When stakes are high, people turn to RSM Consulting’s Joe Decilveo, Jr. His expertise is frequently tapped in areas around shareholder litigation, regulatory investigations, plea agreements, commercial disputes and other potentially difficult situations. Joe joined RSM in 2011 with a small team of professionals to complement RSM’s Chicago-based bankruptcy and insolvency practice. Under his leadership, the practice has grown from fewer than ten to more than 70 professionals, from one partner in one office to five partners in offices in nearly ten cities. Learn how Joe helped catapult the practice of litigation consulting to the next level.
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Simplifying Litigation Consulting with Joe Decilveo
I’m very excited to have Joe Decilveo joining us. Joe, welcome.
Thank you so much, Michael. I’m happy to be here.
Joe, really excited for this conversation. For those that are new to you and to your work, take a moment and share with us what you do.
My name’s Joe Decilveo. I’m a partner with RSM, which is one of the larger accounting, consulting and tax firms in the world. I practice in an area called litigation support, our litigation consulting services. We work primarily with companies and law firms as it relates to items requiring financial investigations or in an adversary role as it relates to commercial disputes and on some occasions we function as financial experts in matters of dispute.
My understanding is that you have some 30 odd thousand employees worldwide, RSM being a very large company. Before we start exploring where you are now and some lessons learned for the benefit of all of our audience, I want to go back to the early days. What were you doing before you got involved in consulting and in the whole audit tax side of things? What was your background? Were you involved in any other businesses? Were you working for other corporations? Lay that out for us.
My background academically was in the preparation of accounting and finance. I graduated with a dual degree and when I began looking for employment opportunities, there were a large number of relatively speaking of accounting firms referred to as the big eight. I went to work for one of those firms and I was there for about twenty some years. Principally, what I did while I was with that firm was working on the audit side and doing annual financial statement audits. Rose through the ranks as one may to one day become a partner there. Not only be responsible for individual engagements, but ultimately to be responsible for practices and for offices of that particular organization. Subsequent to that, I moved on to an area that was quite a bit different in the respect of the nature of the services being provided. In the annual audit accounting world, the work you do is principally for the opinion relative to the fair presentation of financial statements.
After that I moved on to what I currently do now. Although a lot of the skills that I had gathered over the years in providing client service, which was primarily through the financial channels, the Chief Financial Officer channel, we’re still applicable. Nonetheless, I had to rethink about how I was going to utilize those skills when doing so in the world of financial investigations and commercial disputes. In that respect, the sales channel is a bit different. It is not through the CFO route or other financial routes in organizations. It’s primarily through law firms and the legal departments of companies. That was the biggest differential in terms of not so much what I was doing, although there was a difference between what I used to do and then what I would do in the consulting world. It was really the sales channel and dealing with a whole different set of variables that exist in the channel I now practice in versus those that I practiced in historically.
I really want to explore the sales channel and your whole view on that. Before we get there, one thing that stands out to me before we even jumped in this conversation was that you’ve honed in on a clear area of specialization. I can see how that forms over twenty, 30 years working your ranks up to a partner in firms. For those who are independent consultants or they run smaller firms, a lot of people struggle with making a decision around what area to specialize in. I’m interested in your take on how beneficial it’s been for your career and any observations that you have around the importance of specializing in the world of consulting.
I guess my very broad view on that is before you determine that you want to be a specialist in anything, it’s a better idea to get a broad understanding of the way businesses operate. The way professional consultants operate within our business environment. You should be thinking potentially all along about some greater degree of specialization to enhance the value that you can bring to your clients. Initially, much like when you first go to a college or university, you’re not entirely sure of where you want to get your degree as it relates to particular college within a university or a particular field of study within a given college. You take a collection of courses to be at a better idea of what you like the most and what you might be the best at. Sometimes they correlate quite a bit. I believe when you begin your professional career, you should be thinking a lot less about specialization and more about learning the practical aspects generally about how businesses operate. What are key performance indicators that various industries use, how industries differ and how services to those industries may differ?
In the early stages, it’s okay. You don’t have to feel the pressure of narrowing in right away. It’s okay to expose yourself to a lot of different things, benefit from all those, increase your knowledge, but you do want to have a destination or a destination in mind in terms of moving towards a greater level of specialization and expertise.
What drives you to want to do that is essentially the value you can bring to your client base. It’s wonderful to be a generalist. It’s very important to have a general sense of whatever it is in the business arena that your particular client may be involved with, but they’re going to seek your advice on quite specific issues. It’s much like the medical profession and you go through medical school, but at the end, we’re typically going to specialize in something through your residency. When you ultimately finish that, you’re going to be practicing in a very narrow area of medicine, for most doctors. I’m not speaking about internists in general. When your clients come to you, they’re coming to you with their ankle problem, their knee problem, their cardio problem, their respiratory problem. Unless you have that in-depth knowledge and understanding of what it’s going to take to, in my example, make them feel better or get better, you’re not going to be as valuable to them. The business world treats us the same way.
