If the top of the CEO ladder doesn’t satisfy like you hoped it would, it’s time to create your own consulting success.
From Door to Door Salesman to International Leadership Consulting with John Murphy
I’m very excited to have with us John Murphy. John, welcome.
Michael, indeed it’s a great pleasure to be here.
John, for those who don’t know you, please explain where you’re based and what it is that you do.
The company I have is called John Murphy International, which is probably not the most novel name you’re giving your company to call it out to yourself but it does reflect an international element to the business. I’ve been doing that for thirteen years. My focus is helping global companies create winning teams. That’s what I’m doing and that’s my main focus. That’s been a bit of an evolution from the time that I started thirteen years ago to where I am today, which is the history of most businesses where it pivots and changes at different times.
Where are you based right now?
I’m based in the south of France. With a surname like Murphy, it’s a giveaway that I’m Irish. I’m originally from Dublin, Ireland. I spent most of my career in Dublin and started the business while I was still in Dublin. About six years ago, because of one of those pivots and changes in the business, I recognized that I did not need to be based there and I could base myself anywhere. We moved here to the south of France and we’ve been living here ever since. I travel a lot for business but it’s a beautiful part of the world, it’s a great place to live and I have the opportunity to travel internationally.
Let’s rewind a little bit into your history before starting John Murphy International and before working with global organizations, helping them with their teams and so forth. What’s your background? I know that you spent some time moving up the ranks in the corporate world. What were you doing before going out into consulting? What did that look like?
I did a very traditional corporate career in a sense. I started off in the insurance industry. I started off as a door-to-door salesman. Then I progressed from there and became a sales manager, a sales director, and then a marketing director. That was with a couple of different companies. The final role that I had was as a CEO of a life company. I did that for seven years. I really came through the organization in a very traditional way but moved through the ranks particularly from the sales and marketing side and then the rest to the CEO. I also discovered that while I have no gripe with corporate work because it was extremely good to me, and I hope I was good to it but it certainly was very good to me, I recognized when I got to that senior level that the journey was great but when I got there, the destination wasn’t everything I thought it was going to be.
What do you mean by that?
I enjoyed the progression because I’ve always been ambitious. It was always the ambition to get to the next level, the next level and the next level. When you get to the board level and CEO level, then you say, “This is what I’ve been fighting for, scrapping for and working hard for. This was a big focus.” You look around and say, “Am I really enjoying it now?” We had gone through a period of significant expansion and then it moved more towards a period of consolidation. I felt that just wasn’t something that interested me and I didn’t want to continue in that role. It’s all very well in saying that I wanted to leave. As a senior level in the corporate world, you’re well-paid, you’re well-adapted, you’ve got all the benefits and the perks that go with that, so to step out and to start from scratch on your own can be a big ask. I’d have to say it wasn’t as big as I thought it was going to be. It was almost something that I felt I was compelled to do.
How, in advance of leaving the role of CEO and starting your own consulting business, did you start thinking about making that switch?
It probably was two years in the making. Because you go through a period and you say, “Maybe it’s because I’m a bit bored or I’m a bit fed up or whatever it might be,” that I get through it and I work through it and I find something else that can make me excited. Then I realized that fundamentally, I just didn’t want to stay being an employee. There was nothing wrong with the company or wrong with the organization. I had changed and I recognized that I needed to do something on my own and create my own business because I never felt that I was the absolute corporate animal. I enjoyed the roles that I had because they were interesting and exciting and challenging and all of that. I always had this in the back of my head also, “I’d love to do something on my own. I’d love to do my own business.” I made the decision to leave before I made the decision of what I would do when I left, if that doesn’t sound like an odd way of doing it.
When you did leave though, when you finally made the decision to go out and start your consulting business, how did you go about getting clients? What was the first warrant to engagements? Where did they come from?
