Give credit and take blame; this is Bruce Ditman’s golden rule of leadership. In today’s episode, he shares his story of how he went from selling television advertising to Chief Marketing Officer at Marcum LLP, a $700 million dollar CPA & accounting firm, then later to the founder of Chief Seconds.
Bruce has never had one day of formal marketing education in his life, but his intellectual curiosity, humility, and thoughtful approach to everything he does has led to him achieving success at every stage of his career. We discuss the difference between an educational approach and an indoctrination model, the importance of cultivating professional empathy in your organization, and how leaders who have been in the game for a long time need to learn to meet the needs of younger generations. Bruce also shares his approach to managing people, which leads to increased production levels without causing burnout.
Key Points From This Episode:
- Bruce shares the story of how he became a Chief Marketing Officer despite never getting any formal marketing education.
- How the non-traditional career path he has taken has played to his advantage.
- Bruce’s approach to becoming the best CMO he could be.
- One of the key skills to which he attributes his success.
- The maladies that marketers commonly suffer from.
- Problems Bruce has with the way training is done in professional services industries.
- Indoctrination versus education models for upskilling.
- The importance of cultivating professional empathy in your organization.
- Why people who are naturally gifted at something are often not the best teachers.
- How Bruce decided on Chief Seconds as the name of his company.
- How to effectively upskill your employees.
- The core traits required for developing a successful business.
- How to master the art of asking good questions.
- Bruce’s thoughts on creating a culture of intellectual curiosity.
- The golden rule of managing people and what it takes to be a good leader.
[0:00:00] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Branch Out, a Connection Builder’s podcast. Helping middle-market professionals connect, grow and excel in their careers. Through a series of conversations with leading professionals, we share stories and insights to take your career to the next level. A successful career begins with meaningful connections.
[0:00:20] AD: Bruce, welcome to the Branch Out podcast. Looking forward to our conversation today.
[0:00:24] BD: Yes. Thanks, Alex. Super happy to be on your podcast.
[0:00:28] AD: Bruce, why don’t you start with just sharing a little bit about yourself, who you are, what you do today, and your journey of getting there?
[0:00:34] BD: Sure. Again, thanks for having me on. I’m not always the most conventional guest. I’ll illustrate that for you through my brief history of my career. I did not study marketing. Spoiler alert. This ends up with me being a CMO, but I did not study marketing, I studied languages. We can talk maybe later if it comes up about how I believe that we define a universal language and the important role that language plays, that language styles play in being successful, not just in marketing, but in running a business.
After college, I went into sales, briefly. Then, actually, I started in the creative entertainment industry. It’s a subject for another podcast, Alex, but I did the Agent Trainee Program at a place called, ICM, which at the time was a largest agent talent agency in the world, which is as bad as you see it on TV, whether it’s Entourage or elsewhere, it’s the same experience, but I learned a lot. Some of what I learned, I know we’re going to address later, but it was formative for me as a professional and later as a manager of people and a departmental leader.
I moved home, got a job in sales, based on the only two bankable skills I had outside of Hollywood, which were, one was teaching, and the other was a familiarity with television ratings. I sold television advertising for CBS for quite a while. Following that, I was approached by a friend of mine. The greatest thing you can do for anyone is help find an unhappy person a new job. The person in 20 years hasn’t paid for a lunch since, but she came to me and she said, “Hey, there’s an accounting firm. I know this is weird. There’s an accounting firm that’s looking for a sales marketer.” Which I thought, “Well, I’m at least half of that.” Right?
That firm was called UHY. I was hired to run their marketing in a sales angle, which really is about results, right? This was about 15 years ago. This was still a softer time in our industry. I eventually became their CMO equivalent at the time. Then in 2010, the New England office of UHY was bought up by a firm called Marcum LLP. I left with them. Three months later, I was made Chief Marketing Officer at Marcum LLP, where I held that position for about 11 and a half years until going out on my own. That brings us to about two years ago.
Now, you and I met probably a year and a half ago. When I left Marcum, I knew what – a lot of people ask you when you leave a career, “Why did you make that choice? What was it? What did it?” I’ve got a bunch of answers for it, some of which are silly, some of which are serious, but the true thing is that when you start a job, you think, hopefully you think you know what you need to do, and you do it. After a period of time, you feel like you know what you’re doing. Then you start to begin to understand the drivers, motivators, the philosophies behind your job and the dynamic in which you work. Then you can test those theories.
By year 10, year 11, I had become mature enough in my thinking, confident enough in my beliefs around this, that I said, “I’m pretty sure that – well, I’m not the only one who has a philosophy around this stuff. I’m pretty confident in mine. I’m banking my career on it. Let me go out and share it with others.” That’s what gave birth to Chief Seconds. Chief Seconds is a marketing and growth consultancy, built on the philosophy that useful is beautiful. What does that mean, Alex? That’s really at the heart of my lack of formal training. I always joke, I’ve never had one lesson as a marketer.
[0:04:19] AD: Bruce, before we dive in deeper around that. I want to just say, I don’t know if congrats is the right word. I want to say hats off to you for some of the clarity you have in your own journey around everything and seeing that one step leads to another. What I’ve always enjoyed in all of our conversations in the time we’ve known each other is your thoughtfulness to your approach in what you’re doing. I want to acknowledge that as you share that story. Really what I’d love to ask you about is, you have a very non-traditional pathway, right? Obviously, one opportunity led to another. How do you think that makes you better at the job that you’re doing today?
