Today’s guest is Mindy Millward, a veteran consultant with over 20 years of experience from Navalent. You may remember my guest Ron Carucci, from episode 21, who recommended Mindy as an outstanding and insightful consultant, and he was right. I’m delighted to have her join me today. In this episode, we are discussing the importance of maintaining a long-term strategy and vision for your marketing and networking. We talk about how to find clients that are really ready to make lasting change, how to most effectively market your services, and whether it’s worth your time to compete with larger consultancy firms, particularly for the business of Fortune 500 companies. Mindy shares insights into how to correctly size your firm, the importance of getting connected with the decision makers of the company and how to spot the red flags that prove it’s time to walk away from a project. I think you’ll learn just as much from her insights and experiences as I did in this episode of The Consulting Success Podcast with Mindy Millward.
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Long-term strategies in marketing and networking offer the greatest rewards for the most successful consultants.
The Mindset That Wins Consulting Work With Fortune 500 Companies with Mindy Millward
I’m very excited to have Mindy Millward joining us. Mindy, welcome.
Thank you. Good to be here.
For those who don’t know you, explain what you do.
I’m a Founding Partner and one of the owners of a group called Navalent. We’re a management consulting firm that focuses on helping organizations across a spectrum of change issues. We helped them get a lot of clarity on strategy, set up the organization that can deliver on that strategy, and then spend a fair amount of time working with leaders on their own agenda for change and how they get people to follow as they try and put in place a new organization and strategy.
For those regular Consulting Success Podcast audience, you may remember that Ron Carucci came on previously, also a partner in Navalent. He was the one who recommended to have Mindy come on here because she brings quite an interesting background and deep experience moving up the ranks in consulting. Let’s dive right in. Give us a sense of the types of clients that you are currently working with.
It’s one of the reasons why we ended up going out on our own and starting Navalent. We wanted to work with clients who are truly interested in change and willing to take some risks to make it happen. Those clients, a lot of times they are corporate, publicly-held institutions. We have a lot of organizations that are Fortune 500, Fortune 200 size, but it also allows us to work with leaders who are leading not for-profits or startups or smaller businesses that a lot of larger consultancies tend to ignore because of being concerned about getting bills paid. We are looking for leaders who are thinking about change and thinking about their own personal journey in that change and impact that they can have.
Have you always focused or accepted or been open to working with a wide range of clientele from the Fortune 500 and public companies down to the private non-profits and even startups?
There’s always been an openness there for a couple of reasons. One of the common denominators of our clients are that there is a client. There is a decider or a decision maker on the work. That can be a struggle in some types of institutions more than others. We have done government work; we’ve done work with educational institutions. There’s a point in time where some of those types of clients, for us, trying to find someone who has the ability to say, “Let’s do this,” or, “That’s not part of my agenda,” can be hard. For us, it’s not about size of organization. It’s about the complexity of the problem. It’s about our ability to reach and connect leaders who can have personal impact. We’ve been pretty open through our whole journey. The past few years, we’ve seen quite a bit more in the under $500 million space, $100 million to $500 million. A lot of times, they weren’t looking for consultants, but they’re looking to supplement the leadership they have internally and knowing they don’t have to bring it in house. They can rent it, if they will, through their relationships.
A lot of consultants, as they’re building their businesses in their early years especially finding its best practice, a guiding principle that helps them is to have clarity around who their ideal client is. When I hear you say that you’re not focused as much on the size of the company and that you could work and serve a wide range, how do you go about and do your marketing effectively or how do you know who to target and engage? What has been your experience around that? Has it evolved over time? What criteria do you use to target your ideal clients if there’s such a wide range of them?
Other consultancy is well-focused on particular industries. We don’t do that. Our background and expertise are in organizational change and what gets real change to happen in the hearts of people and in the core of organization. It’s not focused at the individual level and it’s not just focused at the organizational level. We go across that spectrum. We have expertise about how you make change work regardless of whether you’re a pharmaceutical or a financial or a CPG type of firm. If you look at our client list through the past years, it has changed dramatically. Some of that is based on what’s going on in the general economy and what types of clients are struggling or looking for help in terms of the types of companies they’re in. In terms of reaching those clients, for us, it’s a CEO. We have a lot of relationships with what we would call collaborators or finders. Those may be a head of human resources, it could be a head of strategy.
