Avoiding career atrophy
Emily Morris explores how we can keep our skills base and network lively in uncertain times.
This article appeared in the PM Forum Magazine in April 2021.
Most people I know in professional services have worked incredibly hard in the last year to help their firms pivot their marketing and business development activity to meet the challenges of an extraordinary year. With the crisis rumbling on however and in some respects likely to worsen before it improves, it is clear to most that life won’t snap back to normal at some stage in 2021 and we won’t be picking up exactly where we left off.
As we have all now settled into a new year, perhaps now is a good time to take stock of which professional skills we need to develop to take us forward, to smooth any return to more ‘normal’ working patterns or to open doors to new opportunities.
Developing your T-shaped skills
T-shaped professionals are defined as experts in one or two disciplines (the vertical bar) and have also mastered other complementary skills (horizontal crossbar) that make it easier for them to adapt in any environment. The argument goes that if vertical knowledge becomes outdated, other skills will help you differentiate yourself in a crowded market.
Arguably the increased compartmentalisation of marketing and BD roles hasn’t served everyone well in the pandemic/downturn if theirs is an area that’s been particularly hard hit – whether by dint of their own specialist skillset or the sector specialism in which they work – now may be a good time to consider how to reduce that vulnerability.
Immediate job security and career development may well be affected by any long-term effects coronavirus has on the way firms approach BD in future which, according to LexisNexis® and The Lawyer in their July 2020 report Approaches to Business Development Planning, three quarters of us believe – particularly anticipating an increase in digital opportunities and a decline of traditional networking opportunities. Similarly Totum’s recent report on Developments in the law firm marketing & BD function found that the majority of UK firms thought 40% of in-person events will no longer take place post-Covid.
This will make some marketing and BD professionals nervous if their primary role is conference organising or sponsorship, or if, as BD people, they have primarily relied on being really good at ‘working the room’.
Seven hard and soft skills to focus on
Talking to some fellow marketers in recent months, some skills and knowledge areas that might be worth brushing up on in 2021 include:
- Commercial awareness: Goodness, it’s easy to lose touch at the moment. Particularly if you are actively trying to avoid the worst covid-related news. But being on top of (and being seen to be on top of) the key trends in business generally as well as in your own sectors and service areas is key to ensuring you are seen to have your finger on the pulse even if you haven’t worn anything with a non-elasticated waistband since September…
- Active listening skills: Your fee earners’ assumptions about what clients, staff and contacts are experiencing currently and may thus think, need and want are likely to be increasingly wide of the mark at the moment.
- Communications: Verbal and written – in a Zoom and email-based world, honing one’s verbal, written and visual communications skills is crucial to ensuring one’s meaning and message isn’t lost in the cacophony of online communications. One of the reasons I try and write an article now and again about marketing in professional services is that it makes me think about the topic in hand and forces me to get up to speed and collect my thoughts in an effort to convey something interesting and/or useful to others. If you don’t want to make it public, a private blog is a useful place to keep your thoughts and research for when you might need them.
- Creative problem solving: Fee earners will be much more open to suggestion at the moment about new ways to engage with clients and prospects, and may consider ideas they wouldn’t have done a year ago. Similarly, the rush to digital has been pushing the bar up in terms of what activity is going to generate ‘cut through’ over increasingly crowded airwaves.
- Data management and analysis: Always important but doubly so in uncertain economic times – marketers that get on top of, and can help the firm make better decisions on the basis of, data will prove their worth. Where the business is coming from and going to? Who are the profitable clients and good payers? What has changed over the last year? What points to longer-term changes or short-term blips?
- CRM systems know-how: Any fee earners or firms that have resisted the discipline of CRM will be more persuadable in an environment where notions that verbally sharing information and anecdotal feedback is somehow a proxy for disciplined data capture don’t hold water. Maximising the potential of your systems or taking the opportunity to make the case for investment in new/improved systems might be a useful area to focus on.
- Digital marketing skills: Marketers in my network reported marked increases in company page follows on LinkedIn in 2020 as professionals flock to online channels from social media to Zoom. Polishing up one’s own social media and Zoom presentation skills and making them available to fee earners is an easy win. Also, if you don’t honestly know what digital tools and channels your firm uses and how, and/or what best practice looks like, 2021 is probably the year you should change that.
Working your network
Getting up to speed might mean looking at webinars and online training (university and business school websites are a particularly rich source), podcasts or even re-reading those classic business books you have hiding away on the shelves.
Another useful route is to tap into and cultivate your network. You may have missed 10 months of informal coffees and glasses of wine, and it’s unlikely you will be sitting on a bar stool any time soon. One of the best ways to improve your skills in lockdown might be to talk to colleagues internally and contacts externally. People are usually only too happy to talk about something that isn’t covid-related and if your contacts don’t know what you want to know, do they know someone who does? It may even be an opportunity to grow your network. Suggest a mid-morning or mid-afternoon coffee, or an end-of-day chat over cocktails.
If you are asking for a favour, posting biscuits or cocktails is doable and everyone likes to get something in the post at the moment!
Also don’t forget your internal network – all those conversations at the watercooler, in the corridor, at social events, etc, that we have missed this year. A better appreciation of an area outside of your immediate experience might be helpful in the short to medium-term. For example, media and PR, or pricing and billing, which in troubled times inevitably take on increased importance. Time spent with finance and billing teams is rarely wasted.
You may well identify projects internally within your organisation that you can get involved with that might broaden your experience – particularly if they are client-facing. Getting involved in pitching and client listening for example can be helpful if you are seeing fewer clients face-to-face at the moment because physical events aren’t happening.
In lockdown what about learning a (virtual) social activity by buddying up with a colleague or a small group to tackle a course together and collaborating/ discussing what you are learning to keep each other motivated?
Taking practical steps to invest in your skills and network – as well as being potentially essential for career survival – might help us stay focused and enthused during 2021.