Robert Sher, who advises CEOs of midsize businesses, had already started writing his second book when he realized that finding someone to develop a marketing strategy would help his business.
The founder of the San Ramon, California-based firm CEO to CEO Inc., Sher had self-published his first book, but it didn’t sell as well as he had hoped. So he hired The Bloom Group, a thought-leadership adviser that helps consultants market their expertise. Boston-based Bloom’s clients include Deloitte, Gartner Inc. and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
See Me, Consult Me
Look at the American Management Association’s inaugural list of top thought leaders, and a subtle clue emerges about what it takes to become influential. If it were the idea behind one of the prescriptive best-selling books many on the list have written, it might be called “First, Look Like Me.”
Of the 30 most influential thought leaders only two are women and two are people of color.
Despite years of corporate America touting commitments to diversity and calling for “out-out-the-box” ideas, many lists remain dominated by straight white men.
“It’s an accurate reflection of where were are today in terms of who occupies leadership roles in the world,” said Detroit-based consultant Kathleen LaTosch.
LaTosch points to data that show a similarly pale-male composition of the C-suite. Only 4.6 percent of chief executives of companies in the S&P 500 are women, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit research firm focused on women in the workplace. Five Fortune 500 companies — that’s 1 percent — have black CEOs. And Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook remains the only openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
To create its list, the American Management Association sought nominations online and then looked at its social media followers and citations of their work. Similarly a ranking in Inc. magazine of 50 management experts drew on data such as Google searches, inclusion on other lists and Goodreads ratings. That list had four women.
The dearth of women on the lists does not imply that women don’t influence decision-making in corporate America, said diversity consultant Susan Elizabeth Woods. In fact, Catalyst found that companies with the most gender diversity on boards outperformed those with the least. But it’s not engrained as a cultural assumption that breakthrough ideas come from both women and men, she said.
To become influential, management leaders need to be read widely, said Derek Avery, senior associate dean of diversity and global initiatives at the Wake Forest University School of Business. But unconscious biases favor white men at every step.
“In order for me to get into that club, I have to look a certain ways,” Avery said. “Once I get into that club and I’m writing this book, my book is more likely to be purchased because I look this certain way. It becomes this perpetual cycle.”
A Bloom partner crafted an overall strategy to establish Sher as a thought leader by better articulating his firm’s value proposition, overhauling its website, maintaining a high-profile blog and basing the new book on original research. With Bloom’s help, Sher became a regular Forbes.com columnist.
He embarked on 18 months of research for the book. And he found a publisher for “Mighty Midsized Companies,” which was released in September 2014. The book has since helped produce a steady stream of speaking invitations. Those events, which range from conferences to in-house talks at companies, have become the No. 1 source of business leads.
“Almost all clients in last nine months can be traced to some element of the thought leadership campaign,” Sher said.
Writing blogs, white papers and columns, speaking at conferences — even getting quoted in articles like this one — help consultants and research analysts stand out from an ever-growing field of competitors. But it also leaves HR leaders with the task of deciding who to trust and what to do with all the workforce prescriptions and predictions. To do that, consultants and some of their advisers offer one more recommendation: Look for patterns and proof — and stay a little skeptical.
Billions of Dollars
The U.S. market for management consulting reached $67 billion in 2014, according to Source Information Services, a London-based research firm. HR consulting, excluding implementation, accounts for 5 percent of the U.S. market. It grew by 8.5 percent, up from 2.4 percent in 2013, Source co-founder Fiona Czerniawska said.
Attention can transform an unknown name into an industry influencer.
Jason Averbook, a former PeopleSoft and Ceridian executive, wasn’t well known when he launched the human resources technology consulting firm Knowledge Infusion a little more than decade ago with Heidi Spirgi, another PeopleSoft alum. In their early days, Averbook said he and Spirgi were less concerned with making money and more concerned with securing clients who would convey their startup’s credibility.
Soon journalists called for his take on news and magazines offered columns.
“We’ve never in our life pitched things to people,” Averbook said of the publicity. “It’s people coming to us.”
He credits his status as “rock royalty” of HR technology, as one podcaster called Averbook, with having spent 23 years in the space and his flair for speaking in analogies. “I’m someone who believes in common sense and street sense and being able to take complex terms and turn them into terms people can understand,” he said.
