For the ten years being in industry, Shannon Adkins was a buyer of consulting services and of multimillion-dollar contracts of consulting services. Shannon is the president and CEO of Future State Inc., a management consulting firm that brings change management and operational transformation expertise to global enterprises in the life sciences, healthcare and technology industries. Shannon says to win businesses, you have to leverage the relationships and networks you have. She shares that selling $7 million in consulting services back in her first year took a lot of spending time meeting with clients, talking with them about their history, sharing their vision, understanding their concerns, their objectives, their issues, bringing those leads forward, and then passing them onto her team members so that they can collaborate with a client to develop solutions and execute on those programs together.
I’m excited to have Shannon Adkins joining us. Shannon, welcome.
Thank you so much. Glad to be here.
Shannon, for those who aren’t familiar with you and your work, take a moment and explain what you do.
I’m the CEO of a management consulting firm called Future State. We’re headquartered in Oakland, California, which is right by San Francisco. We work with mostly mid to enterprise size organizations that are going through a transformation. That’s every company these days. Our clients range from global biotech companies to local financial institutions, food and consumer package goods companies and here in the Bay, a very strong technology practice as well.
You’re the CEO of Future State. How many years have you been in this industry doing what you do to be able to get to the point where you became CEO?
In the early to mid ‘90s, I started out at this company. I was pretty much straight out of college, English major from UC Santa Barbara. The Founder of this company, which was at that time called Tech Prose, hired me to help a startup and begin the web consultancy business. Back in the day, we called it the worldwide web. We’ve talked about building websites and that was our core offering. When I left Tech Prose, I went to a number of early dot-com agency startups. Probably the most famous of those would have been THINK New Ideas, which, if you remember that firm, was started by Adam Curry, the VJ from MTV. He was the CTO. It was wild and crazy times in San Francisco in the late ‘90s.
I did four or five years of consultancy in the early days of tech and online transformations. Then I moved out of consultancy and into a career of eight years in a high-tech industry and in banking, in financial services. Then I found myself a new mom and doing the long commute from Oakland Mountain view. I decided that I would come back to my roots and come back to Tech Prose, now called Future State. I restarted my consulting career and my sales career and took a pretty significant leap back into this world in 2010.
At that time, our business was struggling. We had way too much concentration in one or two clients and our profit margins were being squeezed by those clients. We were having a hard time consulting or selling more staff augmentation and that was becoming quite commoditized. When I came back to the company in 2010, I started selling outcomes-based consulting services. Sold about $7 million worth of business in my first year back at the company and that catapulted us into this transformation that we’ve been on for these past eight years. The name change was a part of that. Also, moving from the suburbs of Walnut Creek into the urban center, transit-oriented hub here of Oakland, shifting our client base and our deliverables and our capabilities drastically, then taking over as a CEO in 2015.
You mentioned that you took this leap of faith going from industry. I would imagine, correct me if I’m wrong, that you were earning a nice salary. There was a sense of stability. You took that leap partly because you are a young mother and didn’t want to do the whole commute, which anyone that’s been to San Francisco or LA knows how bad that can be. What was going on in your mind? Why take that leap?
For me, it had less to do about wanting to get back into consulting and more to do with wanting to be the master of my own destiny and work in an environment. I had always counted my time at Tech Prose as a young woman as probably my most formative career defining moments because the CEO gave me so much accountability and responsibility at such a young age to build this web practice from the ground up. I certainly wasn’t qualified to do it. I knew nothing about the internet at all. I didn’t even own a computer. That struck me at that early age about the opportunity to create a culture where people are free to swing for the fences, make mistakes, be appreciated and honored regardless of background, expertise, credibility, pedigree or whatever that might look like.
I was finding the opposite to be true. As I moved through the ranks in Corporate America, I was a director. The question was, “What does it take to push my career forward to the next level to become a VP and what was coming up for me?” I don’t know if it was 100% true, but the skills I would need to develop were my skills in corporate politics and managing up and that I would have to sacrifice some of my commitment and compassion for my team and our customers in order to make that leap in addition to needing to work and commute. Taking my own fate into my own hands, being accountable for my own results as it related to sales and bringing my expertise to bear and helping other organizations go through change would be this interesting and unique opportunity for me to give it a shot.
You mentioned wanting to realize your potential, not wanting to deal with the politics. All that stuff is so common. I hear that very often and I think that would resonate with our audience. You also mentioned that though when you made that leap, in your first year back you sold $7 million in consulting services. How did you do that your first year back? As specific as you can be, we’d love to get some insight into that because you also mentioned that there were a lot of things going on in the business that maybe you recognized needed improvement. Your first year back, given all of that, you still sold $7 million.
