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The Power of Mentoring

Mentoring is a powerful tool to better your organization, improve the lives of your employees, and increase the satisfaction of your customers.  Are you leveraging this tool, or is it still lying neglected in your business toolbox?

The Case For Mentoring

When you think back on your first professional experience, what emotions are evoked?  Do you fondly remember the excitement of finally transitioning from student life to career, or do you think back with dread and anxiety?

I strongly suspect that your emotional response is tied to the attention you were given as a new employee.  To remain competitive in a difficult marketplace, professional services firms continue to try to take on more work with fewer employees.  This means that new employees are expected to be productive almost immediately, with little time for more than very basic new employee orientation and unstructured browsing of corporate materials accessible through the corporate intranet.

While this approach may result in more consultants working sooner on customer engagements, it can be very detrimental to a new team member’s initial impression of the firm and to the quality of the team member’s early deliverables to customers. Some of the latter can be mitigated through project quality control measures and project management oversight, but project managers are time starved as well and as likely as not to pass deliverables of sub-standard quality along to customers.  The end result is rework, unhappy team members and project managers, and most importantly, lower customer satisfaction.

Today’s microwave world has conditioned us to want everything now; certainly this is not the best way to build a consistently high performing team.  Perhaps there is no way to allocate more time to employee development, due to project deadlines and other pressing business demands.  Still, you have a powerful and often neglected weapon at your disposal to help you maximize your team’s potential in this high pressure environment — mentoring.

Sometimes mentoring happens because a well-intentioned veteran decides to take a new recruit under his wings. Sometimes it happens by happenstance when an experienced team member needs help to get things done. What I am advocating is an intentional, long-term commitment to a culture of mentoring. When I say intentional, I mean that a formal program is put in place for mentoring not only at the entry level, but at all levels within the organization.

The Benefits of Mentoring

An effective mentoring program delivers significant benefits to all of the various stakeholders.1  Mentorees can learn from their mentor’s experiences, and learn less from making their own mistakes.  This can lead to faster ramp-up time, higher initial quality of work, and increased confidence.  Mentors can also provide career advice that builds on observed strengths, identify and facilitate professional development opportunities, and act as an advocate to increase visibility within the company.

Mentors also stand to benefit.  At a minimum, the mentor is rewarded with the satisfaction of taking a direct part in the professional growth and success of another person. The mentor is typically viewed as an expert and valued for their experience. Displaying genuine interest in the professional well-being of a less experienced colleague often results in a lifelong loyalty to the mentor. Once a trusted relationship has been formed, the mentor may even be able to rely on the mentoree as a stand-in while away from the office on vacation, business travel, etc.  Of course, the mentor may also learn a thing or two from the mentoree as well!

The intangible benefits to a business include improved morale and motivation and increased retention of top talent.  Corporate knowledge is better retained and less likely to walk out the door due to staff turnover — both because that knowledge is being handed down from mentor to mentoree, and because increased retention rates mean fewer staff are actually walking out the door.2 Customers will receive more value, more quickly from their interactions with project staff who have a mentor guiding them.

Making Mentoring Work

For a formal mentoring program to succeed, it must have executive buy-in, and to gain executive buy-in there must be tangible benefits (i.e., benefits that affect the top line / bottom line of the business). I assume that you are already measuring organizational and project performance; as is commonly stated about any process improvement effort, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.  (If you do not have a metrics program in place, I urge you to establish one before implementing a mentoring or any other significant corporate program.)  Your current performance against appropriate metrics will serve as a baseline for measuring the effectiveness of your formal mentoring program.

Many of the benefits mentioned above can be quantified and measured.  Improvement of the quality of work from new employees can be measured using existing project quality metrics.  Customer satisfaction can be measured in terms of customer satisfaction surveys, repeat work, and creation of reference customers.  Workforce well-being can also be measured through surveys and employee retention rates.

Finally, mentoring should not just be for less experienced employees. In fact, in a culture of mentoring, everyone would both have a mentor and be a mentor (with the exception of employees who are too new to the organization or the industry to effectively mentor yet).3 CEOs and senior executives may need to look outside of their own organization to find a suitable mentor, but the value is still there and perhaps even more so than ever before in their careers. They should find someone who has been where they are today — former CEOs, leaders of larger companies or perhaps an admired leader in a completely different industry.  Even Jack Welch and Warren Buffett have others from whom they are learning, although Jack and Warren may prefer to call them “advisors”.

Mentoring is a powerful weapon for organizations that choose to use it.  Remember, mentoring is a long-term endeavor — take it slowly and intentionally, and be committed to making it stick.  Identify a small team who can pilot the concept, demonstrate the benefits to gain executive buy-in, and then act as catalysts for the rest of the organization to follow suit. Realize that business is a part of life, and investing in people at work is enriching their entire lives, lowering stress at home as less stress is brought home from work. Believe in the power of mentoring and watch your business and its people flourish!