[0:04:58] BD: That’s a good question. Before I go on, I’ve enjoyed getting to know you too, Alex. I enjoy speaking with you so much because we are different in some ways, but also similar in, frankly, the ways that I care about. Your question was, I’m sorry, say again.
[0:05:16] AD: How do you take the differences of your career, the non-traditional elements of you, how do they make you who you are?
[0:05:23] BD: Oh, right. I think you said, how does it make you better? Now, I think you mean better than another version of myself, not better than anyone else.
[0:05:29] AD: Correct.
[0:05:30] BD: Offline we can have the second conversation, but on the podcast, we’ll have that first. I’m kidding. I’m not better than everyone else, for sure.
[0:05:37] AD: You’re competitive. You’re competitive in the marketplace.
[0:05:40] BD: I am competitive. No, but here’s why it’s an interesting question. With the right amount of rigor in considering yourself, and some of this comes from just being an actually neurotic person. I mean, there’s a flip side to being thoughtful and overthinking things, but you have to look for the ways that you can leverage your strengths. Not going to be old school here, but because I knew sales, not on mail, okay? I knocked on doors during a recession, trying to sell TV advertising to a lacrosse supply store, right?
I’ve had lots of doors shut in my case. I’ve taken my licks. I do believe that while there are many ways, for example, to sell, there are certain things that you can do, if you want to be successful, period, We’re going to talk about that later on with training about, what are skills, what are natural abilities, what are things that can be coerced out of people and what cannot? Better – I don’t know. Here’s what I do know is that when you’re a salesperson, results are all that matter. So, because I was not indoctrinated during my education to believe that one thing or another, one school of thought in marketing or the other, one tactic, or technology, or technique is superior to another, I came in stupid. Coming in stupid, I only had one metric, which was, “Did it move the needle?” In that way, that has made me better. If that is your cup of tea.
[0:07:02] AD: It very much did. What I really appreciate about the – so you said indoctrination and let’s talk indoctrination versus education, but to tee that up for listeners, what I hear you saying is recognizing that because you didn’t necessarily, and this is speaking specifically to some of your journey, but for anyone listening that hasn’t had maybe a perfect career journey or has a diverse set of experiences, whether that be a specific type of work or the organizations you’re working in, that diversity and experience has given you the perspective of there’s more than one way to do something. There are some smart ways to do things. There are some ways to outperform other ways that you should do it, versus the rigid thinking of the only way you can do this is XYZ. Is that the right way to tee this up?
[0:07:50] BD: Yeah. I think we have to bring the attitude that all skills are valuable and not rate necessarily some skills greater than others. Had I gone through and got an MBA in marketing and focused on professional services, man, would I have had an advantage, but there still would have been an appointment in my career where I would have had to look to someone like me and say, “They have stuff I don’t have. Let me cultivate that in myself.” In all humility, when I started my – first of all, I got promoted to CMO at 35. I will tell you right now, I did not deserve that job. I maybe didn’t even realize that at the time.
[0:08:30] AD: Trial by fire.
[0:08:31] BD: Yeah, trial by fire. I took it very seriously, obviously. I had to acquire the skills that I thought were necessary for my success and for the mission at hand, right? The definition of success for my role at that firm. I had to make sure to cultivate and to acquire the skills that I did not have and then use the ones that I do have as an operations base to operate from strength there and from humility, elsewhere.
[0:08:58] AD: Can we talk on that for one quick moment? In your 10 years, you saw a lot of changes occur, a transformation, right? You can share whatever context you think is helpful for listeners on that, but my real question to you is, it’s that evolution, right? I assume the skill set that was necessary for success in the beginning wasn’t the skill set necessary for success at the end?
[0:09:18] BD: Well, I’m biased. I think that the skill set that I have then is still the skill set that makes me successful today, which is for whatever reason, I can communicate with accountants, which isn’t to say that accountants are difficult to communicate with, but only that when you talk to people, it’s a common wisdom and it’s a correct one, to say, “You have to meet people where they are.” There was something inherent in my background in sales. My background, not just in the art of sales, but actually in business, in the pointy end of business, meaning sales, that without thinking, I knew that I always had to make a business case for anything I was going to do.
I did not have the flowery language, or the case studies, or the institutional knowledge about marketing, per se, to back up any request that didn’t have an overt business goal, a business case. That skill is still something I employ today. Now, as things got more complicated, more nuanced, certainly I needed to learn to understand digital marketing. Certainly, I needed to understand the why and the what of creating personas and behavioral marketing and all these other things, there’s lots of upskilling that had to happen, but the thing that got me to the dance is still the thing that keeps me here, which is that I’m a business person first. My belief has always been, why do some marketing leaders stick and some leave? This is probably true in other operations disciplines, as well. My observation is as soon as you forget that you are in the business of public accounting and delude yourself that you are in the business of marketing, your time is short. I never had any other attitude other than that I was in the business of public accounting and my application was marketing. My value add was marketing to that angle. That’s been consistent throughout, but the knowledge, the sophistication of knowledge, certainly was a day one job to us.
[0:11:10] AD: How does that then tie all back into the education versus indoctrination or the different ways of doing things?
[0:11:18] BD: You and I have had great conversations around this. I really value you more than just as a sounding board but your contribution to this area, because of your specialty and your passion, and of course, what you do for a living. There are perennial challenges in the marketing department. I would say, likewise, in any development effort at an accounting firm, which is driven by perspective, generational differences or more often than not perceived generational differences and a misunderstanding of how education and let’s not call it culture building, but let’s say knowledge building, happens.
