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Coaching for your interviews and presentation

Leadership and management roles are hard to win. If you are stepping up in seniority, moving into a new area of expertise or industry, you will be really tested.  You’ll need to clearly articulate the value that you’ll bring and ally any fears your new employer may have.  Your experience, leadership credentials, gravitas, knowledge, expertise and style will all need to shine through.  You will also have to demonstrate your cultural fit and reassure your potential new colleagues that you are someone they can and really want to work with. So how will you stand out from the other candidates and win this job you really want?  

Helping you be your very best

I will:

  • Work with you to understand your potential employer and really get under the skin of what and who they are looking for
  • Crystallise your “why you” and your key messages
  • Prepare and rehearse you for interview questions that will probe your competencies, strengths and weaknesses
  • Coach you in your communication skills and style
  • Help you to create and deliver a fantastic presentation if this is required in the interview process
  • Boost your confidence and instil belief in your capabilities.

How will your coaching work?

My service will be tailored to you. I will work to suit your requirements, your location and timings. The following is a typical engagement:

1.   Via telephone and e-mail, you’ll brief me on the role and the organisation and I will do further background research to get prepared for your first in-person coaching session.

2.   During your first in-person coaching session (typically 2.5 hours), I will help you crystallise your “why you”, create your key messages and responses to questions.  We will work on your content and structure of any presentation / case study that you need to prepare.

3.   During your second in-person coaching session (typically 2 hours), we will work on your interview technique and rehearse your responses and your presentation delivery until you are brimming with confidence and ready to nail it.

The difference you’ll see

“Marco helped me reduce the clutter and focus on the big picture expected in a senior role.  He helped me articulate a clear and compelling proposition regarding the value I would bring the company.  His belief in me helped me to believe in myself and land the role”. 
Director of BD & Marketing, Global Consultancy Firm

What makes me qualified to coach you?

I’ve been in your shoes and the shoes of your potential employer.  I have spent over 25 years working in industry with the last 12 years in director level global roles.  During this time, I had to win roles and promotions as I moved up the ladder and of course I was on the other side, recruiting senior team members. 

In 2012, I set up my coaching practice.  I specialise in executive coaching and training.  I am an expert in public speaking and communication skills.  I have experience on all continents, a wide understanding of business both in professional services and other industries.  I am an MBA and constant reader of business news and research.

I have a warm, engaging and friendly style and I am passionate about helping my clients.  I will bring you my expertise, energy and dedication to help you win this job that you really want.

Contact me at
+44 (0)7912 120473


Theresa May - lessons from a communication catastrophe.


When Theresa May called the UK's most recent general election on 18 April 2017, she seemed to have an unassailable lead. Opinion polls showed that the Conservatives were riding high and May had the highest personal ratings of any leader since Margaret Thatcher. How on earth did she blow it and end up with a minority government? This was a really interesting story.

In this opinion piece, I am combining my educational background and interest in politics and history with insight from my job as a communication skills coach and trainer. I’d love to get your views on this piece. If you agree, please like and comment. If you disagree, tell me. If I have missed a point, add it. If you want to share, please do. Here we go...

Out of focus

Our first past the post system requires a carefully planned election campaign strategy to defend and convert marginal seats. Instead of doing this May threw caution to the wind and went for broke. Believing in her infallibility, she put nearly all her effort into campaigning in a high number of Labour strongholds, thinking she could convert many of Labour’s supporters on the back of her apparent popularity. Targeting areas in England and Wales that voted to leave in the referendum, May thought she would hoover up most of the UKIP votes. It was a gamble and it backfired badly. May failed to convert most of her targets. Perhaps even more seriously for her, May took for granted and neglected her core base in Conservative-held seats. It was these Tory held seats in our cities that fell to Labour. It was unthinkable until this election that a seat such as Kensington, one of London’s wealthiest constituencies could fall to Labour for the first time.

Credit where it is due. The Conservatives did get their targeting right in Scotland. Under Ruth Davidson's leadership, the Tories gained 12 new seats at the expense of the SNP. Labour and the Lib Dems also advanced. The major issue in favour of the UK-wide parties in Scotland, was Nicola Sturgeon's unpopular call for a second independence referendum.

Selling the wrong product

May was selling us two things. Her leadership competence and ability to get the right Brexit deal. I’ll return to her leadership competence in a moment. On Brexit, May was seeking to convince us that she needed a stronger mandate to negotiate the right deal with the EU. Here she met with an immediate roadblock. The reaction of many of the 48% of voters who voted to remain in 2016, was an unwillingness to give May the blank cheque she was demanding. In fact, seeing her lurch towards a hard Brexit, many people voted to put her on a shorter leash. We saw in this election a “revenge of the Remainers”. 