The biggest thing is I took $100,000 pay cut and went to almost 100% commission. I’m the sole breadwinner for my family. It was a do or die moment and I knew the number I needed to hit to be able to make the money that I needed to make.The skills I need to develop were my skills in corporate politics and managing up. Click To Tweet
Was that by choice?
Yeah, by choice.
There’s something going on in there that we need to know. From a mindset perspective, from a decision-making perspective, why did you do that?
I reached a point in my career where I knew I could get a job making over $150,000 a year without a ton of concern. What I hadn’t experienced in my ten years in the industry was a culture where I felt that I belonged, where I was loved. It was worth it for me to take a chance on myself and give myself the opportunity to demonstrate that I could produce those results, that I could earn that income for my family without sacrificing myself.
Do you think that if you would have taken a base salary or more of a set salary as opposed to commission, that you still would have created that $7 million in sales?
I don’t think so. It’s a question for me as I built this business now because I have folks on my team who are accountable for sales and delivery. I would never ask them to take that pay cut. The company was in tough shape when I came back. I didn’t know that but my hiring was a risk for them as well. We’re not in that position now. I would not ask my team members to take a salary cut, but I do know that. I woke up every morning incredibly hungry and committed to taking action, consistent with my desire to build that business and earn that commission check.
Were you scared?
No, I wasn’t scared. I know that sounds a little bit privileged. I’ve done a lot in my career, so I knew I would be okay. I also have an incredibly supportive husband who said, “As long as we’re together and you’re happy, that’s way better than you are commuting three hours a day being miserable and not feeling compelled by your work.” I gave myself six months, if I don’t look like I’m on track to hit the numbers that I need to hit, then I’ll make another choice and look for a new opportunity in a tech company in the Bay. We’re in San Francisco. Even in tough economic times in the San Francisco Bay, if you’ve got a good track record and you are well-connected, you’ll find work. It might not be the highest pay, but you’ll be able to survive if you got that track record. I did have that and that connection.
Given now that you have this hunger, you set yourself up that you’re only eating if you’re out there hunting. You have to produce. What did you do? I’m trying to figure out what lessons our audience can take from this. I’m very interested to find out specifically what you were doing on a daily and weekly basis and even a monthly basis in order to create that level of sales?
There was a little bit of planning and then a lot of action and a fair amount of luck as well. The planning was articulating what are the five, six, seven, eight, ten accounts that I want to be working inside of and what do I know about them and who do I know there and why do I know that they need our help? The action was outbound research, cold calling, emailing and connecting with folks that I’ve worked with over the course of many years. Also, people that I simply knew and asking them for introductions into I knew I wanted to work with Adobe, I knew I wanted to work with Wells Fargo, and I knew I wanted to work with Genentech. I happen to have worked at Wells Fargo, so I had resources and connections there. I had folks that I knew that worked at Genentech and I had folks that I knew that worked at Adobe, so I was able to reach out through there. Also, I did some work with SunPower that year.
There were four accounts that I went after with a great degree of focus. From there, I got some luck. What was happening with Roche and Genentech at that moment in time was Roche bought Genentech. They were looking to have someone support the integration of eighteen IT systems across the globe with 80,000 impacted users. That project was a $3 million deal. Then the other big deal was the Wells Fargo project that I closed, which was the articulation and creation of an audit university for all of their auditors. The interesting thing about that was I sold something that we were going to be doing for the first time. That’s probably the common denominator. If I’d only sold what our company had been able to deliver, I definitely would not have hit that number. I had to sell what I knew I could deliver.
What gave you the confidence to do that though? A lot of people would think, “We don’t yet have this.” They wouldn’t necessarily have the confidence to go out and sell something that doesn’t yet exist. What gave you that confidence or how did you approach that from a mindset perspective?
My thinking was if I know people who can do it, then I can sell it. Even if they don’t work for Future State, the example of that is the auditing university. When I said, “We want to work on this platform. We’re going to create an online portal. It’s going to be an online university. Every auditor is going to access it. I need technologists to build it.” My recruiters looked at me like, “What? We don’t know any of those people,” but I did because I’d run the Intuit partner platform and the developer network at Intuit for three and a half years. I called up one of my buddies who runs a software development company and said, “Help me figure out how to scope this. I’ll hire you to do the work, but you’ve got to help me pitch it on a whim here. If we close it then it’s your business.” The same for the woman who ended up being our lead instructional designer on the program.Be the best at listening, at partnering, and at asking the right questions. Click To Tweet
I asked the recruiters to find me the smartest human on the planet that does talent strategy and instructional design, the best person on the planet for that project. My recruiter said, “How much do you want to pay her? When is her start date and what’s her end date?” I said, “I don’t know what’s the smartest person on the planet on this topic cost? I’ll sell her at that rate. I’ll sell the project to that rate.” It was a real struggle for them, but it wasn’t a struggle for me to find her. I went out to LinkedIn and the keyword search for what I wanted and reached out to her and said, “I have this big opportunity and I’d like you to come pitch it with me. I can pay you whatever your market rate is.” She came back. She charged $175 an hour for instructional design, which is high, but I marked her up the way that I needed to and sold the business. We delivered an extraordinary program with folks that to this day are still collaborating, connecting with my firm.
