Is Your Firm Making Costly Mistakes?

Sep 1, 2004

I recently had a conversation with one of my coaching clients who is a working owner in a small firm about a frustration he was experiencing. He had recently put a lot of time and effort into a search assignment and the client had flaked on him and was no longer returning his calls. This owner is fairly successful and very bright and I began asking him a few questions to see if I could help.

I asked if he pre-closed the issue of timely feedback with this client when he first took the search assignment. His response was, “no because he sounded really motivated when I took the order.” So I asked him if he scheduled a check in phone call or got interview times in advance when they first spoke. His response was, “No I forgot to do that.” I then asked if the client signed his agreement promptly and he responded, “I sent it to him and he never actually sent it back. I still came up with 3 people for him to see if he would bite on them.” So finally I asked, “Do you have a section on your job order intake form to check off ‘timely feedback’ so that you know it’s been covered? He responded “no and actually I just wrote this one on a blank sheet of paper because I didn’t want to take the time to use the form…”

This is not an uncommon experience and it happens to senior consultants as well as rookies. This owner knew better but still ended up making a costly, rookie mistake. Most of his grief and wasted time could have been reduced with some simple and easy systems (such as the right intake form).

If you don’t rely on systems, you and your staff end up making it up each time. You’re probably pretty good at this if you’ve been in the business a while. The problem is that it requires too much brain power which limits creativity and means that you will often forget things that come back to bite you later on in the process.

People dependent vs. systems dependent:

Michael Gerber (author of The E-Myth) recommends that you view your business as an integrated system: the system does the work and the people operate the system. He also suggests that you build your business to run exceptionally well with the least skilled people as opposed to the most skilled people. So as a firm owner, you must ask yourself this question: “How do I produce the best results, not with expensive star employees, but with the very least skilled people required to perform the work.”

That means you must ask new questions: “How do we do what we do here? How can we systematically do it better with ordinary recruiters, rather than superstars?” The answer will be, to a large extent, in the systems that you use, rather than in the people who use those systems. That’s not to say that people are not vital – they are – but it is the system that ensures the future health of the business when your big biller says, “I quit.”

Let’s look at an example from professional football. Let’s say there is a new stud quarterback who is the #1 draft pick and has just been picked up by the 49ers. But when he arrives for training camp, his coach will not say, “What offensive system would you like us to use?” More than likely the coach would say something like this: “The way we succeed here is by perfecting the execution of the west coast offense system. So, you will be a better quarterback by learning this system and to play for this team, you must learn this system, and then express your talent through it.” So his creativity, improvisation skills and talent are channeled though the system and this makes him a better player.

It should be the same in a well running search firm. Someone comes to your firm and they learn your system that you’ve perfected and bottled and documented. You can be flexible with but you want to have a structure when it comes to process. At the same time you want to avoid having your staff feel constricted by the systems you implement or making your systems too complicated. There is a delicate balance between a good amount of structure vs. an overly constrictive environment and you will have to decide what the right mix is for you. Bottom line: the more you focus on perfecting your version of an ideal firm, the more confidence you’ll have in your company’s future growth.

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