Another problem with calling this election on Brexit, was that most people didn’t believe Brexit was the only show in town. Having suffered from years of austerity, people are intensely concerned about the quality of our public services and are reawakening to the question of social justice. Labour released their manifesto first. It was a clear promise to restore public services, to deal with social inequality and build a fairer society. While many quite rightly questioned its financial feasibility, it was at least costed, was clear and showed vision.

May’s manifesto by comparison was a disaster. People were expecting something transformative from her. Something in keeping with her promise when taking office that she would address the injustice in our society. On the steps of 10 Downing Street Theresa May had, in a passionate and widely praised speech, pledged that "the Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours". Her manifesto broke this promise. It was a damp and festering squib, promising little to restore public services and even less for the ‘just about managing’. Having parked her seemingly compassionate tanks on Labour’s territory when taking office, here May drove them back to the Tory Party barracks and turned out the lights. Immediately, May’s social care plans were dubbed a “dementia tax” alienating a core part of her base - older voters. Her plan to take away free school meals alienated parents and cast her as the “lunch pincher”. May’s defence that her manifesto was doing what we could afford, didn’t cut it. By this point, many of her traditional supporters were angry and not listening. Her argument was further undermined by the fact that her manifesto was not even costed.

This was a shocking manifesto on which to fight an election. Not only were its policies out touch with the people, it was singularly lacking in any positive and passionate appeal. It did create an emotional response - it created fear among many older voters and a sense of disappointment and betrayal from her core voters. The manifesto showed that May was out of touch with her core supporters let alone the mood of the public. The manifesto was a gift to Labour and a key turning point in the campaign.

Failed to show

During a TV leaders debate, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party declared "the first rule of leadership is showing up". May had not showed up, sending instead her second in command Amber Rudd to debate with Corbyn and the other leaders. This was a lost opportunity for May to communicate with her audience, but worse, it communicated that she was too arrogant, aloof, uncaring or perhaps even scared to do so. Trust was broken. This was another key turning point in the campaign. 

May made the campaign personal. She declared it was about voting for her ‘strong and stable’ leadership. May plastered her name over all communications to voters, in some cases barely revealing the Conservative Party logo. She made the election a confidence vote in Theresa May. She hid most of her senior team from television and radio performances. By contrast Corbyn showed up in the debates, he showed up in large rallies, he showed up on radio shows and he allowed his senior team members to take to the airwaves. It wasn’t all plain sailing (he had a disastrous radio 4 interview in which he vainly reached for his iPad to find his costings and other team members made worse gaffes), but the more people saw of him, the more they respected his conviction and many even grew to like him. While Theresa May was increasingly seen as arrogant and aloof, Corbyn appeared to many as honest and down to earth.

Theresa May framed the election as a vote for confidence in her leadership. When she failed to show and U-turned on social care at the slightest resistance, she suddenly looked weak, indecisive and out of touch even with her core supporters. Her leadership qualities were found wanting. 

The rise of the Maybot

During a TV debate when asked what qualities he felt a strong leader needs, Corbyn highlighted being able to listen. Corbyn either consciously or unwittingly tapped into a growing vein of discontent among the electorate. Even before the snap election was called, there was a growing sense that May was not listening. Her mantras “Brexit means Brexit” and we will secure a “Red White and Blue Brexit”, were empty and devoid of the appreciation that many people are concerned about ‘how’ we Brexit. Further evidence for May’s seeming lack of accountability was seen in her rather robotic communications. “Strong and stable, strong and stable, strong and stable…”. What began as May’s strong hand, became her greatest weakness. The repeated over use of this mantra began to grate on voters who wanted to hear more of the detail and less of the slogan. When answering questions, every sentence seemed to begin with the same phrases, “what’s important…” or ‘it’s clear...” as if her answers were pre-programmed. May was dubbed the “Maybot” and it stuck. 

In contrast, Corbyn was increasingly perceived to be the authentic candidate, not afraid to fight for his beliefs, to answer questions and talk substance on the issues. In contrast to May’s robotic presence, Corbyn showed fire in his belly and communicated with passion. It showed he cared, people started to believe in him and it began to be infectious. As May’s leadership popularity was plummeting, Corbyn’s stock was rising sharply.

Corbyn even sculpted his beard and bought himself a sharp new dark suit to show off his bright red tie. This was a dramatic upgrade on his usual uncut look - he began to look more like a leader. Both May and Corbyn had bad moments on air but you could sense that Corbyn was increasingly enjoying himself. On stage May looked shaken when she was defending her social care U-turn. Corbyn in contrast remained calm in the face of nearly all the heat thrown at him. No surprise since he’s been doing that for the last two years - it was business as usual. 