One of which is, marketers, just to speak from what I know, marketers suffer from a couple maladies, no matter where you are. One of them is the risk of being perceived as overhead. Another is the risk of presenting your marketing as esoteric or something that very smart people can’t understand there, which if this is the case, you should avoid these. Another is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are as a marketer, if no one’s using you at the firm. Okay. Hold to that dearly. It doesn’t matter how clever I am, if no one asks me for help.
When firms, okay. When the CPAs, let’s just say to be broad, lack the culture of curiosity or of a culture of valuing marketing, sales, etc. it is extremely difficult for marketers to be a success. To the marketers, they say, “Come, teach us how to be successful, teach us how to network, teach us how to market, teach us how to sell.” That brings us to this question of the how. This is all my experience.
I’ve been around to, I’ve talked to people, oftentimes it happens this way. “Come on to my office. I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Nobody wants to do this. Nobody wants to do that. I don’t understand it. When I started, we had a three-week program and this is the way we did. It was expected that you would build networks of spheres, the sphere of influence, spheres of influence, etc. We need to do that here. We need to do it right away. We need to do it now.”
[0:13:19] AD: Bruce, let me jump in real quick and provide context here to make sure I’m hearing this. You are speaking of sometimes the mentality that can be from, especially for more seasoned professionals, speaking specifically in the accounting industry, but I would say broadly in professional services, the way that it was taught and learned in a previous generation is much different than maybe how it’s taught or learned today. There’s a disconnect at times where more seasoned professionals expect it to be simple, easy, “This is all you got to do. Just do these three simple steps. That’s it.” Is that the tee up here?
[0:13:56] BD: Yeah. I think it’s that. I think there is an element of cultural amnesia as well, generational amnesia, which is not unique to any one group of people and certainly not unique to the professional services. We all look at, “Oh, these kids nowadays.” Right? Very difficult for us as humans in our human egos to see ourselves as the goofy people that we were when we were younger. It’s a practice, to an extent, of professional empathy.
As an aside, I find that managers who have professional empathy understand the mistakes that are made or successes that are had are made at a point in someone’s career, where it can mean something and have an impact on them in a very different way from how it would affect you. This is that kind of empathy, professional empathy is incredibly important.
Yeah, so you have people who have been successful who don’t understand why this is so hard for the people who are coming up or why they’re different and they say, “Well, I know what worked for me, Alex. Because when I started that Ernst and Ernst, or when I started wherever it was. We went to the training center for two weeks, right? They taught us all this stuff. How to shake hands. Work on business cards, which held to put your name tag on all this stuff. Let’s do that.”
This is what we were talking about. This is this idea that I have of at least two styles of education that exist in professional services, but they exist everywhere. I’m sure there are more by the way, and my apologies in advance to professional educators and trainers out there who have degrees to this. I’m not trying to oversimplify. Again, to me, there is a common mistake made in the professional services when it comes to training in general.
[0:15:41] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, a connection builders’ podcast.
[0:15:48] AD: I want to say to you, the setup of the generational differences, the cultural amnesia, the lack of professional empathy. I agree with that completely. It’s never fair to generalize, because there are certainly individuals that are different and there are certainly organizations that operate differently, but all that said, I think that for a good number of our listeners and certainly just based on my own experience, both professionally, but also through consulting and through general conversations in the marketplace. That’s definitely a common theme. There is a gap of how to appropriately train up the success skills to the next generation.
That’s been probably a perpetual challenge and it shifts generation to generation. I think that most listeners will be able to acknowledge that yes, that exists. Knowing that to be true, I guess my question to you as we dig into some of the solutions around that. Can you start with the senior decision maker, what do you want them to think about or maybe shift a mindset on or what conversation do you want to have around that with a decision maker, thinking about this?
[0:16:53] BD: Sure. I’ll just second what you’re saying, certainly not generalizing about an entire executive class or industry. What I’m saying is when things go wrong or become frustrating, it’s oftentimes because of those factors. I’ll set it up to you this way, right? The two models of education that I see of culture building, etc. of upskilling etc. that I see are as follows. One, we’re going to call indoctrination. Two, we’re going to call education.
Now indoctrination is a term that has been thrown around quite a bit in the news. I think we’re familiar with it. It’s like the cozy Sesame Street version of brainwashing, but indoctrination is an extremely powerful tool. So powerful that oftentimes in these leaders who now don’t understand why the people coming up don’t have the same skills or priorities that they do, they’ve forgotten that that is how they got there, got their knowledge and their training and their culture.
When I was 22 years old that I started at this company, we went away for two weeks, as I keep saying. We got all sorts of training, including soft skills training and how to pick up a check. We did a practice cocktail party, etc. etc. They remember that. Then what they do is they try and apply that same methodology to adult successful people.
Now, why professional empathy is so important and why the suppression of our ego is so important is because we have to remember who we were at that time. When you were starting out in your career, more often than not, and I’ll speak for myself here. When I started out, I thought that every moment of my day was make or break for the rest of my life.
[0:18:29] AD: Yeah. That’s very true.
[0:18:30] BD: Further, to just quickly referencing something I said earlier, I felt that every screw up in my day was a threat to my very well-being and the rest of my life’s professional experience. To go back, when you are in that state of alarm, in that state of attentiveness and intention, indoctrination is extremely powerful, because you are wide open to be told the right and wrong way to do things, because that’s what you’re most thirsty for. That is what you’re dying for.
