How Do I Get Management Or Ownership Buy-In To Specialize Or Position Our Agency?

A new email list member recently asked how they could get management buy-in. They weren't more specific than that, which allows me to discuss both agency management/ownership buy-in scenarios in this response.

There are 2 things you could be trying to get your agency's owner(s) or manager(s) buy-in for:

  1. The concept of specializing
  2. A particular specialization direction

In terms of #1:

If your ownership or management people do not deeply, fundamentally believe that there is more opportunity out there than they could possibly handle in two lifetimes of running a specialized version of their firm, do not even try to convince them to specialize the business. It's a lost cause. Their scarcity mindset will sabotage this effort and it will fail.

How can you find out if they believe there is an abundance of opportunity for specialized firms? I don't know, but if you don't already have this information and you don't know how to get it, again, do not even try to convince them to specialize. It's a lost cause. Spend your energy on other ways to help them improve the business.

In case it's not very obvious: specialization is a change that must flow from the firm's owner(s). Implementation of a specialization decision will require their continued investment and enforcement of discipline, and if they don't WANT IT, then your implementation will suffer fatally.

It also really helps if the firm's ownership/management has a realistic understanding of how specialization creates value. I have seen, for example, magical thinking about how quickly and effortlessly genuine though leadership will follow a courageous specialization decision.

Thought leadership, like almost anything worth sharing with the world, takes real work, and if a firm owner thinks that they or their people will start emitting thought leadership like it's just some kind of pheromone that specialized firms effortlessly and unconsciously secrete after specializing, then they're in for a rude awakening. Specialization is powerful because it focuses effort, but that effort has to come from somewhere, and those resources need to be allocated by ownership/management.

So, ownership/management needs to be adequately bought in to a realistic understanding of what they're in for when they specialize so that they can support the transformation with adequate resourcing, vision, and discipline.

In terms of #2 -- buy-in for the specialization direction -- things are not so pessimistic:

Reasonable people who are all bought into the idea of specialization can disagree about how exactly to specialize, how much risk to embrace, and so forth.

Reasonable people can disagree about how quickly a firm can cultivate new, deeper expertise, and how much expertise is present in the business right now relative to competitors in the market or to client expectations.

Reasonable people can disagree on the future potential of various specialization directions. In other words: reasonable people can disagree on what you do now to gain future benefit (strategy).

And finally, firm management/ownership can be sufficiently out of touch with the expertise level of their people and the conditions at play in the broader market and possessed of sufficient humility about this that they involve their underlings -- usually a middle management layer -- in the specialization process. Maybe, just maybe, that's the position that you, dear reader, are in. You have bought-in ownership/management and an influential seat at the table for the decision about how to specialize.

The first thing to consider is what's reasonable for your firm. I think of this in terms of a "change budget". Specialization involves change; how much total change is the system (the org) up for, and what rate of change can the organization manage?

For example, if the specialization decision would require moving from getting new business through RFPs to getting new business through value-priced proposals, is the org up for that amount of change (total change), and if so, how quickly can it navigate that change (rate of change)?

Reasonable people definitely can work through their differences to arrive at a functional consensus that they then implement. So maybe you're in a position to propose a particular specialized direction for the firm? Ownership/management is bought in, but they want consensus from the upper and middle management layer.

As you create your proposal, make sure you address the following:

  • What "change budget" will be required to support the direction you propose?
  • How has the org initiated and managed change in the past? Will these practices work for the proposed specialization change? (Protip: don't stack up 2 major changes at once. It increases the risk of failure to try to get the org to both change and adopt new change-management practices.)
  • How much investment will be required? Forms of investment could include:
    • Team-building: hiring new skills, hiring complementary skills, and cultivating existing people's skills on the company dime.
    • Prima donna specialist rockstar woo-ing and care+feeding. It's much less common, but hiring an expensive, famous person is a possible investment required for certain specializations.
    • Company culture-level learning or change.
  • What does the internal human "assets & liabilities balance sheet" look like with respect to this direction? Who will invest, merely go along, sneakily undermine, and actively publicly resist this change?
  • How will ownership/management's status among their agency-owning peers change? Are there aspirational examples for them to fall in love with? (This should be a more subtle part of the proposal, but don't overlook how improved status for the firm/firms' ownership might be a usable lever in advocating for your proposed direction.)
  • Your proposal involves uncertainty. I'm sure you've crafted a really good proposal, but uncertainty will remain. See if you can involve others in the work of this additional uncertainty-reduction because as a by-product of that work they may first foster and then adopt and then fall in love with your proposed direction.

The most effective proposal is both a static proposal and a collaborative process involving research, discussion, disagreement, and (hopefully) alignment.

Even if ownership/management enlists your help in deciding on a particular specialization direction, their resolute buy-in on both the overall need to specialize and the chosen direction remains important. Without this buy-in, you will be fighting the fabled land war in Asia.

I hope that this article has been useful. If you’re looking for more context and detail on specialization and positioning, then read my free guide to specialization for indie consultants.