Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Freelance Rules #5 - know your place

I learned a very salutary lesson on one of my first projects after I left Forte. I was commissioned to collect testimonials for an internal change team and produce an internal communications strategy, activity plan and toolkit they could use to promote their services to the rest of the organisation. They were a busy bunch, so after agreeing a budget and timeframe, they pretty much left me to get on with it. It was a relatively large project and I decided the best way to fulfil it was to work with a larger consultancy who could provide both bodies and expertise to ensure we got the research completed effectively and could then work on the necessary tools.

The problem was, as we interviewed stakeholders across Europe and the US, the picture of the change team that emerged was not as rosy as we'd expected. The feedback was by no means awful, but a number of issues emerged . The value of the change team was called into question by some stakeholders; some points of process clearly rankled with some of the areas of the business they'd worked with and some of the personalities in the team - including its leadership - had definitely rubbed the internal clientele up the wrong way. We sat down as a research team to discuss our findings and rapidly moved into solution mode. Over the course of the next week - a week in which I devoted a good 70 hours to the project, we turned a six figure assignment into a small five figure one - all by exceeding our brief and not being attuned to what the client required.

The meeting where we presented our research back to the client ranks in the top two of awfulness for me still - the best part of a decade on. It's only trumped by the day I wore one suit's jacket and another's trousers to pitch for a hotel's PR account while beset by a migraine and not knowing that the brief had changed significantly between getting the appointment and delivering my presentation.

But back to this early experience. In my days at Forte and Barclays I had been expected to stand up and challenge management on their behaviours and practices. My comms team had fulfilled the role of corporate conscience, calling to account actions that sat outside our corporate culture, vision and values and then working with the leadership team to use communication as the enabler to role model the desired culture through the organisation.

I hadn't been asked to do that here. I'd been asked to facilitate a sales communication process for a team that was confident in its own abilities; had the mandate of the global management team and was delivering a significant change that was painful but necessary for many of its stakeholders. We weren't being asked to hold up a mirror to them to show them their faults. I have never known a client so incandescent with rage either before or since that day. Much of what we had to say was right and the issues we were highlighting were real. But we did not have the authority to presume that we were the people to provide the solutions to those issues.

Our mistake had been two-fold: first, to jump into solution mode and to second, to bypass the team's communication manager who had hired us. We assumed we could change the nature of our assignment by appealing straight to the top guy. We had brought the comms manager into the loop a couple of days before the meeting. But she, feeling undermined, had quite understandably let us hang ourselves in front of her boss. We hadn't set out to undermine anyone, and thought we could add real value and integrity to our offering. But in listening most acutely to the views of the most disgruntled on the receiving end of the change process, we'd manage to completely lose sight of the brief. Our proposed strategy, though sound, never had a chance of a fair hearing and the lucrative website, training, events and supporting collateral all disappeared to another supplier more willing to execute the brief as stated.

At that point I learned the difference between being an internal communication lead and an external supplier. Ever since I've worked hard to deliver on the brief given to me to the best of my ability. By building relationships with clients and working closely with them over the years, I've reached a point where often I can influence a brief; where my viewpoint is respected, sometimes sought and sometimes acted on. I'm a partner in the communication process, but when my input to the company is measured in four or five figures, and their turnover is measured in billions, I know that it's no way a partnership of equals. I know my place.

Knowing my place doesn't mean being humble or simply delivering without question. My value comes in being able to get to the heart of an issue, challenging where necessary and charting the best course of action. It's best expressed by getting on board early in a project working with and for my internal contacts and finding the best way to use communication as an enabler to achieve the required outcome. But the bottom line is that whatever project I'm engaged on is owned internally. I can influence the shape and direction of the project, but the buck doesn't stop with me.

In effect, my role is to make whoever commissioned me look good, not to undermine them. There's a business dynamic at work here: the best way I can make them look good is by delivering my best possible effort. The more I do that, the more I get invited to pitch for better quality work and the more word gets around that Leapfrog's a decent business to work with. The more that's the case, the easier it is to pay my mortgage and even provide some decent work for others.

Sometimes, work comes along where it's best just to bite your tongue, execute the brief well, and take the money. Take pride in what you do, but leave your ego at the door.

Next up on The Freelance Rules will be: Know your value.

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