So, when you’re new in your career, another ways to do this is to children, but when you’re new in your career, imagine yourself as your career is in its infancy. Your career is in its childhood. Then when people with authority come and tell you, “Look, sales and marketing, networking, personal brand, manners, timeliness, all of these things are critical to your success,” it will stick with you for the rest of your career. As evidenced by the people saying, “I don’t get kids nowadays.” Right? The problem is that when you try and take a 40-year-old, 45-year-old, 50-year-old, etc. 35-year-old, it doesn’t matter, a successful adult, let’s say in the professional services world, a partner in applying indoctrination, it does not work, because they are already successful. They already have the luxury of perspective and understand and have seen things come and go and know that, “Well, I understand that my boss wants this. I also understand that I don’t have to do it, because at the end, I’m going to be okay. I’ve got a good job. I’m a partner. I’ve got equity, etc.”
What you need to do is the second model, which is real education, which is skill acquisition. Alex, I would say if there’s anyone in your organization who’s not interested in getting better and acquiring skills, that person needs to be on your HR watch list. That person’s either too fat and happy or not an intellectually curious person who you one can only imagine is going to bring the same lack of intellectual curiosity to their client and their service in their product delivery.
[0:20:29] AD: I want to hone in on that for a second, because I think that’s a really important point. What you’re describing is, if someone doesn’t have a desire to learn, and a desire to grow, and desire to acquire new skills, it means that they must be embracing the mentality that they have it all figured out and there’s nothing more to learn. That mindset often, and again, not generalizing, but pointing out that if someone embraces that way of thinking, they’re not going to be good for client service.
Everyone targeting our content here for professional service providers for someone who works in some level of client service, part of why your job exists is partially because of compliance, but largely because of an ever-evolving business climate that requires professionals who focus their time and energy on understanding the evolving business dynamics to help advise their clients. There has to be perpetual learning. There has to be a perpetual mindset behind growth and change, or else you inevitably will fall behind it, but more importantly, you’re not going to serve your clients well.
[0:21:36] BD: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s something to be said about, and let’s talk about the responsibility of the educator in order to make this model successful, because remember, there’s an asymmetrical paradigm dynamic when indoctrination works. There’s a bunch of people who are desperate to be told the right way to do things and a bunch of people who know. Therefore, it is one directional and easier, frankly, to make it land.
As adults, as business people, we think about exchange, right? We think about value. So, the onus is on the educator to demonstrate in some way, the value of continued education, the value of continued professional growth. Expecting them to do it just because they’re told to do it just because, that doesn’t work, and it shouldn’t work. If it does work, but you have someone that is just being bullied and probably not going to get a great result.
Everyone talks about passing sixth grade. No one talks about passing college. They talk about the degree that they earned. We don’t want people to pass our networking training. We want people to brag that they are credentialed, as it were, by the firm in that. See, there’s a reward in there that there is exchange of value there.
[0:22:49] AD: Maybe this is my own soapbox for a minute, just because of some of the work that I’ve done, but oftentimes within professional organizations and specifically in accounting, where there is, at least here in the States, there’s a requirement of annual CPE credits that have to be completed to hold your license. That creates a compliance check the box mentality sometimes that soft skill professional success skill development does not fit neatly into.
Try to teach strategic thinking in a 50-minute session that has three multiple choice answers at the end to determine success. That’s crazy to believe that that’s a successful way to do it. But what I’m seeing, your point around if it becomes a check the box or an exercise that has to be completed, that’s why, “I passed college,” not, “I got a degree,” right? That’s a big mentality difference of what you come out on the other end with. How it helps you succeed longer term.
[0:23:48] BD: Yeah. I think it’s management’s responsibility to make an environment where that “degree” is celebrated. I know there are a number of ways to do that, but we cannot, I mean, you make an excellent point, it cannot be a compliance exercise with this stuff. I think this is a group of people who are very familiar with being trained specifically in the accounting industry in receiving new training and getting updates, especially in the tax world, and certainly also in the auto world, right? All of these things. What management is beholden to do now is to demonstrate, not just dictate. Demonstrate how this other skill training is critical to success and as I said at the beginning, makes a business case to work.
[0:24:33] AD: Let’s take the conversation down the pathway of, its management’s responsibility to do this. They’re in alignment. They want to do it. Everything’s there, but now they gotta figure out how to make it actually work. What is your experience around actually making effective outcomes, like true effective outcomes and shifts with doing this type of upskilling?
[0:24:53] BD: Let’s talk about a couple pitfalls, common errors. Number one common unforced error with this is, we take the man or the woman who’s the rainmaker or – we’re going to be talking about business development, networking, and sales, just because it’s my daily work. We take the person who’s the best at the firm, or a couple of them, put them up in front of the rest of the firm and tell them how they do it, right? What they say sounds incredibly easy. This is absolutely the worst teacher you could have selected.
[0:25:30] AD: It’s player coach.
[0:25:31] BD: Yeah, exactly. I mean, first of all, you think the most intimidating person for the audience, so people are going to check out already, but people who are “naturals” at something are terrible teachers, because they’re naturals at it. Did they learn how to get better? Yes. But there are things, there are mechanics that someone needs to learn in order to go from zero, not to 100, but zero to 20 or from 20 to 50 that these people don’t have to think about.
[0:25:59] AD: Right now. Don’t look down at your feet. Tell me how to tell my shoes.
[0:26:02] BD: Right.