Social failure

The Conservatives lost the online communications battle. The agency 'We are Social' reported that Labour increased its following by 61% on Facebook, Intagram and Twitter in the course of the campaign, the Conservatives increased theirs only by 6%. This was a catastrophically bad performance by the Tories and no doubt a major contributor to the election result. Just as Theresa May spent her time on the campaign bus in Labour held seats, so too did the Tories commit their social media resources to attracting new voters, rather than targeting their base support. They were going deep into Labour territory and forgot their own backyard. Labour, by contrast fought a more broadly spread online war. Crucially, they appear to have won the hearts and minds of young people who are highly active on social media. A key element was Labour's growing support from key influencers from the music business - Lowkey, Stormzy and others. Unlike the unhelpful (that's being kind) intervention from Russell Brand in 2015, this time respected celebrities had a significant impact in favour of Labour.

Why was social media so important? The UK's traditional newspapers no longer have the power they once held to influence elections. Media such as The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Sun and Daily Mirror have the power to entrench views among their readerships, but they have limited power to crossover and convert new voters. Facebook is now the kingmaker. Sure it carries news from traditional media outlets, but it also carries content from a multitude of other sources. Crucially, it carries news from your friends. Friends who just like we are doing here today, increasingly express their opinions online. We trust our friends more than we do politicians and journalists, so these opinions really count.

No flex

With polls narrowing and the Tory Manifesto going down like a lead balloon, you might have expected that Theresa May would change tack. Instead, she focused ever harder on her messages around 'strong and stable' leadership and getting the right Brexit deal. May's campaign was steered by Sir Lynton Crosby, David Cameron's strategist. His strategy followed conventional wisdom - set out your stool and then stick to it, no matter what. If you face resistance, double down. This was the same tactic used by the Remain referendum campaign leadership. The Remain campaign was widely criticised for not having dealt with the immigration issue, when it emerged as a significant factor in the referendum campaign. The remain team was almost silent on the issue. In the same way, May failed to address the austerity issue when it became clear that this was a key issue for voters in her target seats. Neither did May nuance her 'hard' stance on Brexit, to assuage voters in Conservative held 'Remain' territory. Nor did May shift resources to start defending her vulnerable Conservative-held seats. Doubling down in the face of resistance is one thing, but if it's clear you are losing the battle, you have to change your tactics.

False confidence

Theresa May might have acted differenty if she had the right data. Nearly all the opinion polls got it very badly wrong. Only one got it absolutely right – Survation. When all other polls were showing a 20 point plus lead for the Conservatives, Survation showed only an 11 point gap. That gap then narrowed to just one point in the final Survation opinion poll the day before the election. As one post-election facebook post declared, “it was those pesky kids that did it”. And it was. Survation was the outlying opinion poll because they had put a far greater weight on young people turning out to vote. They did at a historically high level – and overwhelmingly voted Labour. Survation showed that May's lead at the start of the campaign was strong, but never unassailable.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Despite calling the snap election, May and the Conservative Party were unprepared. The Labour Party were not. The party had clearly planned for the possibility of an early election. Corbyn and his team were battle ready. They were also battled hardened. Unlike May whose party had given her a coronation last summer, Corbyn had fought and won two leadership elections in the last two years. He had gained valuable campaign experience and was ready to hit the road running. That’s just what he did.

It boils down to this

May badly misjudged her gamble for a bigger mandate (most of the public didn't want the election), she showed scant appreciation of the public’s hopes and fears, failed to show up at key election debates, sold her message to the wrong people (neglecting the core Tory vote), framed her proposition around Brexit (bringing on the revenge of the Remainers), failed to address concerns about austerity and public services, emphasised her leadership qualities then failed to demonstrate them, underestimated the opposition (Corbyn and the Labour party machine), failed to change tactics when things were going from bad to worse, failed to prepare adequately and was hugely over-confident.

Finally, a lesson from history

The last time a Prime Minister called a snap election with the intent of gaining a larger majority was in 1974. Against the backdrop of the oil price hikes of '73, fuel shortages, the three day working week and conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers, Ted Heath called a snap election in February 1974 with a plea for the electorate to 'return a strong government with a firm mandate'. The election resulted in a hung parliament and unable to form a majority coalition, Heath made way for Labour's Harold Wilson. Theresa May would have been wise to consider the lesson. She had been in post for less than twelve months since her assent to power as Conservative Party leader and by default, Prime Minister. The country were perhaps in no mood to give May a second coronation. Theresa May framed the question – who governs the country? The public gave their answer - "we do".

Enjoyed this article? Agree, disagree or something to add? Please leave your comments below!

