As a young consultant right out of graduate school, I immediately noticed there were two types of partners in my firm: Those who fed off the business brought in by others, and those who were getting phone calls directly from top executives asking them for help. I imagined the former as baby chicks hoping mom would be home soon to deliver a tasty morsel into their beaks.
While I hadn’t yet learned the full extent of what it took to succeed in my profession, I did know one thing: I wanted to be like those partners who had pink phone message slips, from prospective and current clients, piled up on their desk. (Yes, in those days we made phone calls on these clunky corded telephones…and we got little message slips from the administrative assistants). I didn’t want to be at the mercy of the business getters—I wanted to be one myself and control my own career.
There are many things you must do well to succeed in business, but today let’s just focus on one essential strategy: Achieving the recognition that leads to relationships. There are three levels of recognition you should strive for.
Level One: Internal Recognition
One year after starting at my firm, my then-girlfriend and I decided to get married (so far so good—we’ve been married 38 years this November). At the time, however, I was living and working in Boston, and she was employed in the international division of a bank in New York City. So, we hatched a plan to end up in the same city. To make a long story short, I asked—and our CEO agreed—to move to London to help start up our new office there, and my fiancé convinced her bank to also move her to London. All at the same time. How did we swing that? Internal recognition.
In my case, although wet behind the ears, I brought some modest qualifications: I spoke three foreign languages reasonably well and had prior experience living abroad. Perhaps more importantly, in the space of a year, I had made friends in the firm. I performed well on my projects, worked hard, and pitched in when colleagues needed help. After checking carefully with other partners who had worked with me, our CEO called me up and said he’d be delighted to have me move to London as part of the startup team.
Getting both our employers to move us to London, at the same time, felt like a supernatural event. But the explanation is much simpler: We had both achieved internal recognition, and this opened up a great opportunity for us.
Internal recognition can create career breaks for you and important opportunities to earn client recognition. In any company, leadership will put people with the best reputations for delivering results into high-profile, client-facing roles as well as in senior functional or business unit positions.
Fundamentally, internal recognition grows when you build key relationships and add value to the organization in meaningful ways. This means:
- Consistently delivering quality work and achieving your goals.
- Developing an in-demand expertise.
- Being seen as a team player—someone who collaborates well and willingly helps colleagues when they need a hand (but not a doormat).
- Building trusted relationships with key stakeholders such as your manager, colleagues, senior executives, mentors, and so on.
What are the signs of strong internal recognition? For example: you get regular promotions and pay increases, you have the clout to influence your work assignments, you are asked to join committees and task forces, and more senior executives seek you out for their teams.
Level Two: Client Recognition
What’s the difference between just doing client work and getting client recognition?
Here are some important signs that indicate you’ve gone beyond just being an expert resource that clients use on a transactional basis:
- You routinely win repeat business from your clients.
- When your clients are surveyed or interviewed by your management, they specifically cite your good work and ask for you to continue working on their account.
- When a client executive moves to another company, they call you up and want to do business with you and your new firm.
- Clients tell others about you and refer their friends and colleagues to you.
How do you achieve client recognition? Fundamentally it first requires developing your expertise in a specific area so that you can then get recognized in the market. With that expertise, you then add value to your client’s business and build trusted relationships with client executives. It’s Value + Relationships. If you add value but have weak relationships, you are an “expert for hire” who can easily be let go. If you have good relationships but don’t add value, you become an “empty suit.”
Remember: the more specific your focus, the easier it is to develop recognition and renown.
Level Three: External Recognition (the media and other thought leaders)
Three or four times a month I get unsolicited requests from diverse media outlets to do interviews or contribute to an article. Someone is usually writing about a topic that intersects with my known area of expertise, and through either Internet searches or speaking with colleagues, they come up with my name. This doesn’t happen by accident. Over the last 25 years I’ve published nine books and hundreds of articles, spoken at conferences around the world, and contributed content to many web sites and publications.
Your reaction may be, “That’s just not me. I don’t write and publish the way you do.”
But let me push you on this point. There are many benefits from media recognition of your expertise and success. The cumulative impact of reaching level three produces, to use a term popularized by author Alan Weiss, “marketing gravity.” When you have marketing gravity, rather than being forced to cold-call clients to drum up business, clients are drawn towards you by the gravitational pull of your renown.
Furthermore, we live in a low-trust world where suppliers make many inflated claims about their products and services. External recognition builds clients’ trust in you by providing what are powerful, third-party endorsements of you and your work. The late critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, for example, did this through their “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” movie ratings. Same with the J.D. Powers automotive quality rankings. If you are on a panel at a well-known business conference, the halo of prestige from that event also lights you up.
How do you know you’ve reached level three recognition? When a journalist or writer is researching a story in your area of expertise, you come up on their radar. Other experts might ask to interview you for their own publications, blogs and podcasts. You’re considered a real, not self-proclaimed, “thought leader.” If a prospective client searches for you on the Internet, publications you’ve authored come up. For example, in a Google search for “C Suite Relationships” I appear second or third in the search ranking—above well-known brands like Harvard Business Review. How I did this is another, longer story, but it has to do with the “flywheel” effect of my steady writing and publishing.
At the Personal Level
As an aside: while this article focuses on your career, there’s another level of “recognition” that is also critical: Being someone family and friends are drawn towards because you exemplify those characteristics that fuel strong personal relationships. These include empathy, caring, loyalty, likability, and self-awareness. Many studies show that having a strong network of personal relationships is associated with reduced depression and loneliness, improved health, and a longer life span. Want to have a long and successful professional career? Don’t neglect this other group of essential relationships! And by the way, those same qualities (empathy, caring, etc.) will greatly enhance your client relationships as well.
Where Are You on the Recognition Ladder?
While these three levels tend to correlate with the arc of one’s career, there is no law of physics that holds you to that slow progression. With the right strategies, you can actually “leapfrog” and achieve Level Two and Level Three recognition quite early in your career. Just don’t forget the formula of Value + Relationships!