[0:26:02] AD: Explain it to me in words.
[0:26:04] BD: Exactly.
[0:26:05] AD: Right. You know exactly how to do it. You can do it with your eyes closed, but go ahead and try to put it in words and describe it to me if I’ve never tied shoes before.
[0:26:12] BD: Right. Like number one, it’s an aside, but it is a part of it. You don’t know anything, until you’ve taught it. I would say, leave the naturals in the field, let them go hunt. Leave them out of this. What you need to bring in is someone who can teach you how to play chopsticks. You need someone who can teach you how to dribble a ball. You need someone who can tell you how to swing a bat. Not how to get 60 points in one game, but literally how to sink a free throw. Your superstars are not there for that. What you need to do is bring in someone who has experience in teaching, which is not the same thing as doing. You can be both, but one doesn’t necessarily mean the other, as we can tell.
My company, Chief Seconds is – that’s a boxing term, it’s the person you need in your corner in a boxing match. We always say, every champion needs a coach. Open challenge to anyone out there to show me the time when the heavyweight champ of the world walked into the ring alone. Most of the time, the best coaches in boxing were not the best boxers. Most of the time, they were journeyman boxers. They were very skilled, very knowledgeable, and never were contenders. Why is that? Because it’s a different skill set. You need knowledge, but generally you need to be someone who has to learn everything. Then you can teach everything.
If you’re just a natural puncher, who punched their way to the top, it’s very difficult to tell me or you exactly how to twist your foot on your hook, because you just always did it. One, get someone who knows how to teach. Now we’ve excluded our ring makers and our superstars from this training for, again, a number of good reasons, including that they are intimidating and also, they probably can’t teach, because they do it instinctively.
Now let’s break it down and say, we’re not here to make you great, necessarily. But everyone can be good. Everyone can learn to play your favorite TV theme song on the piano. No, you’re not a natural piano player, but you can memorize that many notes. You can learn the basics of how to do it. You can strum, Oh, Susanna on a ukulele, okay. I say these things, because that’s the person I live with, my wife, hugely gifted, she can play any instrument. I love her to death, but, you know, it makes me crazy, right, because I’m so jealous so I’ve learned to play a couple songs on the ukulele.
[0:28:31] AD: Really?
[0:28:32] BD: Oh, for sure.
[0:28:33] AD: We’re going to end this recording with you playing a song for us.
[0:28:37] BD: I’m going to get her to play. Because that’s what we have out at the campfire or whatever, and because I love it. I’m never going to be great at it. I’m probably never going to be good at it, but I can do it, okay. That’s what people need to understand about education, right? You take an internal biology class, no one expects to be able to do surgery after that. They wouldn’t have a millionaire surgeon coming and teaching that.
We need to de-escalate and create course load, but most importantly de-escalate and create a non-intimidating environment where people understand, smart people, by the way, they are smart people, they understand, “These are skills that I can acquire and execute on to whatever degree I’m capable,” but this is not a knack. This is not my wife’s ability to play any song by ear. This is like, “Can I learn, Oh, Susanna on the ukulele?”
[0:29:29] AD: I would point out, and this is pulling a little from my own experience around this, that if done right, and especially if there’s enough thoughtfulness and strategic approach into how you deliver training and how you think about upskilling, there’s almost always an opportunity to very quickly identify the handful of folks that are far more advanced than the program that they’re starting in, and figure out how to elevate those people with the natural talent to that next level. That’s great, because you want to find those folks and elevate them.
Your point is saying that everyone starts in a slightly different place in understanding that getting that base and that foundation going and recognizing that not everyone will be a rainmaker, nor would you ever expect every person in an organization to be that way. However, getting that small bit of improvement, building some of that foundation and doing that over the period of time can make a meaningful impact on your outcomes, especially over a longer-term period.
[0:30:32] BD: Oh, I mean, I agree with you. Imagine increasing your top line 10%, just 10%. That is super achievable through training of people. You get people to do 10% more business development, which may be from zero to talking about where they work at the Thanksgiving table. You’ll be pulling us back and saying, “Alex, tell me more.”
[0:30:52] AD: For sure.
[0:30:53] BD: Again, to go back to management responsibility. Let’s say this, anyone who’s coached a little league team or been on a little league team, whether you played soccer, or you’re in a swim team, or was tee-ball, baseball, softball, football, whatever it was, knows that there are some kids on a team who are awesome at it, right? There are some kids who are not great. And there’s everyone in the middle, but the coach doesn’t call the game off or not keep coaching them.
You have to be able to coach at the beginning to more than one level. The way you do that is through fundamentals. Anyone who had coaching can imagine some old guy who right now, you realize wasn’t that old, that some parent or somebody with a whistle and a short sweatshirt on from my generation, yelling about the fundamentals. That’s why, you can teach the fundamentals to everyone at every level. If they’re already doing them and they don’t know it, it’s still important for them to understand the why, the actual actions, so that they cannot be limited by their talent.
[0:31:54] AD: I really want to highlight that, not be limited by their talent, because what you’re pointing out is in doing this upskilling and helping give people a foundation of the base, the fundamentals. It may not open up doors to direct promotion to the next level immediately. Frankly, it may never even open a door long term for them, just depending on their overall performance, but it will ensure that no doors are held shut just because. Nothing is in their way for no other reason than they just had never developed that skill.