How do you approach staying at the top of your game, ensuring that your skills are sharp and continually reinventing your knowledge? That you can be able to provide the answers or have the insight or opinion to serve your clients and provide the highest level of value to them?
It primarily drives around thinking about concepts like adaptability and relevance. When you boil that down, it means how do you deal with change? What makes you a sought after at one point in time, maybe something five, seven years later that is not that relevant anymore? Your ability to adapt to change and to be at the front end of change, rather than the trailing end is something that not only is individually motivating. It’s also necessary in order for your success as a professional and consulting to continue. The one constant is change in our world. You need to be comfortable with that change and embrace the concept of things not staying the same. Static environment is not typically an environment in which consultants can live successfully long.
Let’s get specific. How do people do that? Let’s take your experience, as an example. What do you find works well for you to stay at the top of your game? To ensure that you’re able to have that adaptability and being able to see around the curve before you get there?
A lot of that depends on the experiences that you’re having with your circle of clients. They typically, from a consulting standpoint, might be pulling you along. As they experience new challenges, you’re trying to come up with ways to better help them be successful in what they do. Years ago, for instance, in the world of electronic discovery, those two words didn’t exist 30 years ago. Everything was in a pretty much of a paper format. By example, we’ve moved into an electronic format. What are the tools, what are the ideas you have around looking at a new medium in the most efficient way versus an old medium that you looked at in a traditional way? How do you stay ahead of the curve or in front of? It’s having your clients basically have challenges or necessities that they’re dealing with that force you to think about, “How do you come up with solutions or groups of solutions for their problems?” It’s a dynamic exchange where their challenges are becoming your options for service and your responsibilities in one respect to solve.
Are these conversations that, in your experience, happen with clients without a clear, direct path to an engagement? Is it about meeting with perspective clients or existing clients? Talking to them about the business, about the market, the environment and seeing what comes of that. In order to be able to find how you can provide value or a solution and going out and looking for a way to connect those dots? When you are approaching a perspective client or even an existing client, do you already know that there’s going to be a clear engagement that’s going to come from that?
I think it’s both and it depends on the individual circumstances. There are some times where it’s quite clear what the direction is in order to resolve an issue or at least there is the appearance that it’s quite clear. Obviously when you get into the details, it may require some modification from your original thoughts. On the other hand, some of the nature of the challenges and the needs for which the particular buyer of your services may have are rather undefined. They don’t know exactly what it is they have. They might need an initial assessment of where they stand on the curve relative to others. What gaps may exist between where they are and where we as professionals might think they need to be or were others think they ultimately could be. Its circumstance specific but it sometimes is clear, as I said in the beginning, and other times it’s not clear at all. As a consultant, one of those things you have to do when you approach these situations is try to put them in one of those two kinds of boxes. Is it clear where we’re going or is it less clear? How do we modify our approaches in each of those two kinds of circumstances?
That’s good advice for everyone. Certainly it’s high level advice but I think it can shift how people are thinking and approaching different opportunities. You’ve worked with some of the largest companies in the world. How did you go about landing those clients? You talked about that the sales channel has changed for you over the years, but maybe share the approach that has worked best for you as part of an organization to go in and win business with very large companies.
One thing that all consultants need to do, and I think the very good ones do this and they do it extremely well, that’s to spend more time listening and inquiring rather than necessarily trying to demonstrate their capabilities. In a reciprocal business relationship, the high level executives of companies want to know that you understand what their issues are. You can identify with their problems and yes, hopefully potentially what they’re experiencing is something you’ve seen either precisely or some degree of in the past. You can bring some of your prior thoughts with respect to solutions to their current problems. Most business executives want to make sure that the consultants that they have are listening well, understanding the problems they have and reflecting upon that consultant’s experience as the various ways those kinds of issues or problems can be resolved or have been resolved in the past. When you look at my career, I started off in what people call the auditing profession. The word audit means to listen, maybe in a bit of a different sense. When you’re performing an audit for generally accepted auditing standards as it relates to gap financials. It still gets down to that same basic principle of how well are you listening to what you’re being told and what are the reactive ideas you have to deal with what you’ve just learned.
It’s very good advice and spot on for everyone out there. The importance of listening over just trying to demonstrate or talking about your approach. It all starts certainly with understanding what the buyer cares most about. If we go back even before that, how do you even get a seat at the table? What have you found that has worked best to set a conversation, to have a meeting, whether it’s on the phone or in person, with a prospective buyer?
