The role of the market leader

Jul 20, 2009

Many firms in the A/E/P or environmental business today have some sort of designated market leaders. Usually, there’s a new business plan and part of it requires a “realignment” to a more market-driven structure. Then, after the boxes are created, the planning team goes through a process to assign names to the boxes. And this is where things start to go wrong... What happens is often, the wrong person (or people) end up in the job. Whether these people run entire discrete business units with many direct reports or they are simply “go-to” people when there is a project opportunity in their area, they must share some common characteristics to succeed. While there is not one role for the market leader, there are some necessary traits that have to be present. Some of these are: Passion for the market served. Market leaders must have an intense interest in the work of the clients that they in turn work for. In other words, if someone is a civil engineer who is supposed to be in charge of land development activities across the firm yet he or she is much more interested in airport work, you have the wrong person in the job. No amount of instruction, education, or cajoling will get someone who doesn’t have the passion for their market to succeed. Many times people end up as sector leaders because management is looking for a name to put next to a box on a new organization chart, not because that is where someone’s real interest lies. Understanding of the numbers involved. I was at a board meeting not long ago for a firm in our business that has recently implemented a new organization structure— one that employs market leaders who are responsible for marketing work to particular client types firm-wide. One of the newly designated market leaders had a targeted client list of about three— three people! There are no odds in that. The market, when looked at in terms of potential client organizations and people, within a reasonable geographic reach, should have a list of 1,000 or more potentials! When many marketing activities, such as direct mail or e-marketing, may have response rates as low as a half-percent or less, you must have a large enough target market to get any kind of response. One half of one percent of 1,000 is five. Five responses out of a list of 1,000. Market leaders need to understand the statistical probabilities of any given marketing tactic employed. While I can understand it with architects to some extent, it’s strange to me that engineers and scientists don’t have a better understanding of statistics and probabilities and how they impact their businesses than they tend to have. A firm-wide view vs. a local one. Whether or not the entire company is organized around market lines, if your marketing is being handled that way, you have to have people who understand their role is not just marketing for their office, region, or discipline. My observation is that it is very difficult for some design or technical people to “get” this idea. They simply don’t place themselves in a large enough role to be effective creating a business that cuts across the entire firm. Again— I think most firm owners know whether or not someone who works for them has this orientation or not, but the pressure to fill every box with a name results in a lot of improperly placed people in market leader jobs. Creativity. Market leaders have to be creative people. They need to find new ways to market, new services to sell, new clients to sell to, and much, much more. This takes creative thinking and not just blindly following what has been done in the past. Persistence. Market leaders have to lead by example. And one thing those of us who have sold larger A/E/P and environmental consulting projects can tell you is that getting a big project takes time and persistence. A multi-year effort may be required. The market leader has to be able to stick with it a long time. There are also cases where the firm wants to break into a new client— with any size project— but the client sees no need to change providers. These cases may take years of making business development calls, attending meetings, and more, just to get a chance to demonstrate how competent they really are. Persistence is the word! I know it sounds negative, but the truth is only about 20% of the market sector leaders I’ve seen are really right for the job. If you have some of the other 80% in your market leader jobs, maybe you should look elsewhere in the firm for some new candidates. As my old boss, the late Michael Latas used to say, “You can lead a horse to water, but first you gotta have a horse!” Originally published 7/20/2009

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