When we talk about fundamentals, and I want to get your opinion on this, but earlier when we were going into some of this conversation around training, you made the comment, we’re focusing around sales and BD experience and some of the dialogue is going to be around that, because that’s your experience and that’s largely my experience, as well, but when you step back and look at the sales growth, BD element, especially in a professional services firm, outside of that, you’ve got project/client management, technical expertise, and maybe technology infrastructure.
[0:33:01] BD: I do want to talk about one other, actually, which would be management skills, but let’s pin them that and get back to it.
[0:33:07] ANNOUNCER: This is Branch Out, bringing you candid conversations with leading middle-market professionals.
[0:33:14] AD: What I’m pointing out is that this is a very fundamental element of an organization. Also, when this actually probably ties us into management skills in one way or another, give me off the top of your head, what are the handful of really core traits that you have to have to be good at developing business?
[0:33:32] BD: Number one is you have to have a process. Okay. I almost don’t care what your process is. I say that with a little bit of hyperbole, but you have to have a process. I’m going to say something else, which is metaphorical, but maybe it could be also literal, which is you have to write it down.
[0:33:47] BD: It’s not real if you didn’t.
[0:33:49] BD: It’s not real if you didn’t. I know I’m not blowing anyone’s mind by saying that, but I’ll tell you a true story. When I was a salesperson, selling television advertising in the amazingly middling 28th largest market in the country I did not have a hard time on it. There’s a whole other podcast in the question of, just because you’re good at something, does that mean that’s what you should do for living? We’ll do that next time. I did not have a hard time of it, but we could not stay in the office. I’d win the sales award at the end of the quarter, but I’d spend a lot of time mapping in my car.
On Monday, this is how old I am, on Monday, we had to turn into our sales manager, a written list of 10 calls that we were going to go on that week. I promise you, on Monday, that list was 100% fiction. I made it up Monday morning, okay, but on Friday, it was 50% fiction. Now, what happened? What happened between Monday and Friday that I ended up making at least half of those very difficult, in-person, door knock, cold calls? Well, what happened was that there were times in my day where I had absolutely nothing better to do or there were times in my day where the place I wanted to get lunch turned out to be near one of those things, but because I wrote it down, I figured, why not?
The barrier to starting, to getting off the blocks had been removed by virtue of me having a target list, even if I wrote it down as BS. This is incredibly powerful. I tell people, if they won’t do anything else, first of all, like you said, if you don’t have a name for a target, you have a demographic, you don’t have a target. Targets have names and phone numbers and emails, all right? If you write those down on a pad next to your phone and you are sitting at your desk and the phone’s not ringing, and you’re in-between projects, work and you feel the pressure from the boss about revenue and you look over your phone, you might just say, “Screw it. I’m going to call half of these.”
First of all, so have a process, write it down, these are key skills to begin to do this. The next one is to show respect to your target by learning about what they do. Specifically, in the accounting industry, we spend a lot of time talking about what we do to our clients. Meanwhile, our clients spend almost no time thinking about what we do. They’re thinking about with what they’re doing. I would say, achieve a level of fluency, develop a process, or at least a discipline to get conversational fluency in the industry, or sector, or marketplace that you are trying to develop in. Then ask good questions, shut up, and listen to the answers. People will tell you what they mean.
[0:36:28] AD: Let’s talk on that a little more. I know you and I share a lot of similar views on the idea of asking good questions and listening. Tell me more about how do I ask good questions and how do I make sure I’m listening?
[0:36:40] BD: You ask good questions first, again. You’ll be able to ask good questions if you can demonstrate that you’ve spent some time giving a graph of what they do for a living, right? Even a dumb question, not a dumb question, but to them, an unsophisticated question is going to signal that I’m speaking with a good partner here, I’m in a good conversation, because they know what I do and they’re attempting to gain insight into what’s going on with me.
Good questions should be personal. Don’t be a robot. Actually interact with a person as a person in your own way, whatever that is. You don’t have to be a backslapper, but acknowledge things and ask them the things that you know are on the minds of business owners, for example. Then ask, “Why? Why do you think that is? It’s good, it’s bad. Why do you think that is?” Ask questions that you can only ask, because you’re listening to the answers.
The best question is the question that drives forward the narrative in the answerer’s mind. There’s a practice called Active Listening, also, Alex, where you are restating and affirming what you’re hearing. I think Active Listening is an incredibly important practice. People have become very affected with it, which I think is off-putting. Alex, what I’m hearing you ask me is this, it’s not a natural way of speaking, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, it is a very good tool to avoid misunderstanding and to demonstrate that you’re listening.
Meanwhile, if you ask the question, be curious, like we were talking earlier. “Oh, really? This is good. What do you attribute that to?” Well, domestic numbers are up. Why do you think that is? Did something happen overseas?” Be in the conversation. Hang out. Learn something new. A day where you learn something new is a good day.
[0:38:20] AD: This a little bit goes back to the mentality of, do you have it figured out or are you actively looking to acquire new knowledge? If you’re smarter than industry, you spend time researching, understanding it, but also you genuinely show up into conversations to ask questions and be curious about learning. You’ll tend to have much better conversations and that way in its own, but you also learn along the way.
[0:38:41] BD: Yeah. I will also say back to the point that you just referenced about people who may or may not be curious or intellectually curious. When you govern with a stick when it comes to education, you’re actually asking your people a very simple question, which is, which hurts more, not doing this or doing it? That’s not a question you should ask and the reason is – in horse racing, there’s a commonly held belief that once you whip a horse, you always have to whip a horse. If you’re trying to create a culture of intellectual curiosity and upskilling, you can’t do it with a whip. Again, it is on management to create a reward system, whatever that means, a reward system, so that people don’t say, “I passed sixth grade.” They say, “I earned a degree.” Whatever that means.
