Curating Conversations: How One Firm Took a Nontraditional Approach to Market Positioning

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In the years that Friedman & Partners has been in business, we have again and again seen the power of successful thought leadership efforts to ignite business. And yet, there are still many firms that get stuck in effectively adapting this proven marketing strategy and implementing it consistently.

That is why we are sharing how one firm has taken a creative approach to becoming a trusted advisor in a niche market. Here’s what 120-person A/E firm GLMV Architecture (Wichita, KS) did in their zoos and aquariums practice, and what they learned along the way.

“In many industries, we become insular in the way that we think,” says organizational development consultant and self-proclaimed zoo nerd Michael Clifford, GLMV’s Curator of Innovation and Partnerships, who runs the firm’s ECHO Initiative. “Zoos are established organizations, often run by municipalities and private 503(c)3s, and are not necessarily set up for solving ecological, social, and environmental challenges in the way that the for-profit sector can.”

Creating Space for Ideas

GLMV saw an opportunity to spark new thinking by bringing zoo professionals together with innovators from outside their world to talk about how they are solving big challenges. They created ECHO, an annual think tank workshop for mid- and senior-level professionals in accredited zoos and aquariums, named for the “resonance” of the ideas they wanted to present.

During the 2 ½ day invitation-only event, 35 zoo leaders come together to focus on ideas, innovations, and dialogue. Past speakers, called “Thought Partners,” have included NASA’s award-winning scientist Dr. Vikram Shyam, Joel Sartore of National Geographic Photo Ark, specialists in behavioral and community health, and authors such as Duke professor Dan Heath and inclusion specialist Nina Simon.

The event—a mix of facilitation, presentation, and small group conversation—is designed for engagement. No presentations are scheduled during meals so that participants can focus on conversation. The goal: To put smart people in a room with time and space for ideas to collide.

Logistics are taken care of by the ECHO team— from flight arrangements to airport transfers, shuttles, hotel accommodations, and meals. “We try to take care of all the details so that our attendees can focus on the content and collaboration,” says Clifford.   

Multiple years of sold out events has confirmed the value of GLMV’s approach. Participants say they value what it provides for those at the top of an organization and report that their time at ECHO pays off. “We hear that it is so wonderful to have the space and time to actually think,” says Clifford. “It can be hard for them to carve out time to be reflective during their regular routine.”

Building on Success

One senior vice president credited ECHO’s LEGO serious play session with changing his approach to executive meetings. He started convening each meeting in a new location, from the animal keepers’ kitchen to the education offices. “Now those executives are seeing things they would never see, and it breaks down the sense of ivory tower than can exist around the executive team,” says Clifford.

For Palm Springs’ Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, ECHO sparked the addition of rocking chairs in an older part of its zoo to encourage visitors to spend time with species that are not always a top attraction. Those rocking chairs are often in use, providing opportunities for more empathetic connections between humans and animals. Another zoo has used the ECHO model itself as inspiration to create more collaboration in their own organization.

After the first successful event in 2016, participants asked for more. The result is ECHO Digital, a series of online conversations about big ideas and zoological challenges (recent ones tackled conservation impact and diversity and engagement). GLMV maintains a list of 400+ zoo leaders and sends out invites to register for the live calls. Attendance is limited to 12-25 to allow for idea sharing, but after the call, the whole list receives a written summary of top takeaways.

“I’ve had several zoo directors tell me, “please make sure that we keep getting those summaries,” says Clifford, adding that the briefs are widely read by those who aren’t able to attend.

The ROI of Commitment

Since ECHO began, GLMV has seen its zoo work rise by 400 percent. The zoo studio has grown from 2 specialists to 10, and they are winning more complex, higher quality projects. One project on the boards (and presented at a recent industry conference) aims to be the most complex African habitat in the country, solving the design challenges of cohabitating species. Another created safety innovations that allow animal care staff to move top predators without being in the same space.

“We want to improve innovation across the whole industry, not just with our clients,” says Clifford, adding that today’s highly educated zoo professionals expect a collaborative process, not a predetermined solution. “When we get hired, (clients) know that we are going to ask the tough questions, challenge the way they do things, and foster innovative thinking.”

Clifford believes that his non-A/E background has been an asset to ECHO’s success. “I don’t have the answers,” he says. “My job is to bring people together to identify their own problems and their own solutions. But I’ve also been in their shoes and that goes a long way, too.”

As GLMV develops its position as a trusted advisor for zoo master planning and architectural design, they’ve leveraged Clifford’s OD background to add services. Consulting projects have included assisting with organizational restructures, streamlining conservation missions, and establishing a collaborative input process for endangered species recovery projects with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department and the Smithsonian Museum.

Of course, creating ECHO was not simple or stress-free. While the effort was championed by Senior Zoo Designer Craig Rhodes and a handful of senior directors with a vision, GLMV interviewed Clifford eight  times before moving forward. In its first two years, the tension of overhead expense and the pressure to show ROI by winning work was real, even as they took the long view.

“That has now flipped,” says Clifford. “Now we think every studio should be doing this. Of course, you can’t just copy a model. It needs to be context-specific to that market.” GLMV is now experimenting with ways to apply what they’ve learned to their other market sectors, including K-12, Healthcare, and a new Aviation Market program called Elevate.

Takeaways

If you’ve been thinking about new ways to position your firm as a market leader, consider this:

Resources are required. GLMV’s success illustrates the power of going all-in with your strategy. Too many firms assign a thought leadership effort to someone who is expected to lead and execute while also delivering a heavy workload of client work. “Find someone who can fully own it and then fully resource them,” says Clifford.

There is no overnight success. GLMV did not see results immediately. While they had some early wins, the real impact came between years three and four. By year five, there was some job creep, as Clifford’s role leaned into business development. Recently, the leadership team decided to refocus his role around ECHO. While it would be easy to deploy someone who enjoys BD in chasing sales, GLMV’s leadership is taking the strategic approach by continuing to invest in and build on what works.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Taking the long view has freed those involved in ECHO to focus their energy in areas that have the most impact— consistently listening to and delivering what their market values— and not sweating every detail or trying to be and do everything. They continue to listen to their prospective clients and evolve, including currently developing design research on animal welfare.

You don’t need to provide all the answers. In the AEC industry, our professionals are trained problem solvers. But too much of a focus on offering solutions can sometimes prevent firms from moving ahead with thought leadership efforts that resonate with their market. Solving your market’s problems does not always mean providing them with all the answers. Sometimes, it is all about asking the right questions, understanding their business, and curating the conversation.

What is your firm doing to stretch into new areas of thought leadership? Let’s talk at rich@friedmanpartners.com or (508) 276-1101.

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