If you aspire to make it as a Fortune 500 company, then you might want to consider corporate consulting to help you bridge that gap from strategy to execution. Luckily we have Suzanne Bates to guide potential leaders with her company, Bates Communications. Based in Boston, they work with leaders and teams become more effective in accomplishing their tasks – both as teams and as individuals. By investing first in your own learning with Bates Communications, hitting your company’s year-end goal is a piece of corporate cake.
It’s Michael Zipursky and I’m very excited to have Suzanne Bates joining us. Suzanne, welcome.
Michael, it’s great to be with you. Thanks for the invitation.
I’m excited to have you on the show here today. For those who don’t know you, take a minute and explain what you do.
I am the CEO of a consulting firm, Bates Communications based in Boston that works primarily with Fortune 500 companies, executives, and high potential leaders to help them bridge the gap from strategy to execution. The way we do that is to work with leaders and teams on being more effective in their work together as teams and as individuals to drive organizational outcomes.
We’re going to dig much deeper into that for everyone here, but let’s go back. I always like to explore how people got to where they are. In your case Suzanne, you got started as an on-air TV personality. How did you go from that to getting into consulting?
It is a rather circuitous route. It’s not the traditional route of a consultant or the CEO of a consulting firm. I had a great first career in television news. It was my dream. I loved being a television reporter. When I started, it was a time when women were first coming into a television broadcasting. I estimated once that I interviewed about 10,000 business leaders and experts and of course criminals too, because I covered the court and I did investigative reporting, so it was a great career. My last assignment was in Boston and I was on the air here for about thirteen years. At that point I was midway in my career and thinking about the future, probably like many of your viewers. I was thinking about how I might parlay what I knew and what I had done into building a business and building a practice that would help me to make a bigger impact on the world and build wealth myself. I started just doing presentation and media training for leaders. I had the opportunity in Boston to work with a number of outstanding leaders and that’s what sparked my interest in working with leaders on leadership.
Before you actually went out and started building the business, what was it that got you to take that leap to go from the corporate comfortable job, a decade plus of experience in there, to actually deciding that you want to go out and do your own thing?
I think every consultant can relate to this. It felt very scary. I was compelled to do it in many ways because I wanted to take my life and my future into my own hands. In television you work holidays, weekends, nights, mornings. I got up at 3:00 in the morning for the last nine years in my television career. It wasn’t a lifestyle that was working for me anymore. Although it was very exciting to be in the middle of the news day to be covering what was news that day and to interview a lot of people and feel fulfilled by that, I just thought there had to be something more for me. I wanted my life to be about more than that. I think sometimes you just outgrow what you started out doing. That was what happened for me, but it was still very scary because unlike probably some of your audience, I didn’t have a background in business. I’d taken one course in accounting and barely passed it. In college, I never had a team. I never ran anything except maybe nonprofits. I was president of a couple of nonprofits. I had a lot to learn. I had a steep learning curve, but I always tell people, in a way I think it’s better not to know what you don’t know because it gives you more courage.
I’ve seen that myself over the years and in certain situations and with many others as well. How did you then go about getting your first client? Who was it and how do you actually land them?
I leveraged my network a lot when I first started out, although I must say that my network and television was probably different than a network that some business people may have. I didn’t have a network of business, colleagues, or associates. I knew experts, so I knew a career expert, I knew a financial expert, and I also had friends who were starting out. This is when coaching was relatively new. I had coaching friends and they didn’t do what I did. There was a nice match there I think, in their recognizing what I might be able to bring to their clients that enabled me to get an introduction to a couple of large companies here in Boston at the executive leadership level. It’s always about your network, and even though I didn’t have a traditional network, I think that’s how you get introductions and have the credibility to walk in the door and be able to persuade somebody to work with you when you don’t have years of experience.
Let’s get a little more tactical for a moment. If you can remember, what did you actually say? Was it an email correspondence? How did you actually go about getting the introduction or the referral to the end client?