We’ve had a lot of relationships with general counsels. People that are on the team of a leader and they see a leader struggling to implement change or to figure out, “Why isn’t anyone listening? Why won’t they do what I tell them to do? Why can’t my team come together and do what I’m asking them to do?” We have had long-term relationships with those collaborators and finders who’ve reached out to us and find us. They pre-sell us to clients saying, “You have to meet these people. They’re not consultants.” It’s funny because I’ve heard clients use that word a lot. We have a few clients who’ve been with us probably ten or eleven years, since almost the beginning of Navalent. They call us a business partner. They call us almost anything but a consultant. They do come for us but it’s not typically for a project. It’s because of the relationship we have with them and the ability to think creatively about the challenges they’re having with their own impact and getting change to happen in their organizations.
A lot of our clients are word of mouth. We get passed from one client to another. We do work in organizations and fortunately for us, people go off and find other jobs so they’re going to take us with them. In the smaller end of our client side, the more startup, we’ve had some deep connections with the Young Presidents Club where younger CEOs are coming together and talking about their challenges in forums. There’s a lot more networking amongst them than there used to be, and we get shared that way as well. That’s the relationship and networking side of it, and then we do a lot of writing. When you look at our website, it’s content heavy. We do a lot of thinking about change, we do a lot of leadership, and those pieces are out there in so many different ways that people will pick that up and connect with us through social media and through other ways to find us.
You’ve taken a long-term approach and have a long-term mindset when it comes to your marketing by focusing very heavily on relationship building and creating authority-based materials and content that may not have an impact right away. You compound those over time and they helped to carry your business. Over time, you’ve maybe shifted a little bit who you’re focusing on the industry depending on what’s happening in the economy, but you have certainly identified specific types of people within organizations. You do have criteria that you use that guides you in terms of identifying an ideal client?
The first thing you said is a key point for us, which is around focusing on the relationship first. We have these stories that we tell within Navalent. We have a few clients, one in particular that the selling cycle was four years, and that’s a lifetime in a small business and to a consultancy to think that, “I’m talking to this potential client for a period of four years off and on and still haven’t sold them one day of work.” We started talking with them. They’re very much a relationship type of company themselves, so they had to sniff us out to see if they liked us, to see if they liked what we were saying. They used a lot of what I would call ‘gurus’. They have a lot of people come speak to them about brilliant thoughts and then they tried to do it themselves. They’re not used to working with consultants so they had to figure out what that would look like. When they finally called me and said, “We want to start that work that we’ve been talking to you about.” This was 2014. I said, “Do you mean the proposal I wrote in 2010?” They’re like, “Yeah, that one.”
I’m wondering for the consultants that hear you say that. They get that the relationships are important and that the long-term mindset is valuable, but that can be hard for people, especially when they’ve even built their business to a level of success, but the referrals and the network that carry them for a while is starting to dry up. What do you say to them? What’s the key, from your experience, to be able to embrace that opportunity, invest in that opportunity for the long-term, but still be able to generate revenue?
We’re encountering that ourselves. Great consultants age out and their networks age out. People retire. If you are fundamentally a purely network or relationship-demand creation, there’s going to be gaps. That’s not sustainable in the long-term, so you have to do both things. One of the things that’s been important to us is keeping that core of always adding value in any conversation we’re in, whether we’re getting paid or not. Start with how am I adding value in this conversation with someone and not worry about the selling. We’ve got story after story where we’ve said, “This isn’t the right fit.” We’ve said no to work, and it’s turned into something much bigger.
Consultancies can be very content heavy, and we think people will just find us. It doesn’t happen. There’s thousands of small consultancies out there that do what we say we do. There’s a lot of noise in the system, so getting yourself out there and marketing yourself in ways, that also adds value. I think about the blogs that we write, the guest blogs that we write, the podcast we’d go on, the speaking we do. My partner, Ron, was at the TEDx. All of those interactions are all chances to get your name familiar with people. We used to think, “We’ll pay $20,000 to go into a conference and it will result in work.” Maybe, maybe not. If you think of it as this one-time event, you’re doomed to failure.
What you are doing with your full-demand creation process, whether you’re a single shop practitioner or not, and how are you in the systems you’re in and the engagements you’re in looking to expand the value you can provide differently. One of the other problems that happens is you get hired in a certain system and your first piece of work is coaching, and all of a sudden, you’re the coaching people. You’re like, “ We also do strategy. We also do org design,” but you’re known as the coaching people. How you continue also to expand your reach and impact in the systems you’re in is important.