  1. See “Benefits of Mentoring” for an example list of general benefits.  My list is tailored more to professional services and other project-based organizations.
  2.  The Delphi Group estimates that a whopping 75% of knowledge is tacit or experiential, and that 42% of corporate knowledge exists only within it’s employees minds. Passing knowledge, especially tacit knowledge, from mentor to mentoree is similar to storytelling as a mode of preserving historical accounts prior to the existence of written word.
  3. The Businessweek article “Mentors Make a Business Better” provides a good example of how a seasoned professional was able to benefit from mentoring.

Elephant Leaders are Courageous

Are you comfortable in your role as a leader?  Are you content, is your business on cruise control?  This is a dangerous place to be, my friend. Contentment in leadership is the enemy of excellence, and the friend of mediocrity. True leaders are uncomfortable. Confident? Yes. Focused? Yes. But uncomfortable, because they have a vision that has not yet been reached.  Uncomfortable because they know that they can better serve their customers, improve their services, and get more out of their teams. True leaders embrace this discomfort, this discontent.  It motivates them. It is a reminder of who and where they are, a reminder that they have a purpose.

In order to fulfill your purpose as a leader in this environment of discomfort, you must have courage, that rare quality that is the hallmark of true leadership:

  • Courage to be Visionary. Without a vision, there is no sense of direction, nothing on which to focus. As a leader, you must have the courage to cast a vision and then to single-mindedly work towards that vision. Others will only buy into a vision after they are convinced that you as their leader is committed to the vision.
  • Courage to Innovate. In Dealing With Darwin, Geoffrey Moore argues that lack of innovation leads to commoditization. Commoditization in turn leads to competing on price alone, which is not a good place to be as a business.  With innovation, businesses are able to differentiate and then to compete based on that differentiation. Because the marketplace is continually evolving, innovation is a continuous process.  You must have courage to overcome the inertia of what works for your business today, and look for the next innovation that will further differentiate you from your competition.  I guarantee you that your competitors are not standing still!
  • Courage to Act. Once you have cast a vision, you must be committed to making the tough decisions required to realize that vision.  More importantly, you must be willing to act on those decisions and take responsibility for their consequences, good or bad. If you do not follow through on your decisions, you will eventually lose credibility with others.
  • Moral Courage. As a leader, you must have the courage to stand for what you believe, for what you know is right.  You must have the conviction to do this even when you stand alone.  Are you even willing to put your job on the line if necessary to preserve your moral integrity?  If not, then perhaps you shouldn’t be leading. In time you won’t be leading, because if you lack moral courage others will soon lose faith in you as a leader.
  • Courage to Fail. Quite often leaders do not execute on decisions because they are afraid of failure. The truth is that failure is inevitable, and necessary for an organization to learn. The best organizations learn from the failures of others and fail faster themselves in order to minimize the cost of learning from those failures.  Not only should you expect failure, but you should also create a culture where failure is accepted.  Removing the fear of failure from an organization encourages employees to openly communicate those failures (rather than hiding them to avoid punishment), which in turn facilitates the learning process.
  • Courage to be Transparent. You must have the courage to admit when you are wrong. I am not talking about failure here, I am talking about making a decision based on wrong motives, failing to give credit where credit is due, or misleading others with half truths. Leaders make mistakes of judgment, motive, and omission just like everyone else.  Hopefully, you as a leader have learned from the mistakes of your past and make fewer of them today.  At the very least, you should be constantly on guard against these kinds of mistakes and transparent about them when they happen. If not, you will eventually lose the trust of others.

Elephant leaders are courageous. They must be because, quite frankly, it takes courage to lead.  Courage is what sets true leaders apart from those who simply happen to fill leadership positions. Many, perhaps even most, people in leadership positions are not willing to step out of their comfort zone to make unpopular decisions, to stand against the majority because of what they know is right.  They choose comfort over courage because leading with courage is hard. What they may not realize is that they are also choosing mediocrity over excellence; over time, mediocrity results in failure.

In this microwave world of instant gratification, in this relativistic world of doing what “feels” best, we need more courageous leaders.  Courage is required for travel on the path to excellence. I challenge you to honestly assess your own leadership, and commit yourself to leading courageously.

Lean for Services: An Interview With Jon Wetzel

Brian: Today I’m speaking with Jon Wetzel, Vice President of Operations at AdeptBio and Lean evangelist blogging at Lean For Everyone.  Jon, welcome to Professional Services Leadership!

Jon: Thanks for having me here Brian.

Brian: Last year while I was at LabVantage, I blogged about our lunch together.  We only touched briefly on Lean during that lunch conversation, but I promised my readers that we would get back together and talk about your passion for Lean.  Well, I guess this is it!

Jon: That’s right. Before I learned about Lean I thought that I knew how to create and manage a process and that our team’s work was very efficient.  What I learned is that bad processes beat good people every time.  In reality we spent much of our time managing our processes, workarounds and inventory levels as opposed servicing our clients.  Lean taught me how to convert all of that time managing our work into time spent creating value for our customers.