It’s one that I’ve never been asked, although I have years ago taught a networking course, what is down and dirty, what are the tactics. One of the people who became a good mentor of mine was an executive coach. Her work was in the field of leadership development and emphasis on the development piece of it. Her work at the time was using assessment like the DISC and the Myers Briggs to help leaders be more effective. What she didn’t know as much about was communication. She positioned me with her client for somebody who could come in and work with them on communication, so I don’t remember writing an email in particular to get that job. What I do remember is when I went in for the interview or to interview the client, what I did was I asked a lot about the business. I wanted to make sure that anything that I was helping them with was directly tied to something important.Audience agenda is like aspirin. Everybody needs to take it. Click To Tweet
The two first assignments that I had were to work with a leader who was re-positioning the firm’s message about their product with the media. That was something that was right up my alley. I understood exactly how to do that. We even came up with a name for the product and some powerful messaging. That gave me entree to work with the sales team. Even though I didn’t know a lot about sales, I knew about good communication. This team, they were going in with the usual book and flipping through it and doing nonsense. It wasn’t anything that I thought the client would care about. I think in the first couple of months of my work with them that I developed the first proprietary tool that I developed. It went into my first book, Speak Like a CEO, and that was audience agenda. I last a day because the consultants who work in our firm are still telling me that audience agenda is like aspirin. Everybody needs to take it.
Do you remember how you configured or set up the arrangement with the person that introduced you? Did you do a fee share? Did they take a percentage of the revenue that you generated, or they just simply make an introduction? Do you remember how you worked the mechanics of that?
She was a good friend and she did not ask me for a referral fee, although I would have been glad to pay it. We were pretty close friends at that point. I have, however, paid referral fees, especially early on and we do occasionally pay them now. I definitely did pay referral fees to people who are friends and acquaintances who made introductions because I wouldn’t have had that work otherwise. It was a shared fee arrangement, a percentage of I think the first year of work that I did whenever I get a referral arrangement.
What I love about the example that you gave in terms of how you got into that organization turned into be signed right up your alley in terms of the media and the messaging, that led you into the sales department. That’s just how things work. Often people will have fears that they’re encountering and they look at all the negatives. In your case, you could have said, “I don’t have experience in business, maybe I can’t do this,” find all reasons not to move forward, but you did, and that got the ball rolling. I’m sure as you continue to build the business, you encountered some challenges along the way. Do you remember what was one of the biggest challenges that you had in the early days of building your consulting business?
In the early days, I think for many consultants it’s just how to get enough introductions to get enough business in the door to support you. One of the things that I did, and this was at the advice of a friend of mine who was a financial adviser, was I set aside money that I already had to cover my basic expenses for the first year I was in business. That was very important because I was relying on my income to support my family. It freed me not to worry too much about every single day about whether I had landed enough business to cover my monthly nut. It enabled me to be a little more relaxed with my clients and prospects just to have conversations to understand what they needed. It freed myself to think more broadly about what it was that I could bring to their organization that they didn’t have.
What I realized after a while was everybody was saying the same thing, which is, “We have sales training, but what we need is communication.” That was a big help, but I do believe that overcoming the challenge of the fear of making the leap and then the worry that you often have in the first year business was about planning. It’s about financial planning and making sure that my family was secure to the degree that I could. That’s a hard thing for many people to do, tapping your savings, and there certainly may be other ways to do it, but I found that was freeing.
A lot of people look at their savings or their retirement funds as the most important things that they need to not touch. It just has to sit there because it’s going to allow them to achieve “true” retirement or freedom in the future. I like what you’re saying and I’m in the same mindset, which is that in the early days, using some of your savings or your retirement funds or whatever it might be to invest into yourself into your own business can actually be the best investment ever. If you didn’t do that, you potentially wouldn’t have continued to build your business or you would have given up earlier or whatever it might be, not just on your case specifically but for other people too, Suzanne. What are your thoughts in terms of making an investment in yourself and your business? How important has that been for you?
You have to invest in yourself. You have to invest in your learning and your growth. In addition to setting aside money for my family to live on, I joined professional organizations and associations. I met more people who could help me. Just as you help your clients, they were incredibly valuable to me as mentors. I tried to surround myself with people who knew what they were doing. I had a great accountant. I had a great mentor. I had an association. I first joined the National Speakers Association because I was doing a lot of my marketing through speaking. I also worked with a consultant like you. Unfortunately, I hadn’t met you, Michael, but I worked with a consultant like you who helped me with all the block and tackle, from how you price your services, to how you write a proposal that gets accepted, to how to talk to the client, how to do consultative selling, how to frame your work, how to understand what the client’s challenges are, and how to get it over the finish line.
