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Episode #155
Frank Forte

Why You Must Master Your Relationship Management Skills

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A lot of times, the best marketing isn’t what you say about yourself but what others say about you. Being on top of your relationship management skills is a definite must in order to keep your network solid. Frank Forte, the President of Forte Leadership Technology, joins Michael Zipursky to explain how relationships work in building your business. Frank shares how adding value and building your network and relationships at the right time can be the best marketing you can ever wish for. He also talks about his military experiences and how he incorporated what he learned into the business industry. Know how building your leaders and investing in your team can give you amazing results in the long run. Learn the processes that you can apply in any industry and understand what a consultant can bring to the table regarding the direction and growth of your business.

I’m with Frank Forte. Frank, welcome.

Thanks for having me, Michael.

For over 30 years, you’ve led projects for clients like the US Navy, the US Air Force, NASA, Verizon and a whole bunch more. You’re an expert in project management. You’re speaking, coaching, consulting, and you’re now the President of Forte Leadership Technology, where you mentor companies on project management to help them accelerate their success. I want to start off at the beginning or at least earlier on because there’s more even before this. You served on nuclear-powered submarines. What was that like?

It was exhilarating and horrifying all at the same time. It was the first place that I discovered what a high-performing team was supposed to be like and act like. I wasn’t in the sports when I was growing up so this was my first opportunity to see a high-performing team, 120 men all having to figure out how to get things done regardless of the circumstances and environment. Your life often depended on it.

When you think about that or going back to those days, what would you say is maybe something that you learned, whether it’s a principle or a mindset that has served you best in terms of building your business? What stands out for you?

If you didn't do what you were supposed to do, you better fess up quickly. Bad news does not get better with age. Click To Tweet

The one thing that I learned and had to go through some growth opportunities in the military is integrity. You never sugarcoat it. You never skirt around the ideas because that could get people killed on a submarine. Transparency and integrity are the things that got drilled into me. If you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, you better fess up quickly. Bad news does not get better with age.

How has that played into your business? If you could offer a specific example of how you’ve applied that to your benefit.

I’ve always built that rapport and relationship. As an independent consultant, I’ve got a formal one. Technically, my wife does the bookkeeping and all that, but I’m the guy. I’ve always said that the only thing I have is my integrity. I don’t have big branding. I don’t have a big name. All I have is my last 6, 7 engagements to get me my next engagement. The interesting thing about that is I’ve never gotten a consulting gig with the resume. It’s always been through relationships. I’ve been doing this for a long time and it still blows my mind that people will reach out to me and say, “Frank, I need your help.” They haven’t talked to me for 5, 7, 8 years but they know what I do and how I do it with integrity. They know when they need a friend. That’s another thing about consulting. You’ve got to be good at identifying what is your niche. The people that try to be all things to all people have a hard time distinguishing themselves, in my experience, getting good.

How has that played out? You have that experience in many different industries yet you’re talking about the importance of specialization and focus, which I completely agree with. How have you taken those different industries and experiences that you’ve had and then use that to apply it with the focus for the benefit of your business?

The niche I have is my brand, what I do and how I do it. I can apply that to any industry. The other thing that I’ve had to learn is to get up to speed on industries very quickly. There’s a grace period, I’ll say a month or two. I walked into a foundry in Wisconsin and they’re melting iron. I’ve never seen that before in my life, but I was there to re-engineer their supply chain and implement SAP. The neat thing there is the president of the firm said, “Frank, I want you to fly around on our corporate plane and I want you to visit everything. I want you to see everything we do for six months because you’re not going to be qualified to give us advice until at least you understand how we do things.” That was a huge gift for me. I got to talk to hundreds of people in the plant, everybody from the scrap steel, purchase, manager throughout the entire firm.

Why would they do that though? A lot of consultants as they’re reading this go, “Why would this founder even want you if you don’t have experience in their industry?” Why would they spend their money to educate you on better understanding their organization? Why wouldn’t they just try and find someone who already has that knowledge and experience?