Brian: Sounds compelling, but let’s back up a bit for those who aren’t familiar with Lean.  What is it, and why is it important?

Jon: Lean is the culture of identifying and eliminating waste while listening to what the customer really wants.  Examples of waste in a process are un-necessary paperwork or the time work sits on your desk waiting for you to get to it.  Lean helps hone your mindset on what “waste” is and also gives you the tools to get rid of it.

To me, Lean’s greatest benefit is improving people and giving them not just the tools to solve problems, but also the know-how and authority to do it.  When you have a Lean culture everybody works more efficiently because it becomes engrained in their everyday life.  I practice Lean just as much outside the workplace as inside.

Brian:  Lean was originally a set of metrics and tools used to optimize manufacturing processes.  But Lean can also be applied to services.  Are there any special considerations when Lean is applied to services?

Jon:  Compared to a manufacturing process, the service process is usually an ad-hoc set of steps that were strung together in sequence by the first employees doing it.  Later hires change the process slightly to suit their personal habits.  The result is that there is no standard process.   A service process that hasn’t been “Leaned” is fertile ground for improvement.

When you apply Lean to a service you have an entirely new variable to contend with.  It’s called human perception.  Getting “buy in” from the team is paramount.  In Japanese this is called “Nemawashi” which roughly translates to laying the “groundwork”.  If the team doesn’t believe in Lean, then you will not succeed in implementing it.

What I like to do is to pick a small process and start with a “current process map”.  Most service-based systems are ad-hoc or organic processes that just evolved overtime.  More interestingly the people involved in the process don’t know what or how other group members do their jobs.  The most common answer is “I don’t know….but I know this works for me”.

This is the discovery step that makes the process visible.  All the communications, handoffs and deliverables are on one process map and everyone can see it.  What instinctively happens next is that people see how wasteful some of the steps are and they immediately want to fix it.

Now I have “buy-in”.  Now everyone can see the benefits of a “process map”, and I can start to implement change in a Lean fashion.

Brian:  Do you have an example from your own experiences of a Lean services project?

Jon:  I love accounts receivables.  It’s the most overlooked part of any business; however, it goes to the heart of a company’s cash flow.  Usually, everyone is so focused on completing projects for their clients that what gets forgotten about is invoicing for the service itself.

I went thru a two hour exercise with a controller and his entire team involved in invoicing and accounts receivables.  After creating the “current state map”, we noted that there were several process steps that were batched on a weekly or sometimes monthly basis.  Some of these steps were out of sync with each other, adding weeks onto the invoicing process.

In short, before we started optimizing, the DSO (Days Sales Outstanding) was in the 85 day range.  Within two weeks we dropped that to 50 days, simply by applying some minor improvements. Within one month it was down to 35 days.

We made a number of changes to achieve this time reduction, many of them quite obvious once we saw the process on paper.  For instance, we began invoicing on the same day as shipment, as opposed to once a week on Friday.  This cut 4-5 days out of the process.  We began to invoice by fax or e-mail instead of regular mail, saving 2-3 days per invoice.  The most significant change was that we began to run an invoice aging report on a daily basis and followed up on the results immediately. This report had previously been run only monthly; running it daily cut a full 20-30 days out of the process!

Brian:  That’s a fantastic case study for Lean.  I’m sure there are countless processes in any services business that can benefit from close scrutiny and the application of Lean.  What resources exist out there for a newbie to become familiar with Lean?

Jon:  Most obvious will be my shameless plug for my blog Lean For Everyone, where I like to talk about everyday Lean…things you can do in your home life to make it easier.  I’ve learned that by practicing Lean outside of the workplace, you get a greater sense of satisfaction because you reap 100% of the benefits.  This then makes you want to implement Lean in the workplace, and over time turns you into a Lean champion. Some other great blogs are Curious Cat by John Hunter, Shmula by Pete Abilla, Lean Blog by Mark Graban, and Startup Lessons Learned by Eric Ries.

Some of the best books I’ve read on Lean for services are “The Complete Lean Enterprise: Value Stream Mapping for Administrative and Office Processes” by Keyte and Locher and “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement” by Liker and Franz.  Also, if your company is in more of a startup or entrepreneurial phase, then you can’t miss with “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries.

Brian: I’ll put in a plug for one of my favorite books on Lean, “Lean Six Sigma for Service” by Michael George.  George does a great job of making the transition from Lean in manufacturing to applying it to services.

Well, it’s been an interesting discussion.  Jon, thanks for taking the time to share with us today!

Jon: Thanks for having me Brian!

Update 6/22/12: If you work in a laboratory, read my interview with Jon about applying Lean to the lab on the Informatics Insights blog!

Have you used Lean to optimize your business processes or the services you provide to your customers?  Do you help your customers to optimize their services using Lean?  Leave a comment and share your experiences!


Elephant Leaders Lead By Example


A leader who fails to lead by example soon finds himself leading no one.  Elephant leaders grow in influence and inspire others to follow by the example they set.