You absolutely have to do that. You can’t leave it to chance. I have so many friends in the consulting community who get started out of the gate with some work. Maybe it’s from a former employer or colleagues in the industry, but those run out after a while. You tap out your network of people who are through their own goodwill and you’re certainly going to get referrals if you’re doing good work, but that isn’t enough to sustain you. You absolutely have to invest in people who can help you with marketing, business, and the things that you don’t know about consulting.You have to invest in people who can help you with marketing, business, and the things that you don't know about consulting. Click To Tweet
We’re more of the same mindset, 100% on that. Referrals are wonderful. Honor them and welcome them anytime they come into your business, but if you want to be in control of your own destiny, then you certainly don’t want to only rely on them. You start off your business as a solo independent consultant. You’ve now built a firm with a sizable number of employees, staff, leaders, and so forth. What was the decision? What was going on in your mind that made you decide to transition from being an independent consultant to being a consulting firm owner with multiple staff?
This is a very important decision for consultants to make, because I don’t believe you can have a hybrid. You certainly can have people in your network who you tapped to do work with you from time to time on a 1099 or an adjunct basis here in the US, 1099. If you’re going to hire people, you have to make the decision that you’re going to build a company with values. I didn’t start out necessarily with that intention, but early on when I did bring on a couple of people to one half time staff person and then a consultant, and then another one to work with me, one of the things I realized was our offering was so unique and I was so intent on innovating and developing some new ways of working with clients in the space of communicative leadership that I knew I needed my own team and we needed to develop our own ways of bringing our value to the client. I also decided that for me, the best leverage was to build a business with value. I know that’s not for everybody. I don’t necessarily advocate it. Many consultants are tired of running teams and staffs and the last thing that they want to do is have other people to take care of. For me it was the right decision. I’m very happy I did it. I think it’s a journey to becoming a CEO and a leader as well as a consultant, and that’s fulfilled me.
When did you make that decision? How far along were you into your consulting career when you decided to start building a firm?
I hired those folks who were working part time to full time with me within the first year. I made the decision after I sat down with a consultant, a mentor, just like you, who put the same question to me which was, “Which do you want to build? Do you want to work independently, have your freedom, make the work yours, enjoy the work and not worry about taking care of other people whether their kids are going to go to college, but just grow as a consultant, or do you want to build a business that has value that someday could be sold?” Once I understood the distinctions, it was easy to make that decision. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to build the business, along the way I think you probably reevaluate that decision at a number of points, because we all know the challenges of hiring and developing people and making sure that client work they deliver as top rate and that you’re getting paid enough to make sure that you’re profiting from the work when you have a lot of people on staff. It’s an ongoing education and learning opportunity I would say, but I never have looked back.
That’s a great share that you just offered here for everyone because you’re right, there is no right way to go about it. A lot of a personal decision and different ways of thinking ultimately come to the decision that makes the most sense for you as a person. What I’m interested in is you mentioned that you are already bringing people on, adding to your team, and building this force within your first year. A lot of consultants have some fear around doing that. Probably the most common that I hear is people who say, “I know that I need to bring on some additional resources in, I need some help with some of this stuff, but I’m just going to wait a little bit more until my business is more established or I land that next big project.” Then they’re still saying the same thing six months later or twelve months later. It’s almost as much as possible they try and push it off mainly because in my experience and my observation is that they initially look at that as a cost and not as an investment. I’m very interested to hear your perspective and what was going through your mind when you made that decision to bring on people within the first year.
I felt it was important for me to leverage my time the best way I could if I was going to be successful. For me, success was not doing administrative work. I didn’t want to keep the books, although I did that for a while. I’ve done every job in my business, but I didn’t want to set up the appointments and manage my calendar. I didn’t want to be standing at the copy machine at the time producing the marketing materials. I would create them, but I just didn’t think that was a good use of my time. It was taking me away from revenue-producing activities. The first person that I hired was a college student, so this was very economical. She was a very smart college student. She was studying communications. She became my part-time assistant and she also did marketing for me and she turned out to be just a wiz.
Having a good experience with my first employee encouraged me and helped me see how the right people can propel you forward. The next couple of folks that I brought on board were people who had the potential to be consultants. They were also in transition like me so they were eager to just try something new. They were amenable to learning from me because I’d already been added for a little while anyway. They were good partners. I do think hiring is tricky, not everybody I hire, not everybody you hire is going to work out well. I’m a big believer in developing people and getting behind them, helping them learn what they need to do to be successful, and also hiring for instinct. It has to be a fit, but if you hire the right people, you’re going to grow exponentially.