It’s different depending on how the particular opportunity might come to you and you have those situations in which the brand of the organization that you work for can be a drawing card. There are other situations where that’s not the case. In those situations where it’s more of an outbound reach than an inbound call for a solution, what I have found is the best way is by making that initial phone call. Having a brief dialogue about the anticipated values that a mutual relationship might bring and trying to get that individual or those groups of individuals to sit down for fifteen to twenty minutes, which might not seem like a long time? Generally, if you’re going to have a successful relationship, the first fifteen or twenty minutes demonstrate the chemistry that can be achieved between the parties. That is about executing and demonstrating your expertise.
It’s surely not about the first fifteen minutes as to whether or not you develop a great relationship with someone or some executive. Getting that particular individual to sit down alone, maybe with a few other people, to talk about whatever it is that’s particularly troublesome or challenging to them. I think it’s the best way to do that before you then begin to demonstrate your capabilities and that of the organization that you work for. That’s more on an outbound basis. On an inbound basis, the dialogue and the issues are usually better form and the interests of the potential buyer or are more defined.
Inbound is a lot easier for people to think about approaching because it’s an opportunity that comes to you. Whereas with outbound, that’s where a lot of people have challenges. What I’m hearing you say is in your experience, you’re picking up the phone and you’re calling someone who you believe could be an ideal client. Are you taking any steps to establish a relationship with that person before or is it just leveraging the brand of the company that you’re a part of that gets them to even answer your phone call?
It’s a two and maybe a threefold approach. You’re going to utilize your brand to gain awareness and hopefully every day your brand grows in terms of market awareness. You’re also in the event that you don’t have a relationship with any of the people you’re appealing to or you want to appeal to a new group, a different group. You’re probably better served by sending them occasionally pieces of thought leadership. Begin to acquaint them with you, not only as a member of a particular firm, but also you as an individual and as a professional. Then when you do make that call, that request for, “Could we have a face to face,” or “Could we have some time where we might dialogue over the phone?” It’s not as if it’s as cold as it would’ve been had they not been getting some form of correspondence from you.
Whether or not they’ve chosen to look at it is another issue and we know in today’s world, you get thousands of emails a week, even thousands a day depending on who you are. A lot of that that you would communicate through email may not necessarily get to the ultimate reader. Another way that we try to do it is organizationally to participate in situations where opportunities that would allow us over a greater audience to demonstrate our capability to provide solutions to problems. That might be through trade associations or particular organizations that on some periodic basis gather industry leaders to some form of a forum. You use your time on the panel of the day as though whatever, to basically try to convince them that you’re somebody that has something that they might benefit from having access to.
For a small or mid-size consulting firm or even the independent consultant out there that is listening to this that wants to start landing projects and engagements with corporations, with much larger entities. What’s important for them to know? What do you see as the big difference between working with and serving a larger organization compared to serving a small to mid-size organization?
To a large extent, the biggest difference I see is in larger corporate entities, within the US and internationally, there’s much more opportunity for diversification of responsibilities. In a smaller organization, typically there’s a much smaller group of individuals that are making key decisions for the company, sometimes beyond their area of previous academic preparation or knowledge. Simply because they don’t have this great array of professional talent to draw on, they’re forced to make decisions that might be a bit out of their sphere and their comfort zone. That’s where for middle market and even smaller, where consultants that are capable of walking into and dealing with those arenas where it’s not as well-defined. Who has responsibility for what? The management team perhaps is not as refined in every area. They may be extremely refined in research, in marketing or in product development. They don’t necessarily have the ability at that life cycle stage of the company to have a full scale allocation of all the major functional areas in a way that companies have been around for more years and are of much larger size and capacity. They do.
The middle market and smaller companies may be challenged when it comes to areas that are not routinely dealt with by members of their core team. That’s where the consultant comes in and can add more value. There’s this perception that the owners of the business or the key management of their business perceive themselves as to have certain level of knowledge but also recognize they don’t have the complete set and are willing to go outside to others to give them that. In a lot of large companies, a lot of knowledge around what needs to be done is possessed by the employees of the company. Not entirely, but a large part of it is. There are a lot more know, rather than how to know or what to do.
What’s your view on giving value and how much value should you give, as a consultant, to a buyer before they’ve agreed or signed the engagement? How much time should someone be spending and how much knowledge should they transfer or offer to a prospective buyer before the buyer has engaged them?
That’s a tough one because in order to answer that effectively, you’d probably have to break it down into a couple components. One is how much runway is there after the first sale? What’s the likelihood of this particular opportunity to be a bit of an annuity in one respect, in terms of their need for consulting services versus something that would appear to be a one-shot opportunity? You’re going to spend a lot more time on them on the give side as you put it in terms of giving away some thought or insight where you believe the trail is a longer trail. If you think it’s a one and done, you probably want to think about how much you want to give away because you might not have that much left to bill for.