Always do everything you ask of those you command.
— George S. Patton


I recently introduced elephant matriarchs as a good example of natural leaders.  They are respected by the herd for their long history of good decision-making and compassion for others. They exhibit courage, wisdom, and excellent work ethic. These are all admirable and important attributes, but the defining characteristic of a leader is influence.  As John Maxwell so aptly states in his book Developing the Leader Within You, “Leadership Is Influence: Nothing More, Nothing Less.”  Influence, however, is an earned attribute. It is not something innate within a person, nor can it be learned; it can only be amplified over time as one consistently demonstrates leadership to others.

Essential to gaining influence is leading by example. A leader who fails to lead by example soon finds himself leading no one. Potential followers will interpret the lack of action as a lack of commitment and look elsewhere for the leadership they need.

American WWII general George Patton’s convictions about leading by example are reflected in the quote above.  Another important WWII general was Douglas MacArthur, who penned The MacArthur Tenets of Leadership outlining the principles by which he led. Among those tenets are principles whereby he acknowledges the importance of leading by example:

  • Am I a constant example to my subordinates in character, dress, deportment and courtesy?
  • Do I act in such a way as to make my subordinates WANT to follow me?

As a military general, MacArthur understood that he had to “lead from the front”.  In order to be followed, he had to set an example that inspired his men to follow, that built trust.  He understood that if he simply directed the battle from behind the lines, his troops would not have his courageous and confident example to follow, with potentially disastrous results.

Like good military generals or elephant matriarchs, leaders in professional services must build trust and influence by constantly offering themselves as examples for their teams and organizatons.  If a project requires that team members work a weekend, the leader must make himself or herself available over the weekend as well, in support of that project team.  If goals or self reviews are due from team members on a certain date, the leader must make certain that their own goals and self review is also completed by the appropriate date.  This is leadership that inspires those that follow and creates influence, which in turn enables the leader to better lead.

Do you recall an example where you or another leader did something demonstrable that increased their influence and inspired others to follow? How about an instance where someone’s influence was damaged by their failure to lead by example?  Leave a comment and share your experiences!

Discovering Hidden Capacity: An Interview with Chris Vandersluis

This month I introduced the Triple Constraint of PSO Profitability.  The triple constraint states that revenue growth rate, delivery cost, and service quality are interrelated variables that impact the profitability of your professional services business.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Chris Vandersluis, CEO of HMS Software, publishers of TimeControl timesheet software. Chris has nearly three decades of experience in enterprise time and project management, and was willing to share some of the ways his customers have found to free up existing project resources by capturing and then mining non-project time to find and eliminate unnecessary activities.  Referring back to the triple constraint of PSO profitability, they are finding ways to increase their revenue growth rate (and therefore profitability) without increasing delivery costs, by focusing project resources on activities that directly grow their business.  And as you will hear, the cost savings or revenue acceleration achieved can be quite significant!

Listen to Interview with Chris Vandersluis


Chris also blogs on enterprise project management.  You can follow him at


Driving Professional Services Growth

Want to drive the value of your professional services business?  Understand and then intentionally manage the triple constraint of PSO profitability.

Professional services leaders are constantly being challenged to deliver more with less, to provide more services to more customers with fewer resources, all the while maintaining the quality of those services.  Savvy customers have further complicated this seemingly impossible task by requiring prototypes or workshops prior to the services sale, demanding specific resources for their projects, and inserting procurement professionals to aggressively negotiate pricing.1

The Triple Constraint of PSO Profitability

The key to driving services growth in the face of these ever increasing challenges is to understand and intentionally manage the triple constraint of PSO profitability.  The concept of a triple constraint was introduced in project management, and simply states that a change in any one of the scope, budget or schedule of a project will impact the other two — they are intimately interrelated.2 In his book Building Professional Services: The Sirens’ Song, Thomas Lah proposes the “Iron Triangle of PS Profitability”, wherein the three interdependent variables for professional services organizations are revenue, references, and repeatability.  Lah suggests that the way to drive professional services growth is to focus on these three factors, where revenue and references impact the top line of the business and repeatability impacts the bottom line.

The Triple Constraint of PSO Profitability

The triple constraint of PSO profitability is analogous to the triple constraint for project management. It is essentially the same triple constraint, but applied to the larger professional services organization instead of to a single project.  Time is replaced by revenue rate3, budget by delivery cost, and scope by service qualityA sustained increase in profitability only occurs when the revenue rate is increased and/or the cost of services delivery is decreased without adversely impacting quality of service.