When I made the decision to leave and do what I was going to do, I have a very good friend in the consulting business and I thought I’d go and see him. We had a cup of coffee or lunch or whatever it was together. I told him what I was doing and he said to me, “Murphy, the world needs another consultant like a hole in the head,” which filled me with joy. His addition to that was, “There’s always room for a good one.” I thought that was very relevant. The second thing he said to me was, “You won’t get business from the places that you think you will and you will get business from very surprising places.” That turned out to be exactly true. When I left, because I would have been very much associated with financial services, I was absolutely passionate that I was not going to get stuck in financial services and be seen as a consultant for financial services just because I came from there. I felt that what I was talking about and what I was doing was absolutely applicable to industries other than financial services. I worked terribly, terribly hard. I went to see every contact that I had, every connection that I had, to go and meet them and tell them what I was doing. I did a huge number of sales calls. It was very unscientific but I’m very much focused on non-financial services. I was very fortunate that one of my early successes in terms of getting work was with Johnson & Johnson, which was great and it was fantastic to get it but it also gave me a brand company that I could say that I worked for that was non-financial services that took me away from what I was afraid I would get stuck in.
Did that come from making calls and doing follow-up?
It did. It was very unscientific. To a large extent, I went back to my door-to-door selling insurance and said, “It’s about numbers of calls.” I went and I spoke to as many people I could. I asked everybody that I spoke to if they could recommend me to go and speak to somebody else. That was how that came about.
What percentage of those people were people that you had some relationship with already versus those that you had no relationship with?
I remember actually looking at it and in my first year, 50% of my business had come from people that I hadn’t met before I started, and 50% had come from people that I’d met. Even the people that I’d met that I got business from, some of those would not have been on my, “I’ll definitely get business there” type.
What percentage would you say of all the calls and all of the follow-ups and all the activities that you did would you say actually resulted in business?
Once I got to a real serious conversation rather than, “Hello, how are you? This is what I’m doing,” my conversion rate was probably about one in three.
From all the people you reached out to even to get to the serious conversation, was there a lot of activity required?
Yes, there were a lot of activities.
I’m focusing on that a little bit, John, because I think that a lot of consultants, even when their business is a little bit more developed, if their goal is to win more business, they look at this idea of, “I’m an expert in my area or my team or my firm is an expert in a specific area,” but a lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea of going out there and making the calls, doing the outreach, doing the follow-up. It’s very clear from your story that you did. Were you afraid? Was there any fear? Was there any discomfort? What was going through your mind when you were having to make call after call or email after email or follow-up after follow-up?
There’s no doubt that there were tough times. Don’t forget that I had gone from one month getting a very healthy check going into my bank account as a salary, to the next month to zero. That focuses the mind hugely. Secondly, you believe that you can do it and you trust that you can do it, but you need to get some validation that what you’re going out and the story you’re selling, that people actually see that this is something that they would pay for. When you’re doing an offer on calls and you’re not getting anywhere, there is that little doubt that creeps into your mind of, “Have I got this right?” You’ve just got to keep on doing calls and keep at it. It was very unscientific. I very much went back to my day in selling insurance door-to-door where it was just volume of calls. Once you then get momentum, then you’re able to refine it a little bit more but you still need to do that number of calls. To be very honest with you, it’s not a lot different now; if you don’t continuously crank up the prospecting and the connecting and all of those things. Thirteen years to fourteen years, you’re doing it slightly differently but nevertheless, the same principle applies. If you’re not doing it, you’re going to end up with these peaks and troughs in your flow of income.
I know you and I have had these conversations about how important it is even for consultants that have successful and developed businesses to always be keeping a foot on that accelerator because the moment that you take it off, the moment that you become a bit complacent and feel like, “Things are good enough,” is the moment that all of a sudden you start to see gaps. They might not appear right away but they start to appear and then you have to almost start from scratch or take a lot longer to get that momentum back. I want to switch a little bit now because I know that in your business, John, referrals have played a large role in new business as they do for many consultants. It seems like the vast majority of your business has come from referrals once you start getting clients as a consultant. What do you feel is the biggest factor in your case and maybe for others as well in being able to get a good stream of referrals? Here you are, even thirteen, fourteen years into your consulting business, and referrals still play a very big role for you.