Shannon, when you identify that you want to win business at Adobe or Genentech or these other companies, you knew some people either at those companies or that could introduce you to someone at those companies. Walk us through what approach did you use? People might say, “I know somebody who knows somebody there. I even know someone in this organization.” What’s an effective approach for getting into that company if the person that you know isn’t the actual decision-maker? What should people do to get a seat at the table?
The first conversation is important and being facile and able to begin consulting immediately. For me, it’s understanding something about what’s happening in that business. For Wells Fargo it was knowing that the organization cared about being world class in everything. In the first conversation what they said was, “We might need some instructional design help for a course for auditors,” being able to take that conversation and understand but what strategies does that connect to and how does that strategy further the business in general? What are the challenges and constraints that Wells Fargo is facing and what matters most to your organization and understanding that desire to be world class opened up a whole different conversation?
You’re not going to get to world class with an instructional designer working on a course. This needs to be a comprehensive and detailed analysis and understanding of the current state and the future state and a plan to bridge those gaps. It is a deep level of business acumen, but of course anybody who’s getting into consulting has that. It’s the confidence in your own ability to begin consulting immediately, which for some people means deep homework and making sure you’re prepped on the backend about what are the constraints and concerns for that organization, for that particular function and for the industry at large. Then showing up ready that add value and produce results for them in the very first conversation.
Why did they choose to work with your company and not one of the other many consulting firms that are out there?
I’m not sure why people said yes right then because I would say, “Don’t look at the website. Don’t go to the Tech Prose website. Ignore our name. Talk only to me. I commit to you that I will execute on this even though it’s not what our company is known for.”
You’re saying that you told the perspective buyers that you were speaking with, “Don’t look at our website. What you’re going to see there is not in line with what I’m telling you right now, but you need to trust me that I can actually deliver for you?”
I’m asking because a lot of people will spend a great deal of time, a lot of consultants will work on their website or their business plan or like their presentation. They’re getting all these things ready wanting them to be perfect, but here you are without all these items done to perfection and you’re winning million dollars plus deals. How is that possible? What gave you the confidence to allow you to do that rather than say, “I’m going to make sure and I’ll work with our web team or whatever it is to get everything in place perfectly. Then I’m going to go out and win business because I’ll have the best website or the right messaging work.” How did you go out with all those things?
There were two factors. One was I didn’t have the time to wait for that. Second was I knew the company didn’t have the time or the dollars to invest in it. The third is after a career in marketing and in technology and building websites for other people and for myself, the other thing to know is that for the ten years I was in industry, I was a buyer of consulting services and I was a buyer of multimillion-dollar contracts of consulting services. I never hired the big consulting companies. I never once hired a PwC or a Deloitte or a Razorfish. Not that I didn’t have them bid on things, but I always hired the person who looked me in the eyes, told me that my outcomes mattered as much to them as they mattered to me, that I trusted and could get things done. I worked with them in the past, either in a consulting capacity or not in a consulting capacity and with whom I had a deep and profound trust.
I intuitively knew that in this business, people are selecting a partner to execute on a core piece of business that done correctly means their career is going to be catapulted to the next level and done badly puts their job on the line. They’re hiring us for their most important priorities. It was that knowledge as a buyer of what I was buying and what I wasn’t buying. I was never buying the methodology. I was never buying the competencies. I was never buying the brand. I was buying the individuals that I knew would go to the mat to make sure that I was able to achieve that goal and that outcome for the dollars that I had available to invest in that. If I knew it was worth $250,000 to get that outcome and they said they could get it done for $250,000, I knew they wouldn’t come back and say $450,000 after we started down the path.
Did you ever hire someone when you were in the position where you were hiring consultants and consulting firms and so forth, who you did not have a previous relationship with? Everything that you’ve shared so far, even as part of Future State, when you rejoined, went out and won the $7 million in your first year back, you leveraged the relationships and the network that you had. What about for those people who don’t have that network or have identified companies they want to work with, but they don’t have it in? What’s the best practice there? What works best in order to give them a chance to win business?