[0:39:31] AD: Where I’d to take this from here, just to be conscious of time, we’re talking about some of the key skill sets around business development. Where do they tie in with managerial skills? What are the – let’s maybe do a compare and contrast of what those look like, how they tie together, and then let’s talk about how do we upskill for those different skill sets?
[0:39:49] BD: Sure. All skills or tools are in the toolbox which you can use for the job. I don’t believe, with rare exception, that if you’re a good sales person, that means you can’t be a manager. I’ll say being a sales manager is very different from being a sales person. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what happens when we go from one set of critical skills to another or to another scenario where there are other skills that supersede them.
I’d say management is one of them. You could be an incredible technician, obviously, we’ve all known these people, and a terrible manager of people. One of the areas I’ve benefited from in my professional history is that I’ve had some of the worst bosses in the world.
[0:40:31] AD: Hopefully, they’re not listening.
[0:40:32] BD: Well, they’re definitely not listening, because they don’t work anywhere near this industry, right? I mean, I worked in the talent agency business which, I told you already, is as bad as they depicted in the movies. They’re ending with horrible culture and an intergenerational transference of professional trauma, as part of its badge of honor. I learned quite a bit the hard way to what I never wanted to be as a boss. What I thought motivated me, and again, I’m a sensitive guy, what motivated me and what demotivated me.
What made people perform well and what made people lock up. Like I say all the time, despite common belief, no one is better in a crisis. That’s not true. It’s a very common pattern of behavior for bosses, for management to generate crises in order to get response, to treat everything at the same level in tenor, but the truth is, is that people aren’t better when they’re scared.
[0:41:30] AD: Decision making is better when it’s made in a calm environment.
[0:41:33] BD: Yeah. No one’s better when they’re afraid. That’s just a fallacy. If you have to ask yourself, again, with empathy, “Have I scared people?” Now, sometimes stuff is scary. That I understand. But, “Am I manufacturing a terrifying environment with the expectation I’m going to get better results or work results?” That’s one of my direct takeaways. I created, Alex, actually, when I onboarded anyone in my department, I had a department of about 35 people. I’m very proud of the fact that they were about half the size of my peer firms, while at the same time, when I left as Chief Marketing Officer, all of my senior tenants were approaching or had just passed 10 years in their position, which in marketing is an eternity, right?
How, if I can, again, be a little boastful, how do we do that, right? What about the way that we operate allowed us to be doubly productive without burning people out? The number one thing I can attribute to that too, is my grounding philosophy of being a leader in my department was that God, St. Peter, judge and jury, whoever it is, calls on you and says, as they did to a famous rabbi for the building rule, “Stand on one foot and tell me what your job is.”
For my marketers, when you’re on the team, they are told that the only answer to that is drive business. Everything else is details. Everything else is details. I think this was Rabbi Hillel. Do ou know the story, Alex, about the magistrate who calls in the famous rabbi and says, “Oh, and you think your book is so great. Tell us everything you need to know about it in one sentence while standing on one foot.”
[0:43:10] AD: No, I don’t. Will you give it to us?
[0:43:12] BD: Yeah. The setup is, I’m going to call him a magistrate, I don’t remember the exact details, calls on the lead rabbi in the ancient times and says, “You think that this Bible is so great. Your God is so great. Stand on one foot and tell us everything we need to learn from your, Torah, from your holy book in one sentence.” The rabbi stands on one foot and says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s the origin of the building rule.
If anyone on my team, or when I was a rank and file marketer, the same challenge. I said, “Stand on one foot and say, ‘Drive business.’” The rabbi famously said, after that everything else is details, right? That changes when you become a manager of people. That answer, the one-foot answer, when you’re a manager of people, is in my book, to give credit and take blame.
[0:44:03] AD: Give credit and take blame.
[0:44:04] BD: Give credit and take blame. This is the essence. I’ll tell you why. I get along very well with all my team members, but occasionally, just because by virtue of the law of numbers, or maybe – again, I mean, I’ll never be everyone’s cup of tea, there might have been some friction.
Here’s what I could tell my teammate in total honesty, “If you are successful as a teammate, I am successful as a manager. Your success is my job. While you may not like me or we may not get along, or we may have differences in opinions, or anything else, please never be confused that I would be rooting against your success, because then I’ll be rooting for my own failure.”
If you can embrace that as a leader and manage your ego enough, then you don’t have to generate crises for your team. Your team will run through a wall for you, because our successes are aligned. And our failures, they are leaderships. That is the burden of leadership, is that there’s no such thing as a great coach with a shitty team. There’s no such thing as a great boss with terrible employees. I do not believe it. You hear it all the time.
[0:45:16] AD: You hear it all the time. In particular in professional services and in particular in the industry, that can at times be fragmented and meaning that there’s a lot of different silos or a lot of different departments, if you will, that function under a single umbrella. It can be where you have a leader who feels like they just are surrounded by this lackluster team. It’s just poor performers. I hear that far more often than I should. I assume you do too in your work. Why do you think that maybe is so persistent? I’m sure it exists in other industries, but speaking specifically into the professional services and accounting area.
