Taking Your Mid-Sized Firm to the Next Level: A Report from the Council’s Recent Entrepreneurs Forum in Washington, D.C.
As the former head of a mid-sized firm, I know first-hand that leaders of organizations in this bracket are especially eager for new insights, challenged as they are by issues ranging from client acquisition to innovation, creativity to talent. To answer this need, the Council created a new program chaired by Margery Kraus, founder & CEO of APCO Worldwide, one of the largest independent PR firms in the US. Our broad agenda looked at subjects like innovation, financing, and leadership issues such as how to manage stress and getting your firms recognized. Speakers included professionals in the industry and outsiders who work with professional services firms. We also invited council members to participate in an informal networking dinner at Margery’s home in Washington D.C.
The event yielded a great deal of stimulating conversation and “aha” moments. The best ideas we came up with strike me as definitely worth sharing with all council members, whether you lead a large firm, a small one, or one in-between.
First, on the topic of innovation, we explored the notion that to truly go beyond the status quo, firms may need to really shake things up and create new products and offerings, new structures, and new departments. We pay a lot of lip service to innovation and creativity, but it’s hard to create a dynamic, creative environment when you have the same teams working under the same organizational strictures. Giving the organization a kick in the pants enables new people to get in leadership positions, test out their own skills, and leave their stamp on the firm. Being known as a firm that challenges the status quo will make your firm more attractive to up and coming talent, which after all is always looking for opportunities to grow.
Our second most memorable topic: Digital, digital, digital. We as an industry like to talk about who “owns” digital. But it’s important to bear in mind that digital isn’t just one thing unto itself, but part of the bigger organizational picture. Many firms started out with a digital group or practice, and they now say that everyone has to be digitally savvy. Instead, introduce to the mix people with completely different skills and backgrounds, and layer a digital component on it? Think how expansive your program could be!
Third, we talked about storytelling. Not just any storytelling—visual storytelling. People think of public relations professionals as good storytellers, but in today’s image saturated world, visual expression counts. Faced with competition in advertising and other disciplines, we can do a better job at communicating complex ideas in simple images and icons. As we mentioned in a previous blog posting, very few PR firms win a PR Lion at the Cannes Creativity Festival. That has to change: fewer words—more visuals.
What about dealing with clients? Our fourth “aha” moment came when we agreed that effective PR firm managers don’t just “sell” – they listen. A lot of times, people go into a presentation simply trying to sell their ideas. Big mistake: By listening to the client and really understanding their needs, you can provide solutions that are more on target. Even better, your clients will own the ideas with you—and will thus prove more committed to seeing them through. Don’t merely listen with the intent of pursuing your own self-interest; listen with the intent of being of service to someone else. You don’t need to work so hard to convince others if you spend more time empathizing with their needs.
Our fifth “aha” brings us to the nuts and bolts of running a business—in other words, operations. Don’t wait too long to bring in much needed operations support. Small, revenue-minded firms often think they should keep hiring account people as they’re building their firm, when in fact they really need ancillary, support people to set up an operational structure that supports growth. If you’re an owner or account manager, you’re likely not an expert at HR or finance. Would you bring in a plumber to do electrical work, or a dentist to treat your bum knee? Find the right people for support tasks—and don’t be scared off by the fact that they aren’t bringing in revenue.
A sixth and final “aha” moment returned us back to where we started—innovation. Think of an innovative idea you had. When and where did you have it? Most people have ideas when they’re doing something completely different and unrelated—hiking, in the shower, taking care of their kids, unplugged from their blackberries. Take time out to put yourself in the position to have breakout ideas. Physiologically, by being accessible and plugged in all the time, we’re not giving our bodies time to regenerate. You might be on a beach, but if you’re thinking about a problem back in the office, then your body is still responding to a perception of stress. The next time you’re away from your desk but obsessing about work, think about this: You had the event—but did you have the experience?
Our workshop tried to open participants’ minds to new ways of thinking about their growing firms, to give them new tools, and to introduce them to some new people who could help. If you have any new tools or ideas that enterprising owners of mid-sized PR firms should know about, please send us a comment!
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