CSP 155 | Relationship Management Skills


At some point, my broad background of me being a “journalist” if you look at it from industry becomes valuable. Because I’ve seen many different things and many different situations, I can cross-pollinate those ideas. They didn’t want somebody that knew their industry and was going to give them the same answer that everybody else in the industry had.

Did you communicate that to them? Was that part of your initial conversation with them that you’re able to bring that breadth of different experiences to the benefit of them? Is that something that they’ve just mentioned to you? How did that play out?

One of the first interview questions was, “Do you have experience in my industry?” My honest answer was no. However, I’ve seen a lot of process-based industries, and those processes tend to be the same no matter what industry, warehousing, labeling, flow control, POs, invoices and all those things. There’s not that much difference. There’s nuance like I’ve done FDA implementations, FCC regulation and telecom. Every industry has their own little special constraints. One of the old jokes in consulting is, “That won’t work. We’re special.” How many times have you and your audience heard that walking into a firm?

Everyone heard that for sure. Everyone thinks they are unique and their situation is different.

I typically say, “I’m here to learn why you’re different than everybody else.” At the end of the day, they’ve got a few little nuances. I work in financial services now. Before this, I worked in a bank. Other than that, I have no financial services or banking experience at all.

You need to be happy on the front end so you can put your best foot forward and do what you say you're going to do. Click To Tweet

What I’m hearing from you is you’re taking what some might perceive as a weakness. It’s something that’s a deficiency that you don’t have the experience with that specific industry or with that specific type of company. What you’re doing is you’re not focusing on the weaknesses, rather you’re focusing on your strengths. It’s like, “I don’t have that but here’s what I do have.” I remember when I was consulting for an investment and insurance company, I was sitting at the boardroom table and one of the partners came and said, “Why are you here? Do you understand our business?” I was like, “I don’t need to understand your business. I’m here to help you with marketing, lead generation, and growing the business, which I’ve done with many other professional services firms. I don’t know all the details of insurance and finance, but you guys do so it’s okay.” That’s what I’m hearing from you as well. It’s an important message for people to take from this because it does come up on a regular basis. Talk to me about the relationship in terms of how you got into that room. You’re not known as the steel guy or the molding guy. You’re not labeled that way. What had them calling upon you since you didn’t have that specific knowledge of their industry? Why do they want to speak to you?

One of the things that I’ve done with my career and I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but I’ve built relationships. I tend not to market myself as a consultant. I let others do that. I give up a bit of my compensation to headhunters. Most of the time firms get these big contracts. In my experience, there are a few times I’ve been brought in independently, but that was for special reasons like to coach a CIO that was not doing well. In general, these large programs and projects, you look at the one at Verizon, they had 400 people. This was back when Arthur Andersen was still there. They weren’t getting it done so they got kicked out and I got put in charge.

What I’m hearing from you is you’re saying that you’re not going out directly to most of these organizations that bring you in. You’re creating relationships with recruiting firms as one example. They’re getting the work through their larger clients. You have a relationship with them, so they then bring you in. Is it all recruiting firms or are there other types of organizations that you have these arrangements with?

They have a software product. Often, I’ll get a recruiter to get me in touch. The first time that I build a relationship with their software package or whatever sales team, and then wherever they go, they proliferate how sales guys move around a lot. I also do a lot to help them. If I’m not available, I’ll work hard to find them somebody else. I put money into that bank account. In my mind, there’s a model that when they have an opportunity, they almost feel obligated to reach out and have a conversation with me. That’s all I hope for. It might not be a fit, it might be a fit but just having that conversation.

It’s the Law of Reciprocity that you’re playing out there. You mentioned you give up some compensation. Are you referring to the margin between what that firm would be building the end client and what you’re receiving? If they’re charging let’s say $200 an hour, you might be getting $150 an hour, just as an example. You’re losing that $50 per hour, but you’re okay with that. Is that what you’re referring to?

Yes, and those were numbers that are in the ballpark, sometimes more rarely less. I built my website because I’m moving into executive coaching and there’s not a good financial model when you go through a firm that is not very good. There are some nationwide or international executive coaching firms. The revenue potential to do direct marketing as an executive coach makes a lot more sense. I was never opposed to it. I felt like I always want to be doing the work and not doing the marketing. It’s more where I live.

