Sitting here at the start of my third decade in business for myself, I find it a little intimidating to reflect on where I started, how much I've learned along the way, and how many people have guided me. I had always thought I made a lateral entry from auditing to consulting — after all, I was a solid audit manager who happened to excel at creatively using technology to improve the productivity of auditors in the field. But today, 20 years later, I realize I was starting at the bottom of a new profession — management consulting — as well as building a business.
I did not realize any of this on August 1, 1989. It was my first day of self-employment! (Or, as my wife called it, my first day of unemployment.) It was new, exciting, and creative! I was getting to build a new career — a new reality for myself. To me, this wasn't work — it was fun! It was playtime! Experiences would come soon enough, as well as accompanying lessons.
During my first decade, from 1989 to 1999, I learned how to be a consultant — how to secure, perform, report, and wrapup consulting projects — and how to train others to perform consulting services. The firm grew by word-of-mouth referrals. I brought others into the firm to help me deal with the work I was acquiring. In 1992, I hired a part-time office and marketing administrator, who would quickly become my first full-time employee. In 1994, I hired my first part-time consultant, followed 2 years later by my first full-time consultant.
In this first decade, I focused on our operations — this is the discipline of "Operational Excellence," as described in the book The Discipline of Market Leaders. All of us were performing projects and serving clients. I thought technical and operational excellence were enough to sustain the firm. A couple slumps in business taught me the value of consistent and sustained business development efforts.
During my second decade, I began to learn what it took to build a sustainable practice through the discipline of being "Client Intimate." In this period, we began to develop our processes to attract and retain clients, and to grow our book of business. This was a period of intense trial-and-error because so many things were changing all at once — the market for technology-based consulting services, the underlying technologies, and the marketing techniques themselves.
With the benefit of hindsight, I see the many mistakes I made in this period — and I accept I had no choice but to make them, because I was always making the best possible choice I could at the time. In the same situations today, I would make different choices, of course — and that's because virtually all these experiences were evaluated. As leadership author and consultant John C. Maxwell says, "Experience is not the best teacher — evaluated experience is. Reflection turns experience into insight." Everyone has experiences — very few people have evaluated experiences. In 2004, I began to systematically and objectively evaluate these experiences with my accountability partners, bringing insights and clarity formerly impossible.
The second decade was one of intense growth and development for me, because I was learning new skills not aligned with my core strengths AT ALL! I am an introvert, yet my roles require almost nonstop interactions with staff, clients, prospects, and referral sources. I am most comfortable with my technical skills, yet obtaining business requires strong "soft skills" in networking, marketing, and selling. Applying these newly required skills caused frequent stumbles — and out of the painful process of evaluating negative experiences came the most significant period of personal growth and development in my life. The sheer number and variety of experiences early in this decade initially brought frustration and confusion — and eventually, once evaluated, brought acceptance and clarity. Painful? Yes. Worth it? Definitely. I now feel I am truly hitting my stride.
So, from my two decades of evaluated experiences, here are some lessons learned:
It's easy to discount the implementation of these lessons, especially when taken individually. Make no mistake — these lessons were hard to learn, and harder still to profitably put into practice. One person who understands how a leader must work to implement such lessons is Rich Schlentz, a friend and colleague. Rich called in March 2009, wanting to meet for coffee to interview me for a book he is writing. We met, and Rich told me he was working on a book about engaged workforces, and he felt I was one of a small group of business leaders committed to building an engaged workforce! And then he wanted to know what I was doing to create such a culture. I told Rich I had set out to build a great business, where I and others could thrive in an atmosphere of trust, respect, creativity, and fulfillment. Little did I realize, the by-product of all this would be an engaged workforce.
What enabled me to get to 20 years was finding a way — a business model — to convert ideas into cash. Ideas to make businesses run better, ideas people trusted me to implement, ideas which brought results, ideas worthy of payment. I now have the best of all worlds — good consultants and staff, who are part of a respected, long-lived consulting firm, all operating under a business model that works.
Todd L. Herman
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