About the author

Marco Smith is the Managing Director of Grow the Top Line, a coaching and training practice that helps companies and individuals to grow. To start a conversation about how we can help, call Marco on +44 (0)7912 120473, email: or visit

Post-truth Marketing

Post-truth. 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. We have seen it at work in British and US politics. What does its mean for business and marketing? Do we maintain our rigorous advertising standards? Of course we should. We must be guided by a higher code of ethics and the fact that customers are far less forgiving of untruths related to their consumables, than they are with politicians "who have always lied". That said, if Facebook and Google don't take it seriously, Post-truth will cloud the world of marketing.

The Productivity Puzzle

There was an interesting article in City AM today reflecting on our post-Brexit world and the Bank of England's likely interest-rate cut to come.  The author, Annabelle Williams quite rightly pointed out that the real elephant in the room is our lack of productivity.  In simple terms, that is the amount we produce per per person.

Britain's output per hour worked is 18 percentage points below the average for the G7 nations, and it is not getting better anytime soon.  Since the 2008-9 recession, productivity in the UK has stagnated badly.  We are not working smarter.  Our economy has only grown in the post-recession period due to working more hours.  According to the office of national statistics this post-recession trend is unprecedented in the UK. 

In his Mansion House address in 2015, former Chancellor George Osborne explained the problem as follows:

"We don’t export enough; we don’t train enough; we don’t save enough; we don’t invest enough; we don’t manufacture enough; we certainly don’t build enough, and far too much of the economic activity in our nation is concentrated here in the centre of London".

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has not surprisingly, blamed our productivity challenge on problems of poor leadership, management and a lack of investment in training and education.  

So not much to fix then.  There will clearly be no easy answers to the problem.  But finding solutions is vital to the health of our economy and ability to secure real improvements in wages and living standards.

See the link below for the CIPD's view on the problem...

Here is today's City AM article.

Enjoy reading.


Diversity - what works and what doesn't

Talent acquisition, development and retention is without doubt going to be one of the biggest challenges for UK business post-Brexit.  Building teams that include a diversity of European and other nationalities could become significantly harder if the UK puts a hard brake on immigration.  It will require organisations to examine their approach to diversity. 

Some organisations are already making significant in-roads with diversity programmes dealing with issues of national identity, gender, race, sexual orientation, language and religion.  So what works and what doesn't?  The following article by the Harvard Business Review, argues that successful diversity initiatives focus on engagement, contact and social accountability.  It is an interesting article and worth reading in full.

Enjoy reading.

So, what's Pokemon Go all about?

More than 100m global users in six days adopted the game.  This is nothing short of a revolutionary phenomenon.  But Pokemon Go is still a relatively simple game.  The best is yet to come from the potential of augmented reality as technology improves and new gaming concepts combine with social and other digital media to truly augment reality and provide a marketer's dream.  True Nirvana will come when the base of augmented reality users is extended beyond millennials.

Here is a great article by Marketing Week that explains how the game works and the opportunities for marketers.  Worth a read and worth thinking about the potential for your business to lure customers in 'Pokestops', and of course in thinking about the longer term opportunities of this technology.

Enjoy reading

What separates high growth organisations from their peers?

New research from McKinsey shows that there are five factors that distinguish high growth organisations from their peers:

  1. Future focus
  2. Digital effectiveness
  3. Strong use of sales analytics
  4. Investment in people
  5. Strong leadership

It was interesting to see the research highlight that in people investment, "there’s room for improvement. Among fast growers, just over half believe their organization has the sales capabilities it will need in the future, while a third of the slow growers feel similarly equipped. As few as 18 percent of fast growers think they excel at pipeline management, and even in the most successful area—understanding specific customer needs—only 29 percent claimed to be outstanding".

Worth reading the full article and checking out the book 'Sales Growth'...

Enjoy reading.

Can we help Theresa May reduce inequality in the UK?

Understanding the societal drivers behind Britain's Brexit, has made me reflect hard on what our society looks like and where it is going.  One of the key factors in the vote to leave was the growing gulf in income and wealth between rich and poor.  This is not just a UK problem.  Economists and politicians have recognised this problem right across the world.  

On the day that she became Prime Minister, Theresa May gave one of the most radical speeches of any past Tory leader.  Central to her speech was the idea of creating a fairer society in which income and wealth are shared more equally.  Here is an excerpt from her closing remarks.

"The government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls we will think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws we will listen not to the mighty, but to you. When it comes to taxes we will prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few, we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you".

It is clear that Theresa May has grasped the scale of the problem and these are encouraging words.  No doubt she was also motivated by the opportunity to park her tanks on Labour's territory, but for now I am giving her the benefit of the doubt.

It is tempting to park the inequality problem with our politicians and economists and carry on as normal in our business lives.  But on further reading, its clear to me that we have a major responsibility in business, to play our part in creating a fairer society.  The following is an excellent report by McKinsey detailing the trends, their causes and what we should do.  The 'what we should do' includes recommendations for business leaders that I believe every leader and manager should reflect on.  It is worth downloading and reading the full report.