In my business, what works for me was to hire people who are going to help me on the marketing end. The next person I heard after that was a pure marketing person and she also worked part-time. I shared her with another friend of mine who actually had a PR firm. Eventually she went to work full-time for that PR firm and she’s now a partner in that firm, but she was a great help to me. There are economical ways that you can get the help you need and leverage your time effectively.
That’s terrific advice for consultants who want to scale their team further and want to grow a firm with real value for the potential sale down the road or whatever it might be. What’s most important for them to know and practice? Is there one or two things that stand out to you that have just been instrumental in the growth of your firm and your team that has allowed you to scale?
I think it’s important to identify what you need at the moment, and that’s going to change over time. A couple of examples, the first couple of people that I hired, one of them stayed with me and retired or the other one, she wasn’t quite a fit. She didn’t have the breadth and knowledge and ability to learn and be flexible and agile that I needed to be able to listen to my clients’ needs and respond to those and shape and frame the work around what they needed. I started looking at what’s a different type of consultant that I needed at that time. What I realized is I needed people with more business experience who I teach some of the communication piece too. Later on as we grew, we decided to develop our own proprietary assessment called the Bates ExPI that measures executive presence. We started from scratch doing the research, building the model and the assessment, and it’s now used in seventeen countries. To do that, I had to hire the right people. I think it’s being attuned to what your company needs and having a vision for where you’re going. Then you have to work hard to find the right people who are going to help you do that.
You mentioned marketing. How do you approach marketing and getting clients? What’s working best for you and for your firm currently?
I believe in marketing gravity, which means people come to you if you get it right. That doesn’t mean you don’t ask for referrals and work hard on the sales side of your business, but marketing is attracting attention, distinguishing yourself, and being an object of interest. The way I started out doing that was leveraging what I knew how to do or thought I knew how to do. I knew how to speak and I knew how to write. I wrote my first book in 2005. It was published by McGraw-Hill, Speak Like a CEO, and that enabled me to leverage it into speaking engagements at conferences. I did those locally and then I started to develop a national reputation as the book took off. I also made a point to write a weekly blog called Thoughts for Tuesday and I worked hard to get published in business publications, not necessarily scholarly publications, but a prestigious publications. I’ve been in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and many magazines. I’ve been on NBC. I’ve been on CBS, I’ve been on MSNBC. I was trying to just leverage what I knew how to do. That doesn’t mean that’s for everybody, but I do think you have to be an object of interest to attract attention and set yourself up as an expert in your field.You have to be an object of interest to attract attention and set yourself up as an expert in your field. Click To Tweet
You mentioned your book, the initial unpublished with McGraw-Hill. We’re going back to 2005. You mentioned the publishing game was a little bit different then. Do you remember the approach you took to marketing that book? You said that you leveraged that to get speaking opportunities and that also helped to grow more book sales as a bit of a snowball effect going on there. What actually happened either that you did or your firm did or McGraw-Hill did that allowed the book to support speaking that’s also support your consulting business?
We treated the book as a big business card. I was willing to give it away and I gave it away to clients and prospects. I gave it away to news outlets. We learned how to write a speaker abstracts, which is basically the same thing as a media pitch, so that we can tailor those to audiences. We learned how to write a media pitches so we could position me for interviews. I invested myself in a book campaign. This isn’t something that is done today, but at the time before there was social media, before there were a lot of other ways to get published out there to get your publish thought leadership out there, I asked my network of consultants and friends to promote my book.
I can’t say any one thing was the key because, there’s a saying in marketing, “50% of my marketing is working. I just don’t know which 50%.” You have to look at this as a huge opportunity to get out there and establish yourself as a national expert. It does help to have a published book by a major publisher, although as you mentioned, the publishing industry has changed so much. Most of the major publishers that are around even ten, twelve years ago are gone now. There’s just a few of them left. It’s been a lot of consolidation and self-published books definitely have a place in building thought leadership, especially now with social media because it’s so easy to get your articles and thought leadership out there, but it is important I think to build your list. That would be the other thing I would say.