Mindset is such an important part of being able to feel comfortable and brace the mind that this is long-term, that you may not see results instantly. Sometimes great things can happen very quickly, but in many cases you want to have that mindset for the long-term. That example you shared about going to an event or a conference, investing $20,000 or even if it’s $1,000 or $5,000 in hoping that’s going to somehow create the big win for you. It might, but it also probably likely won’t. It’s going to be one piece that over time, does influence and does have an effect, but it’s not going to happen necessarily right away.
You mentioned the comparison of a smaller firm and a larger firm. This is another area where I see a lot of consultants have some mindsets or challenges. How do you compete with larger firms? Does that ever enter into your mind? Did you ever have that feeling of, “We can’t go after that client. Why would they work with us?” What’s your experience been with that?
You have to understand what capacity you have. It doesn’t have to be within your firm. The building out of associated resources and networks that you can rely on if you need to supplement your capacity becomes important. We have a set of consultants who work with us off and on since 2009 or 2008, that we would pull in when we’ve all of a sudden sold too much work. They know us, they have our business card, they go in as Navalent, not as their sole practitioner shop in their other life. We’ve invested a fair amount of time getting to know each other and getting aligned around methodology and how we think about clients. We have capacity when we oversell. We have never shied away from selling huge pieces of work.
We have been asked by a potential client. They’ve been a client off and on for a few pieces of work since 2007. Not consistently, but they’ll call us every once in a while, and their internal organization development people will refer their business people to us. They’ve gutted their whole internal OD group, so there’s no one internally doing that work. They say, “If you’re going to do organizational design, you should call Navalent.” They called and they said, “We’ve got this piece of work. We’re interested in merging together two business units. We’re talking to four different consulting firms. We’d like you to be part of the RFP process. Please submit your proposal on this date, and then we’ll have a call for 45 minutes to discuss your proposal.” I declined.
I know that they were dealing with a couple of huge strategy firms and one that’s out of the IT-accounting space. You would recognize all three of the other competitors as these giant firms. They are firms that probably do tens of millions of dollars with this client per year. The client was like, “I beg your pardon?” I said, “It’s not worth our time to do an RFP process. We don’t sell through an RFP. Us not meeting the businesspeople doesn’t add value. We don’t know if it’s a good fit for us. It’s great that you can send us this deck that gives us the background, but it’s not context that’s going to be helpful. Thanks, but no thank you. If you’re interested, I’ll go ahead and have the phone call with you if you have the business people on the line.” This was a finder. It was a procurement person or an HR person. They allowed it to go. The other three firms submitted a big proposal on their RFP process.
For us, we had a 45-minute call with the two business unit leads and the procurement and HR person. Afterwards they’re like, “We’re still interested in talking to you.” I’m like, “I’m still not going to write you a proposal because it’s a big investment.” We have found that doing that, we don’t win those, so why do them? Our proposal is never going to look as fancy as the hundred slides deck in the Excel. I said, “I’ll put together two slides that will tell you what I told you about what we think is important.” I sent them two sides on approach. One slide had, “Here’s what your investment would be if you worked with us.” The fourth side was, “If you don’t hire us and you hire one of those other firms, that’s great. Make sure you still do the following three things.” I was still consulting to them in the moment. I will find out whether we get that work, but I do know that selling blindly to a procurement organization, to an RFP, against a big firm like that, we’re never going to win it and it’s a waste of our time.
Finding the things that are unique about yourself and not being afraid to play that to the client, if they want a huge strategy firm that’s going to bring twenty people, great. Go find them because they’ll be disappointed with us. That’s not how we do it. Being clear about who you are and what you can do and being not afraid to say to the client, “We’re a fit. What you’re describing, you’re not going to get that from those other consultancies and you will get it here,” or “Maybe we’re not a fit,” or, “Here’s a way we can do that.” We don’t say we won’t work with those firms, so we will also work in partnership with them. It can be painful, but we do it.
What I’m hearing you say there is this idea of, “Focus on your strengths. Don’t try and compensate for your weaknesses.”If you feel you can add value and there’s a fit with the client and you can create the outcomes that they’re looking for, just because someone bigger may go after them or may even be in there already, doesn’t mean that you can’t win business and doesn’t mean that you can’t go after them. From a mindset perspective, what are your thoughts? Some consultants still feel like there’s no point in even going after these larger companies because why would a Fortune 500 organization or Fortune 100 organization choose us if we have competitors that are much larger than us?