A lot of the knowledge out there or the ideas out there are that people should just give, give, give, give, give, which I believe in. I believe in giving an offering a lot of value. One thing that isn’t talked about enough in the world of consulting is being selective around who you are giving to and who you’re spending your time with. Our most valuable asset isn’t our knowledge. It’s also how we’re spending our time. What I really like and what’s important about what you said is to first think about the prospective buyer and the opportunity. If it’s one that has greater potential, then it makes sense to invest more into the relationship and invest more into giving and developing that value and the trust. If it’s something that might be a quick little piece of cash flow, unless you’re hurting for cash, it’s probably not going to be the best use of your time to invest into that relationship and invest into giving a whole bunch of information and especially your time.
What mistake do you see consultants making often that you know if they corrected would help them to be more successful? Are there one or two big mistakes or ideas that you see people falling down on where if they approached it differently or corrected, they would experience a much higher level of success?
The one area that comes to mind is when it all gets back to differentiating yourself or your organization. If the consultants to any organization basically get to the point where they’re all perceived to be equal in terms of capabilities and then begin to resort to price as the distinguishing way to obtain business. That thinking leads to a downward spiraling of the values that are being brought. You mentioned it before about doing something because you need to do it for the moment versus doing something because it makes strategic sense for the long-term in terms of investing. I’ve seen it happen. If consultants tend to get into the distinction by which they want to hold themselves out at this price, that’s a short- lived strategy. I don’t think it works for them in the long run. You begin to create a downward spiral and don’t recognize the true value that a particular individual or group of individuals can bring. I’ve always thought that you should demonstrate your value to an organization by the thoughts, the quality of the thoughts, and the assistance with implementation that you give them and not necessarily lead with, “We’re X% cheaper than Y or Z.” I’d rather lead with things like, “We’re more experienced because we’ve seen this and that,” than “We’re cheaper because we’ve chosen to be cheaper to get the work.”
That’s very solid advice. What role, if any, have coaches, mentors or joining professional groups played in your own success over the years?
You can’t estimate the value that you get from mentors and don’t ever underestimate it. When you first begin your career and even probably until you end your career, you should always be listening. People who have had five, seven, ten, twenty years more experience and you’re the lucky recipient of that when you first join an organization. You should be in the sponging mode and basically try to absorb everything. In your mind you’re going to distinguish between that, that you want to make a part of the way you then deliver your message versus something that you’d say, “I’m not going to have that be the one or two things that I focus on.” Mentors are incredibly important. Certainly have played over my career an important part of how I’ve become what I’ve become. It’s interesting that you have mentors at different stages of your career. It’s natural when you first begin something, someone has got three years’ experience has three times as much experience as you do. That’s fine for them but you’ll probably change mentors as you get more business experience and become more successful in the consulting profession and then look to others.
The other thing that when you think of mentors typically, you think of them being essentially in the company in which you work. There is somebody that you’re going to see on a routine basis within your own organization. I’ve felt that some of the best mentors I’ve had, whether they’ve been by design or by accident and whether or not they even knew they were in a way to influence me as a mentor, have actually been clients. I believe that the more senior executives in certain clients that I’ve had the great opportunity to work on have taught me quite a bit. They’ve taught me things that are more intangible than necessarily tangible of what clearly great ways to use the experience of others to enrich yourself and what you’re capable of delivering in the future. If someone says I had a mentor during their career, that could be the case for them. You might find that as consultants, they would refer to themselves as having several mentors during the course of their careers. I’m picking a bit from each of them. I repeat again, I do believe that you can learn almost as much and perhaps not even more, from your clients and the way they deal with situations, the way they interface with you. I look at mentor in a very broad way when I think about that question.
It’s a good response because one thing we’ve seen consistently across industries is that the highest performers in any industry are people who aren’t trying to figure it all out themselves. Whether they’re in sports, in music or the arts or business, they’re always finding ways to surround themselves with those that can teach them things that they don’t know or give them different perspectives. Whether that’s within an organization or whether it’s a coach that’s external, but finding someone that you can learn from and gain different perspectives in whatever area of your business or life you’re looking for is the fastest way to get there. Joe, I really want to thank you for coming on. Appreciate you sharing a bit of your journey here with us, your experience and expertise. What’s the best way for people to learn more about your work and to connect with you?
It’s consistent with what I said is my approach sometimes to dealing with people and that is to call me directly. I’m more than happy to try and impart what I may have to others. There’s a whole host of people within our organization at RSM that are willing with their experience to have others reach out to them and provide them with what thoughts we can to help them along. I’m happy to take phone calls or emails, probably emails are best way to start.
Joe, thanks again so much.
Thank you. Good luck. Have a wonderful day.