Ultimately, Appirio acquired Knowledge Infusion, a union that Averbook said satisfied customers’ calls to marry Knowledge Infusion’s advisory service with Appirio’s implementation practice. Other startups followed a similar trajectory. Bersin & Associates, which was started in 2001 by its namesake Josh Bersin, became part of Deloitte in early 2013.
“Any time you start beating the Mercers of the world or the Towers Watsons of the world or the Accentures of the world or the Deloittes of the world, people start to look at you and say, ‘Who is this who just beat us?’ ” said Averbook, who in 2014 left Appirio to become CEO at leadership-development firm Marcus Buckingham Co.
Competitors notice not only when a smaller firm beats them for business, but also when their principals win attention, he said.
“People start to say, ‘They’re asking Jason to keynote at the conference again. Wouldn’t it be great to have that asset on our team?’ ”
Bigger firms acquire smaller ones because they want the brand or the talent or to remove competition, University of Iowa management professor Sara Rynes-Weller said. Self-promotion also plays a “huge” role in the industry, she added.
The Bloom Group in association with the Association of Management Consulting Firms conducted a survey this year that found hearing speeches at conferences as the third-most common way of selecting consultants, behind only referrals from co-workers or industry colleagues.
In a separate survey, the association found “thought leadership” as the top driver of a firm’s brand.
Forbes has more than 1,000 external columnists, said Bloom Group co-founder Bob Buday, who helped Sher with what Buday calls the Forbes “audition.”
“They’re not looking to get paid by Forbes,” Buday said. “They’re looking to use it as one of their thought-leadership platforms.”
Writing columns has “a marketing aspect,” agreed Steve Vernon, who worked for 35 years for Watson Wyatt and Mercer and now is a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity. But it also forces consultants to fine-tune their thinking.
“You have to crystallize your thoughts,” said Vernon, who writes a column for CBS MoneyWatch. “It helps the consultant think about what’s important to say.”
Some columns and speeches come from what critics call “pay to play.” Many organizations in the field such as the Society for Human Resource Management don’t pay honorariums but do reimburse speakers for travel, meals and lodging.
Other conferences don’t cover any expenses, and still others offer “speaking opportunities” to sponsors. Those two practices have elicited criticism that they produce sessions that feel more like infomercials than education.
And consultants who don’t earn a Forbes column may buy a Forbes advertorial, an advertisement labeled as such but designed to look like a journalistic piece.
“I don’t believe in pay for play anywhere — whether it’s an advertorial or paying to be a speaker at a conference,” Buday said. “I think your ideas should carry the day.”
With so much advice flowing freely, what should HR executives do with it?
Be skeptical, said Bersin, who founded Bersin by Deloitte, a research and analyst firm focused on HR and training leaders. Look for evidence and limitations such as sample size or industry subset.
“Question it,” he said. “I think you should try to figure out how we came to the conclusions we came to.”
Be wary of research from vendors, he said.
“Almost everybody who sells anything has a study or a survey with a bunch of pie charts to try to convince you that the world has changed and you need their thing,” Bersin said.
Next, seek multiple perspectives, said Jill Smart, president of the National Academy of Human Resources. And look for patterns, ideas on which they seem to agree.
“Get multiple opinions, use your experience and your context, and then do your own thinking,” said Smart, who retired in 2014 after a decade as chief human resources officer and more than 20 years as a consultant with the firm. “Does this sound like it really make sense? What proof of this is there? How do they back up their perspectives? Why are these the things to be concerned about? Ask yourself those questions. Address it like you’re analyzing information in a financial report.”
If the patterns in blogs, articles and white papers suggest a company needs to act, then its HR leaders should compare the organization’s current state with where it needs to be and think about how to close the gap, Smart said.
If that means hiring a consultant, talk to their referrals to understand how they worked, she said. Ask the outcomes and whether the firm met deadlines.
Also find out who is going to do the work, Stanford’s Vernon said.
Interview as many of the people who will be working on the project as possible, Marcus Buckingham’s Averbook said.
And consider if consultants speak and write clearly, Bloom Group’s Buday said. If they’re hard to follow when they’re speaking at a conference, he noted, they’ll be just as hard to follow in the boardroom.