I’d say it on two levels. One is that you’re only going to get referrals if you’re doing excellent work with the client that you’re working with. That’s the starter. You do have to have an attitude of you’re always going to go the extra mile, that you’re going to add value to the client that you’re working with. That’s got to be principle number one. I’ve worked with a lot of global organizations and the most important thing is that if you’re doing good work in that organization, people will just refer you on to other people within that organization. It’s important that you’re doing that and that you get to know the organization terribly well. I’m not just talking about the work that I’m doing with the individual in organization but to find out what’s happening in that organization, that alerts you to some changes over here, some changes over there, some changes in the organization where you can then readily see, “I could make a difference there or I could contribute there.” If you’re not spending the time and investing the time, not just in delivering the service that you’re committed to and that you’re contracted to, but also engaging in that conversation about what’s happening in their organization. Both to help the people that you’re talking to because then you know the context of the business that they’re in but it’s also giving you information about what’s happening in their company that can alert you to other changes. I have loads of examples of that where in a conversation they’ll say, “There’s a change going on or there’s been a restructuring over there.” I very often will say, “Could you introduce me to the person who’s doing that reorganization, that restructuring?” If you’re doing good work, of course they will. That played a big part.
For you to identify those opportunities, is it a matter of having conversations with your clients and the people that you’re working with? Is there some other approach that you’ve taken to be able to learn more and deeply understand what’s going on in those organizations to find those opportunities?
It’s very effective to make sure that you’re having the conversations with the people that you’re talking to about what’s happening in the organization. There are other things you can do, alerts on Google and things like that that you can get flagged when things are going on in those organizations. Particularly in larger organizations, it’s easier to do that with them. I would have alerts on Google for various companies that I’m doing business with so that I can get bits of information. The majority of times, it’s not particularly relevant to what I’m doing or the space that I’m in, but it does help to keep you informed about that organization. Then you’re able to speak to the people. For every client that I’m working with, even if it’s a large corporate global company, the organization that they’re dealing with, the more I know about that organization, the more I can help them. It feeds lots of different things within that. Having that market information about what’s happening in the organization, who’s moving, who’s changing, where they’re opening, where they’re closing, where they’re reorganizing, where they’re restructuring, where they’re investing, where they’re divesting, all of that helps in the conversation. It makes you a much more informed adviser to those people.
I think it’s a great point that you’re sharing because a lot of consultants consider getting new clients in different companies as the best way to grow their business. I would say that, in fact, what we call client development, which is what you’ve been doing so well here, looking for opportunities within your existing clients and within those existing relationships, is a far better way. You have the relationships already established and you’re able to win business much more readily because you require significantly less time to work through that sales cycle. For everyone, if business development and if growth is something that is important to you, which likely it is and that’s why you’re here, what John is sharing is a great example that I would suggest everyone look at is, “What opportunities are there right now at your fingertips with your existing or even your past clients?” Even before you go out and think about new client acquisition, there are almost always opportunities that are there. John, things have been bubbling along. Your business has reached a nice level of success. Then you decide to leave Ireland and to go to France. What prompted that? Why leave your home base where you’ve built up this business and there’s success happening? Why pick up and go to another country?
I can’t say that it was a single event but what happened was, if you go back to the market around 2006, 2007 when the economic crash happened, a lot of the work that I’ve been doing beforehand was fairly big ticket stuff with clients. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been asked to do a lot more one-to-one coaching with CEOs and senior directors and companies, and that had evolved. I played with the model with that because the traditional model of where I go to your office on a Tuesday morning from 9 to 12 and we spend three hours, you don’t have the time for that and nobody has. I was playing with that model and then I ended up doing it on Skype or variations of Skype because people were traveling and it was easier and it was more cost-effective and everything else. That was happening. That suddenly opened up my eyes and I said, “If I’m doing a lot of work on Skype and places like that, I don’t have to confine myself to the geographical space that is the island of Ireland. I can really open that,” which is where the international element is and said, “I can be broader than this.” I also knew that if I didn’t make the physical move out of the country, I would never have made the mental shift because it would have been too easy to stay where I was and do what I was doing.
The kids are grown up and they’ve moved away, so myself and my wife said, “Let’s try it for two years. If it works, great. We’re happy not just in the business but personally as well. If we don’t, then we go back.” Mentally, that was one of those pivots for us, “I can do business anywhere.” I now started to look for companies outside of Ireland and I discovered companies in France, Germany, Spain, and Norway. Suddenly, the world becomes a bigger place and that then created its own pivot with the business. Part of the thinking was, “I can do this more internationally but if I stay where I am, I’ll always be better known in that market and never make that move.” To an extent, it was to force me to make that international element to it. I’m delighted that I did because it’s enriched my experience and it’s enabled me then, with my clients, to bring a much richer experience to them.