Profit Levers: References and Repeatability

So how do we meet the demands of delivering more with less, without sacrificing quality and our sanity?  Here is where references and repeatability come into play.  Building and maintaining a solid list of reference customers will tangibly help you to navigate an increasingly complex services sales cycle.  References reflect your quality of service and help to drive your revenue rate. The triple constraint, however, says that in order to realize increased profits from this uptick in revenue rate, you must minimize any increase in delivery costs required to satisfy the additional demand.  Repeatability — offering pre-defined services and pre-configured solutions (reusable IP) — can be used to minimize or even reduce your delivery costs.  In addition to lowering delivery costs, repeat services and pre-configured solutions also reduce the risk and increase the quality of service delivery by eliminating the learning mistakes inherent in custom services.  Repeat services and pre-configured solutions can themselves drive your revenue rate, as they typically result in shorter delivery time frames compared to custom services.

Lah’s iron triangle of PSO profitability, or the triple constraint of PSO profitability presented here are complementary ways of thinking about the same challenges. So which works best for you?  If you’re a seasoned professional services leader who is already using the iron triangle to help manage your business, there’s no need to change.  If you’ve not been introduced to the iron triangle, and in particular if you come from a project management background, the triple constraint may make more sense to you.  In either case, it is critical to the success of your professional services business that you understand these constraints, and that your strategy and operational tactics are built to intentionally manage them.

  1. Winning the Professional Services Sale: Unconventional Strategies to Reach More Clients, Land Profitable Work, and Maintain Your Sanity by  Michael W. McLaughlin
  2. Some references interchange “quality” for “scope”, “cost” for “budget”, and “time” for “schedule”. In all cases the implications remain the same.
  3. The revenue rate is a measure of the growth of an organization’s revenue stream (measured month to month, quarter over same quarter previous year, year over year, etc.). According to the triple constraint, increasing the revenue rate without sacrificing quality of service would typically require an increase in delivery cost (i.e., more resources).

Charting Your Course: A Lesson From The Titanic


The world recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, one of the worst and certainly the most familiar maritime disasters of all time. The conclusions of the investigation into the sinking provide a valuable lesson for professional services leaders.

The sinking of the RMS Titanic is one of the most infamous tragedies in modern history, not only because the ship was considered in its day to be “unsinkable”, but more importantly because most experts today believe that its sinking was completely avoidable.  The Senate investigation into the Titanic1 concluded that one of the primary causes of the sinking and resultant loss of life was excessive speed.  The ship was going too fast, considering the iceberg warnings that had been issued in the area.

But why was the ship going so fast?  The 1997 blockbuster movie “Titanic” (currently re-released in 3D) includes a dialog between J. Bruce Ismay, the chair of the White Star Line to which the Titanic belonged and ship’s captain, Captain Edward John Smith2:

Ismay: So you’ve not yet lit the last four boilers?
Smith: No, I don’t see the need. We are making excellent time.
Ismay: The press knows the size of Titanic. Now I want them to marvel at her speed. We must give them something new to print! This maiden voyage of Titanic must make headlines!
Smith: Mr. Ismay, I would prefer not to push the engines until they’ve been properly run in.
Ismay: Of course, I’m just a passenger. I leave it to your good offices to decide what’s best. But what a glorious end to your final crossing if we were to get to New York on Tuesday night and surprise them all! Make the morning papers. Retire with a bang, eh E.J.?
Ismay: [Smith nods reluctantly] Good man.

There is no historic evidence that this conversation ever took place, but the question remains…why was Captain Smith pushing the Titanic so hard?  Perhaps he had been pressured to hasten the ship’s arrival into the port of New York, as the dialog above suggests.  Perhaps the iceberg warnings were ignored from overconfidence, because the ship was considered to be unsinkable. Or perhaps it was out of sheer negligence.  Whatever the reason, I believe that he would never have been moving at such speed had he understood the purpose of the Titanic and used that purpose to guide his decisions.

According to RMS Titanic, Inc., curators of the relics retrieved from the Titanic, one of the stated purposes of the Titanic was “To carry first-class passengers in great luxury, second-class passengers in great comfort and third-class passengers with great economy.”  The purpose was to provide an adventure in luxury for the passengers (in particular those in first class) far beyond anything they would have experienced on any other sailing vessel of their time.  The purpose was to be found in the journey, not in reaching the destination.  Any other trans-Atlantic steamer could have gotten them there — but none like the Titanic.  If Captain Smith had understood this, he likely would have gone slower, not faster!3

Charting Your Course as a Professional Services Organization

In the article “Who Do You Think You Are?”, I stress that service organizations within product-based companies must define their purpose in light of the objectives of that larger product-based business.  In “Defining the PS Charter”, professional services veteran Thomas Lah advocates the creation of a charter graph4 to help document this purpose.

To properly create a charter graph, agreement must be reached among key stakeholders on the importance of the following services objectives in helping to achieve corporate goals (somewhat paraphrased from Lah’s article):

  1. Services revenue
  2. Margin from services
  3. Customer satisfaction
  4. Driving company market share

I have found that the best way to gain consensus is to host a focus session.  The session should include the CEO (or GM/division VP, depending on the scope of the services organization) and leaders from various departments within the company such as sales, marketing, and product management.  The outcome of the session should be a forced ranking of these objectives according their importance in driving corporate performance.