Enjoy reading.

Time to review your performance management process?

Many organisations are making radical changes to their performance management processes.  Here is a really good article from McKinsey explaining what some leading companies are doing and why.


Enjoy reading.

Have you decided on your holiday books?


If you haven't yet picked books for your holiday reading, here are some very interesting recommendations...

I am currently reading the The Seventh Sense, Power Fortune and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo. It's a really insightful read into the impact of digitalisation on society. Highly recommend it.

What are you reading?

Negotiating Brexit: a test of wills and skills

Great Britain is about to undertake its most important negotiation in decades.  Our government will negotiate the terms on which we leave the EU.  A number of factors will determine the outcome, and at this stage it’s impossible to predict the deal that will be struck, in attaining access to the single market while controlling the free flow of immigration.

The result of a negotiation is partly influenced by power and leverage.  But negotiating successfully requires both parties to creatively seek a win-win outcome that enhances or at least protects their relationship.  Clearly, this is vital in the case of Brexit.  We saw a lot of posturing during the referendum campaign from Brexiter politicians.  They argued that Brussels will want to cut a favourable deal, due to the value of EU exports to the UK.  We have since seen posturing from EU leaders, who have indicated that Britain will only gain full access to the single market, if it allows freedom of movement.  Politicians are of course well known for posturing with promises and threats.  This is not helpful.  Taking positions in advance of or during negotiations can create big obstacles, especially when multiple players are involved.  

Britain and the EU will need very skilled negotiators to achieve the right outcome for all parties.  What does a skilled negotiator look like?  A skilled negotiator is first and foremost a creative problem-solver.  A skilled negotiator knows how to assess the interests of each party.  A skilled negotiator knows how to create options and arrange them into the right package.  A skilled negotiator knows how to influence the zone of possible agreement and where to set their red lines.  A skilled negotiator knows what information should be exchanged and when.  A skilled negotiator knows how to approach and conduct the bargaining phase of a negotiation.  A skilled negotiator knows how to get around obstacles and difficult people.  Finally, a skilled negotiator will know how and when to close the deal.

You may not be charged with negotiating our Brexit, but your approach to your negotiations over small and large matters, has a profound affect for your personal and business life. If you would like to improve your negotiation skills and those of others in your business, contact me to find out more about Grow the Top Line's 'Negotiating Success’ programme.  We tailor our programme to our clients so their people acquire the skills, knowledge and confidence to effectively negotiate in their business situations.  Participants learn models and undertake negotiation simulations receiving observation and coaching based on tailored, relevant case studies.  The programme is co-delivered by two coaches - Marco and Ian Smith of Grow the Top Line. Identical twins, Marco is a business growth expert and Ian is a leading commercial barrister. Our unique combination makes for a cutting edge programme.

Finally, if you are interested in reading more on the subject, here is a very interesting article by the Harvard Business Review, called 'How to Negotiate with a Liar'.  Given the nature of the referendum debate, this might be an especially useful read for our politicians!


How will Brexit impact the talent market?

The UK will be charting its own course post Brexit.  An important challenge for small and large UK businesses will be managing their talent pool.  Will we continue to be an attractive destination?  Will it be harder for European talent to come to the UK?  Will it be easier for talent to come to the UK from other parts of the world?  Will we see a surge in expats and natives living in Britain, leaving to explore opportunities on the European Continent and elsewhere?  What does UK PLC need to do, in order to remain competitive and attractive in the talent market?  

The following article by the World Economic Forum provides interesting reading on the post referendum challenges that Britain faces, highlighting short and longer term impacts as well as current trends.  See within the links to really interesting data from LInkedIn and also the comprehensive Human Capital Report published by the WEF.

Enjoy reading!

Automating Inequality

Britain's Brexit echoes an unravelling of traditional politics all over the western world. We are seeing this in the US with the rise of Trump.  In Britain, as in America, there is one major driver underpinning the populist brand of anti-establishment politics we saw in the referendum. That is Inequality. Wealth across the world has polarised between the haves and have nots. Driven by globalisation and digitalisation, inequality has been increasing year-on-year for decades and is set to get much worse. Many people no longer believe in the trickle-down effect of a strong economy and are now questioning the liberal vision of ever stronger globalisation.

McKinsey recently published an interesting article on automation giving guide to where jobs will be lost to digitalisation.  It's well worth a read...

If you really want to delve into depth on the broader changes impacting our economies and society, I recommend reading the 'The Second Machine Age' by Brynjolfsson and Mcafee.  A well written book with great depth and insight.

1 in 140 million. My story...

