As a former AmLaw 100 Chief Marketing Officer and someone who has worked with a number of AmLaw 200 CMOs over the years, I truly appreciate the challenges of the position. I have had numerous CMOs ask me for guidance over the years, and when they share what issues they’re facing, a new one is rarely mentioned.
The issues that I confronted a dozen years ago when I became a CMO for the first time are very much the same issues that my CMO brothers and sisters face today. Irrespective of whether you’ve had decades of experience or not, the job is tough. Well, the job is relatively easy, but ensuring that your team members get all the credit and your firm hits its success metrics, while maintaining your visibility and growing your perceived value, remains very much a challenge to even the most seasoned professionals.
As a result, although the average has gone up slightly in recent years, compared with CMOs in “real businesses,” the half-life of a law firm CMO or a Director of Marketing & Business Development is still far shorter than it should be. The objective of this article is to offer some tips on how to identify the “quicksand” and how best to navigate around, over, or even through it.
When I left Ernst & Young to become CMO at an AmLaw 100 firm, I didn’t even understand what an AmLaw 100 firm meant, let alone how challenging my new role would be. That said, at that time, I had about 20 years of professional services experience that included consulting and, of course, accounting. Certainly, my years of experience and thorough sales, marketing, operations and leadership training would easily get me through the powder-puff gauntlet of a law firm, right? After all, I had been around the block; I had worked with nearly every personality type across a variety of geographies that included Southern California and the antithetical New York City.
Well, I quickly found out that I had little experience with the socially averse, autocratic, entrepreneurial professionals who trust few others and are really good at arguing a point; aka lawyers. This truly was a new experience for me. I had never worked with a group of people who collectively preferred lone-wolf activity over team play, and who didn’t appreciate a good process or two now and again. The good news is that only the first 10 years were a challenge. In all seriousness, it took a fair amount of “getting it wrong” before I began to get it right. I wish I had put my stubbornness aside and had hired an outside adviser who had “been there before,” but I didn’t.
So, if you are a CMO or a Director of Marketing and Business Development at a law firm and you can relate, this article was written with you in mind. The following are some of the quicksand areas where I and, subsequently, my CMO/Director of BD/Marketing clients, have encountered trouble or a dead end and some high-level tips that I offer to overcome them. In no particular order, the top five issues that my clients routinely ask me to help them with follow:
Issue 1: My Program Lacks Traction
This is a bit of a catch-all bucket, but I suspect that many of you can relate to this one. In most cases, the primary reason that the Marketing/BD function can’t get traction is because the firm doesn’t have a strategic plan in which firm priorities are identified. Since firm priorities impact Marketing/BD resource allocation and are designed to drive Marketing/BD activity, the absence of them typically results in the marketing department spinning its wheels while still remaining “very busy.”
Tip: Establish Your Own Priorities
Trust your experience. What made you successful will likely make your team and your firm successful. We know that marketing and business development isn’t magic. Request data from the Finance/Accounting Department to help you identify areas of emphasis.
Create a go-to-market plan. Put your thoughts and proposed priorities in a well-thought out marketing and business development plan. The lawyers may not ask you to present the entire plan, but will be impressed that you have one. More importantly, the perception will be that you have things under control.
Keep it simple. Lawyers are focused on being lawyers. The issues that you’re dealing with are typically just noise to them. Resist the urge to demonstrate how smart you are by over-complicating the issues/solutions and how strategic you can be (you can impress your team with that stuff.)
Get buy-in. Once you have your ducks in a row, share the proposed priorities in an Executive Summary with firm leadership. Giving them priority choices, rather than starting with a blank piece of paper will keep the ball moving forward.
Align your resources and share the priorities. Once you have buy-in, it’s time to align the resources, shoring up any gaps, and communicating the priorities to the team and lawyer community.
Issue 2: Our Client Team Program Isn’t As Successful as I’d Like It to Be
When I ask my clients about how many client teams the firm has, the answer is typically in the double digits. When I drill down and ask how many of the client teams are operating at an acceptable level, that number quickly approaches a low, single-digit prime number.
Tip: Have a Process and Stick to It
Nearly everyone who writes about client teams says assembling the right teams is key. My experience is that selecting the wrong team is more difficult than choosing a “right” one, if you apply the right process. However, having a process that makes the team members focus on the client company’s issues and relationships with key individuals is of critical importance to the success of these teams. Simply putting a Relationship Map and an “Action Plan” together, as most firms do, will not help your teams perform at their highest level.
Issue 3: Our Industry Team Program Isn’t As Successful As I’d Like It to Be
Tip: Be Deliberate When Selecting the Team Leader
Data from Finance/Accounting can easily help you select the proper industry team or teams for the firm. However, the key to a great industry team is having the right team leader. The characteristics that you should look for in a team leader have been written about over and over again in publication after publication, but few emphasize the importance of this key decision. I won’t go into the ideal characteristics of the team leader, but keep in mind that it’s better not to have a team than to have a team that is led by someone whose appointment to the leadership role was simply political in nature. Finally, use metrics other than simply “increased revenue” to measure the success of this program.
Issue 4: A Member Of My Team Has a Recurring Performance Issue
Tip: Write Them Up and Be Prepared to Ship Them Out
In all of my years of experience, I can only recall one situation where rehabilitation was a success. It was an unusual circumstance, for sure. Your time is limited and valuable. You should spend the majority of your time-solving problems for your stars, rather than listening to excuses from your sub-performers.
Remember what they say about “One bad apple”? Well, it’s true.
Issue 5: My Department Is Overwhelmed with Requests
Tip: Just Say ‘No!’
Well, we all know that it’s not that easy. However, if you establish priorities and ensure that your team’s job titles reflect what the people actually do, you can more confidently say no more often. Saying no is a tricky proposition unto itself, of course. I always encourage taking ownership, even if it’s a “not my job” situation. Taking ownership of the solution doesn’t necessarily mean solving the problem, but, rather, means ensuring that the resource that can solve the problem is found, the proper handoff is made, then follow-up occurs to ensure that the issue has been resolved to the satisfaction of the person making the request. It’s called client service. Each team member should be reminded that we’re in the client service business and we should be darn good at it.
Well, that’s about it for now. I hope you found these suggestions to be helpful. If all else fails, ask for help! There are a number of former Chief Marketing Officers like me in the consulting space who have been there before and would be delighted to help you through any of the issues that are most pressing for you. Keep moving forward!
Bruce Alltop, a member of this newsletter’s Board of Editors, is a Principal at LawVision Group LLC, Boston. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.