Once this ranking has been done, a charter graph can be created.  The charter graph to the right is the work product from an actual session that I championed a few years back. While our focus group insisted on a slightly different rating system than Lah advocates (hence a scale from 0-5 instead of 1-4), the net effect is essentially the same.  The graph shows that the most important objective of our services organization was overall customer satisfaction, followed by driving market share.  Services revenue came in a distant third and margin from services ranked lowest.

This ranking is quite typical of a solution provider, that is, a services organization whose services are primarily offered in support of the underlying product (in our case enterprise software).  I would say this is typical of most services organizations within a product business.  Some notable exceptions are companies like IBM, whose services organizations (e.g., IBM Life Sciences, for instance) offer services to any prospective customer regardless of whether or not they are using IBM products.  IBM Life Sciences would in this context function more as a pure services business.5

So while it may be interesting to understand who we are as a services organization within a product-based company, what do we do with this new revelation?  The purpose of the charter graph is to help us to make better decisions.  Based on the charter graph above, we may decide to sacrifice some revenue (i.e., give away services) if we believe this would result in a referenceable customer for the product.  During annual planning, we may choose to set lower margin targets for services to give room for strategic use of services to help grow market share.  In a pure services business, these decisions would be made differently.

So the charter has been defined and documented through the charter graph, and decisions may now be made based on this charter.  The next step is to use it.  David Maister points out in his book “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” what he calls the “Knowing-Doing Gap”.  There is a gap between what we know we need to do and what we actually do. We may even know why we should do it and how to do it, yet we still struggle to do what we know we should do.  The “Knowing-Doing Gap” is a real danger for the charter graph as well.  We cannot create a charter graph, feel good that we’ve created it, and then file it away. What is critical at this point is that we integrate the charter graph into everyday decision-making.

To aid in this, we developed a charter statement — an elevator pitch, if you will — that was consistent with what our charter graph told us.  Ours went as follows:

“The charter for the services organization is to ensure that our existing customers are satisfied with our products (software, support, services) and to introduce new and existing customers to the capabilities of our product portfolio by offering solutions that meet their needs. The services function will be profitable, but not at the expense of customer satisfaction.”

We then created laminated wallet-sized cards that had the charter graph on one side and the charter statement on the other.  These were distributed not only to professional services staff and leadership, but also to the key stakeholders who were involved in the creation of the charter graph, and to other people within the company who were involved in making decisions regarding services.  These cards then served as a reference when critical decisions were being made. It was used to validate decisions made that were consistent with the charter, and to defend against decisions made that were not aligned with the charter.

A Charter Graph Card for Captain Smith

Let’s return to our case study from 1912.  I can imagine a similar focus group being assembled at White Star Line to discuss and agree to the charter of the Titanic.  Maybe instead of revenue, margin, customer satisfaction and market share, the objectives to be ranked would have included passenger experience and time to destination (speed), among others.  I’m nearly certain that the charter graph would have listed heavily towards passenger experience. Perhaps had Captain Smith pulled that charter graph card out of his pocket and reflected on it a moment, he would not have made the decision to move full steam ahead. Rather, he would have cut back the engines to let his passengers savor the cold salty air of that serene, starlit night.


If you are part of an embedded services organization within a product-based company, does your organization have a charter?  If so, are you more a solution provider or pure services business?  What are your priorities and how do they guide your daily decision making?  Leave a reply and join in the discussion!


  1. “Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation”
  2. Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
  3. Some of its other stated purposes may have benefited from speed; still, traversing the Atlantic quickly was not a primary goal.  In fact, the ship was an Olympic class vessel that was built for size over speed.
  4. Also discussed in his 2005 book, “Mastering Professional Services”
  5. Of course, IBM Life Sciences offers solutions to their customers.  The point is that their purpose is not solely to offer solutions around IBM’s own products.

From Blind Expectation to Great Expectations

Everyone has expectations, from family & friends to colleagues, and most vitally to any professional services business, customers.  Most of the time, however, we understand the expectations of others incompletely.  We approach relationships from the perspective of our own expectations, but don’t often take the time and effort to understand the other person’s expectations.  This is complicated by fact that people often aren’t willing or able to verbalize their expectations; some even actively attempt to hide them.  And not understanding the other person’s expectations always leads to trouble.

The classic Indian fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant” humorously demonstrates the dangers of having only a partial understanding of a truth.  (If you’re not familiar with the story, watch the video above for a wonderful spoken rendition.)  In our case, the elephant represents client expectations.  The moral for us is that we need to take the time to fully explore and understand the elephant — client expectations — before we make judgments and formulate our plans to engage with the client. And when the elephant is client expectations, that elephant may be constantly changing.


In a well written, two part article on managing client expectations1, David Alev introduces the S-M-I model: Set, Monitor, and Influence.  I like the model, but think that starting with expectation setting falls into the very trap that I point out above — we haven’t first taken the time to discover the preconceived expectations of the client.  Expectation setting is selfishly motivated; it is centered on what we want to accomplish, not on understanding and delivering what the client wants.

