big 4 accounting firms

A few months ago I was helping a group of consultants put together their personal marketing kit. Despite most  of the consultants handling client portfolios worth over £1 million, they almost all suffered with the curse of professionalism, which was stopping them taking the next step in their career.  In this blog post I identify what I mean by the curse of professionalism and how you can prevent it holding your career back.

What is the curse of professionalism?

Read any bio of a Big 4, Magic Circle or large firm senior professional and I bet you that they are dry and deathly boring. You rarely get an insight into who they are, just their professional credentials. This is what I mean by the curse of professionalism. Any personality that you once had can get beaten out of you. You become a fairly bland clone. After all, you are expected to be ‘professional’ at all times… Well, if you want your career to progress in the professions, you are expected to. Or are you? From the start of your career in the professions, particularly if you started within the Big 4 or Magic Circle, I bet you were taught to flex your style to suit that of the client. As one ex-Deloitte consultant told me:

If the client liked goldfish, you were expected to also like goldfish, establish your own goldfish tank at home, and become an expert on goldfish.

OK, a little bit extreme an example, but that is often what it can feel like. You become so good at being what someone else wants you to be, that you often lose sight of who you are. As a consequence you can worry about letting your real personality or interests outside of work come into the open in case it offends someone, or doesn’t ‘work’ for a key client. After all if you present yourself as bland on-line and off-line, you will never run the risk of offending anyone. The problem is that you then become very boring, and people struggle to warm to you because they never discover the real you. You know, the authentic you, the one you have consciously or unconsciously hidden in your quest to progress your career in practice. When potential clients are looking for a new advisor, they want to work with someone that they can build a relationship with. After all, one partner in one law or accountancy firm, is going to have a perceived similar level of technical ability to their peers in another firm. Consequently, that initial, often gut lead, decision to pick up the phone and talk with one advisor, will often be lead by how well you feel you can get to know them from their online presence. Of course, by ‘being out there’ with your true personality you will filter out some potential clients who don’t connect with you. However, in reality, they would have never chosen to work with you anyway. At least this way you will filter them out before spending valuable time talking to them.

How to overcome the curse of professionalism.

It sounds easy, but you need to become aware of your personal brand. I.e. who you really are, and what you really care about. This is more than just your technical competence. Then, refine this so that you are clear about the messages you want to transmit, both in person and online. Jennifer Holloways book, ‘Personal Branding For Brits‘ is an excellent read for any professional, who wants to progress their career by increasing their impact by having a better awareness of their personal brand. For example, what are you happy telling people about yourself:

  • inside and outside of work?
  • within the articles you write?
  • in any video you produce and share?
  • on your ‘long’ and ‘short’ bio?

Ask yourself, how comfortable are you about showing part of your non-work life within your personal marketing kit (See chapter 4 of the Go-To Expert to find out what you need to have in your personal marketing tool-kit), i.e. your LinkedIn profile? It surprised me just how many of the consultants in the room were exceptionally uncomfortable with sharing anything online which wasn’t 100% work related. As an aside, I’ve also experienced this phenomena with lawyers – but just thought it was one of those quirks which came with being a lawyer. Regardless of how comfortable you are about sharing personal stuff online, you need to make sure that your personality does come through when you meet someone online or offline. This means being true to yourself, and getting into the habit of being ‘distinctive’ when you write – either about yourself or an article. Forget about the perceived demands of ‘house style’ and be authentic in how you communicate. After all there are so many ‘grey’ and ‘bland’ professionals out there, you will really stand out for all the right reasons, if you are prepared to inject some authenticity and personality into your communications with others.

In summary,

Being able to flex your personal style is a essential skill for any professional, which can become over-used and lead to you becoming inauthentic at work. I.e. the curse of professionalism. To make it to partner AND build up a decent sized client portfolio means you need to step out from underneath the firm’s brand and umbrella, and be prepared to turn up as you, wherever anyone may meet you.

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