Rainmakers cast big shadows. Even more so a group of rainmakers. For the young professional trying to make a name for himself in the same market, this creates a problem.
The rainmaker knows the key people in key client organizations. She maintains her influence through a mix of periodic meetings, calls and emails; participating in the right associations; writing and speaking; and doing the things that rainmakers do. Leads come to her because of the visibility all this effort creates, because over the years she has helped perhaps two dozen people in the market find new jobs, because others have gotten promotions off the back of her professional work, and because she knows the buyer’s boss, making it easier to get approval for hiring a professional.
She has worked hard for many years to achieve preeminence and has earned every bit of it. That she has it is good for the practice and good for the firm. But it puts the young professional seeking a chance to make partner in a difficult place. To move up in the firm she has to prove she can generate business. How can she do this when opportunities are swept up by the rainmaker the way a Hoover sweeps up so much dust?
I have addressed the importance of specialization in an earlier posting (We Make Choices: Generalist or Specialist?). Today we will consider how you can create one that will get you your place in the sun. Some of the options you have are:
Though it would be impossible to develop the rainmaker’s breadth of knowledge across a practice, the young professional can develop deeper knowledge of a niche than the rainmaker has.
Joe Rizzo, an architect with RMJM Hillier’s education studio, became an expert in the design of libraries. He knew the issues that librarians faced—being used as free and involuntary after-school care centers; facing a relentless movement to electronic storage of information and its impact on building design; the typically Spartan offices used by staff—so he could talk library talk with even the most sophisticated buyers.
He knew a lot of librarians. He spoke and wrote about library design. Whenever anyone in the firm got a query about library design, it would be passed to Joe. Others in the firm might know more about an array of educational buildings, but no one knew more about libraries.
This kind of niche within a specialty is the differentiation most young professionals adopt.
An accountant found he needed a niche when his firm merged with another. No one in the new firm knew much about banks, but earlier in his career he had worked with many small banks. One-by-one these clients disappeared as they were gobbled up by larger institutions.
As that happened, a lot of bankers from the small banks found themselves unemployed. While working to get back into the banking market, the accountant found that these bankers were coming together to form new banks. Because he knew the industry so well and was so service-oriented, the accountant was able to sign up three of these new banks as clients.
Over two years, he has brought in eight banks as clients of the firm. The revenues remain small, but are growing as the banks, themselves, grow and as he methodically adds new ones. He owns the bank niche at his firm.
Sometimes the best approach is to take on work that others in the firm don’t want. That can be work that others find too small.
A young attorney at a large firm that does a lot of mergers and acquisitions work adopted this approach. Instead of seeking to work on the large, prestigious matters where he would be just another associate doing bits of a large transaction, he volunteered to work on the M&A issues for smaller clients.
On these matters, he worked closely with the partner in charge and had broader responsibilities than did his colleagues working on the prestigious matters. As a result, he had broader experience and more client visibility than did his peers and was elected to the partnership sooner than most of them.
I have worked with several professionals who based their early success on a willingness to work with clients remote from their offices.
Lisa works for a large pension and benefits consulting firm. Several large firms compete in this space, so she found herself in the shadows of both the rainmakers in her own firm and of those at the other firms as well. She was assigned to an account with its headquarters in a small city 90 minutes’ drive from her home in the suburb of big metropolis.
She quickly learned two things. First, the client had been underserved by its previous pension and benefits firm, because no one at the firm had wanted to make the drive away from the metropolis. The client appreciated her frequent visits.
Second, the partners in her own firm weren’t eager to make the drive either, giving her the opportunity to have a higher profile than her peers had at accounts that they were assigned to in the big city.
She developed a simple, but astute strategy for advancing her career. She recognized that there are several small and midsized cities within a drive or short plane ride from metropolis where she was based. Most of these cities had one or two large companies headquartered there. All of these corporations needed pension and benefits consulting, too. Most of them felt under-serviced by their human resources advisors. She focused her attentions on these accounts which welcomed her attention and led the effort to sign them up as clients of her firm.
Three years later, when the firm needed replace the retiring head of the pensions practice, Lisa had more experience working with senior executives than any of her peers. She got the promotion.