Did you have concerns? Some people would be exploring that idea themselves in their mind going, “I’d like to work from different places in order to travel more, whatever it might be, but I can’t do that because my clients want to see me face to face.” Were you concerned that you might lose business or lose opportunities? How did you handle that from a mindset perspective?
I did have some concern. I also recognized that I was limiting and that I wasn’t going to be able to replicate everything I was doing in Ireland if I wasn’t living there. I was going to have to make some tradeoffs. There was a bit of a gamble but I felt intuitively that it was right. I felt, “I need to do this now,” had many false starts and went down cul-de-sacs and different avenues that didn’t work out but I was absolutely determined that this can work and this is a model that I believe can work. I had converted some of my clients in the Ireland to work with me virtually. One or two were saying, “I don’t know. I don’t think that will work. I’m not sure that will work. I like to see you face-to-face.” I said, “Try it.” We tried and I generally didn’t lose any clients in terms of saying, “I’m not going to do it because it’s virtually.” I didn’t lose anybody doing that. Even in those five or six years, it’s become a lot more acceptable. It was a bit of a risk and there was a bit of a, “Can I make it work?” but I’m also quite stubborn. I was absolutely determined to make this model work and then see where I could explore. It’s not just all virtual. I do face-to-face work with people in different parts of the world, but the one-to-one coaching, I do it virtually.
That point that you made about when you got a rejection from a client saying, “We’d like to see you,” some people would just give in to that and say, “I guess my clients aren’t open to that idea of working virtually. This is not going to work,” and they would stop there. The point that you made of how you came back and suggested, “Let’s try it,” you challenged back to your client is so important in so many aspects of building a consulting business. For everyone, remember there’s a reason why you became a consultant or why you have a growing consulting firm. In many cases, it’s because you want that freedom, you want that flexibility and you want to create what you want to create. Just because a buyer is used to something, whether it’s your pricing, hourly model, moving to ROI and value or it’s how you work with them or it’s where you work with them, just because they come back with what they’re used to doesn’t mean that that’s the way that it needs to be. John, that’s a beautiful example of opening up their eyes and their mind to giving it a shot and then seeing that it can work out and you then being able to make that shift to working virtually successfully.
I spent a month in the US and I dealt with my clients that needed to be dealt with within that month. Some of them were aware I was in the US, some of them didn’t know and it wasn’t relevant.
What is the one biggest factor that you feel has helped you to stay at the top of your game? To continue to build your business, to get more clarity, to stay focused, what helped you?
One of the things that does help is accepting the fact that it is dynamic and it’s always changing. That to me is scary but it’s motivating. You always have to look at how you’re evolving and changing the business. It doesn’t stand still and you can’t just say, “I’ve got that and that’s it. That’s what I’m going to continue doing.” You always have to tweak it and tweak it. That’s what makes it exciting and that’s what keeps all of us fresh. You’re trying new things and you’re trying different things and you’re seeing what works. It’s about building your business but it’s also about, “How can I give a better service to the clients that I’m dealing with and to the future clients that I’m dealing with?” That’s one thing.
The work that you and I have done, Michael, in terms of having somebody like you who challenges me, “Why are you doing that or why aren’t you doing that or what is it you’re trying to achieve?” Working on your own, you can start to believe your own publicity and that your own opinions are always the right opinions. That’s dangerous. Being part of working with somebody like yourself and being part of the group that you have, where you do have that mastermind group and you do have other people you can bounce off, and working with somebody like you where you’re being challenged and you’re kept on track, they’re the things that keep it fresh and keep you energetic. I have a very low threshold of boredom and I have actually become a bit dangerous to myself than anybody else when I do get bored because I get sloppy. It is recognizing that it’s always, always changing. It’s looking outside your own industry. I spent some time when I was in the US going to a non-consulting conference that would open your eyes to other elements. It’s all the time looking at what you can do to make your business more evolved. The instant thing is that what you helped me do is become more focused. It’s not about making the approach broader. It’s quite the opposite. That does help an awful lot. I would suggest that I wouldn’t have done that on my own.
John, it’s been a real pleasure. I really enjoyed having you share a bit of your story and your wisdom with everyone. What’s the best way for people to learn more about you and to connect with you?
To everyone, I definitely suggest you check out what John’s up to. John, thank you so much for coming on here and spending some time with us.
Mike, it’s been a real pleasure and honor. I’m delighted to have the time with you.