The Consulting Pipeline Podcast

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A brief, fascinating conversation with Graham Binks about whether he's specialized or not, and if he is, how to think about his specialization approach.

Show Notes


Unknown Speaker  0:05  
Go Phillip

Unknown Speaker  0:08  
Graham, it is good to see you in the cabana.

Unknown Speaker  0:13  
As for those listening on radio, this is my my world headquarters my my winterize cabana office. So, Philip and I have known each other now I think for three, maybe four years. Philip,

Unknown Speaker  0:27  
that sounds about right. Yeah,

Unknown Speaker  0:29  
like that I've Phillips helped me with some coaching. And I've been an avid reader, all of his writing for for most of that time. And we were just shooting stuff back and forth on email a while ago, and I suggested there's a topic that I think is of interest to my audience, and so I thought it would be of interest to his audience. But before I go there, let's just do a quick introduction. Philip, would you like to start?

Unknown Speaker  0:54  
I'll start, I have spent a lot of time helping people make this decision about how to specialize. I think it gives two benefits you can't get any other way. One is your marketing actually works. I think we'll talk a bit more about that today. And second, you can become what I call a self made expert. You know, without the benefit of academia or pedigree you can cultivate really meaningful expertise. That I think is why I'm most excited about this idea of specialization. Yeah, so that's the work I do. And I support people, perhaps like yourself, Graham, who are some flavor of self made expert.

Unknown Speaker  1:32  
Thank you. Yeah. Yeah. So for those who don't know me, I am I help business leaders build a better business. on technology. Essentially, I've spent many decades in technology in various forms. And it's been my pleasure over the last dozen years, I think, to help well over 250 businesses in some capacity, so I get to see a lot of it and now Our topic today is, is there a flavor of specialization that's relationship based. And Philips been challenging me over the years to get more specialized or maybe say that I am. And I thought about this recently, and I think I am specialized and just specialized in a very broad field, which is not just technology. It's everything that sits around technology. I like to say that the technology is the easy part. And it's the it's the vision and the launch of the work and the navigation of the difficult changes that we do. It's change management, its its its usability, it's everything. So not only did I pick a very big field technology, I've now made it about five times the size and that's where I specialize. But Phillip, you've had some interesting perspectives on that over the years.

Unknown Speaker  2:51  
Does it go as far as culture, the the sort of work that you do?

Unknown Speaker  2:55  
It does, it does an very recent example that we were just talking about. As we're recording this, what is it March 30 2020? First? Yeah, yeah, we're that. So we're right in the middle, as everybody knows of a global crisis here that has forced a lot of businesses where possible to disperse the staff to working from home. those businesses that can do it have had to do that. To me, that's a relatively simple technical challenge, but it's a massive cultural shock for 90% of businesses that do not operate now. Right. So yeah, right. The culture,

Unknown Speaker  3:37  
right. And so, we could argue, I suppose, or we could look at this through several lenses. One is, we're not specialized at all Graham. Like, there you know, you have probably thousands of competitors who are like something something culture, something something technology, but you're seeing it through a different lens that I think is really Interesting to dig into that lens is. Well, how would you describe it? You use the word relationship specialization. Let's unpack that.

Unknown Speaker  4:10  
Yeah, yeah. Well, before you throw in relationship specialization, I was going to describe it as the human side of technology, which is a bit wishy washy, but that's really what it is. It's, it's not building it. So they will come it's it's building it with the customer, essentially, if they don't like it and stop building it. What's the point? Right, so to me, that's, that's around the human side. My book is called trusting technology, which is another aspect I think everyone has to trust the technology that they use. If you're making big financial decisions within a business as a CEO, then you have to trust it more probably. But whatever position you're in, if you don't like your tools, you can't do your job well. So trust is another element.

Unknown Speaker  4:57  
I will jump in and yeah, flat flag. Those two things as a point of view, which is, yes, almost inseparable from some sort of specialization, but I just want to call that out for listeners, those are really great examples of two points of view. You have to be able to trust technology and the human component is just as important as the raw technological component. That's what I heard you say?

Unknown Speaker  5:22  
Yes, yes. And when you said that back to me, that's what I heard me say to.