[0:45:55] BD: They are, broadly speaking, partnerships. The partnership is not an enterprise model. It’s not the same as anywhere else. Operational functions are ancillary and at worst is cost centers to this partner model. The dynamic is different than in other places. That’s why it’s common. Because there is no management training for partners. You make partner, you manage people, you manage jobs for profitability. I don’t want to say there is no major training, but it’s scant. I don’t believe it to be sophisticated and certainly not part of the culture.
What I’d say to anyone who said that to me, as a leader, I would say, “Well, first of all, congratulations on doing the first thing by calling me which is you recognize this is your responsibility to change.” Who hires, who fires, at the end of the day, who’s responsible for hiring, firing, profitability, loss, all of it? You. That’s the boss. A boss can look up and realize, “Shoot, I’ve mismanaged this. I don’t have confidence in my team.” Then it’s their responsibility to upskill or make changes in order to bring them to where they need to be to be successful thereby making that boss or manager successful. There’s no other way. Their career is yours, it’s yours.
If a manager can always remember, managers are also a steward of their team’s individual careers and successes, then they will be successful. I once heard one billionaire talking about another famous billionaire, a purported billionaire, saying, “Everyone talks about how successful this person is. Tell me one person who considers them a mentor. Tell me one person that they made rich. Tell me one person who worked with that person and left and started their own company was successful.” To me, my legacy as a boss is the future success of everyone that gave me their trust, listened to my baloney and tried to act and live by the rules that I thought would build a healthy and successful department of culture.
[0:47:52] AD: Let me ask in, Bruce, I really, I appreciate the perspective you’re sharing around this in terms of being in a leadership role and the magnitude and importance behind it. What is the mindset shift that you wish that you could get more people to embrace that are in the leadership roles within service-based businesses?
[0:48:12] BD: Here’s an example of one, Alex. I was just at a national conference where the audience voted and 70% of them said that talent is the number one concern and the number one obstacle to continued success. But the conversation on the table was, “I just don’t get kids nowadays. I just don’t get kids nowadays. I don’t know what they want. We offer them this, and it doesn’t work. We offer them that, and it doesn’t work.” Which I have to say, “Have you even asked them what they want or are you offering them what you think they would want or rather what you want?” That’s not happening.
[0:48:46] AD: It’s empathy at the end of the day.
[0:48:47] BD: Right, exactly. I bet you that even some of those people, if they can imagine themselves as 25 years old and 30 years old, that they would understand better, regardless of gen X, gen Y, millennial, etc. they would understand much better what that person was looking at. That’s number one. Number two is, speaking of empathy, I was talking to this great person I know, who I was advising and they were saying to me, “People just don’t want to work like they used to want to work.” When I came up, it was first and last out, right? First in, last out is how you get ahead. When do I show up? 15 minutes before my boss. When do I leave? 15 minutes after my boss?
I lived in that world. Literally as an assistant at a talent agency, I picked up the mail at some time before five o’clock in the morning for the postal carriers. I’d sort all the mail. I’d do all the deliveries. Seven o’clock, I have a cup of coffee. Then I worked not just till my boss left the office, but then I placed phone calls for them, we’d call it rolling calls, all the way to their dinner meeting. Sometimes they didn’t say go home, I’d sit there and wait for them to get out of dinner. They may never call. I’d sit there, it’s 10 o’clock, like a jerk, because I’m a kid and everything is incredibly important to me.
I was speaking to this great guy. He’s being successful. I can’t emphasize that enough what a lovely and sweet person he is. Not some brutal animal, but he said, “I don’t get kids. I was first in, last out. To this day, I won’t leave until my last staff personnel leaves.” I said to him, “Are you sure they’re not waiting for you to leave?” That’s a perfect example where some professional empathy might say, “Are these kids just waiting for me to go? And can I model the behavior as opposed to talking about it that will help retention or recruitment?”
Another person said to me, because I said, “You’re working too much.” They said, “Well, what am I supposed to – if I quit, what I’m supposed to tell my staff at the end of the day when I’m with them in the elevator?” I told them, “You should never be with that person at that time of day in the elevator.” If making partner means working until 9.00, every night, maybe you want to do something else.
[0:50:50] AD: Bruce, I love this conversation. We’re coming up to the top of our time block here. I guess, two things I want to do. One, I want to say, let’s do a part two to this for sure. Let’s do another conversation and pick this back up later on this year or early next year. In the meantime, for listeners, how can they get in touch with you and find ways to work together with you and how can you help them?
[0:51:10] BD: Well, thank you for saying that. You can obviously find me on LinkedIn. It’s Bruce Ditman, D-I-T-M-A-N. My company’s website is chiefseconds.com. My email is [email protected]. I’ll make an offer to everyone who’s listening. I tell this to everyone. That my BS is free and my word plus money, so don’t be – obviously, I like to talk. Don’t be shy about giving me a call and asking me questions or considering me a resource. If we get to a place where I feel like, “Hey, this is what I do for a living.” I’m just going to tell you. Up until then, I love talking to people, I like having varied conversations. I feel like every talk is an opportunity to learn.
[0:51:48] AD: For anyone listening to, I certainly recommend reaching out and having a conversation with Bruce, as I’ve shared with you earlier in the podcast and throughout a conversation. I’ve always enjoyed her dialogue. I enjoyed the wisdom and the insights that you bring in your experience, but also the practical approach to looking at some of the challenges that are faced today in the industry. Again, I really appreciate you coming on here today and sharing your thoughts with us.
[0:52:11] BD: Yeah. Thanks, Alex. It’s an honor to be on here, man.
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