Building Firm Value with Thought Leadership

by Braden Kelley

Building Firm Value with Thought LeadershipConsulting firms sell expertise, and their currency is trust. Large consultancies like Boston Consulting Group, Bain, McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture and others make their money from being a trusted advisor to companies around the world. Why do companies trust them?

One reason is that companies always value an external perspective, and there is a large army of alumni from these firms in organizations around the world guiding their leadership to choose their former employer as that external perspective or that extra pair of hands needed in tackling a large strategic challenge.

But there are also several other considerations that factor into an organizations choice of a trusted advisor, including:

  1. Previous experience
  2. Industry expertise
  3. Area of practice specialty (Strategy, HR, Innovation, Finance, M&A, Technology, etc.)
  4. Personal relationships
  5. Thought leadership

The resulting client work creates staffing plans within consultancies to provide billable hours for project execution. And, while most consulting firms spring to life and find early success because of the strength of their thought leadership, in general, over time most consulting firms tend to under-invest in thought leadership and as a consequence they find themselves vulnerable to new entrants nibbling around the edges of their core business and see their growth slow and eventually turn negative. Thought leadership generates the initial creation and success of the firm and leads to millions of dollars, or potentially even billions of dollars, of revenue for the consulting firm, but despite this fact, most consultancies under-invest in thought leadership.

Part of the reason for the inevitable decline in the firm’s thought leadership investments occurs because thought leadership is rarely anyone’s primary focus inside most consulting firms. Thought leadership is usually seen as the responsibility of the partners and principals of the firm AFTER they meet their revenue goals. How frequently are these people likely to have the time or energy to create the kind of quality and revolutionary thought leadership that leads to the sustaining or expansionary growth that every firm desires?

What we end up with is a level of thought leadership inside most firms that in the best case leads to a maintenance of the firm’s existing business, and in the worst case either no new thought leadership is created, or that which is created, is insufficient to maintain the firm’s current level of business.

A successful partner in most firms keeps their people busy and possibly creates some growth in billable hours for the firm, but rarely will you find that partners are able to create thought leadership capable of creating whole new lines of business. Not through any fault of their own, but because they simply don’t have the time to do it all.

To make things worse, the world is changing…

It used to be that information was scarce and external knowledge was valued by the client.

Now information is freely available and knowledge can thus be created within the client.

An increasing number of companies are therefore relying on their employees to educate themselves, while also creating their own internal consultancies, and relying less on external consultancies as a result.

At the same time, companies are becoming less open to being sold consulting services and instead more focused on becoming buyers of consulting services. And where do companies turn when they seek to be educated buyers of consulting services?

To the thought leadership they can find online from the different consulting firms in their consideration set. This is part of the reason for the rising importance of inbound marketing and content marketing as part of the marketing mix in all industries, but consulting firms are struggling to identify and provide the content necessary to help them maintain (and possibly extend) their success in this new environment.

And, even with all of these changes, most traditional consulting firms still hire traditional consultants and fail to hire people with established social media visibility, great content creation skills, the ability to get published, and the ability to help traditional consultants create both sustaining and revolutionary thought leadership. Firms are still hiring round pegs for their round holes to generate thousands of dollars a year in revenue and ignoring the square pegs with these skills that could generate millions of dollars in new revenue per year for the firm.

Marketing and advertising agencies operate in a similar client-firm ecosystem, but their value proposition is more tilted towards selling creativity and execution. In these industries we’ve seen huge consolidation driven by the need to acquire the new thought leadership, creativity and execution necessary to keep their existing clients, and we’re starting to see the same dynamics in the business consulting market.

The value of thought leadership and employees capable of creating and facilitating the execution of a great content marketing strategy driven by thought leadership, cannot be underestimated.

If anyone doubts the value boost of a thought leader to a firm, even outside the consulting market, ask yourself:

How much did Steve Jobs add to the value of Apple?

How much value did Jack Welch add to the value of GE?

How much value does Elon Musk bring to Tesla Motors?

Great thought leaders and thought leadership add a tremendous amount of value to the brand equity and the value of the firm, so why don’t consulting firms pay more attention to attracting or cultivating great internal thought leaders and thought leadership facilitators within their firms?

How much is a thought leader worth to you?

Do you need one?

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Braden KelleyBraden Kelley is a popular innovation speaker, builds sustainable innovation cultures, and tools for creating successful change. He is the author of the five-star book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire and the creator of a revolutionary new Change Planning Toolkit™ coming soon. Follow him on Twitter (@innovate) and Linkedin.

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