Unknown Speaker  5:29  
So So this, this concept of a flavor of specialization that's relationship based, let me just dig a bit deeper into where that idea came from. I was reading a draft of Philips next book, I'm on the privilege list of people that get to do that and get feedback, which is fantastic. And just the insight that came to me is that I have worked in a relatively small community of clients. And we're not talking thousands here. We're talking kind of hundreds. And that's sustained. My business quite well for a dozen years. So it works. It works a whole lot better than having one client for 12 years, obviously. Yeah, in a number of ways, and one of the ways that I feel really enriched Is this a lot of variety in the businesses that I get to participate in. So to some extent, I'm doing the same kind of thing, but I'm doing it in lots of different contexts. And not surprisingly, a lot of people in that client network of mine know each other. That's how I got to know them. I mean, I would say if we were to draw this in circles are probably three circles that constitute mine client base, and breaking into a new circle is quite an interesting challenge. So I've sort of specialized in working for people who know each other and can give each other confidence or trust that I can do the job for those other people if they haven't made it.

Unknown Speaker  7:00  
I'm just not sure if that specialization

Unknown Speaker  7:05  
I think it is I'm drawing a little diagram that I'll reveal at the appropriate point in this competition show notes for that right.

Unknown Speaker  7:16  

Unknown Speaker  7:18  
let me ask a few more questions before we we try to diagnose this. This strain of specialization. Sorry, it's not bad. Bad coronavirus puns there. So how does how does that turn into business for you? Is it purely referral based? Or is there some other element by which your your thinking is introduced to this audience or what does that look like in general?

Unknown Speaker  7:44  

Unknown Speaker  7:47  
I'll give a couple of examples here. So I've worked with a number of SEO mastermind groups. So these are groups of leaders small medium business, they typically meet 10 times here every month, and they kind of act as each other's pseudo board members. Yeah. And they're very, very supportive group. So it goes beyond just the business as well, like CEO has been lonely job. So it's great to hang out with other similar lonely people. And you can you can help each other. So ultimately they trust each other implicitly. So if I can do good work for one of them, and another one of them says, I've got a problem that is in this area, then an introduction, in that context to me, is very good. It's excellent. It's almost like sold, right. Obviously, there's a process to go through and we establish whether this there's a fit and stuff, but it works really well. So that's, that's one context. Another context and this is topical, I think is and I'm sure a lot of people I know including yourself are doing this where we're trying to find ways that we can help just because it's the right thing to do. We can help people through His current crisis whether that's in, you know, in technical tactics, or whether it's emotionally or whether it's strategically or whether we actually find an opportunity to help them start to figure out how they're going to rebound out of this when, when we're through it. I'm just doing that and doing it, because it's the right thing to do. Am I doing it because it's going to lead to business? Honestly, I don't really care. I think it probably will. I just believe if you do the right thing, that's the way it turns out. Yeah. So So those are two contexts that this, this works. I think, from a business development perspective, the barriers to entry, presented from giving are much lower than the barriers to entry represented from charging people. And so I think giving is probably a path and that route. It's easier to sell to someone who you've already given to, I think, and I know that's something you you subscribe to.

Unknown Speaker  9:57  
Yeah, indeed. Well,

Unknown Speaker  10:02  
there's sort of two ways to look at this one is just in terms of defining, is this a specialization? And it's, there's this idea of a beachhead. And I think this bridge is the two ways to look at it, which will sort of talk through here. The work it sounds like has some amount of diversity in it, mm work that you would actually do with, you know, when you look across the past 10 years, 250 or so clients, there's some diversity there, I'm guessing. Yes, you're right. And so we don't see specialization showing up there. But we see a lot of the hallmarks of specialization showing up in your relationship with this small group of people who I'm really curious about, I want to introduce an idea in a moment to kind of explore that but how similar are you to this group of people You see, do they see you as an outsider or an insider? Do you show up dress the same way they do? What does that look like?

Unknown Speaker  11:06  
They would see me as an insider. Why? Well, um

Unknown Speaker  11:15  
I guess. I mean, I do dress like them. Alright. That's an important point. I am. I guess my my career has been closer to that of a cx o than it has been, which is which is what they are. Right? And it has been anything else of many years. You know, I am CEO I'm CEO of a small company. I businesses are generally much bigger but you're running a business especially when you're selling and running the business. You know, there's there's a lot of empathy there, I think between us. But I do work at breaking those barriers down such as they exist very quickly. And I think that's just in how you relate to people like I try not to show up and stiff and x stiff, I try to cry Like a joke sometimes. Sometimes it goes too far, but very rarely I might add, you know, testing the waters, right. And I think in the case of these groups that I've become close to, we just have a lot in common. So I guess the answer based on that is Yeah, I'm, I'm an insider, and I have now anyway,

Unknown Speaker  12:21  
now I'm wanting to know about the jokes that have fallen flat. So yeah,

Unknown Speaker  12:24  
there'll be another version of this.

Unknown Speaker  12:28  
It'll be you doing stand up for me.