Because they’re tired of those firms. They’ve used them for years and real change doesn’t happen. I fundamentally believe that. We call ourselves the McKenzie Aftermarket. We’ve been hired a number of times to come in after they’ve been paid $20 million to do org design work, to come in and say, “Can you make this thing work because no one’s actually doing it and it’s not working the way it’s supposed to.” It’s like, “That’s right.” You had a firm go off into a little room by themselves, design you a lot of org charts, bring it back in and say, “Here’s what your company should look like.” I’m not arguing; they have great analytics and they have the resources to get after data and to have insights is huge.
For most of those large firms, an add-on is, “Can we get a change management person in here and on the team too? We’ll throw that in for free because that’s not really important. What’s really where we’re making the money is this big group of twenty people we’re going to drop in and do analytics.” They hire us because they’re frustrated from not getting real change. We lose out to some of those firms probably consistently if the leader, whether it’d be a business unit leader or a functional leader, a CEO, feels like they’re doing the work and it needs to be certified. We don’t have that type of name and brand recognition, so we at times will lose work for that reason, and that’s okay. Unless we’re talking to the business leader wherever the epicenter is, and that can be a functional leader, it can be a general manager, unless we’re talking to that person and getting out what’s keeping them awake at night and cutting through the lingo and the RFP stuff, we’re unlikely to sell.
If we’re not at the epicenter of the sale and where the change needs to take place, it’s unlikely it’s going to happen. That’s why sometimes the sales process is slow because we’ve got to push and say, “We’ve got to get to those people, and we’re not a match for everyone.” That’s the other piece. There’s been plenty of times where clients are like, “Thanks, but no.” We’re like, “That’s a good choice.” Those clients sometimes also call you back later. Their piece about this longevity. We’ve had clients who haven’t hired us but then have referred us. You have to make sure you have the capacity to do what you’re saying you can do. There’s a lot of fatigue from some of the investment versus ‘are we getting real change?’ that’s happened through the years for people and that works to our advantage.
You mentioned that you experience a longer sales cycle time because it does take time to reach the top of the organization or to reach the ultimate decision maker. What have you found to be most effective in doing that? A lot of consultants have that experience where they get into the organization. Maybe it’s a manager or senior manager or even maybe it’s a director. It’s someone in the organization, but it’s not the ultimate decision maker, it’s not the person writing the check.
You very accurately said, “If you’re not talking to the ultimate decision maker, if you don’t have them involved in the sales process to a degree, then it’s very unlikely or it’s much more challenging to win that sale.”How do you do that? What have you found as the best practice or the most effective approach to reach the ultimate decision maker?
If I can get on the same side of the table with whoever I’m talking with and let them understand that I’m trying to help them because they’re the ones who are going back in internally and selling it. If they’re not the ultimate decision maker and writing the check, they have to go back in and ask somebody for money and they have to say, “I met with these people. I liked them. I think they can help us.” That’s scary. If I can get them in conversation for me to say, “Would it be helpful if we built a session? I came in and talked with your boss and we got a sense of what’s going on in her mind or what the issues are from their point of view.” I almost start my diagnostic before I’ve been hired. Regardless of the work we’re doing, whether it’s leadership development work or whether it’s a broad scale organization design work, we start with a qualitative diagnostic set of interviews.
A lot of times, I’ll start those before I’m getting paid. To the client or person that I’m talking to, it’s helpful, because then it’s like they’re not having to represent me. I’m in there with them and I resist the request to come in and present, so that’s a big trap. If they say, “Come in and bring your presentation and tell my boss what you’re going to do.” No. Because I’ve seen it. They didn’t ask you to come in there. You’re wasting 15 minutes or 30 minutes of their day and you’re presenting slides to them. No matter how many times we’re asked to come in and present, we say, “No. Why don’t we come in and talk to you about the issues?” We’ll follow up within 24 hours about what we think about those issues, what our insights are, what our proposed approach would be, but let me get in there and understand what’s going on. If you can make that happen, you’re much better off.
What happens if the contact says, “I can’t connect you to the CEO? They’re very busy and don’t have time to meet.” What do you do then?
For me, that would be a red flag of how important the work is. Challenging them on something they don’t want to hear, and it’s almost uncomfortable, but we do it, and we do it in ways that we’re here with you. We’re working through with this. I could be wrong, but that’s a sign to me that maybe this work isn’t very important or on their agenda. One of the best examples always is when we get a call. We’ve done a lot of integrated talent management build outs for organization with their HR organization, competency models. We only do that work if it is part of the CEO’s agenda for change. I’m going to change this company by being clear about what leadership looks like and what the profile of leaders looks like and we’re going to work that into all of our HR systems.