Many of the relationships I had where I sold weren’t the person who ended up buying. The relationship that I had at Wells Fargo was not who ended up buying from me at Wells Fargo. They gave me the insight and the credibility to know what was happening in the company at that moment in time, but my ultimate buyer wasn’t someone I’d ever worked with before. It’s pretty hard to get in if you don’t have some level of understanding and insight about the business and the challenges that they’re facing. Most businesses are facing the same challenges, so it doesn’t take much to figure out, “You’ve got a problem with silos. You’ve got a challenge because people aren’t effectively communicating across functions. You’ve got challenges with data. Your decision-making models are poor.” Every company that we work with has those challenges.There's no way that I can be expert on your business as much as you are expert on your business. Click To Tweet
That next level of detail is, “Now, your organization is facing some turmoil because you had a leader that swapped out. That leader was well-beloved so people are feeling uncertain and concerned about the future of the business.” That next level of granularity, the empathy, the understanding of people’s emotions and understanding of where people are at, the understanding of what their fears and concerns are, and being able to bring empathy to those fears and concerns plus expertise to solve the tactical problems is what people want to hear. Then people want to hear, “I’m not going to stop until we’re successful, so you and I are in this together. I won’t sleep if it’s not on track to be successful.” I knew that, for whatever reason, the talent that I brought in wasn’t executing or anybody else on the project left, that I would stay up all night making sure that the coursework was developed properly, that the Excel spreadsheet was accurate and that I wouldn’t go to sleep until I was confident that what I told them, what I’d promised was going to be delivered.
Shannon, when you worked at oDesk and Intuit, your achievements include growing teams with a lot of success. For the consultant who has a small team right now or wants to grow a team, what are the best practices that you’ve seen in growing a consulting business?
When we built Future State, when I took over as CEO, the number one question I wanted to answer was, “Why does the world need another management consulting company?” I don’t think that the world does need another management consulting company, but what I do think is the world needs a company that brings compassion and commitment to their team members, to their community and to their clients. We operate our business on a triple bottom line. We’re a certified B Corp and our purpose and our mission and why we exist are about changing the world of business, changing the world of work so that people have a better experience at work and customers have a better experience with products and the planet thrives inside of a capitalistic world. You got to be able to answer that question no matter what business you’re running in the 21st century if you want to attract and retain top talent and build the team.
It can’t be about, “I’m trying to save for my retirement. I’m interested in maximizing revenue and growth.” That’s not enough for the most talented people on the planet. They want to make a difference in the world and they want to work for a company that’s committed to making a difference in the world. Then I think after that, it’s really understanding what makes everybody in your organization tick and doing the best you can to optimize and design to give them the opportunity to do their best work. We are odd of course we’re focused on utilization, we’re focused on billability, but we’re equally focused on what our team members really love to do, the kinds of clients that truly inspire them and how they want to grow and evolve as a consultant. We do our best to fit the pieces of that puzzle together in a way that our team members are able to get as much out of these engagements as our clients are and grow and evolve in each engagement.
What’s one of the biggest mistakes that you see consultants making?
It’s different depending on how you are consulting, but I do think the history of management consulting is, “We’re the smartest people in the room and you’re in a lot of trouble if you don’t get our expertise and insight. We are the only key to your future success.” There’s a lot of fear in the cell and there’s a lot of ego in the delivery. At times, that shows up as people taking credit for the work of an internal team member or gathering the ideas and insights from an internal team member but packaging them up prettily and calling them our own. That model, first and foremost, buyers are starting to not believe it because the world is moving so fast. There’s no way that I can be expert on your business as much as you are expert on your business.
The best thing I can do is be the best at listening, at partnering and at asking the right questions. Then the best at getting work done, delivering alongside you, learning alongside you and learning in partnership with our clients and saying, “We thought that was the right approach. It turns out it isn’t because this factor has changed in the world since the last time we worked on a project like this.” That humility and true open collaboration is unusual in our industry, but it’s what clients want. It’s what our clients tell us that’s why they’re not hiring some of the bigger consultancies anymore is that they’re tired of the boilerplate solution that, “I know best. You’re in trouble if you don’t listen to me. I have some data or knowledge about your industry that you couldn’t possibly understand.” I don’t think that model’s going to work for long if it is even working today.
How many employees does Future State have today?
We’re at about 85 now, so we fluctuate between 70 and 100.
As the CEO of a company with 85 or so employees, what do you spend most of your time doing each day?
