Sep 13 2007

Guns for Hire

Make enthusiasm your competitive advantage.
David Maister
David Maister
Management Consultant

On many occasions, I’ve seen my clients (advertising agencies, investment banks, law firms, consultants, accountants and all the others) clearly working for people they neither respect nor trust. In all professions, it seems, many providers feel they have to be guns for hire. Many individuals inside firms feel an overwhelming pressure to go along with strategies they don’t approve of, projects that are ineffective and even things that stray close to the line of illegality.

Staying the Course

Yet, I don’t see many walk away from their paying customers because they don’t like what those customers are doing. Most tell me they would make different choices if they were working solo.

And I believe them. It’s been my observation that solo advisers do impose their own standards of whom they want to work for. They can afford to be selective, working for clients they like personally and whose projects they can wholeheartedly serve.

But often, as soon as these folks join a company full time, they sacrifice the selective criteria of taste and, sometimes, pragmatics. I’ve been told over and over again that organizations cannot afford to be selective. Public or private, they feel they are under immense pressure to grow and cannot turn away business. But notice, solo operators are in business, too. It’s not being in business that drives you to compromise; it’s being in an organization.

In the information technology field in particular, professionals often work as contractors, independent consultants, service providers and full-time employees at different times during their careers. Each position offers benefits and trade-offs in terms of salary, skills development, personal fulfillment and compromises. And in each case, IT professionals are asked to work on projects that aren’t the best investment of the company’s or the individual’s resources.

It is not only possible but also “real world” that you can establish an organization that has a clear philosophy of focusing on projects that are truly effective. I included hints of this in my book, Practice What You Preach. Some companies made extra profits by keeping their people enthused and excited in large part by refusing to work for unexciting clients. Can’t the excitement (noncynicism) of what we do be a competitive strategy?

Everyone talks about the shortage of talent and the need to attract and motivate the best and the brightest. Isn’t this topic related to that in more than a minor way?

When a company slips into the “poor me, I have to prostitute myself to make money” mindset, it opens the floodgates to many other forms of “just get it done” behavior. That’s why the most successful companies have goals in addition to (not instead of) money. They don’t say, “Let’s get rich.” They say, “Let’s get rich doing meaningful, important work for a cause and a group of clients we care about and believe in.”

My proposition is that those who have the guts to live this way make more money, not less. It’s the difference between building a company that represents the Marines versus one that represents the best mercenaries.

Try this mental exercise: Imagine that you make a promise to yourself to work only on projects that you find exciting and for clients that you care about. Do you think clients will notice? Do you think they notice if you come to work (or to market) with the opposite point of view? (Pay me, and I’ll do it — just don’t expect me to care.) Which mental attitude will win you more projects? Which will get you hired, rehired and referred to others? Which will give you access to the most exciting projects? Which will make you richer? I know which I choose.

David Maister is a professional services and management consultant with clients around the world, and the author of several books. His Web site, which contains a lot of free content, is www.davidmaister.com.