That doesn’t mean that I’m sitting in the room with the CEO all the time, but if the HR person is saying that the CEO doesn’t have any time to talk about the people side of things, is this a priority for the organization? Sometimes we help them figure out that the work they should be doing is something else. How do we help them? In a lot of times we’ll have the collaborator and we spend time saying, “How can we help you position this work?” Not position us but position these issues and position this work. It may not be bringing us into the room, it maybe them going to do it, and maybe we’re consulting to them to increase their own personal effectiveness with their boss or their peers or whatever the deciding body is.
You’re doing everything you can to position them as a champion and to support them so that they feel much more comfortable. That’s part of the conversation that you focus on figuring out what will get this person to take the action that ultimately will move you forward, not for the sake of your business, but, but because of the issue to help them to see the change or the impact that they want.
A lot of times, they’re going after symptoms as opposed to what the real issue is. Unless it’s a client that knows us and work with us for a long time that we would have a conversation, “Write a proposal on it, and the work would start.” It doesn’t happen that way because quite often, the real issue is not what they’re talking about or willing to focus on. All of our work starts with this diagnostic. A lot of times, that entry can be done by getting them to say, “Yes, it is a critical issue.” Maybe we don’t know everything. Let’s start with that diagnostic, then we can figure out where to next. Maybe you don’t need us, maybe you need someone else, maybe you need something else. Even if we think we know what the fall engagement maybe, we start with a diagnostic work.
Let’s jump then back over here to capacity. How many consultants and partners you got in total right now?
We have seven right now. Full time.
How did you get to that point? At what point did you decide to bring on more people? Was that right from the beginning? Is it something that evolved over time as you saw that the pipeline for business was improving?
If you build it, they will come as hard when you’re a small firm. We’ve been as many as thirteen or fourteen at one point in time. It was a lot different before tax laws changed. We had a period of time where we were five, and the five of us have been here for quite some time. We said, “Five is too small.” It’s a weird thing about small consulting firms. Three’s ok, five is a weird number. Seven, eight or nine is a good number. Five is like you don’t have enough work or you have too much work, and you feel like you’re cutting that all the time. We said, “We need some new people to join Navalent.” We have the route of hiring pros that have been running their own businesses for years. We’ve gone the route of hiring people that we knew that were mid-career.
From all of that learning, we believed that we needed to hire some people that were earlier in career and could learn how to do things the way Navalent does it rather than bringing their own toolkit. That means that those people are not deployable immediately and they’re certainly not selling. We had to make a commitment as a firm to basically fund them for two years. Whether that means we have to take on some work that we would normally say ‘no’ to or we have to cut our own personal income to fund these things. We knew that to continue to give our clients what they needed to continue to build our own community and to have new thought and thinking in it, we needed to grow again and go back up a little bit in size, so we made that commitment.
How do you approach when you do need to staff up or build a team for a large engagement that’s coming online or that you want to go out and win? What are the best practices to find good people, other consultants or other contractors to do that? What have worked well for you?
Know them before you need them. Don’t be looking for people once you’ve sold the work. We’ve brought people in and it was a train wreck, not because they were bad people or bad consultants. They want to sell their own business you’re bringing them in, or they can’t give you the flexibility you need in terms of timing. Ron and I left a larger consulting firm, so we know tons of consultants that are out there in their own firms. We’ve always cultivated partnerships along the way and some of those are partnerships with consultants who do different things. We’ve got people that are total experts in the board space. We do some board work, but when it’s about solely working with the board as opposed from the side of management working with work, I would call someone else.
There’s no reason for you to pretend to do that work. We have people like that where it’s reciprocal, and then people that we would bring in to do where we’ve got big projects. The number one thing is knowing them and knowing that they will work the way you work and value your client relationships the same way you would. We’re very transparent on the financial side of the equation as well, because that can be up a bone of contention when you’re partnering. We’re a pretty simple model, here’s what you’re going to get paid per day and here’s what a day looks like and here’s how many days we’re going to use you per month for the next six months. Being transparent around that as well.
It’s important to build that bench before you even need to call upon people to hit the fields. It’s a longer term thinking. A lot of consultants don’t think they need to spend much time doing that, that they’ll get through it later on, but it is one of those things that having the ability to call upon that bench can provide a significant advantage.
Find people that you want to work with. If it’s painful, the client will see it. Not just people who work the way you work or will use your frameworks or models but are actually people you want to enjoy being around because the work can be hard.
This has been a lot of fun and really appreciate you sharing your story here. What’s the best way for people to learn more about you and your work and connect with you?
Thanks again so much.
I appreciate it. Thank you so much.