I still spend a lot of time selling and I’m not sure that I should be, but I do still spend a lot of time out there meeting with clients, talking with them about our history, sharing with them about our vision, understanding their concerns, their objectives, their issues, bringing those leads forward. Then passing them on to my team members so that they can collaborate with a client to develop solutions and execute on those programs together. I also spend a lot of time with each of my team members, finding out what they’re passionate about, what they’re working on, what they’re committed to. For us at Future State, I spend a lot of time in the community understanding the challenges for the Bay Area as a region. I’m a member of the Bay Area Council, understanding what is affecting our local economy and our social environment.We are only as good as the community at large. Click To Tweet
We’ve certainly got a lot of issues in The Bay as it relates to equity. Housing pricing is outrageous. People are leaving the city faster than they’re arriving. There is a real lack of equity and opportunity for folks of color and being a part of that conversation and committing to creating more equitable work places and creating more opportunity and recognizing, connecting the dots that if our communities aren’t thriving, our businesses are definitely not going to thrive. At least not for long. We are only as good as the community at large and there’s work for us to do as a business community to make sure that we’re bringing opportunity to everybody.
You mentioned that you still spend a chunk of your time doing sales. What right now, even from a marketing perspective, will you say is the most effective for you and for your company to generate leads?
That’s part of what I’m still trying to figure out. I have a bias that to be able to effectively sell consulting services at the VP to C-Suite level, you need to be able to add value in the very first conversation. That means you’re a salesperson who’s also an incredibly seasoned consultant or business person and you are well-connected. You are able to establish trust with folks in those positions that are facing those challenges very quickly. We have not found success with a lead gen model or a BD model that is not person to person relationship based.
We are a woman-owned business. We’ve begun to engage with procurement organizations to see if that might be an opportunity for us to get broader and wider inside of the organizations that we work in faster, but that’s not yet paying off. We have done thought leadership marketing to an extent. What seems to be working best right now are convening smallish groups of people on a core topic that we’re passionate and interested in that others are passionate and interested in. Then bringing that opportunity to collaborate and connect with potential buyers and the friends and colleagues of potential buyers in a more intimate setting has been leading to opportunities that are opening and closing for us in this business, being seen as a thought leader but not as much in the published pieces, much more in the one-to-one dialogue.
Shannon, you have the responsibility to lead quite a sizable organization. What specifically helped you as a person, to stay sharp and to perform at your highest level?
Talking to my customers. We do a client close out meeting, every single engagement that ends. I talked to the customer about what worked, what didn’t work and how do we improve. I talked to them about what’s resonating about Future State. Why did you pick Future State when you could have picked Deloitte and probably were pressured to pick Deloitte? What mattered most to you and how do we shift and evolve our offering to meet the needs of our clients? When I took over as CEO, that’s a practice I implemented as well as assessing our client engagement with a net promoter score survey. I’m asking people how likely they are to recommend Future State and we are at a net promoter score of 86.5, which is world class.Talk to the customer about what worked, what didn't work, and how do you improve. Click To Tweet
When I began, I thought we should look more like a traditional consulting company in order to be successful. As I did those interviews and that insight, I learned how important it was for us to stay true to what makes us different, which is the way that we treat people. It’s also the fact that we’re almost entirely women, which is unusual in our industry. We’re not only women by design, it just happens to be that way. That does bring a certain element of a collaborative way of working with our clients, a low ego and a practical way of working with our clients that seems to be really resonating and making a difference. That’s the thing that keeps me the sharpest.
What I’d like to do more of is more reading and more understanding of some of these large trends that are impacting my clients today, artificial intelligence and blockchain and there are some cool applications what people are doing with blockchain for good and how they’re using blockchain to actually drive social change, which is super fascinating and a place I’d love for us to be collaborating, partnering, but I don’t know enough about it yet to be able to sell it. Those would probably be the places that I’d like to be doing more investigation and research.
Shannon, I want to thank you for coming on here, sharing some of your journey with us and best practices. There’s a lot of value in what you just offered and our audience can certainly take some, if not all of it, and apply it to their business and see some nice improvements. What’s the best place for them to learn more about you and Future State?
We are at www.FutureState.com and we do have a newsletter that you can subscribe to that’s going to include what we’re reading as well as what we’re publishing and where we’re going to be, the events that we’ll be going to. We’re also on Facebook and on LinkedIn and on Twitter under the handle of @FutureStateInc in most cases. I am very active on LinkedIn and happy to accept any connections from anybody at any time that’s looking to grow their business and understand what we’re doing. That’s Shannon Adkins on LinkedIn.
Shannon, thank you so much.
Thank you. Have a great day.