Everywhere I went, I spoke. I collect business cards. I have corresponded with people. I built my now Salesforce. We probably have 30,000 or 40,000 people in our database, but I started with zero. You just have to start somewhere and build the database of people who are interested in your work and communicate with them regularly and provide them with something of value and that’s think the way you create marketing gravity.
You’ve clearly accomplished a lot. You had a great deal of success over the years and continue to. I’m interested, do you have a daily routine that helps you to stay at the top of your game?
I think my routines have changed a little bit over the years because truth be told, when I first started my business, I was working all the time. I got up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning and I worked all day. If I didn’t go out to see a client, I probably worked into the evening, not late into the evening, but up until dinner time. I often worked on the weekends because I was trying to get it off the ground. At some point I realized that was unsustainable and not wise and not healthy. Even though I’d always exercised, I decided I wanted to take better care of myself. I began to do yoga and had always done other exercise. I started playing golf, so I would have an avocation as well. Although I’m not a great golfer, I enjoy being out there.
My routine is very different. I would say in the morning I get up and I take care of social media first because it’s become such an important part of being visible and creating the thought leadership. That’s a good time for me to do it. Other people find the middle of the day or whatever, but as long as you establish a routine for connecting with people and sharing ideas, I think that’s important. I have an office so I go to my office, I have meetings with staff. My job has changed a little bit over the years as I’ve become more of a CEO and spend less time consulting. I leave in the afternoon in time to go work out and I have dinner with my family or go to evening events, whatever I have to do.
When I’m traveling I try to keep up a healthy lifestyle as much as possible. It’s always difficult as we all know, many of your listeners travel and it is difficult, but I always bring my workout gear with me and I also try to have fun. I have friends who will stay in a city an extra day or two. Maybe you’re that person, Michael. I’m not sure. I haven’t found. I’ve quite had the freedom to do that, but as I get a little older, it is important. I do think traveling and being a citizen of the world, you are probably far more than I am. Experiencing other people and other places is important part of broadening your horizons, reading widely, reading books, and reading magazines. Just being a well-rounded person is part of also being an object of interest to your clients and prospects.
You mentioned that one of the pieces of your routine, you’re getting your day started with social media. What specifically are you doing on social media and what are you finding to actually work best in terms of building your brand and the business as well?
I found it’s a mix of sharing your own thought leadership, formal and informal, and sharing other people’s thought leadership as well. If we’ve just produced a white paper or an article, of course I’m going to promote that. Primarily we use LinkedIn and Twitter. It all depends on your business. Facebook can be very valuable for some, for us in our corporate audience, not so much so I keep Facebook more for personal. I’m in groups in LinkedIn. I’ll sometimes read those articles. I read the Wall Street Journal, I read a Harvard Business Review. I share articles if I think they’re interesting. Occasionally I’ll share stuff that people I know consultants are leaders who are on social media are sharing.If you're supportive of good work that other people are doing, they'll support you back. Click To Tweet
I comment and like things and try to be supportive of others because I think if you’re supportive of good work that other people are doing, they’ll support you back. That helps you also grow your network of consulting friends. It’s important to have a community of consultants who you can mastermind with or call and ask questions, friends who have your best interest in mind, know your business. This could be a very, very lonely business, especially if you’re in a solo practice. If you don’t have a group of people who you like and respect and think you’re doing good work, I think you need to keep raising your game too. You can always have your friends, but you need to meet people you, meet people in the consulting world who are doing interesting things, and stay abreast of what’s happening and share ideas.
I’ve heard this from so many of our clients over the years that not being alone and having a place to get feedback and best practices has been very valuable for them. I know that’s the whole reason why we started Consulting Success®, was because I used to feel that way in the early days. That certainly resonates with me. Suzanne, I want to thank you for coming on and sharing. We could talk for so much longer here because there’re so many other things that I’d love to ask you about. We’re going to end here and again, thank you so much for coming on. What’s the best way for people to learn more about you, your work and your firm?
Go to ConsultingSuccess.com. Type in ‘Suzanne Bates’ and you’ll find the transcript as long as everything else hyperlinked there for your convenience. Suzanne, thank you so much for coming on. It’s a real pleasure.
Thank you. It’s been a treat to talk with you. I wish you great success and everyone in your audience as well.
Mentioned in This Episode:
- Speak Like a CEO on Amazon
- Suzanne Bates on LinkedIn
- @ceocoachbates on Twitter
- Bates Communication
- Bates ExPI