CSP 155 | Relationship Management Skills


Did you ever feel or do you feel at any time unsatisfied or concerned about the margin that you’re losing or the client that you’re working with is “not your client?” It’s the agency, or the recruiting firm, or the partner’s bank because they have the contract and the relationship. These are the things that I hear fairly often from others in that situation. I’m wondering, how does that sit with them and what’s your mindset around that?

All those are the contracting vehicles, but I’m there in front of the client day in and day out. I get to build the relationship, an account exec or whoever pops in and out and takes them to dinner and whatever. I’m there on the ground learning more about them every day than that account exec will ever know. I don’t take execs if I’m not going to be happy with the comp model. That’s happened 3 or 4 times where you get to renegotiate the compensation, but rarely does that get to happen. You need to be happy on the frontend so you can put your best foot forward and do what you say you’re going to do, and do it in a quality manner.

At this stage, you’ve always been doing this for a while. You’re not hoarding for work so it gives you a bit more choice to negotiate or say no to the wrong types of projects, leaving you a room to say yes to the right ones. As someone who might be in the earlier stage, going back to your situation early on, you did find that you were saying yes to more projects. You weren’t as may be concerned. If the rate was a little bit lower, you would say yes to it because you wanted to win that business. As things built up, you started to be more selective.

I wasn’t as picky when I was young. I didn’t have the refined “taste” that I have now. When I do an interview now, they’re interviewing me but I’m interviewing them just as much. I don’t know if they’re ready for the change they’re asking for. You can hear it in the boardroom that they want this, but they haven’t laid the foundation to prepare the organization to get that. They come to me when they’re ready to execute but often, I have to back up and have that conversation of, “How are we going to get the organization going?”

That’s an important point. I want to hit on that with a question for you, but before we do that, you’ve talked a lot about relationships and the value of cultivating those relationships. A lot of people talk about that as well. Of course, it’s important to have a relationship. What are you doing specifically? Can you offer some examples of how you’re practicing building relationships, cultivating relationships, strengthening relationships consistently with those in the network that you have? What are you doing that you feel is making a bigger impact than the typical having conversations or sending an email every once in a while?

You can only build rapport with one other person at a time. Click To Tweet

I’m a connector and a networker. I’m always thinking about who can I connect with who and how might I add value to that individual. There are people that will reach out to me that I haven’t talked to in ten years. I’m ready and I don’t feel like, “You haven’t talked to me in ten years and now you want something.” I feel like that’s what the right time is. You can only build rapport with one other person at a time. In the virtual world we live in, it’s a lot harder to do that. Back in the good old days, typically, I could do remote work after about eight contacts with the clients, but then I’ve spent 10, 12 years every week on an airplane. I remember one client. I was bouncing between Portland, Oregon and Germany every other week, and the primary client was in Japan. It’s a lot of fun.

The agency model where there’s a margin between what’s being charged and what you’re earning, you’ve been working within that structure for quite some time. Do you have any advice for those who might be feeling the pressure? They’re feeling like, “I want to be earning X but the agency, the recruiting firm, our partner or whoever it is says they can only pay this.” Do you have any advice that you would have for people around negotiating or thinking about their fee, and making sure they can try and maximize it if they are using that type of structure?

It varies by country and certainly financial models but I tend to be independent. In the US, it’s called 1099. I’m like a computer. I give them an invoice, they pay me. I got to take care of my own taxes, insurance and all that stuff. If you want the security or you need the security, then you’re going to have to pay for that. I’ve bounced in and out of being executives and firms. I’d start out as a consultant. I get offered an executive position. I’d be there for 2 or 3 years, and then I’m back on the road because I love the flexibility. I love the independence and I love what I’ve done. I liked big hairy problems and maintaining a business operation isn’t that exciting to me. What I’ve done is learn who I was, what got me up in the morning, and then tried to focus on that. I would say from a financial perspective if you go W-2, talking in the US and hopefully, that translates through some of your audience. If you want benefits from a firm, whether you’re an employer or not, that’s worth about 27%. It could be more in other countries.