I thought I'd share a story of something amazing that happened to me.  18 years ago I was on holiday with a friend in Italy. One night in Siena, Tuscany we ended up having a few drinks with a man and woman from Brazil. Six months later while I was in NY on business I had some free time and visited a Barnes & Noble book store. While browsing books in the history section I bumped into the Brazilian woman we had met in Italy - we were both gobsmacked. She was also in NY on business.

I am currently on business here in NY and working near the book store - it brought the memory of this long forgotten event back to me.  A clever friend calculated that the odds of my chance encounter were 1 in 140 million.  I wish I'd also bought a lottery ticket that evening!

Sectors...surface deep or real?

There is an old joke that lawyers and accountants are rather like doctors – they tend to be more interested in the disease than in the patient.  Certainly over the years, client feedback has tended to lean some credence to this ungenerous observation.  Professions tend to attract clever people who like to solve complex problems but who can find the inner workings of their clients’ logistics or manufacturing business rather dull.  But in this increasingly competitive world, the need to demonstrate, not just empathy, but a real understanding of clients’ businesses has driven a growing number of firms to overlay a sector focus on their conventional matrix of practices and geographies.

In one sense there is nothing new about this.  The accountancy and consulting firms have had “industry groups” for 30 years.  But for most of this time, such groups have been based on some level of common interest.  Now firms are trying to make sectors a more substantial route to market.  More than a decade ago, KPMG took the bold step of reorganizing all its fee earners into sector groups and running its business with these as the P&L accountable units.  The experiment was ultimately short lived.  In the end it created more fragmentation than cohesion.  In the legal sector, firms like Norton Rose Fulbright have put sectors squarely at the forefront of their strategy, acknowledging that their most important sectors have been the driving force for their mergers as opposed to a retro-fit after the event.

Clients are noticing too.  Research shows that a genuine depth of knowledge and expertise in a sector gives a firm significant advantage in a competitive bid.

But making sectors work is problematic.  Very few firms since KPMG have risked driving P&L down sectors:  most do so by office/region or by practice area.  That leaves the sector head with the unenviable task of holding partners to account but without the muscle of profit accountability.

Ultimately as with all things in a firm, a large part of the success or failure of an approach will come down to the determined commitment of the Executive Management Team and to the charisma of the partners tasked with the leading each sector group.  But even with this propitious environment, the firm needs to give some power to the elbow of the sector head.

In our experience some of the best approaches include:

  • Direct the marketing budgets down sector lines rather than practice or office lines.  That is a good encouragement to partners to get involved.

  • Make sector leaders accountable for the key clients that sit in their sector.  That has the twin benefit of providing sector intelligence to the relevant clients and the gives sector heads some clout over influential peers in the partnership.

  • Invest in thought leadership within the sector.  That provides evidence of the firms understanding of the sector and commitment to it – but it also gives the sectors IP that partners value.

  • Organise regular conference calls or meetings where those involved in the sector, wherever in the world, can contribute to and benefit from knowledge of the sector.

  • Create good marketing and management information and reporting tools so that the firm can evidence sector achievements and make these visible internally.

For many firms, sectors remain a thin veneer overlay on the way they really work.  Over the next few years, we believe the leaders will be those that demonstrate that sector knowledge and commitment really is at the heart of the firm.

"I have a plan". Not quite the same is it?

On 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King showed what leadership means.

Four simple words, "I have a dream" inspired 250,000 at Lincoln Memorial and a generational change. Those four words were intensely personal: for King, his followers and every individual who would be affected by that change. He spoke of a compelling purpose, with ideas and words that transcended the everyday, short term and introspective normal.

What would have happened, had he stood up in Washington that day and proclaimed "I have a plan"? Not much, probably.

Steve Jobs had the same philosophy when building Apple. He recruited John Sculley (then Pepsi's youngest-ever President) "Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?". Looking now at how we use technology, listen to music, consume media and communicate, that question doesn't sound so grandiose.

Business leaders today need to remember these examples. The more complexity they face, the more change they have to contend with, the greater the temptation to "stick to our knitting" and "get the basics right". As important as those hygiene factors are, they are not as vital to great leadership as the ability to identify a higher purpose that defines the organisation and to inspire people to follow.

Plans are necessary, of course, but only as means to an end. You have to dream first.

How to lead business change

In times of the increasing challenges for growth, competitiveness, and innovation, business change is constant.  Business change challenges include client and market shifts, legal and regulatory requirements, strategic re-direction, and cultural transformation requires firms to effectively and efficiently manage change on multiple fronts.  To reach this level of change capability, firms need to take a joined-up, balanced and customised approach to change management.  There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.   Despite increased recognition of business change as a critical competency, the challenge for many firms is that they don’t have a good track record in managing change and making it stick.   Sadly, there are many reports on the high failure rate of business change initiatives.  