I would like to propose a variation on the S-M-I model: Discover, Influence, and Monitor, or D-I-M.  (I know, the name is not very complimentary, but I think the model is smarter than the name implies!)  Discovering the client’s expectations at the start of a new relationship or new engagement helps in understanding the client better.  Only then will you have a chance to deliver what the client wants.  Only then can you successfully monitor and influence their expectations.

I can hear some of you thinking…”sometimes what the customer wants is not what they need”.  This is often true, and one of the primary value adds of an effective consultant is to understand what the client needs and then help them satisfy that need.  But when what a client truly needs is not aligned with what they expect, it becomes the job of the consultant to influence the client’s expectations and bring them in line with the need.  Only then will the need and any solution to that need be embraced by the client.  So we see that once again, this process of aligning expectations to underlying need starts by first discovering the mis-aligned expectations.


So how do you discover the expectations of your clients?  Here are my Four “C”s for Discovering Client Expectations:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.  The only way to discover client expectations is to engage.  Make sure you do more listening than talking.
  • Carefully observe.  Most of human communication is non-verbal.  The client’s body language, tone and actions should be consistent with what is being said.  If they are not, keep digging.  You may also learn things from observation that you simply won’t get from what is being said.
  • Confirm.  When you think you understand the client’s expectations, share your understanding with them and get their confirmation.  This validates your perceptions, and builds trust and intimacy as the client realizes that you are genuinely intent on understanding them.
  • Clarify.  If you cannot confirm your client’s expectations, or if you get confirmation, but from a client who has a glazed look in their eyes (non-verbal cues again!), then work to clarify your understanding through more dialogue.

Only once you’ve gotten validation of the client’s expectations are you ready to move into influencing the client’s expectations to help meet their needs and monitoring their expectations as progress is made towards a solution.  (The second part of David’s article contains helpful tips for influencing and monitoring expectations.)


“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

— “Great Expectations”, Charles Dickens

Mostly likely at one point or another in your career, you have experienced the pain of failure due to misaligned expectations.  One day you found yourself sitting in the rubble of a failed project or a ruined client relationship.  Like this fitting quote from Dickens, you may very well be able to reflect back to that first instance where you felt a tug of uneasiness that you were not on the same page as the client.  Perhaps you had been so consumed with your own expectations for the relationship that you simply ignored the client’s expectations.  Or maybe you understood the client’s expectations at the onset, but stopped listening altogether as you became embroiled in an always hectic business environment.

If you have experienced this pain in the past, take heart! It is possible to manage expectations. Commit to invest the time required to fully discover, influence and monitor your clients’ expectations.  Refuse to blindly engage customers, and help your clients realize their great expectations of success!

What do you think of the D-I-M model for managing expectations?  Can you think of an example from your own career where discovering client expectations led to a successful outcome?  Where a lack of understanding of expectations led to failure?  Leave a reply below and share your experiences!

Do You Practice Elephant Leadership?

A Rat, traveling on the highway, met a huge elephant, bearing his royal master and his suite, and also his favorite cat and dog, and parrot and monkey. The great beast and his attendants were followed by an admiring crowd, taking up all of the road. “What fools you are,” said the Rat to the people, “to make such a hubbub over an elephant. Is it his great bulk that you so much admire? It can only frighten little boys and girls, and I can do that as well. I am a beast; as well as he, and have as many legs and ears and eyes. He has no right to take up all the highway, which belongs as much to me as to him.” At this moment, the cat spied the rat, and, jumping to the ground, soon convinced him that he was not an elephant.

Because we are like the great in one respect we must not think we are like them in all.

— Aesop’s Fables: The Rat and the Elephant


Elephants have been admired, revered, and even worshiped from ancient times, particularly in Eastern cultures and religions.  In Buddhism1, the elephant is a symbol of physical and mental strength, steadfastness and responsibility. Strong and powerful, they are able to overcome any obstacles that are placed in their way.  Hindus worship the elephant for what it represents to them — obedience to the master’s call, the ability not to repeat past mistakes, and respect and care towards their peers.2

Studies of elephant behavior prove this reputation to be well-deserved.3  Elephants are very intelligent and have been shown to have exceptional long-term memory, rivaling that of dolphins and primates.  They also have strong individual personalities and exhibit excellent social skills.  They are able to communicate, learn from others, work cooperatively as teams, and problem-solve.4  Over time they build large, complex social networks.

The matriarch, typically the oldest and largest adult female, is the leader of the elephant herd.  There are wise matriarchs whose leadership is acknowledged by the deference of the other members of the herd, and then there are poor matriarchs whose leadership role is tentative at best or even under challenge.  As with humans, some elephants are natural born leaders who show strong leadership qualities from a young age, and others learn to lead slowly and steadily as they mature.