Do you bring these things up? When you’re negotiating around price with a partner, are you saying, “My price is higher because I need to cover these things and I have to think about my insurance,” or you’re not mentioning that at all?

I don’t apologize for my rate. I very rarely say what my rate is and that frustrates a lot of recruiters. Most of the time recruiters get paid by the number of widgets they get in the door. I tend not to give them that conversation because my rate is normally way above what they want to pay because they want let’s say 50% marker. I tend to see and I’ve seen both sides. I see what the client gets built and I see what I built. A lot of my roles as a program manager, I’m trying to manage the cost of the entire program. I know what they’re paying for the consultants. I’ve seen upwards of 70% margin on individuals. Mine tend to be around 35% and 40%.

You mentioned you don’t share your rate with the recruiter in that situation. How does that go down? Walk us through, let’s say I’m the recruiter. I say, “Frank, I have this opportunity. It’s a forestry company and they’re having some real issues. They are interested in bringing you in. How much are you going to charge? What’s your rate?” How does that go?

CSP 155 | Relationship Management Skills


I would say, “Before I get to that, I’d like to know more about the client and I’d also like to know what can you afford.” I can say whatever number I want. As soon as they get fixated on that number or what’s called numerical fixation, they get very tired. Either they know they can’t meet that and now they’re trying to beat me into a rate that they can afford, or most of the time they don’t know if they need a Frank or not. They’ll do the LinkedIn search for a program manager, project manager, or whatever and they’ll find me. I typically will reply to recruiters even if I’m not looking because it’s that networking thing. I find many consultants that do not keep their pipeline warm.

It’s transactional and not relationship-focused. I just want to hit back and then dive a little bit deeper. If I’m the recruiter, I would say, “What’s your fee?” You’ll say, “Before we get to that, I want to learn more about the client and also learn more about what the budget is for this project.” I say, “We have the budget. It’s $100,000. We have somewhere around that available.” How would you then arrive at what your fee is for that project in a way that you’re able to maximize your fee? What if you say $100,000 is okay for what they’re thinking? “My fee, I can do it for $100,000,” but then that essentially removes their margin. How would you play with that?

I can then get creative about how I’m going to get the work done. Maybe I do some load sharing. I say, “What they’re asking, I’ve done this seven times before. It seems to take about $200,000. Can we talk to the client and get some of their support at my guidance?” To me, it’s about having a creative conversation instead of the transactional. You use that word and that’s a lot of how people get stuck in a corner very quickly instead of asking one more question than they think they need. As consultants, we tend to want to be able to be the answer man.

I want to explore with you a couple of things that will be relevant even for those that are not using this pricing model in their business, even if they’re doing marketing and they’re getting their own clients directly and so forth. The first is, how are you managing your pipeline? For you, it’s very important to stay on top of those relationships, keep adding value to and to feel that you’re connected with. What do you use in terms of tools and technology? What’s the best practice there for you?

Maybe I’m a little bit too old school. I use a cell phone and LinkedIn.

Every company is a technology company. Click To Tweet

How do you decide who needs to be contacted and how often?

On LinkedIn, about once a month I go through and look at who I haven’t reached out to lately, and the messaging thing. I’ll go ping somebody and if I get a pingback, it’s great. Maybe we’ll get into a conversation but it’s that soft touch. There are others that I make a habit of every couple of weeks I reach out and have a conversation because I know they’re in my sweet spot from what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. I’ll pick up the phone and it’s easy once you have that relationship to pick up the phone. A lot of people think that you have to have a business reason to call somebody.

Don’t worry about being old school there, Frank, because the reality is you’re taking action. Doing that and doing it consistently is what matters most. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using some technology automation to help. A lot of people have access to those things and say that they’re using them, but they’re not using them consistently. The fact that you’re using it is what matters most. You help a lot of organizations to complete projects and to make progress. Many consultants find themselves deep into a project. They want to achieve a great result for a client. They’re committed to that, but the project is not going well. It’s stuck and it’s not because the consultant does not want to achieve success or because the consultant is not trying. It appears to the consultant initially and what they’re feeling is the client is dragging their heels. They’re a little bit slower to respond. The client appears preoccupied. Maybe they’re not getting access to everything that they need. Maybe they’re not getting their replies in a timely manner. Things aren’t progressing the way that the consultant would like. Have you ever been in that situation before?