Typically, when firms embark on change initiatives, the leadership (change leaders) tend to focus on the strategic, financial, structural issues, tactical plans and process.  However, to succeed, change leaders also need to understand and address the people aspects of change management:  guiding their firm toward the new vision, transforming their culture and values, behaviours, encouraging new learning and development, and communicating to achieve the desired results.   So often, change leaders are frustrated by the amount of time it takes their people to adopt new ways of doing things, structures, systems and processes, when in their view the need for faster change is obvious.   A key source of people’s resistance stems from uncertainty and fear - often due to lack of clarity by the leadership in making the case for change.  In professional services firms, people are trained and expected to think and behave rationally, and while they may understand the need for change at a rational level, both their hearts and minds need to be engaged so that firms can embrace new ways of thinking and acting, not just going through the motions. 

Although there is no 'one size fits all' solution for successfully leading a firm through change, there are a range of practices, tools and techniques that change leaders, can adapt and apply to the specific culture and business needs of their firm.   In adopting a systematic, comprehensive framework, change leaders will better understand what to expect, how to manage and engage the whole firm in the change process.  Business change initiatives should address, integrate and reinforce both the structural and people dimensions of change to ensure that the change sticks.

If you want people to change you must provide clear direction - start with a change vision and make a compelling case for change. 

In our experience, where change leaders are vague and unclear in making the case for change, those affected will inevitably begin to question, doubt, and sometimes, challenge whether change is really necessary.  People also need to understand why change is necessary, before they can decide whether to commit to supporting and making the change happens.

Three steps that should be followed in making the case for change are: 

  • first, why is the firm doing this - what is broken?  There should be a compelling reason for change; 

  • second, what will be the consequences if the firm doesn’t change –?  In responding to these questions, the change leaders need to demonstrate their belief that the firm has a viable future and the leadership to deliver this; and  

  • third, provide a roadmap to guide behaviour and decision making.   Change leaders will also need to adapt and tailor this message for their different internal stakeholders, by describing the proposed change in terms of what it means for them, as well as for others involved.  

A shared vision reduces stakeholder confusion about how things will change.  Well managed, articulating the case for change and the creation of a written vision statement also provides invaluable opportunities to build and develop alignment within the change leadership team.

Develop a business change strategy

Business change initiatives should be strongly aligned with the goals for advancing the firm’s strategic goals in the long term, and sustainable.  After creating a vision, internal stakeholders will need to understand the following:

  • how their roles and work will be affected; 

  • what new skills and abilities will be required;

  • what resources will be available them;

  • what is expected of them during and after the change initiative;

  • how they will be measured; and 

  • what success or failure will mean for them and those around them?  

People will react to what they see and hear around them, and need to be involved in making the change.   Change leaders may not know all the answers but, should be as honest and open as possible.  The leadership should indicate and reinforce their approval where appropriate, by rewarding both individual and team behaviours and contributions that advance the change initiative.   Any reward and recognition of behaviours and contributions should be consistent with, and support the new values and culture.  At the same time, the leadership team should deal with people who are persistent in their opposition to change - difficult as it may be, it will demonstrate and reinforce the firm’s commitment.

Create ownership, be champions of change – don’t just tell them, show them by doing 

For successful change to occur, change leaders must start behaving differently and became roles models.  People need to know that their leaders are personally committed to the success of the change.    As change is inherently unsettling for stakeholders at all levels of a firm, they will look to the MP/CEO and change leaders for direction, guidance, reassurance and support.  The leadership themselves must show the way by behaving differently, adopting the new structures, systems and processes, both to challenge and motivate the rest of the firm.  They must speak with one voice and consistently model the desired behaviours.  The leadership team needs to understand that, although its public face may be one of unity, it too, is made-up of individuals who are going through stressful times and may need support.   Both individual and team coaching should be made considered where as appropriate.  

From our experience, we know that change leadership teams who work collaboratively are best positioned for sustained success.  They are aligned and committed to the direction of change, understand the culture and behaviours the changes require, and can model those changes themselves.  This goes beyond paying lip-service or passive agreement that the direction of change is the right one.  It demands ownership by leaders willing to accept responsibility for making change happen in all the areas they control or influence.  Sometimes, ownership is best created by involving other people in identifying problems and providing solutions.  

Involve all stakeholders

As the change progresses from defining strategy, setting targets to design and implementation, this will affect different levels of stakeholders within the firm.  An effective way to involve all stakeholders is by setting up Taskforces to address key elements of the change.  As well as being a sounding-board for proposals, a Taskforce can play a number roles of including cascading information to their peers and other stakeholders; providing feedback on  their peers and other stakeholders’ reactions to changes; influence and motivate others; help to define and shape specific aspects of the change; assist in the design and implementation.  The Taskforce should include both those who are aligned and support the change, and well as those who are sceptics, they can play a valuable role in providing a ‘reality check’ and making the case for change as they become more involved.