Unknown Speaker  12:33  
You have an audience specialization.

Unknown Speaker  12:37  
That's, there's basically five ways and maybe this is helpful to some folks, maybe it's a bit of a repeat for some, but there's five ways you can specialize you can broadly you can specialize vertically in an industry or you can specialize horizontally in a type of thing that spans multiple industries. So it could be type of problem and Within horizontal specialization, you can specify you specialize in a platform. If you're in tech, the world of technology, actually, let's say you're in marketing. There are HubSpot specialists. That's a platform specialization. There are software developers who customize Salesforce. That's a platform specialization. You have the other kind of horizontal specialization, which is an audience specialization. And one of the examples I've used in the past is someone who does executive coaching for Fortune 500. CEOs, there's going to be exactly at any one time 500 of those, unless you have one of those weird companies as two CEOs, right? It might take us a slight bit about 500. But that's an audience and what defines the audience is they have something in common that is important to them.

Unknown Speaker  13:51  

Unknown Speaker  13:54  
that's, I think, what you're specialized in. What's interesting, I think, is Is your functioning as from from the sort of expertise perspective, you might look a bit more like a generalist and the typical specialist, but you found this beachhead into opportunity, which is pretty perhaps it's I'm not like devaluing the role that your expertise plays here. But it may be that your emotional connection, just to kind of simplify and abstract a bit. Your ability to emotionally connect and build trust with this group is what you have specialized in. Hmm. Now that may not be fair to the expertise that you bring to the table. But if we just kind of look at it that way, I think that's one way to describe how you specialized What do you think?

Unknown Speaker  14:50  
Yeah, that's, that's interesting. Um,

Unknown Speaker  14:55  
I, I'm fortunate that I only work with clients I want to work with and I don't say that lightly. I know. Yeah, we don't all have that luxury. And by and large, that's not because I've been in business for 12 years, it's been like that for most of the time alone. I'm sure it gets easier as you mature in your business. So. So, you know, again, I mean, that suggests that I feel like I'm an insider with them. Right? And I would only feel that way if if it was reciprocal. What what I, as you're talking here and thinking what I actually have been told many times, is that I translate or bridge a gap, let's say, between hardcore technologists, the experts, let's say in that, and business folks who have don't have the inclination to understand everything about the technology, they just want it to work. So you know, the metaphor might be I'm in a room with with with one of you And I'm sort of doing the translation, right, back and forth. But in a way that they're both gaining, right, and it's not like I'm translating different languages. I've been told that many times. So maybe that's my specialization. Maybe I'm an expert in experts.

Unknown Speaker  16:18  
Well, if if we look at the expertise that that is part of how you create value for clients, that's certainly a significant component of it is this ability to do translation. There's, there's risk mitigation there. There's you prevent opportunity cost. I mean, there's all these things, ways that that shows up in terms of hard measurable value. Yeah, it may not be easy to measure, but it's, it's so valuable. So from the expertise side of things, that's what happens based on what I'm hearing from you when you're in a client engagement. That's one of the drivers of value. And so that's one of the things That makes your situation so interesting is there's there's these sort of different functional areas in which you specialized. You've got this, this horizontal specialization, which, from the expertise perspective is, I'm sorry to tell you, it, although it's not a problem. It's not that differentiated. Mm hmm. That means a lot of other people are like, yeah, I'm great at translating between, you know, the business people and tech people. I've heard that dozens of times from people. And that's not to dismiss or devalue it. It's it's incredibly valuable. And there might be 20,000 people on this planet right now, who can do that? Which is great. But it doesn't make you sound that different. But when you add in this other component of being able to build trust with the right people, that kind of unlocks the value of that, that expertise. That's sort of how I'm modeling what I'm hearing you say about yourself. Yeah, Does that ring True or is that

Unknown Speaker  18:00  
it does? It does? That's a great insight. Because you're right.

Unknown Speaker  18:05  
You know, if I'm ever filling out a

Unknown Speaker  18:08  
one of those forms that asks you what you do, right? I don't know what to say. It's like, I could say consultant or I could say tech consultant or IT consultant or whatever. I'm none of those things, really.

Unknown Speaker  18:21  
In our so that's the problem that all generalists almost all generalists have. Yeah. So you share that with them. But you have no problem cultivating business?