I’ve been in a situation where I worked with the US Army. I was hired as a technical expert on the data. I’m sitting there toiling away, doing my work, I look around and nobody’s working. I go back to the two people that interviewed and hired me. I said, “Who’s in charge? It doesn’t seem like we have any leadership here. Where are we trying to go? When are we going to get there?” They looked at me and said, “Frank, you’re the wrong guy if you didn’t realize that we hired you to sort this mess out.” They weren’t going to tell me that they wanted me to experience the situation that you described from an independent consultant associate trying to get work done. They said, “Now that you know how hard it is to get anything done here, go fix it.”

What would you say to someone in that situation? How do you approach that situation or how do you approach other situations? Do you go to the top buyer and person in charge of the leadership there? Do you send them emails? Do you have to be very firm? Do you hope and wait? What’s the best practice that you put into place that you have found works best?

If at all possible, unless I’m dumping a lot of data or something, I’d rather have a conversation. If I am using data, then let’s use charts, graphs, and visuals that they can get that visual learner activated as well. In that particular case, I went to the lady who was supposed to be the project manager or the program manager. I said, “We’ve got a lot of things going on here. How are you feeling about our progress?” She’s like, “I’m overwhelmed. I can’t figure this out. I don’t know that domain area. I’m not an expert. I don’t know if we’re doing well or not doing well. I don’t know who’s working and who’s not working.” I said, “Do you mind if I give you some help?” “Sure, great. Thank you.”

CSP 155 | Relationship Management Skills


She was in pain. I asked if I could help. In that particular case, we have 55 consultants working on this piece of an overall large program. It ended up that we kept five of those consultants, then we rehired 50 consultants because she didn’t know what good looked like in this space. She kept accepting people in and they didn’t have any expertise or skill. I was able to recognize the 3 or 4 people that knew what they were doing and they were pounding it. Everybody else was hiding. I kept those five and made them each team lead. I said, “Let’s go hire.”

To me, the most important thing that you mentioned there is you engaged, first of all. You didn’t just wait and hope, but you engaged and you went right to the source or the person that could hopefully give you a valuable or guiding answer. You asked a question. You said, “How do you feel things are going?” That’s powerful because if they say things are going great, that tells you which direction to take the conversation. If they said like what she said, “I don’t know. I’m overwhelmed,” and so forth, that also tells you where you can step in.

What I’ve observed is over the years, so often consultants don’t even ask that question. They just wait or they might send an email and continue to pound. If you’re not getting a good response the first couple of times, and you continue to do the same thing, it’s likely not going to get you the response that you want. Asking that question like, “How do you feel about the progress that is being made right now?” and getting some of that feedback can be beneficial. That’s a good example there that you went into. Thanks for sharing that. Frank, I want to make sure that people can learn more about you and your work. You have a book that’s come out here. Maybe talk for a moment what that book is all about, where people can learn more about it, and the work that you’re doing.

The name of the book is AGILE Mindset Demystified. Agile is a big thing in the industries that I happen to be in. They say that every industry and every company is a technology company. If you are, then the software is most likely part of that. Most firms are experimenting with agile and trying to make huge shifts in the way they do work. Unfortunately, there’s a mindset that goes along with being agile. The mechanics are easy. You can get any consultant and help you with the mechanics. It doesn’t take long, but the mindset is significantly different than what we would see as traditional project management. The book is all about that. How to make that shift in thinking from the plan-driven approach to the agile approach of getting stuff done. is my website. There are a lot of different resources there. The podcast gets posted there. People can learn about me through these experiences that I get to have. You can pre-order the book.

People can go to your website directly and learn more about you, your work and your book. Frank, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story here with us.

Thanks, Michael. It’s great. Anytime.

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