards and procedures can operate as a flatter organization and requires less centralized decision making. This frees up leaders to think more strategically and employees don’t feel micromanaged. But, maintain a careful balance to ensure that discipline does not impose artificial constraints or restrict thought.

Implementing these ideas will position your firm as a recognized leader and differentiate you from competitors. They will help you survive troubled times and build a scalable organization.


Phil Keil is director of Strategy Consulting, Zweig Group. Contact him at pkeil@zweiggroup.com.

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