Unknown Speaker  18:32  
Yes. Yes. No, that's, that's interesting. You know, I mean, I could say I'm an advisor, or I could say, I'm a consultant, or I could say, I'm a coach, you know, none of those quite fit, because I do advise, but then I'm often asked to help actually execute, which is fine. That makes it interesting. So none of those really fit but I think you're right. I mean, there's some sort of a Venn diagram. I think the world is all summarized in a Venn diagram of some kind, but I think there's one here, would you say is a big bubble is 20,000 people. And then there's a small bubble with overlap. And it's essentially which of those people have formed these kinds of close relationships with a a network, or specific network. In my case, it's a network of bias.

Unknown Speaker  19:21  
You would have to be so tactful in doing this. Graham? Yeah, the real answer to what's different about you, looks like name dropping. And so you've got, I just made up the number 20,000 people who can effectively translate between the technical layer and the management layer, but let's just go with that for now. Yeah, that's your competition, right? What's different about you? You're talking to someone they've asked you for Graham, what's different about you? There's not you know, 19,999 other people who looked just like you on paper, what's different, and you just start naming names and after they've heard about five names that they recognize of other CEOs that they trust. They're like, okay, you can stop there. Right? Right. You can't do that. It's an experiential thing for them, of you being present in their world in a in the way that you are right? When I say presence, I mean showing up, perhaps, I don't know, if you show up in those masterminds, or whatever. But you've mentioned hosting CEO breakfasts, as, as a way of being present, you're being present in their world. And that sends the signal that accomplishes what specialization, a different form of specialization might be able to accomplish. So it's all it's that's what makes this kind of weird and difficult. And I think that's why when you say, Well, I think I'm specialized this way. It's all in this world of kind of intangible signals.

Unknown Speaker  20:51  
Yeah, I like that. So what I'm asking myself, so I'm gonna ask you now is how does this translate to your community, the people that read and work with you. I don't know, I don't know how many folks are in this boat that say that. But I mean, how does this sort of model translate to make it valuable for them? How does it translate to their worlds?

Unknown Speaker  21:18  
That's a good question. Let me take us on a tiny detour on the way there. I want to ask, I'll answer but I want to ask you, what's a book that you've waited way too long to read? Oh, for me, I'll answer. Why you think for me, that book is Everett Rogers book diffusion of innovation, which is absolutely woven into the sort of mental model that we use when we're thinking about the adoption of technology. It's that that sort of bell curve depiction where it's divided up into groups of innovators, early adopters, etc. I think a lot of folks recognize that right away. And I've been thinking about that in terms of have changed management essentially, in how you introduce ideas to a system, which is a system of people that could be a company that could be your network of CEOs. And here's the diagram. So all right, have this person. It's represented here as a single person, who's an innovator. And then you have the opinion leaders, there's usually several of those. And the flow of something new goes and I know folks who might be listening to audio of this don't have the benefit of my hastily sketched out diagram, but I think you'll get it. The innovator usually stands at some, they're they're a part of the social system, whatever it is, but they're a little bit removed from it. And they're not trusted in the way that the opinion leaders are. But the the innovation tends to flow through the innovator, whoever that is, or it could be a small group of people. Raiders, I think it's something like 3.5%. Yeah, in general, in the Rogers diffusion model, the opinion leaders are who actually get that distributed. And I see something like that in your description, Graham of your relationship with the CEOs. They're sort of the I mean, it's not like that, well, they're, they're the gateway to the change that you're trying to create, right? Like they kind of I assume, in your work, are putting their sort of political capital, their authority into creating the change, you function as this sort of innovator. And so there's a symbiotic relationship between you and them. They need you for the ideas and the and the sort of help us create this change, but you need them to actually have the change happen. Yeah. And I just see that model showing up in your mind. mapping out your relationships. I don't know that it's directly related to the specialization question, but it's just interesting to notice that

Unknown Speaker  24:07  
I like that. I like that. Well, I'm going to be thinking about myself quite differently again. And for those of you listening, this is the kind of experience you get when you read Philips book. I'm not plugging it, but I suppose I am. It's gonna be good. And I gotta say, every page pretty much I'm rethinking things. So. So.

Unknown Speaker  24:27  
So what's real quick, what's the book that you waited too long to read?

Unknown Speaker  24:30  
Um, I am. I've read it recently. So I did. And I actually I read it a long time ago, but it's, it's by Clayton Christensen. And he's famous for innovators dilemma. He's famous for jobs to be done, but his book is actually called How will you measure your life and as you read it, and as a lot of people may know, Clayton was a Harvard professor. 25 years passed away, unfortunately. A month or two ago. But it felt to me like he was writing to his students on, you know, go into life with these life lessons. And it's interesting he wove advice about everything from raising kids to I don't know, all kinds of life things, right? into essentially his his business advice that he gives to his business clients. The book was written, I think about a decade ago, 2010 or so. But I recommended How will you measure your life? It's a great read. He's a really good writer, and there's so many pearls of wisdom in there. I wish I'd read it before I had my kids, I have to tell you that, you know, there's all kinds of books like that. So that's my book. Wonderful. It's my book. So how do we how do we sort of wrap this and make this as useful as possible? I mean, you know, we did pose a question Is there a flavor of specialization is relationship based and I think

Unknown Speaker  25:59  
you You're the opposite. You're the expert. I think you've said yes, there is that? Yeah.

