After I sold off my interest in my last company I decided to head for Scotland to pursue PhD research into social and political systems. It turned out to be a very productive break – clearing my mind of all focus on business for just over four years. Upon my return, I faced the proverbial ‘clean slate’ challenge. ‘What was i going to do now?’
After a bit of wandering around, I decided that, until the next idea hit me, I would help other CEOs build their companies. The experience has been both uplifting and frustrating. Somehow the faults of others seem to grate more than your own – and, even through the CEOs I was working with had their share of them, they also had more than their share of strengths. It was a while before I came to see my role as magnifying those strengths rather than highlighting the weaknesses. The truth is that the latter is easier – any fool can be a critic – and often a lot more fun. But it is fun at the expense of the client and not very productive in the long run.
A turning point came when I sat down to write my book on Advisory Boards as business development engines. The core concepts for this approach were developed through my third company and I had employed them consistently in the ones that followed. I decided to write the book in a conversational tone – and that put me in a proactively positive frame of mind.
The tallest person on the team: After the book was published, I began to use it on some of my engagements – particularly those that involved designing and building advisory boards. It was not long before I came to a realization – most CEOs have had little experience in building productive relationships with very senior people. Sure, the had acquaintances like that, but these relationships never seemed to develop to the point where the senior person was willing to act as an aggressive advocate for either the CEO or the company. For a while I was confused by this – probably because I was very lucky during my time on Wall Street and during the decade that followed. Living in Manhattan for eighteen years brought me into contact with a steady stream of interesting and powerful people. I got used to dealing with them – developing relationships – and setting expectations. The latter, I decided, was the real key.
Two sides of the coin: As a result of this realization, I changed my approach to working with CEOs and their companies. Designing, building and managing the boards was no enough. There was another journey that had to be made. The tallest person on the team had to become comfortable letting even taller people join.
The first result was a re-write of Amazing Pace. Once I realized that there had to be work along parallel tracks, my understanding of the process deepened. I had to help the team members learn to deal productively and professionally with others who had successfully done what the team was looking to do – often for the first time. As the board was being prepared for the company, the company had to be prepared for the board. That may sound very simple but, believe me, it is a very complex idea.
Two journeys with a common destination: It became clear to me that both of these efforts – to build the advisory board and get the team ready to deal with it – had to be coordinated. If one failed or came up short, the benefits from the other would be significantly diluted. But – and here is the rub – what if the people on the team are not cut out for dealing with such a board. That single idea lead me to add a chapter to Amazing Pace. Battle at the Cottage Gate focuses on the kinds of changes that have to be made when preparing a company for having an Advisory Board like the ones I build. The oft quoted maxim – the people who got you here are not always the ones who will take you where you want to go next’ comes to mind.
Relevance: So what has this got to do with government contracting? Well, here is the link – all government contracting involves relationships that have to be managed. These relationships are often between un-equals. By far the most potent way to advance them is by bringing in a senior advocate. Learning how to do that is a very valuable skill. Remember, it is often not your technology that gets you the business. People tend to do business with people they know, like and trust. The back story of Amazing Pace is how to develop and maintain those relationships.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II