Communicate early and keep communicating until the change is achieved

Regular communication from the change leadership is essential.  All stakeholders affected by the change need to know to know what is involved, why and how it is happening, and what’s in it for them.  Sadly, change leaders frequently make the mistake of believing that people understand the issues, the rationale for change, and see the proposed change as clearly as they do.  If change leaders fail to actively communicate there will be no shortage of rumour and gossip to fill the vacuum.  Failing to communicate regularly with stakeholders will cause problems.  Unfounded stories, rumours, worse-case thinking will rapidly fill the gap.  People are naturally suspicious, more so in uncertain times and they will come up with their own rationale for actions and events that they don’t understand.  As change leaders, the management board must keep communicating, frequently.  Constant two-way communication is required to offset ambiguity, address confusion and gossip, to change attitudes and to keep everyone on course.

Communications flows from the bottom and the top – from the top it should be tailored to provide people with relevant information at the right time and to obtain their views and feedback – they should be asked what they think and how they are feeling – listen to what they have to say.    Managers and front-line leaders are the first line of communication to employees, once briefed by the change leaders’ communications from them should be frequent and consistent.

Handled well, the best change programmes plan and then reinforce core messages and progress through regular updates using multiple communication channels including, face-to-face (small group briefings, town hall meetings, Q&A sessions), a dedicated change programme intranet, voicemail messages from the MP/CEO etc. 

Assess the firm’s culture and change readiness 

Culture change lies at the heart of transformational change – change that engages everyone (leadership and stakeholders) involved to think and act in ways that reflect the new vision and goals.  A firm’s culture is shaped and influenced by a range of factors, including:

  • Leadership and management:  as people take their cues from the leadership, this is one of, if not the most important determinant of firm culture.  The leadership creates, shapes the beliefs and values, what is recognised and rewarded, and models the behaviours.

  • History of the firm: where and how it started, what it prides itself on provides the foundations for the culture.

  • Significant events in the firm’s history: mergers, acquisitions, re-organisations affect and challenges the existing culture, requiring stakeholders to reassess aspects of the culture to re-establish stability and predictability.

  • New beliefs, values and assumptions: brought in by new members’ especially new leaders, influence the existing culture through their views, experience, ideas and behaviour.

  • Structure and systems: the structure and systems of the firm embed values in work practices that influence the culture, for example, reward and recognition, performance management, controls and communication, protocols, procedures and processes.

As the change moves forward, it is critically important that change leaders assess, review and understand the culture and behaviours across their firm.  In our experience, firms often make the mistake of assessing culture either too late or not at all.  An in-depth cultural diagnostic can help to assess organisational change readiness – the extent to which people understand and are prepared to advance and implement change, identify any significant problems, conflicts and define factors that can recognise and influence sources of leadership and resistance.   Culture change is driven by the strategic direction of the firm – its aspirations and future goals.  Culture evolves from the firm’s strategic direction; it is not a standalone, independent of the firm’s business.

Cultural diagnostics can also highlight the core values, behaviours, beliefs and perceptions that must be addressed for transformational change to take place.  Research, market analysis, client feedback and surveys also inform the change.  They provide the baseline for designing important aspects of the change including the new firm vision and building the framework and solutions required to drive change.  

The absence or lack of change readiness can delay or break a change initiative.   Any problems identified should be addressed from the culture review and assessment should be addressed – what change leaders may think is a small issue may be a big problem for those affected.  

As culture concerns “the way we think and behave around here” understanding the hearts and minds of those involved is essential in creating and leading transformational change.  As the leadership team sets the tone for, shapes, and models the values and behaviours within a firm, they play a vital and powerful role in modelling the “new way that we think and behave around here”.  Once culture is better understood, change leaders should be explicit about the culture and behaviours required to support the new way of operating, and find opportunities to recognise and reward those behaviours.

Business change should go beyond just improving financial results to creating a bigger and lasting impact that enriches the firm, its stakeholders and clients. 

Can you communicate too much with your people?

One thing you can be sure of – if you fail to actively communicate there will be no shortage of rumour and gossip to fill the vacuum. Failing to communicate regularly with your partners and employees will cause you problems. Unfounded stories, rumours, worse-case thinking will rapidly fill the gap. People are naturally suspicious, more so in uncertain times and they will come up with their own rationale for actions and events that they don’t understand. As a leader, you must keep communication, frequently. Constant two-way communication is required to offset ambiguity, address confusion and gossip, to change attitudes and to keep everyone on course. 

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