Unknown Speaker  26:04  
Yeah, we'd call, we would call it an audience specialization. My I would bet money, that you have a heightened insight into the needs of your audience. And there's an expertise that you apply. That's a little fuzzy looking. It seems like you're somewhat of a generalist when it comes to this, you know, weaving together, change management, and technology and culture and all those things like that is the domain of a of a really valuable generalist. And so I think the lesson here is pretty simple. specialization gives you leverage. expertise is not the only place where you can apply that leverage. You've Well, let me ask you this. Have you ever been seduced in a way that would want to take You away from this focus on this group of CEOs? Have you ever been tempted to say, You know what? I just don't know if it's the work worth the work to build up these relationships? The grass is greener over there.

Unknown Speaker  27:13  
No, no. And I think, I think specific examples of that. And this has happened a few times where I've, let me say, I've been offered an opportunity to do something other than my business. I've always stuck with the business. Because I like the variety. And maybe that makes it harder for me, maybe I'm just not a natural specialist in the true sense of the word because I like variety. I don't know, I'm not. I know you're gonna start now saying you can go real deep and I take that back. But I like I like the range of things that I get asked to do. And it's hard to reconcile that with my view of specialization. Let me put it that way.

Unknown Speaker  27:54  
That's perfect. Normally that that desire to to To have that variety would work against your ability to use specialization as a lever. Normally those would be in conflict, you have resolved that tension. And okay, so you weren't ever sort of like tempted to build a different relationship asset, but you've built a specialized relationship asset that lets you apply a sort of more generalized looking expertise asset to really valuable problems and make good money doing that. Hmm. That is a beautiful

Unknown Speaker  28:38  
jujitsu move.

Unknown Speaker  28:41  
I didn't even know I was doing it. I was that.

Unknown Speaker  28:43  
No, but you were there was some sense that you were following some sort of like feeling of this is the right way to do it. I can't go super focused in terms of my expertise. I don't want to what else where else can I get leverage? And I am confident because of this survivorship bias that pretty much ensures that people don't get to where you are unless they have that sort of nose for opportunity. You just I just see you have as having specialized in building up a really valuable relationship asset. That's how I would describe it, right relationship asset. And you specialize in a pretty narrow, pretty addressable audience to to build that up. And that's so you are a specialist Graham, you can rest easy at night.

Unknown Speaker  29:34  
I get the T shirt.

Unknown Speaker  29:36  
You know, the the sort of contours of the specialization look different.

Unknown Speaker  29:39  
Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you. That was that was very helpful for me, Philip. I hope it was helpful for everyone listening. Obviously. I'm going to wrap now but I'm going to wrap with a question that if there's enough interest, we might have another conversation because this is conversation but you know, when I was looking that question before, we got on zoom here together, I thought myself You know, is there a place for specialization that relationship based the perhaps the flip side of that is, I don't believe you can do business without some form of relationship. So maybe that relationship term takes on different meanings. I was thinking of it, as you know, in the context of a specific, narrow network. Yeah. But let's face it, you don't sell to companies, you sell to people, and you can't sell without some form of relationship. So maybe that's something we could talk about another time.

Unknown Speaker  30:27  
There is a really interesting bridge there to this idea of being present with the people those you're trying to reach. And, yeah, we will need to allocate another time slot for that. There's a lot to say about that. There is

Unknown Speaker  30:44  
Yeah. Well, thank you,

Unknown Speaker  30:46  
Graham. It was such a pleasure to talk about this with you.

Unknown Speaker  30:49  
Yeah. It was great. Yeah. And we will we'll share this with our various communities and see if we can get even better relationships, the result? Yeah.

Unknown Speaker  30:58  
All right. Take care.

Transcribed by

What is The Consulting Pipeline Podcast?

How do coders become consultants? They specialize, develop a point of view, and market based on their ability to move the needle for clients.

This podcast explores the transition from coder to consultant through interviews with those making and enjoying the results of this transition, and occasional audio essays from your host Philip Morgan.

This journey takes time, so why don't you join us now?