A wise elephant leader has strong leadership qualities in addition to the social and cognitive qualities of elephants in general as discussed above.  Elephant leaders are confident and well-connected.  They have earned the respect of others based on their wisdom, charisma, and track record of wise decision making in times of crisis. While they are the final decision maker in important matters, they do not typically micromanage and even when faced with making critical decisions are open to the suggestions of others, often even from junior members of the herd.  Elephant leaders are compassionate towards and deeply care for the members of their extended family.  They show courage in crisis and wisdom in difficult situations, and work extremely hard to maintain the bonds of their social network.

If you wondered when you started to read this article what elephants have to do with professional services leadership, I trust that you’ve caught on by now.  Wise matriarchs are a perfect case study from nature in leadership excellence.  I could have easily been talking about leadership in professional services, or the qualities of a strong leader in business, public service, spiritual leadership, or just life in general.

So do you practice elephant leadership on a daily basis?  Do you exhibit the characteristics of the wise matriarch?  If not, don’t be discouraged.  Remember that some elephant leaders are natural born but that some, perhaps most, hone the skills they need to lead others through years of learning and experience.  If upon reflection you can say that you are practicing elephant leadership, that you are an elephant leader, then fantastic!  This should be evidenced by those who look to you regularly for leadership, by the circle of influence that you maintain and continue to grow.

In either case, we all need to remind ourselves that leadership is a process, not an end state.  Take a lesson from the rat…simply exhibiting one or two of the characteristics of an elephant leader does not in itself make us elephant leaders!  But if we diligently and continually strive to integrate more of the attributes of the wise matriarch into the fiber of our own leadership, we will gradually transform ourselves into elephant leaders.

Professional Services by Design (PSbD)

Applying Quality by Design practices to your professional services offerings results in predictable margins, on time delivery, lower risk and more happy clients!

Quality by Design (QbD) has been embraced most fully by the automotive industry as well as others such as electronics and semi-conductor manufacturers.  It was more recently endorsed by the FDA in its guidance to drug makers (Pharmaceutical Quality for the 21st Century: A Risk-Based Approach).

I am a big proponent of lean and six sigma practices for improving and maintaining quality, both in my own organization and for improving and optimizing customer business processes.  Practitioner Michael L. George has written Lean Six Sigma for Service, an excellent book on applying lean six sigma to services. It is highly recommended reading for professional services leaders who want to get the most out of their organizations.  While lean six sigma is great for optimizing services and speeding service delivery, it assumes an existing process that needs improvement — that is, these are reactive techniques.  QbD is a proactive approach that seeks to build in quality from the start.

What does poor quality look like for a services business? The age old challenge for professional services is delivering projects on time, on budget, within scope and with minimal defects.  We’ve found ways to mitigate these risks, such as time boxing, applying agile techniques, and actively managing customer expectations.  But often times these efforts are not enough, and the end result is missed deadlines, busted budgets and the unplanned “firefighting” needed to salvage endangered client relationships.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to confidently predict delivery dates and project margin, and consistently make customers happy?


The solution that I propose is what I call Professional Services by Design, or PSbD.  PSbD means designing services from the start, by offering repeatable processes and pre-configured, targeted products and solutions that drastically increase the probability of success and decrease overall risk.

The traditional services engagement starts with a scoping study, where you identify unique requirements and then plan and estimate an engagement that is unique to that client.  But most likely you service customers in a small number of markets, who for the most part do the same kinds of things.  This repeatability from customer to customer is rarely leveraged by professional services firms, and is the key to successful PSbD.


Let’s take a look PSbD in action.  A number of years ago, my team was struggling with the large, risky enterprise software deployment projects that we were undertaking with our customers in pharmaceutical manufacturing.  While the configuration of the software was often very similar from customer to customer, each engagement was started from scratch and treated as unique.  This led to implementations that were subject to scope change, cost overruns, and unnecessary risk of dissatisfied customers.
Upon analysis, we determined that these customers were mostly doing the same things in the same or very similar ways, from sample tracking to chemical analysis to product release.  Not only that, but all of these companies were using the same ICH methods for chemical analysis, and were under the same FDA mandates for validating their regulated systems.  They were not so unique after all.
Our consultants combined had decades of experience working with pharmaceutical manufacturing customers, so we decided to package a common, pre-validated configuration of the enterprise software and a repeatable engagement methodology (service offering) to go with that configuration.  The result was a combined product and service offering that we were able to demonstrate saved the customer more than 75% of the cost and time to deploy as opposed to a traditional implementation project.  At the same time, we were able to drastically increase our confidence in project profitability, predictably allocate resources, practically eliminate the chance for project failure, and quickly create ecstatic reference customers. 


There will always be the need to improve the quality of your service offerings.  There will always be value to applying lean six sigma and other techniques to your existing service portfolio.  But you should start by applying PSbD to new service offerings, creating them with quality in mind from the start.  The additional work up front will result in happier customers, who will be more likely to serve as reference customers and help to drive your business success.
What do you think about PSbD?  Do you have an example of PSbD in action at your professional services firm?  Post a comment and share your thoughts!